In <em>The Dark Knight Rises</em>, the last entry in Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman trilogy, the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) returns after an eight-year hiatus to face off against the brutal masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy).

While pondering this review, the recent tragic real-world events kept sneaking into my thinking. Even a trip to Hendry’s Beach found a flag at half-staff, another reminder of the hellish intrusion of external tragedy and homicidal insanity at the early Friday-morning screening of this Batman blockbuster, when a savage madman burst into that Aurora, Colorado, theater and left with a dozen dead and scores wounded. All of which is to say that it’s impossible to ignore that senseless circumstance, which may always sully our impression of this particular movie, a thankfully very rare instance of the outside world intersecting with the relative safety zone of culture associated with going to the movies.

On the other hand, the incident reignites the question of causes of America’s volatile, violence-prone atmosphere, including the basic question of whether violent instincts are partly fed by culture, gaming, and cinema. This film dives deep into the bloody action dimension where well-armed and amoral psychopathic terrorists disrupt the public good.

There are moments during Christopher Nolan’s dark, powerful, and surprisingly subtle new film when the reel and real uncomfortably intermingle, such as when our vicious band of villains burst into the Gotham Stock Exchange with a hostage situation and devious doings in mind. Is any public space immune to the intrusion of violent rages? Not really, but descending into mass paranoia means that malevolence wins.

Of course, despite the haunting storm cloud of current events, a Batman movie, however realistic at times, comes out of a comic-book source and also triggers memories of the campy silliness of TV’s Batman and Adam West’s shallow sheen. To Nolan’s credit, he takes his DC Comics–fueled task very seriously, and with his latest and last entry on the Batman theme, the finale of his trilogy, he once again gives the Dark Knight a complexity of character, moral ambiguities, and fresh twists on the age-old bout of good versus evil. In short, Nolan has made what could have been an idle summertime diversion something deeper and more mythic.

It has been eight years since Gotham last experienced the civic salvation of the man in the bat cape, with the superhero taking the rap for a devious DA’s death and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) holing up in affluent seclusion. Villainy of a high order brings the superhero out of retirement in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), the masked, ominously voiced thug who boasts “I am Gotham’s reckoning.” He is the evildoer at the head of an elaborate, dastardly scheme involving army building in the subterranean world below Gotham, taking the city hostage and threatening to detonate The Bomb. As a timely twist of the narrative knife, the evil plan includes leveling the socioeconomic playing field, forcibly sharing the wealth and realizing an overthrown police-less state: the Occupy movement gone wild.

Meanwhile, Wayne/Batman finds himself broken, imprisoned, and hanging out with women who may not be his best allies, including a lithe and kick-ass Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, a witty comic-relief queen). In this saga, more than others in the canon, Batman cathartically rises to the challenge of his heroic acts, and from depths of psychic and actual hellishness.

We may never be able to apply the “it’s only a movie” consolation to The Dark Knight Rises, but this is a powerful piece of cinema, even for those of us not heavily invested or interested in the superhero world. Visceral intensity meets good and bad guys with shades of gray dark and light. Nolan rises, again. Now he can get back to the business of more reality-based cinema, along the lines of his modern-day classics like Inception and Memento. Oh, wait …


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