When people lament the state of American movies, they bemoan the recycled stories and stale conceits, the cookie-cutter plots, the impersonal filmmaking, the lack of artistry and daring in big Hollywood films. I'm not talking the usual trap of falsely romanticizing the past: There has never been a period of Hollywood cinema this crowded with remakes and franchises and sequels and reboots (even the hallowed Pixar has announced a sequel to "Finding Nemo," which already sounds even more unnecessary than "The Godfather Part III").
There are exceptions, of course. But most of the serious contemporary American directors -- Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher -- have cultivated their audiences and now play primarily to them. Every once in awhile they get lucky with a breakthrough hit, but they're not necessarily swinging for the fences.
With "The Dark Knight Rises," Christopher Nolan swings for the moon. Saddled with the impossible expectations surrounding the final chapter in his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan surprises by one-upping you. He gives you something even grander and more fantastic than you expected. He dreams big. This long, sprawling, layered epic, with the requisite cast of thousands, isn't "fun" in a traditional summer-popcorn kind of way; it's heavy. Opening eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, his body battered and creaky (he needs a cane to walk), his alter-ego of Batman no longer needed in Gotham City, where Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) has exploited a lie to wage a successful war on organized crime.
Then Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist thug with the build of a wrestler and a life-sustaining mask clamped to his face, emerges from the city's sewers with an army of followers and a sinister intent. The screenplay of "The Dark Knight Rises," which Nolan wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan, crams a lot of themes and ideas into the framework of a superhero movie. Bane is a warrior for the disenfranchised and the forgotten and the ignored. His methods, though, are brutal and murderous, and his solution to social and economic disparity is of the scorched-earth variety.
Wayne is a billionaire -- rich enough to qualify as the 1 percent of Gotham's 1 percent -- which makes him a target for Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a seductive cat burglar whose proclivity for crime is fueled by a sense of entitlement ("How could you ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us?" she purrs into Wayne's ear). Except the hero's finances are waning: Even he is not immune from an economic downturn, one of the many ways in which Nolan deftly anchors his comic-book movie with a timely relevance. Wayne's wealth has always been his only real superpower, the thing that facilitates all his wonderful toys. But when Bane starts wreaking havoc in Gotham (his first target: the stock market exchange), Batman must rise to the challenge.
"The Dark Knight Rises" borrows key elements from several famed comic-book storylines, most notably "Knightfall," in which Bane crippled Batman in a fight, and Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," in which an aging Batman was forced out of retirement, his body creaking and groaning. But the movie is ultimately less devoted to loving homage and hero worship than to completing the story that started in 2005's "Batman Begins."
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