"Merely great" feels like the most backhanded of compliments, but when a filmmaker is coming off a one-two punch of pop masterpieces like "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," expectations get invariably raised for what comes next.
"The Dark Knight Rises," while offering all the thrills and brooding and shadows and angst and adrenaline and grandiloquence that fans of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy will no doubt be expecting from this final entry, comes up short in only one department: the shock of the new.
This time around, Nolan (who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan) doesn't rewrite the rules; he lives up to his own previous standards without exceeding them. Whereas his two previous films offered continuous jolts of discovery, "Rises," for all its unquestionable virtues, winds up enhancing the Nolan brand but rarely expanding it.
Still, given the reputation he's created, simple excellence by Christopher Nolan standards is pretty terrific.
"Rises" begins eight years after "The Dark Knight," with Batman gone from the scene, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in seclusion and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) still publicly revering the image of the late District Attorney Harvey Dent as a way to pass tougher laws against organized crime and to put more people in jail.
Not that Gotham City is completely crime-free, of course; during a reception at Wayne Manor honoring the anniversary of Dent's death (the lord of the house remains lurking in the shadows), cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) slinks upstairs dressed as a housemaid and makes off with a pearl necklace belonging to Bruce's late mother.
Wayne will soon have bigger problems, with the arrival of a hulking mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy), a brute whose voice is amplified through the breathing device always clamped onto his face.
Bane at first seems to be in cahoots with a board member at Wayne Enterprises who wants to destroy Bruce's personal fortunes and to take over the company (Selina has a hand in this as well), but it eventually becomes clear that this fearsome assassin has a deadlier agenda of his own, involving the nuclear reactor at the heart of Bruce's clean-energy project.
But even if Bruce feels the need to put the pointed ears back on, resuming his life as Batman will be no easy feat. His doctor (an uncredited Thomas Lennon, of all people) informs Bruce that he's basically got no cartilage left in his knees and shoulders, but Bruce straps a motorized brace on his leg and goes to town.
Butler Alfred (Michael Caine) refuses to stick around to watch his employer die fighting, but weapons genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) continues to help out, while Bruce finds new allies in John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop orphaned by violence in the same way Bruce was, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who becomes Wayne Enterprises' new CEO.
Nolan takes the franchise to places that are arguably darker than "The Dark Knight," and not just in terms of Wally Pfister's beautifully murky cinematography. Bane not only wipes out the finances of Bruce Wayne but he shatters, literally, Batman's body, leaving him in a prison that's the equivalent of being trapped at the bottom of a well.
But just when "The Dark Knight Rises" feels like it might take audiences to places it might not want to go, the director falls back on convention, albeit convention delivered with true flair. (The film's climax may involve the millionth ticking-time-bomb-with-a-red-LED-display you've seen, but dang if he doesn't make that sequence thrilling.)
In many ways, Bane is a thankless role for the talented Hardy. Not only does he have to spend the entire film with most of his face hidden and his voice distorted, he's got the unenviable task of stepping into the void left by Heath Ledger's indelible Joker. And while the Joker's name is never once spoken in "Rises," his presence and his absence both cover the film like a shroud.
Perhaps it's because "The Dark Knight Rises" so desperately needs some occasional comic relief, but it's Hathaway's Selina Kyle (Catwoman, in deed if not in name) who, shockingly, steals the show. She's dangerous and brutal, sophisticated and slippery -- imagine Audrey Hepburn as Irma Vep.
Gordon-Levitt takes what could have been a flatly earnest flatfoot and imbues him with a real sense of purpose and passion; the film's final frames imply that we haven't seen the last of this character, and that's a good thing.
It will be interesting to see what hay political pundits decide to make of this film, which doesn't seem to have any particular ideologies in mind. Nonetheless, don't be surprised if left-leaning commentators seize on the notion of prisons being packed under false pretenses while those on the right note that an oppressed Gotham City being held hostage by Bane resembles an anti-Soviet propaganda film, complete with show trials, poor masses huddling by open fires in office lobbies and rich people being thrown out of their homes while gun-toting thugs roam the streets.
(And like "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises" features a clean-energy system being turned into a weapon by the bad guys. Somewhere the Koch Brothers are editing a clip reel.)
The ending won't be revealed here -- too bad the Nolans weren't as scrupulous, as they telegraph it like crazy throughout. Suffice it to say that for all the provocative choices that "The Dark Knight Rises" makes, the bomb with the red numbers isn't the film's only flirtation with conventionality.
As trilogy wrap-ups go, "Rises" won't raise the fanboy hackles of, say, "Return of the Jedi," but neither will it feel like the revelation of "The Dark Knight."