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Once again, the bat flies in the night

"The Dark Knight Rises"

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As the comic books of childhood and adolescence turn into the graphic novels that all sorts of adults now take very seriously, so the films they inspire grow increasingly sophisticated and complex...or sometimes, just more pretentious. Unlike the "Spider-Man" series, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy aims at a certain level of maturity in style and subject and perhaps even in its audience. As its title indicates, the final film of the group, "The Dark Knight Rises," continues the tone of gloom and despair, illuminated only briefly by a note of hope and resurrection.

Although it initially introduces a number of superficially unrelated stories, it appropriately begins with a memorial service, honoring the memory of Harvey Dent, who died in the last chapter, and blaming Batman for his death. At the same time, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), lives as a Howard Hughes sort of recluse in his enormous mansion, seen only by his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine); he's hung up his cape and quit the masked avenger racket. Naturally, some event draws him back into the fight against crime, only this time the various evils proliferate and for a time at least, conquer.

The greatest threat to Gotham City and the world in this picture is a frightening behemoth named Bane (Tom Hardy), a name that Rush Limbaugh wonderfully believes refers to Mitt Romney's rape-and-pillage venture capital firm, Bain (oh, those evil liberal Hollywood elites...). Sporting a strange mask over his mouth, bulging with muscles, braying in stentorian tones, the character owes something to both the chief villain in "The Road Warrior" and Darth Vader. Aside from killing a great many people, Bane plans to take over Gotham City, using an army of brutes, thugs, and freed convicts to impose martial law, and a nuclear device to blackmail the United States government into acquiescence.

Aside from Bane, other enemies threaten the Batman, including a hostile police executive and a gang of voracious capitalists working with the monster to steal Bruce Wayne's billions; the Catwoman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), lifts his fingerprints, which allows the bad guys to forge his consent to the theft. Like several others in the movie, Catwoman betrays Batman on almost every occasion.

Bruce Wayne's decision to accept the role of the Batman again and defend Gotham against the menace of Bane entails a good deal of suffering, including a terrible defeat in combat and imprisonment in a hellhole where death provides the only escape. Like much else in the movie, that episode occupies a considerable amount of time and complicates an otherwise simple and traditional comic-book confrontation between good and evil. The time in prison also allows for another reiterated motif, a series of sententious and ultimately despairing comments by a couple of his fellow inmates; the movie in fact, positively overflows with lengthy emotional and philosophical utterances on the subjects of duty, loyalty, love, etc., with a tiresomely teary Michael Caine delivering several overwrought commentaries.

Perhaps because it represents the final chapter in the trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises" attempts some odd methods of providing back stories and explanations for the characters; it often interrupts the narrative with brief flashbacks, a kind of retrospective exposition that summarizes events of the past and of the previous pictures. Characters frequently tell their own stories to account for some of their actions, including the surprising switches and the several instances of betrayal that further darken the themes of the film.

Aside from its numerous stories and several dubious characters, in keeping with the requirements of the summer blockbuster, the movie features an impressive array of special effects, visual legerdemain, and spectacular stunts. In one impressive sequence Bane orchestrates underground explosions that destroy the field during a stadium football game, with the only survivor a fleet running back who dodges the eruptions and scores a touchdown.

With a vicious, hateful villain, a sexy, treacherous Catwoman, and a quite competent leading man, "The Dark Knight Rises" accomplishes most of what anyone expects from a comic-book picture. Brilliantly filmed, epically long, extremely violent, ingeniously plotted, and generally entertaining, it's probably the best bat flick of them all.

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