‘Super-villainy’ as real in life as in film depiction

Just as it was difficult to discuss 2008’s The Dark Knight out of the shadow of the heartbreaking loss of Heath Ledger, so it’s likely to be difficult, for a while at least, to discuss The Dark Knight Rises out of the context of the horror at the multiplex in Colorado.

As it happened, I was unable to attend the screening of the film before it opened, so unlike many of my fellow critics, I saw it—Sunday morning, in a theater less than one-third full—with the Aurora shootings in my head.

But in terms of the movie, all the tragedy proves is how much easier it is to be a supervillain than a superhero. The real world squeezes out the “super” part of super-villainy, however—it’s terrifying when somebody tries to realize that sort of big-scale, comic-book-style mayhem, but in the end it’s also sordid and pathetic and wretched. It isn’t grand or epic.

And, except to express sympathy to the victims and their loved ones, it probably isn’t worthy of even as many words as I’ve already given it. So let’s turn to a far less important subject—the movie itself.

I wish I could report that the new Batman flick by Christopher Nolan, from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan, is a masterpiece, but I can’t.

As with the earlier film, it’s a severely uneven mixed bag, polished and handsome but preposterously overlong, confusing, glutted with enough ideas for three or four movies but way too many for one. Like many, many big Hollywood blockbusters of the last couple of decades, it’s fascinating, even thrilling in fits and starts, but wearying in the aggregate.

Batman hasn’t been seen since the end of Dark Knight. Wayne Industries is in the red, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), ravaged both physically and spiritually by the tragic events of the last movie, is going through a Howard Hughes-ish recluse phase. Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps pestering Bruce like a Jewish mother to get out and find a nice girl, even if it’s the second-story gal Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who’s managed to filch a string of pearls belonging to Bruce’s mother.

The principal dastardly duties here fall to a certain Bane, played by the very good Brit actor Tom Hardy, here wasted behind a mask. Bane is like a mash-up of post-Boomer pop villainy, with elements of Darth Vader, The Predator, Hannibal Lecter and especially The Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior—he speaks in the same mushy rumble. But I can’t say I found him as scary as any of the above.

Bane is up to something with a huge crew of henchmen in the sewers of Gotham. Eventually he cuts the city off from the outside world and holds its inhabitants hostage for weeks with a nuclear bomb, while imprisoning Bruce in a hellhole prison overseas.

So there are explosions and chases and fistfights and shootouts and abductions and flashbacks and escapes, between and during which the actors spout pages and pages of exposition, much of it hard to follow even when it’s comprehensible, which for me was maybe about half the time. Things aren’t much easier on a thematic level—politically, the movie flails incoherently, coming across one minute like an Occupy rant and the next like Wall Street propaganda. Scene after scene is propulsive and exciting in itself, but often I was unsure what had happened, or what I should want to happen.

What redeems The Dark Knight Rises is what redeems most overworked movies, if anything does—the acting. Bale is better, or at least less annoying, than he was in the last film, though he’s still using that stupid raspy growl when he has the cape and mask on. Between him and Hardy, much of the dialogue sounds like it’s coming through blown stereo speakers.

There’s no performance on the level of Ledger’s in the previous film, but Caine. Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman each get a few minutes to show what they’re capable of without breaking a sweat. Hathaway is certainly not repellent in her Catwoman get-up, but Marion Cotillard casts an even stronger seductive spell as a rival love interest for Bruce.

But it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as an intrepid young Gotham cop, who develops more of a relationship with the audience than anybody else in The Dark Knight Rises. If there’s another film in the series, there’s reason to believe he’ll figure prominently, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The Dark Knight Rises is Rated PG-13 and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Arizona Mills, Chandler Fashion Center and other theaters Valleywide.


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