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“The Dark Knight Rises” review

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Does the finale to Christopher Nolan's Bat-franchise meet fans' lofty expectations?

To say that “The Dark Knight Rises” has a lot to live up to just might qualify as the biggest understatement of the year. The follow-up to Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking 2008 sequel “The Dark Knight,” and the final chapter in the award-winning director’s critically praised Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises” has been one of the industry’s most closely watched projects since the credits rolled on its predecessor.

And that’s why it’s so unfortunate that, in his last adventure under Nolan’s guidance, the Dark Knight never quite rises to the occasion.

Possibly the most egregious flaw in “The Dark Knight Rises” is that the character we see the least of in the film is, well… Batman. For a film that clocks in at nearly three hours of running time, we get only four or five major sequences with Christian Bale in the cape and cowl. Over the course of the film’s 165 minutes, Bale’s Bruce Wayne seems relegated to a supporting role, and someone we check in with occasionally instead of the narrative’s main character.

Make no mistake: Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are clearly Nolan’s focal points in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and their time on the screen reflects this fact.

Of course, that’s not to say Nolan’s focus on Hathaway and Gordon-Levitt is a bad thing, as the pair happen to provide the film’s best performances. As Selina Kyle (who’s never actually referred to as Catwoman in the film), Hathaway manages to prove skeptics (including myself) wrong with a pitch-perfect portrayal of Gotham’s greatest cat burglar, and finds just the right nuances of moral ambiguity and personality to bring the character to life in Nolan’s Bat-verse.

Gordon-Levitt also does a nice job of playing feet-on-the-ground cop John Blake, who struggles to define his role in a world filled with costumed heroes and villains. Sadly, his prominence in the narrative seems to come at the expense of Gary Oldman’s return as police commissioner Jim Gordon, who seems to have become just another flawed cog in the Gotham machine in the time since the last film.

Oldman’s character isn’t the only one to have undergone some drastic, fundamental changes since the last film, either.

Along with Jim Gordon’s shift from paragon of urban wisdom to burned-out relic, Batman himself seems to have forgotten many of the lessons he learned in the earlier films. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” we’re presented with a Batman who charges into fights without thinking and overlooks important information, and a Bruce Wayne who shows little regard for the still-living people in his life and callously disregards his most trusted friend. (It’s this last element that relegates Michael Caine’s role to nothing more than a series of scenes in which he cries at Christian Bale for several minutes.) It’s the sort of situation that usually develops when a new director takes over an existing franchise, and seems odd in the continuity of Nolan’s meticulously shepherded Batman universe.

Still, none of these flaws are as destructive to “The Dark Knight Rises” as the film’s villain, Bane, who manages to cause just as much damage to the fictional city of Gotham as he does to the movie itself.

It’s worth noting right from the start that none of the problems with Bane rest on the shoulders of the actor who played the hulking, masked behemoth, Tom Hardy. The British actor does everything asked of him to the best of his considerable talents, and were it not for a number of factors outside his control, he’d likely provide the standout performance in the film. Sadly, those factors are present in the film, and they make Hardy’s character memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Months ago, when some early footage of “The Dark Knight Rises” was screened for a select audience, Bane’s muffled, unintelligible dialogue caused enough controversy to put the studio into damage-control mode, with Warner Brothers and Nolan seeming to be at odds over how to handle the villain’s mask-induced garble. Their answer, it seems, was to waver between two extremes. At times Bane sounds like a circus ringmaster trying to reach the cheap seats with a dollar-bin megaphone, and at other times his dialogue has all the clarity of a subway intercom system. The gritty realism of the surrounding film only amplifies the silliness of Bane’s dialogue.

Still, if there is one positive to come out of the troubles with Bane’s voice, it’s that you barely notice Bale’s Bat-growl, which earned more than a few unintentional laughs during “The Dark Knight,” but seems entirely tolerable alongside Bane’s over-dubbed, sideshow-barker tone.

Unfortunately, the film’s villain has problems with more than just his dialogue. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Bane’s intentions with regard to Gotham and its protector go from uncertain to outright contradictory over the course of the film, with the character flip-flopping between a desire to empower Gotham’s populace (at times seeming like the spokesperson for the real-world Occupy movement) and an urge to obliterate every living person in the city. The end result is a character that never quite sells the whole “criminal genius” thing, and instead comes off as a bit, well… crazy.

Of course, this flaw with Bane is likely a result of the character being shoehorned into a role that was meant for Heath Ledger and The Joker, who would have been right at home as the orchestrator of the chaos that overtakes Gotham. It’s during the moments when Bane seems the most out of place that you can see how perfectly Ledger’s Joker would’ve fit in the film.

Even with so many problems, however, “The Dark Knight Rises” still manages to meet – and occasionally exceed – expectations in some of the areas that will play the biggest role in the film’s success with the mainstream audiences. Nolan’s trademark grasp of breathtaking visuals and fantastic cinematography are on full display in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and the film features a number of set pieces – including the catastrophic destruction of Gotham’s football stadium – that set the film apart from nearly everything else in theaters. While it never achieves at the level of a film like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises” is full of reminders that it is a film made by one of the industry’s greatest visual directors.

Also to its credit, “The Dark Knight Rises” manages to avoid the traditional pitfalls of the third movie in a genre franchise. It never feels overcrowded or rushed, though it does contain a few obvious, forced tie-ins to the greater universe that feel jammed in at the last moment.

However, none of these achievements change the fact that the film falls short of expectations, and rather than being the grand finale of the franchise, it ends up being both the weakest film in the trilogy and the weakest superhero movie of the year thus far. Sadly, “The Dark Knight Rises” never manages to match the epic spectacle of “The Avengers,” the genuine pathos of “Chronicle” (a comic book movie without a comic), or the earnest, heroic heart of “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

While there’s little doubt that the concluding chapter of his trilogy will earn a pile of money, one can’t help thinking that Nolan has done the next Batman director a favor by taking a bar that was set to an almost unreachable height after “The Dark Knight” and lowering it to a more manageable level with the serviceable but under-achieving concluding tale that is “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters Friday, July 20.

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