I had many expectations, and no expectations for The Dark Knight Rises, but I can say with absolute certainty that I was never even remotely prepared for this: that it would remind me, of all things, of a 1921 D.W. Griffith picture. Orphans of the Storm, to be precise, a story of the French Revolution that acts pretty much like you'd expect a Griffith melodrama to except for the title cards proclaiming in urgent, message-movie tones that Paris in the 1790s, like America in the 1920s, was under the constant danger of radical infiltration, and things like the Reign of Terror happen when you let the Bolsheviks get a hold on you. Didn't know that there were Marxist revolutionaries around decades before Karl Marx was born? Doesn't matter.

The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding chapter in director Christopher Nolan's three-film, seven-year attempt to create a darker, grander, more worldly narrative surrounding beloved comic book superhero Batman, like Orphans of the Storm comes at a time of social unrest with a new awareness of class issues in America - though, it absolutely bears mentioning, TDKR was written and largely produced before Occupy Wall Street and the moment that "99%" entered our everyday vocabulary, so while it can be said to have tapped into something profound in the Zeitgeist, it is not so much a piece of deliberate social commentary as it might look - like Orphans of the Storm, it depicts a violent revolution in which the lower classes take power from the Powers That Be, and the film's vision of such a revolution is explicitly cast in terms recalling the French Revolution and Reign of terror, for it begins with an attack on a prison and includes proletarian-run kangaroo courts (Nolan, co-writer and brother Jonathan Nolan, and co-story writer David S. Goyer were avowedly influenced by Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, which is quoted in a spectacularly grabby, self-aware way in a key scene near the end). Most importantly, like Orphans of the Storm, The Dark Knight Rises concludes, and reiterates, and harps upon, that when the lower class gets a little taste of power, things get absolutely fucking terrible. I shall refrain from calling it a reactionary film - I think the political readings of Nolan's Batman films are easy to overdo - but it is unexpected, anyway, to see a major summer release so broadly and sweepingly and largely claiming that sharing power, influence, and wealth are inherently awful, and we should keep it all sequestered right where it is, with the people who know how to use it properly.

It did, anyway, color my experience of the movie for the worse, though all things considered, it's not a tremendously big part of the whole. Nothing, in fact, is a tremendously big part of the whole, for at 164 minutes, TDKR is a great bloody big beast of a movie, and despite the epic scale of most of its individual moments, they are all humbled by the scope of the feature itself, a massive slab of summertime epic moviemaking that takes the operatic excess of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and ramps it up to a new extravagance altogether. Revisting the prior Nolan Batman films, I have drifted away from the idea that they're "realistic"; they use a kind of cod-realism as a tool to get at something else, which is more mythic and heightened that realism. Even adjusting for that, The Dark Knight Rises does not necessarily resemble realism even superficially. It is much too ambitious in scope and tone for that, aiming for a massive spectacle that is grounded in human drama even as it wildly surpasses human scale, and while the execution and effect are totally different, it's hard not to think of this as the superhero movie equivalent of Wagner's GΓΆtterdΓ€mmerung, a film that depicts the end of a legend with bombastic, crushing zeal, even as it makes a conscious point of reducing itself to person-sized conflicts after the rather broader metaphor vs. symbol drama of The Dark Knight.

Much of this, no doubt, is because The Dark Knight had the Joker as played by Heath Ledger, still one of the most impressive blockbuster performances of all time, finding the point where a very particular human psychopath was also an agent and conduit of impulses and forces far more elemental than just the bad guy in a crime story. TDKR was never going to come even a little bit close to matching that, and wisely the Nolans and Goyer didn't even bother trying. Instead, they call up hugely important but relatively unknown Rogues Gallery player Bane, played by Tom Hardy (one of three Inception veterans new to the Batman universe), an anarchist terrorist and genius tactician who's also physically strong to an incredible degree - not, unsurprisingly, because of a super-soldier serum, which would have fit poorly in Nolan's universe, though it leaves Bane with an iconic face-mask that needs a new explanation, and the one the filmmakers come up with isn't entirely satisfying, or complete.

Bane's multi-part scheme is to bring Gotham City to ruin largely through economic means (playing off of a single line in Begins), and it takes quite a lot of nasty tricks before we even get to that faked people's revolution, giving the film more or less a two-stories-for-the-price-of-one structure: first is the story of how Bane drags Batman (Christian Bale) out of an eight-year retirement and the caped crusader's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, out of a Howard Hughesian exile from humanity, then attempts to destroy the hero's body and soul; the second is how Bane turns Gotham into a desolate, totalitarian state, living under the threat of a nuclear bomb, needing the return of a hero to save the city from utter destruction. Going into it more than that would ruin the fun, and probably be wholly unnecessary to boot.

I will go no further in burying the lede: I was let down a bit. The emerging wisdom is that TDKR is getting the strongest notices from people who were cool towards The Dark Knight, and vice versa; as one who likes The Dark Knight a hell of a lot but still prefers Batman Begins, I don't count in this dynamic, but there you have it anyway. It is, I find, a good movie overall with intermittently great moments, and it is very lucky that the final five or ten minutes are among the very best, absent one excruciatingly cutesy joke about a never-seen member of the Batman universe, and that the final half-dozen shots in particular, in the exact order that they occur, are the exact best possible send-off to a series as grandiose in concept and brutal in tone as Nolan's trilogy; it guarantees that anybody with any significant connection to this version of these characters is going to have a nice prickling feeling as they leave the theater.

That said, it's so much more of a movie broken apart into moments, and not one that feels like one constant flow: the old screenwriting trap of a "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" structure, except that given the huge emphasis that everything gets, it's more like "THIS happened! This happened! THIS! HAPPENED!" To be perfectly honest, there's simply too much movie going on to take it all: not in a welcome, "getting overwhelmed by the depth and complexity" way, but in a "there are too many high-stakes things going on all the time, and they start to blend into a uniform fog" way. The action scenes, of which there are many, tend to get exhaustingly busy after a time - the best setpiece in the movie, by every yardstick I can think of, consists of nothing at all but two men punching each other on a narrow scaffold, and there's no way that's a coincidence - although they are handsomely mounted and conceived, and while I've never entirely understood the arguments against Lee Smith's editing in the Batman trilogy (arguments that many very wise people hold very dearly, I might add), I think that the bulk of those complaints have been largely addressed by a film that has considerably smoother editing, on the whole, than its predecessors, and action that is largely much easier to follow. Your milage may vary on whether that's a good thing or not: every time I manage to convince myself that the discontinuous, messy editing in the first two is a bad thing, I rewatch them, and find that actually, I really like it; gives the films a twitchy, untamed energy. Also, I think it's precisely because TDKR is more clearly, classically edited movie (with some notable exceptions , and at least two obvious mistakes that came about in the transition from IMAX to 35mm film; one shot late in the movie of Batman just out-of-nowhere appearing with two other characters leaps to mind) that it starts to pick up a case of the longeurs; every scene moves at such a steady but unhurried pace that the whole movie just feels kind of slow, and while it is only 11 minutes longer than its immediate predecessor, it is much pacier.

There's at least one argument that this is the exact point: that The Dark Knight Rises, in describing a world that has gotten very worn out, with its protagonist who is extremely fatigued almost every time he does anything (in a shocking twist for the superhero genre, just about every big fight is followed by Bruce Wayne's slow, tormented recovery from the workout he just got), and in its general sense of, "we got here, now what the hell can we do?" hopelessness, the film is suited somewhat to a slower, wearier pace than the chaotic and overclocked Dark Knight, but that's not necessarily a defense that's very exciting during e.g. the long, long, long stretch in the middle when Bane sets up his new dictatorship.

Here's the thing, though: for all the movie is a let-down after what I'd consider to be two pretty drum-tight blockbusters (and it's easy to get lost in the thickets of Nolan's editing and composition, and his tendency to spell out and repeat themes and exposition, and forget that he is, after all, making large, pulverising summertime entertainments for a mass audience, not icy chamber dramas for arthouses, the overenthusiastic ranting of his most unhinged fans notwithstanding), it's still good; in fact, it is the second big comic book movie of the year, following The Avengers, that is completely satisfying without being more than slightly breathtaking, a hugely appealling broad-strokes action movie that nevertheless feels that, given everything, it should have a bit... more, y'know? The scale of the action is there all right, but not entirely the creativity; the opulence of the IMAX frame is undeniably arresting, and far better than 3-D, and I'd still recommend it as the best way to see it, but it's also nowhere near as sophisticated as Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. For that matter, Wally Pfister's cinematgraphy, is across the board, not as fresh as in his previous Batman films, although the severe wintry color paltette is a good fit for the "Dystopian Gotham" sequence.

And on the other hand, it has a whole lot of really engaging performances - Anne Hathaway isn't the definitive Selina Kyle (who is never once called Catwoman here), but she's maybe the most complex character in the movie, and the actress finds that which is sexy and playful in the role without abandoning the internal fortitude and physical viciousness (she's the best female in Nolan's filmography, though that doesn't say much); Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a young idealist, does well by a flat character, and of course the returning cast has already proven themselves, but maintains the high level of achievement they've demonstrated to this point (Hardy, meanwhile, is locked inside a character that's sort of acting-proof). Only Marion Cotillard, of the main cast, is actively bad, but she has a singularly undistinguished part. The visual effects and especially the sound design are stunning, as far as unadulterated spectacle goes - the latter a hypnotic blend of harsh and sudden twists of volume that give the whole movie a terrifying unpredictability, and Bane's strange machine voice, it turns out, is nowhere near as confusing and frustrating as all the trailers made it out to be.

So all that being the case - The Dark Knight Rises being a wholly edifying popcorn movie with a great big knock-you-on-your-ass scope and ear-blowing Hans Zimmer music and a sense of hope against end-times fatalism that's the first indication of honest-to-God humanism in the trilogy - why do I feel so disappointed? Because it's just a popcorn movie, maybe, and the other two, along with most of Nolan's films ever, always felt like they had more ambition than that, even if they were sometimes messy along the way. Lord knows the world needs good popcorn movies, and there's nothing wrong with ginormous spectacle that's done with as much fire and intensity as this; but we were promised more than that, don't you think?

Reviews in this series
Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)
The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012)