Review: 'The Dark Knight Rises' Finishes Strong

The staccato drumbeat that marks the rest of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" franchise opens "The Dark Knight Rises,"  followed immediately by a well-paced (and thoughtfully considered) action beat. Right from the start, it's apparent that Nolan knows where the good stuff will be mined: big IMAX action scenes juxtaposed with intimate moments of dialogue.

There are moments of real brilliance here, akin to "Inception," "Memento," and "The Dark Knight," - even if there are momentary lapses in the plot structure. Though it ends up being much more of the film we want, as opposed to the film we need, it does indeed end the modern "Batman" franchise with a blustery bang.

Yep, you should see "The Dark Knight Rises" at your earliest opportunity, it's a real doozy.

To encapsulate the plot would take (at least) a full graphic novel, so we'll just hit the high notes. We've got a new villain about town, his name is Bane, and he comes equipped with impressive headgear. A lengthy origin story is considered throughout, but Bane is fairly easy to "figure out": he's a stone cold killer with fire in his eyes.

Back in Gotham, almost a decade has passed since Harvey Dent's big night out, Batman has been in exile, and along with him his billionaire alter-ego, Bruce Wayne.

Will Bane's destructive and destabilizing methods bring Bats out of his seclusion? Well, yeah, most likely, especially given the name of the film. Throw in a a bit of Catwoman and you've got a fairly good idea of what you're in for, and all of it presented in blessed 2-D!

Where "The Dark Knight Rises" feels a bit like "The Dark Knight" is in the broad tackling of relevant social issues. If you cede that "The Dark Knight" considered terrorist extremism and surveillance methods, then it's apparent "The Dark Knight Rises" isn't thrilled with the current power structure of capitalism. "The Dark Knight Rises" casts a withering eye toward the one percent, with Catwoman at one point purring, "You think this can last? How did you think you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us?"

Mention is made of "standing on the shoulders of people with less," and there's also a scene involving Wall St. traders that exposes the ugly truths behind rampant profiteering … right before showing the ugly truth behind a rampant Bane.

Nolan's message is clear to anyone who wants to listen, though the analogy isn't nearly as fluid as Heath Ledger's Joker / terrorism construct, Bane does ask many interesting questions, though he's also routinely exposed as a bully. Still, Nolan's message to the elite is clear - you can only push the little guy down for so long, and we must all row together if we're to reap the benefits of a free society.

So far as the performances are concerned, Anne Hathaway doesn't have the bristling insanity that Michelle Pfeiffer brought to the role, but she's got something more steady and vital going for her. Hathaway's Catwoman is struggling to survive, searching for a clean slate, unwilling to trust friend and foe alike. She pulls it off.

The same can be said for previous Nolan stalwarts Marion Cottilard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both acquit themselves well, handling the heavy dramatic lifting a film as giant as "The Dark Knight Rises" demands. Returnees Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman give their normal excellent performances, and Michael Caine does his best work of the series.

Unfortunately, for all the smooth operating and global issues tackled, "The Dark Knight Rises" struggles in a few areas too. For the first time in the entire series, a "race against the clock" aspect is overtly used, more befitting of a lesser movie such as "Amazing Spider-Man." Bane's audio still has massive problems, though it's clear most of it was handled in post-production.

While (somewhat) clear, it's jarring to hear Bane talk, because he sounds as if he's being beamed in from Planet Mars. He's not on the same audio level as any other character, but I suppose that's what you get for throwing a mask on him. This mask also largely wastes Tom Hardy's considerable skills, obscuring his face to the point where he's acting only with his eyes.

Lastly, this is the first of the new series that has legitimate length issues. Where "Batman Begins" opened the new series with efficiency, and "The Dark Knight" somehow kept on trucking throughout the 153-minute running time, "The Dark Knights Rises" doesn't feel nearly as taut. 165 minutes is just too much time for "The Dark Knight Rises" to carry, and there are entire scenes that don't really add up, or instead offer awkward editing (as opposed to plot clarity).

Still, these are higher level problems to have, and "The Dark Knight Rises" doesn't suffer any one issue for long enough to derail the enterprise as a whole.

"The Dark Knight Rises" excels on a number of fronts as well. No franchise has done a better job at framing up huge action scenes, and the characters are believable throughout - no small feat for a "comic book" movie. I suppose the amazing thing is that Christopher Nolan's "Batman" franchise transcended the "comic book" genre long ago, and these films are judged against peers featuring "Best Picture" marketing campaigns.

Here, now, in the year 2012, we place "The Dark Knight Rises" aside FDR biopics and Paul Thomas Anderson films, because Nolan has forever elevated the genre, leaving all the other hero mythologies in the dust. The "Batman" franchise is thoroughly modern endeavor, holding a mirror up to our society in a way that most films don't have nearly the ambition to even try. Should we consider clean energy in the "Batman" finale? Sure, no problem. Class warfare? Yep, you betcha, Batman's sturdy shoulders are a platform for whatever Nolan wants to bring up, because there's profound affinity for the main characters.

No, "The Dark Knight Rises" isn't a perfect film, but it exists in a perfectly balanced imagination - one where Bane and Batman wage war for our immortal souls, toe to toe, slightly off-kilter, each striving for that perfect balance from which to strike.

Grade: B+