Christopher Nolan's ponderous, pontifical action movies are written less as screenplays than as operator's manuals, guiding an audience through assembling their important themes while scrupulously making sure you don't miss a thing. This is as true of Inception as it is of Nolan's superhero saga, now swollen into a trilogy in which the dramatis personae are always stepping up to identify themselves in statements of principle. All of the on-the-nose speechifying (scripted by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan) keeps the run times long, while the drum-tight rule of schematic relevance shuts out anything resembling wit, spontaneity or recognizable human conduct.
Billed as director Nolan's final contribution to the franchise he revived with 2005's Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after the events of 2008's The Dark Knight, eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, still honored as a hero through the print-the-legend contrivance of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and eight years after the villainized, fugitive Caped Crusader was last sighted in Gotham City, which has settled into a fragile peace. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up his Batman suit and become a Howard Hughes-like recluse, only lured into the world again by a couple of women: Miranda (Marion Cotillard), a socialite investor in Wayne Enterprises' clean-energy programs, and Selina, a cat burglar who penetrates his sanctuary (Anne Hathaway).
The overarching theme of the Batman films is the moral problem of vigilantism, as played out by name-tagged figures of virtue and vice. "The idea was to be a symbol," Wayne says of his anonymous alter ego in The Dark Knight Rises — and so this most solemn of superhero franchises duly marches ahead with the process of ominous signification, having established itself among those who accept its self-regard at face value as not just another blockbuster, but the multiplex State of the Nation for the 21st century. If The Dark Knight openly invited interpretation as the War on Terror Batman, then The Dark Knight Rises, whose creators obviously sniffed the class discontent in the air, is the Occupy Wall Street installment. "You think all this can last?" down-and-out survivor Selina says upon meeting Wayne at a fancy-dress masquerade ball. "There's a storm coming."
That storm breaks in the form of the living incarnation of Have-Not rancor, Bane, played by the hulking Tom Hardy, face indistinguishable behind the ventilator apparatus clamped over his mouth. The visage will remind many of the unmasked Vader, though his fruity, magniloquent purr is closer to that of Vincent Price talking through a window fan.
Bane was "born and raised in hell on earth" — a pit prison on the other side of the world. In order to punch in his weight class, the softened, fresh-out-of-retirement Wayne will first have to join the 99 Percent, eventually enrolling in the same Third World school of hard knocks that spawned his opponent. Training in dismal, prehistoric conditions trims away the fat of techie decadence and reinvigorates Wayne's sense of the ethical obligation of privilege.
As in The Dark Knight's conflict between Wayne and the Joker, Order versus Anarchy, the face-off between Wayne and Bane is a dialectical battle between personified concepts. Wayne is Gotham City's philanthropic chaperone; his company develops technologies with great potential for help and harm. Bane is, in posture at least, a radical revolutionist, setting himself up as the champion of the disenfranchised.
The Dark Knight Rises is a shallow repository of ideas, but as a work of sheer sensation, it has something to recommend. At two hours and 45 minutes, it's no fleeter of foot than its predecessors, but Nolan has continued his experimentation with the IMAX format, and the sheer mass of what he has constructed inspires a dull awe: It's impossible not to be cowed by a film that's five stories tall while Hans Zimmer's stampeding orchestra tramples you.