By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
(CNN) — He is risen!
You must have heard: Batman is back, and the trilogy Christopher Nolan promised moviegoers is fulfilled with “The Dark Knight Rises.” Fans have been clamoring for it; the media are all over it; a record-breaking opening week is practically guaranteed. I only wish I could say I enjoyed this big, sprawling beast of a movie.
Don’t get me wrong — I think Nolan is one of Hollywood’s best and brightest, and the previous two Batman films set a high bar. In an era dominated by spectacle, fantasy and escapism, when apparently all the audience really wants or needs is the excuse to switch off and chill out, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” supplied all that and still somehow reflected the anxieties and tensions of America in the post 9/11 world.
No other blockbusters have been so overtly fixated on terrorism — wanton destruction for destruction’s sake — and the price to be paid for responding in kind. If fans care more passionately about “The Dark Knight” than the more lighthearted and frankly enjoyable Marvel movies, it’s surely because there’s more here than meets the eye.
The 9/11 subtext is more explicit than ever here, with masked bogeyman Bane (Tom Hardy) wreaking havoc on the Stock Exchange and threatening to blow Gotham sky-high. He may not wear the beard of the jihadist, but the (literal) hellhole he comes from sure looks like it belongs in Afghanistan. And while he speaks via a voice box in a plumy English accent that might be an imitation of Sir Ian McKellen doing Patrick Stewart, his revolutionary rhetoric echoes nihilistic terrorists. If Bane has a goal, it’s to bomb Gotham back to year zero.
This is eight years after Bruce Wayne has lost his beloved Rachel and Batman disappeared from view, taking the rap for killing civic hero Harvey Dent. Wayne is a recluse, somewhere between Jay Gatsby and Howard Hughes in the public imagination, never venturing out into the world until cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) picks his lock and piques his fancy.
She’s no Joker (who is?), but Hathaway’s slinky, light-fingered, high-kicking thief is the film’s best idea of fun, even if she’s also weighed down with the Nolan brothers’ irrepressible urge to smuggle topical, half-baked Occupy sermons into the script (as others have noted, the movie’s defense of the establishment in the form of philanthropic billionaires and an incorruptible police force gives it a conservative gloss and makes you wonder what on earth Nolan saw in the two films he’s cited as inspirations, “The Battle of Algiers” and “Prince of the City”).
At any rate it’s a pity she disappears from the action for lengthy stretches because Selina seems like a worthy fencing partner for Bruce, more so than the brawny sewer rat Bane, one of those arch-criminal masterminds who never know when to stop yakking and pull the trigger.
That goes for the movie as a whole, which at 164 minutes is long on lugubrious soul-searching and relatively short on action and excitement. That’s too harsh, I’m sure, and I will rush to acknowledge that the first set piece, a midair hijacking, is audacious and original. A lot of what follows is at least slick and expensive, and the killing field you will have glimpsed in the trailers is simply breathtaking. You can’t fault the film for lacking grandiosity and scale, or its own dogged brand of designer despair.
But Nolan bites off more than even he can chew in the movie’s wildly overambitious and borderline nonsensical third act. He’s always been adept at structure, so it’s dismaying how often Nolan falls back on crude parallel editing and flashbacks, how loosely he plays with space and time in a climax that rings more than a little hollow in its efforts to circle back to “Batman Begins.”
Others will see it differently, but for me this is a disappointingly clunky and bombastic conclusion to a superior series — Nolan’s biggest and worst movie to date.