The Dark Knight Rises, Falls Under the Weight of Its Own Pretensions

Anticipation for the return of Batman will pack theaters until they are unbearable during this and the next several weekends — and The Dark Knight Rises knows it.

It knows it so well, it plays it out on screen, creating a weird character/audience empathy. The brutal four years that we've waited for the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is a fraction of what his characters have endured – The Dark Knight Rises is set eight years after 2008's fantastic The Dark Knight. That time has done nothing to diminish the characters' discourse on Batman and Harvey Dent (aka Two Face). Most everyone we hear from is fixated on whether or not Batman should return from his self-imposed exile. Audience and characters alike, we all wait together some more for Bruce Wayne to get his shit together, to come out of the hiding that his taking the blame for Dent's crimes put him in and to once again kick ass. This finally happens about 55 minutes into The Dark Knight Rises.

The movie crawls along, but its pacing is deliberate: Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan care deeply about conveying the emotional motivation of virtually every action you see on screen. This creates an extreme emphasis on character and its deepening philosophies — the movie would rather ponder than excite. There are triumphant moments, breathtaking shots of chaos, sequences of hand-to-hand combat and chases via the wonderful toys that are the Bat-Pod, the Tumbler (this franchise's Batmobile) and the airborne helicopter/alien aircraft hybrid simply known as the Bat. All are impressive; none amount to very much fun. Six Flags would be hard-pressed to build a rollercoaster based on this movie — a go cart track in the shape of a question mark would be most appropriate.

As for how it actually looks, Nolan shot about half of the film in IMAX, which makes for viewing that is often drool-worthy. The aerial shots of the explosive carnage this film's head villain Bane ignites all over Gotham City are gorgeous renderings of how unstable grandiosity can be. That said, the use of the two different cameras is jarring. Because IMAX cameras are so loud, all of the dialogue shot during those scenes had to be redubbed. That may explain why he opted for a traditional camera for the more intimate scenes. See The Dark Knight Rises on the IMAX screen as intended and you will see a constantly shifting aspect ratio. The picture goes from filling the giant screen to squeezing into a more traditionally cinematic rectangle, sometimes within scenes, and at least once flip-flopping within three successive shots. It has the woozy effect of repeated near-shuttering.

In terms of story, The Dark Knight Rises meditates on several of the same ideas that were introduced in 2005's Batman Begins: the value of symbols, the rejection of fear and what defines the true makeup of a man, chiefly. No line in the trilogy has been more crucial than that which Bruce Wayne's now-dead ex, Rachel Dawes, told him in Begins: "It's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you." It's a simultaneously definitive and elastic definition of identity – perfect for a superhero and capable of galvanizing a man into action and/or obsession. It also provides explanation for Batman's apathy when he is unmasked, as he is several times in this film, either literally or by keen eyes. He seems unconcerned with preserving his anonymity – the mask is just a formality.

So is The Dark Knight Rises itself, though – watching this movie is like watching a meticulously built house of cards being constructed, only to be smacked in the face with the reality that it's all just cards. Whatever newness it brings to the franchise is almost always clunky. Anne Hathaway does exactly what is asked of her and thus can't be faulted for representing the second worst rendering of Catwoman we've ever seen on screen (after Halle Berry's). A petite wisp, her agility is plausible, but her force is not. The way she's able to toss around bad guys isn't even her most cartoonish characteristic. Selina Kyle/Catwoman is endlessly quipping – she's still bringing the jokes even as the world as she knows it is about to end and there's a bomb timer to prove it. Though Hathaway's delivery is clipped to fall just short of camp, she feels ported from a universe that is not quite Nolan's. A much more successful contribution to the weird world of Batman is Tom Hardy's Bane, who's built like a porno daddy and talks like a mix of Sean Connery, Albert Einstein, Dr. Ruth and Buffalo Bill. He's an elegant brute, a terrifying contradiction of brawn and articulation.

The Dark Knight Rises ultimately tweaks the aforementioned idea of the duality of intrinsic identity and action in a resolution that suggests they don't have to be mutually exclusive. It furthermore counters the idea of The Dark Knight that lies told to serve are as valid as the truth. We feel Nolan carefully orchestrating all of these ideas that have fueled his films to provide an ending that satisfies not just on a story level, but a philosophical one...and then he does his Inception thing and throws an 11th hour wrench in it all. Spinning top, house of cards, whatever — either way it ends up feeling a lot less profound than it wants to. Deep inside, The Dark Knight Rises knows that it does matter what you are underneath. It matters a lot.