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There’s never been a Hollywood movie that needed its cultural moment stripped away from it as badly as The Dark Knight Rises. Even before the horrible tragedy in Aurora, the final installment in director Christoper Nolan’s Batman re-reboot was encouraging death threats from fanboys laboring under the mistaken impression that AP is a credible movie review source and the Village Voice likes anything with a budget over $30 million. Add to that the ridiculous political posturing — the villain Bane either being a stand-in for Occupy Wall Street protesters or Mitt Romney’s old stomping ground, Bain Capital — and you can see why it’ll take years for history to form some sort of critical consensus about whether or not this actually serves its purpose as entertainment, and nothing but.

The short answer is yes, although you couldn’t fault audiences for feeling like the party had been spoiled even before the actual bullets rang out. Nolan and this generation’s Bat, Christian Bale, had a big task ahead of them in trying to top the last installment (which came with its own tragedy attached). At times it feels like Rises has as much trouble recapturing that perfect mix of chaos and portent as Bruce Wayne does climbing the walls of… oops, sorry, no spoilers. It’s enough to say that with a broken body, a broken spirit, and a floundering multinational, Wayne himself is having trouble keeping up with the mythos.

Wisely, Nolan uses that disillusionment as the jumping-off point for his finale. Batman Begins was a perfectly balanced hour of rewritten origin story, ending almost exactly at that mark when Bruce throws his first metallic Bat logo into a nearby wall, followed by an hour and a half of ass-kicking; a truly epic study in tension and release. The Dark Knight likewise spent its first hour establishing Batman as an icon, one whose celebrity was starting to interfere with his destiny. By contrast, this chapter utilizes its first sixty minutes exploring how a force decays when it’s no longer needed – then questioning whether such a force can be recaptured once its creative moment is gone.

Of course the answer to that is also yes, spurred by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), who, unlike our hero’s earlier antagonists, was raised in a completely amoral universe. As he tells Batman in describing his childhood in a foreign prison: “You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.” As such, he’s probably the only villain who could up the ante on Ledger’s character, and while he does prove a much bigger threat to Gotham — coming closest to implementing the League of Shadows’ plan to destroy that “New Rome” outright — he could never be as compelling. This is in part due to the necessary mask that covers his face for nearly the whole movie, but despite overcompensating with a voice half Sean Connery and half Jean-Luc Picard, Hardy simply doesn’t have enough to work with. Heath Ledger understood that the Joker was the Bat’s one real temptation, the mirror image of his vigilanteism: Chaotic Good vs. Chaotic Evil. By comparison, Bane is merely a very smart and disciplined terrorist.

Albeit one who dreams very big. The method he uses is half-carrot, half-stick; reveal the lie Gotham’s final crime-busting solution was built on, and then use Wayne’s own money and toys to hold the city hostage, implementing a reign of terror that does indeed demonize the rich but also ensures that the inmates are literally running the asylum. Then in comes Batman, again, to restore order with his own special brand of disorder. There are a lot of interesting ideas intertwined in this theme, but Nolan sidesteps them all in order to focus on the classic dichotomy. This trilogy has no specific social philosophy, and in that, the cineaste naysayers are at least partially right. The Batwing gets more analysis.

However, next to any film other than its immediate predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is still a ferocious and emotionally piercing blockbuster, delivering the thrills without a hint of camp or cheap sentiment. Sometimes this approach ties its hands, which is why Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman doesn’t make much of an impact (she’s not even referred to as such). Yet overall, this is a fitting end to the series that reinvented superhero movies for this new dark age, because Nolan uses both Bane and Catwoman to advance its central thesis: force, power, and money are not just the engines of society but the most dangerous threats to the human soul. A little simplistic, maybe, but no one needs actual madmen to drive the point home.

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