Unnerving 'The Dark Knight Rises' falls short

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Is it even possible to write a normal review of “The Dark Knight Rises” at this point? It’s certainly difficult to see it without thinking of what happened in Aurora. I’m not one to say our decadent nihilistic culture causes those kinds of things. It’s just very, very unsettling to see a movie about violent vigilantes right now. It would be weird to see it even if the shooting had occurred during a different movie. If you are the sort of person who is going to be bothered by those kinds of thoughts, you might want to wait to see this.

Seeing this made me reflect on how different it is from other superhero movies, like “The Avengers,” this summer’s biggest release so far. Part of the reason this movie is a little unnerving is that, even though it has some far-fetched technology, it’s still rooted in this world, notably in scenes in which Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne suffers through a doctor’s appointment. It’s strange to consider an aging Batman with cartilage issues in his joints. But for a man with no super powers, that would be the case, wouldn’t it? You can’t keep getting in vicious fights and thrown off various buildings and bounce back, unless you’re the Hulk.

Bruce Wayne has been lying low and recuperating in the years since his fight with the Joker and the death of his lady friend, Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal. The city of Gotham is peaceful but doesn’t look it. Director Christopher Nolan does not film sunny days without a sinister undertone in his Batman movies. Soon enough, violent mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) starts causing a ruckus, and Batman is back in action.Bane’s face is largely obscured by a mask that keeps him in fighting shape. Why Batman doesn’t immediately knock his mask off the first time they fight isn’t quite clear.

The mask hides a little too much. Bane is menacing and physically imposing next to the slender Bale, but too much about him remains vague. He has an elaborate plan to turn Gotham into an anarchic mess that brings the wealthy low, which comes across as a ham-handed attempt to criticize the Occupy movement. Once he enacts his plan, it has no real point other than chaos, which makes his periodic speeches to the masses seem pointless. Also, the audio trickery necessary to understand a word Bane says makes it sound like a completely different audio track is being piped into the movie theater every time he speaks.

Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are two more new additions. Hathaway’s slinky cat burglar contrasts with the slightly more staid attractions of Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate, played by Marion Cotillard. Hathaway has an – assistant? friend? who knows? – who disappears halfway through the movie. Cotillard’s character is underdeveloped until some backend exposition is thrown in. Gordon-Levitt is a blank slate of a police officer. He’s good at his job, and he loves Batman. Is he an audience stand-in? Of all the people in the movie, he’s notable for being the only one who isn’t morally compromised. He also expresses the most dissatisfaction with the way the police force is run.

Nolan seems to be trying to tell us two things: that police forces are headed by corrupt and useless men, making vigilantes necessary, and also that the police are good and sources of heroism. Is it a necessary ambiguity or a flaw that he seems unable to make up his mind?

If you liked the other Christopher Nolan Batman movies, you’ll like this one. But if you’re looking at the grand sweep of cinema history, the previous one is the one that will be remembered. This one has aspirations, but lacks the scary power of Heath Ledger’s volatile Joker.

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