Director Christopher Nolan bookends his Batman trilogy by pulling out all the stops. While the story feels familiar, the revelations made in getting there more than make up for rehashing old territory.
Eight years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and legislation passed by Gotham City has succeeded in cleaning up the streets. While Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) wrestles with the lie that Batman took the blame for, a new villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) aims to bring down the rich elite of Gotham and the entire city itself. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, secretly obsessed that Batman will be needed again, but when a cat thief named Selina (Anne Hathaway) unthinkably robs him, the Dark Knight soon learns how badly he is needed again already.
Ah, the Tinseltown trilogy, that staple of movie success by launching a franchise to triple profits. Director Christopher Nolan surprised with Batman Begins and amazed with The Dark Knight, but with expectations so high for The Dark Knight Returns, there was little hope in reaching the same critical acclaim while the studio had every expectation of it being financially successful. Fortunately, Nolan thinks small in a big way, focusing city-wide events on a chosen few to drive his plot. In the end, the final chapter touches on all of the franchise themes while providing an imperfect yet satisfying conclusion, and that in itself is quite an accomplishment.
Had Nolan taken the time on-screen to show everything that would certainly have resulted from his initial setup, the film could have spanned an entire television season. At one point in the story, the entire population of a major metropolis is handed over to its criminal element, an event that would have likely created far more destruction and loss of life than the running time of the film could have portrayed. This isn’t for a day or a week but for several months, all of which are endured without Gotham’s savior. The theme is exactly the same as Batman Begins and plays heavily into those events, and to viewers who recognize this, the tedium is palatable. There’s really only one way that a Batman trilogy can end to ensure it truly does, but Nolan stacks the deck with his plot and tips viewers off on-screen to where all this is going if you know where to look. The final scenes are less about surprise and more about inevitability; Nolan would have been held more accountable by the fan base for not using these elements rather than trying something else just to be different.
Christian Bale pours his usual intensity into Wayne/Batman, while Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman bring their usual professionalism to their franchise roles of Alfred, Fox, and Gordon. Newcomer Anne Hathway does an incredible job with the role of Selina, merging all of Catwoman’s sex-as-a-weapon prowess with a complex young woman who isn’t as cold as she pretends (and that strong vulnerability is every bit as enticing as her second-skin costume). Tom Hardy’s Bane takes a little getting used to, but a consistent performance sells the articulate yet brutish character in spite of the occasional misunderstanding through his muffling mask. The worst offenses committed in the plot are the length of story time taken to both destroy and rebuild Batman (an echo of Bruce Wayne losing and finding himself in the first film), but it sets the stage nicely for a tragic yet Hollywood ending, and that’s what most moviegoers will take with them (while waiting in line to use the restroom after the credits).
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)