No other superhero has less fun than the Batman (Christian Bale) of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. You'd think nothing could be better than having a billion bucks, a high-tech arsenal, a cool outfit, and the opportunity to beat up bad guys. But in the first two installments of the series, the bad guys are the ones enjoying themselves. For the Dark Knight, all thrills are guilty pleasures, invariably spoiled by nasty flashbacks or disastrous, unintended consequences.
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In this concluding episode, however, Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn't exactly lighten up, but he does find someone to enliven his isolation, someone who is comfortable in her own skin (or latex, perhaps), and can have a good time without wanting to destroy the world in the process — like, say, the Joker. In short, Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle adds just enough frisson to nudge the Batman out of his cave of joyless neurosis.
That's one reason this is the best Batman film yet — because Nolan has a good time, too. The story he tells is no less grim. If anything, it is more brutal, doom-laden, and nihilistic than ever. But it's also more exhilarating as the director orchestrates spectacle, tragedy, metaphor, and an antic black humor into a genuinely epic, fully realized entertainment. When the Batman has fun, so does everyone else.
At first it seems like Nolan might have gotten his franchises confused, since the film starts out like a James Bond movie with a spectacular sequence involving two planes, CIA agents on a black op, and terrorists led by a big, masked lug named Bane (Tom Hardy, resembling Sean Connery as Darth Vader). Bane's got the playful wit of the Joker, but employs the fighting tactics of the Hulk.
Meanwhile, eight years have passed since the events of the last movie, when Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent in order to preserve the crusading DA's heroic image. Now the streets are safe because of Dent's Freedom Act–like legislation. But not everyone is happy. Commissioner Gordon rankles from the deception. And Bruce himself hobbles like a hermit about the halls of Wayne Manor, the object of Howard Hughes jokes from a fickle public.
Then Kyle enters his life. Like a scene out of To Catch a Thief or Trouble in Paradise, Bruce surprises her as she steals his mother's pearls from his bedroom safe. Played by Hathaway with a mix of pizzazz, grace, and insouciance, Kyle is sexy and unapologetic. She doesn't hesitate to kick out the cane Bruce leans on. She's his kind of woman.
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But duty calls. Out of shape though he is, the Batman comes off the DL to deal with Bane, who has raised an underground — literally — army, ostensibly to free Gotham's dispossessed from the high-rolling parasites who enslave them. Let's just say it gets pretty ugly, with some beat-downs rivaling the via dolorosa in The Passion of the Christ. Plus some awe-inspiring scenes of devastation that are poetic and detailed in the depth and breadth of pristine IMAX (or at least it was at the press screening I attended for the Los Angeles junket). Nolan musters up a Götterdämmerung backed by a chest-thumping Hans Zimmer score that is part Wagner, part Ennio Morricone.