“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
These are the words uttered by Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of “The Dark Knight,” the second installation in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In the context of that movie, the words mean much more; they evoke terror and chaos, the insidiousness of corruption, the cruelty of chance and, with perhaps a touch of comic-book grandiosity, the struggle between good and evil. Who knows what perils the modern world faces when rationality is absent? As Alfred (Michael Caine) put it in “The Dark Knight,” some people “just want to watch the world burn,” but no viewer can help but be on the edge of their seat trying to catch a glimpse of that burning world.
And yet, in the context of watching the final chapter of the trilogy, these words ring hollow. While “The Dark Knight Rises” references these themes, it fails to follow through and actually examine them as its predecessor did. Instead, it falls back on traditional superhero tropes and the interesting but obscure thought-problem that is the League of Shadows (creating destruction so that rebuilding may take place), causing it to feel like a rehashing of “Batman Begins” with a few character changes at times. Where “The Dark Knight” effectively encapsulated aspects of the mentality of post-9/11 America, “The Dark Knight Rises” hints at the Occupy movement without representing it substantially and struggles to make relevant the philosophy of the League of Shadows. Toward the end of the film, a character points out to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) that what he lacks is fear, but this might be an apt description for the film itself. When everyone close to Batman is essentially absent, and the villain now seems to have some ideals instead of a real taste for anarchy, the stakes feel a bit lower.
But where “The Dark Knight Rises” can’t quite measure up to its predecessor in moral complexity and elegance, its showmanship is still present as ever. The action sequences are still thrilling, the palate still moody and sleek and the humor still dry. Even if the performances can falter in some places or the motives themselves feel less compelling, the experience of watching “The Dark Knight Rises” still manages to be exciting and satisfying. For both the die-hard fan and the tentative first-time Batman audience, the movie succeeds at its central aim of entertaining by adopting the philosophy of Batman himself: using touches of theatricality to get the job done.