A gang of thugs has just looted the Gotham City Stock Exchange and crashed out through the front doors on motorcycles, hostages in tow, as police pursue them through city streets and into an underground highway. Suddenly, the tunnel goes dark. A familiar vehicle with monster-truck wheels, driven by a man in black cape and cowl, has joined the chase. Batman is back. A veteran cop sees the intervention and says to a rookie, "Boy, you're in for a show tonight, son."
The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's mesmerizing climax to his trilogy reboot of the DC Comics character, is a show, all right. But not in the way of the standard summer action-fantasy. Although the movie contains elaborate fights, stunts, chases and war toys, and though the director dresses half his characters in outfits suitable for a Comic-Con party, Nolan is a dead-serious artist with a worldview many shades darker than Batman's cave. The year's most eagerly anticipated movie was well worth waiting for.
The battle in Nolan's 2008 The Dark Knight was between two solo artists: Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger in the crazy-cunning role that earned him a posthumous Oscar). TDKR posits all-out war: a terrorist attack on Gotham by the League of Shadows, the vigilante band that threatened so much mischief in Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins. Its leader is Bane (Tom Hardy), an immense hulk wearing a respirator that makes him look as if a small creature from the original Alien has been permanently strapped onto his face. Bane intends to liberate--enslave--Gotham by offering its poorest citizens the chance to trash the mansions of the wealthy. His most persuasive motivator: a four-megaton nuclear device that could be detonated at any moment.
If only the city had a hero. But Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, has lived in morbid seclusion ever since his lifelong love Rachel Dawes was blown to bits in the previous episode. The daring theft of his fingerprints by pretty petty thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) rouses Bruce from his torpor. Selina, the Catwoman, leads Bruce to Bane, who thrashes the debilitated hero and consigns him to the hellhole Bane grew up in. This time the masked man who runs the city will be purely evil.
Several characters in TDKR--Bruce, Bane, Selina, the idealistic cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the lovely philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard)--are orphans who express or repress their true nature by playing roles, wearing masks. And Nolan? His mask is that of a director of comic-book entertainments, when he's really out to excoriate Americans' greed, laziness and implicit yearning for a demagogue.
Hidden in plain sight are allusions to the Patriot Act, the decadelong detention of terrorist suspects in Guantnamo and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Nolan mercilessly details the corruptibility of both class and mass and suggests that the only salvation is in a nearly invincible hero--a rich man with the strength and altruism to save desperate America from itself. (In this allegory, is Mitt Romney Bruce Wayne? Or is he the boss of Bane Capital?) Beneath the pulp fantasy of the infallible fixer is a warning that in the real America, a superhero will never fly out of our dreams and into the night sky.