Too much is never enough for Christopher Nolan. Years ago I’d never have guessed that the writer-director of slender card-trick indies like Memento would grow up to be such a size-queen. But offered a ludicrous budget thanks to a couple of unprecedented blockbusters, The Dark Knight Rises might be the biggest movie I have ever seen. Not the best, mind you—just the largest, most sprawling, and most comically ambitious.
By the time the fifth or sixth act rolled around in this deliberately Dickensian narrative, I had learned to stop worrying and love the hugeness.
It’s apparently been eight years since Batman took the rap for hero D.A. Harvey Dent’s death, covering up The Joker’s ultimate triumph through the complicity of Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon with a sly shout-out to Deadwood fans that history really is just “a lie agreed upon.” The ending of 2008’s The Dark Knight was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in reverse, and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has since become a reclusive weirdo with bad facial hair and a cane.
He’s finally lured back into the game by the promise of Anne Hathaway’s fetching cat burglar and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stalwart beat cop, plus the rumblings of an underground icon building an army in Gotham City’s sewers. Played by Thomas Hardy with an unfortunate facial mask and post-dubbed line readings that sound like voice-over narration, Bane is a tinpot Mussolini by way of the WWE. His master plan is also so preposterous, convoluted and grandiose that I don’t want to tell you about it because you will think that I am a crazy person. But it’s fun to see Nolan almost get away with an urban apocalypse so massive on a giant IMAX screen.
The Dark Knight Rises pays a bit of lip service to our recent economic woes, staging shoot-outs on Wall Street trading floors and offering copious Occupy Gotham monologues. Still, there’s only so far you can go in this direction when your movie’s hero also happens to be a billionaire fascist who likes to dress up like a rodent and beat the shit out of people. Anyone who claims they can spot a coherent political agenda in this picture is obviously insane.
Instead we’ve got some great, gargantuan set-pieces, and flinty character work from actors bringing their A games to B material. Michael Caine’s Alfred the Butler seems to be in a different, much sadder film altogether, but Hathaway’s broadly theatrical, note-perfect Selina Kyle (pointedly never called Catwoman) does the impossible and snaps Bale out of his broody moodies for some fun flirting in a movie that is otherwise heavier than an anvil.
I get that Nolan has a lot to say about justice and law enforcement, but I also wish his characters could articulate as much in a way that doesn’t require them to announce highfalutin’ thesis statements directly into the camera lens during every other scene. The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling mess that basically reboots itself and starts all over again roughly halfway through its ludicrous 164-minute running time. (I felt like I sat through two movies.)
But at the same time, I still gotta admire Nolan’s backbreaking ambition. The cross-cut climax is genuinely spectacular, and there’s no one else making mainstream Hollywood pictures of such length, width and ridiculous girth.