Fear is the word in The Dark Knight Rises

Fear is the word in The Dark Knight Rises

Third in trilogy, soul-deep Dark Knight Rises delivers much more than a comic book hero

Fear is the word in The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Batman origin trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises

Rated: PG

Four stars (out of four)

Fear is the word in The Dark Knight Rises, the concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Batman origin trilogy.

It’s in the eyes of both hero and villain, in all its manifestations — from anxiety and doubt right up to sheer terror.

It’s constantly on their lips, as when new arch-villain Bane tells one of his victims: “Now’s not the time for fear. That comes later.”

It’s in their sweat, and also in the beads of perspiration you’ll likely feel watching, prompted in part by the foreboding bass of Hans Zimmer’s score and Richard King’s sound design, magnified by the IMAX-sized visuals of Wally Pfister’s cinematography.

Genuine fear is an emotion you don’t often get in summer blockbusters, which tend to be all about the swagger conferred by superpowers and absurd scenarios.

Not this trilogy, and especially not this movie, which incorporates human frailty and realistic threats of nuclear and economic destruction into the densely layered saga co-written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer.

The film opens today in Red Deer.

This Knight not only rises, it also cuts deep — not just as spectacular entertainment but also as harrowing drama.

It’s eight years past the traumatic events of The Dark Knight (2008), and Batman is for all intents and purposes no more. He’s been outlawed and ostracized in Gotham City, which arrogantly believes it has rid itself of major crime.

Wrongly blamed for the demise of Gotham’s public defender Harvey Dent, a lie that even trusted ally Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is unhappily and politically obliged to maintain, Batman — or rather his alter-ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) — hides inside stately Wayne Manor. Mourning losses both tangible and emotional, he lacks the anger that sparked his heroic creation in Batman Begins (2005), when he adopted the sign of the bat as his symbol of fear vanquishing evil.

Wayne is also physically diminished, and now walks with a cane. He just wants to check out of the world.

But Gotham City still has an interest in what happened to him. A lot of people want to know who Batman was, if only to exact revenge.

And a new threat has emerged: a super terrorist by the name of Bane (Tom Hardy), probably the most vile and fearsome foe that Batman has ever faced. Indeed, that any hero has ever faced.

Built like a wrestling giant, Bane wears a mask that resembles a spider or perhaps the “face hugger” from the Alien series. Worn through painful necessity, the mask hides his mouth but not his piercing eyes, ferocious intellect or unsettling voice. He proclaims himself to be “Gotham’s reckoning.”

Gotham’s destruction seems more likely. Bane plans to weaponize a nuclear fusion device that Wayne Enterprises developed for peaceful means. The tables turn evil’s way in an eye-popping airborne prologue and in a daring raid on the city’s stock exchange.

If it’s at all possible, Bane is even more nihilistic than Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. And while it would be almost impossible to top the late Ledger’s incendiary performance, which won him a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Hardy’s Bane comes awfully close.

He’s mesmerizing on the screen, recalling Darth Vader in the original Star Wars.

Christian Bale’s finely drawn Batman, meanwhile, is a darker and more brooding character than we’ve seen in past outings. It’s an understated performance by Bale, but quite possibly his best.

Two welcome female characters join the cast. Anne Hathaway intrigues and wows as cat burglar Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who has connections to both Bane and Batman. She’s brutally funny, a little frightening and incredibly athletic in her skin-tight leathers, filling the screen as one of the most dynamic femmes seen in a long time.

Marion Cotillard makes less noise as Gotham tycoon Miranda Tate, but she fits very well into the intricate puzzle that is The Dark Knight Rises.

So too does Joseph Gordon-Levitt, another newcomer, who like Cotillard and Hardy hails from Nolan’s previous film Inception. Gordon-Levitt plays good cop John Blake, an aide to Commissioner Gordon, who is such an old-school lawman he rounds up street kids to help him spread the word about the threats to Gotham.

There are also many familiar faces in The Dark Knight Rises, including two that function best as discoveries.

But another two can’t be left unmentioned: Michael Caine as Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, and Morgan Freeman as company gadget man Lucius Fox, who supplements the Batmobile and Bat-Pod motorbike with a supercool flying machine simply called The Bat.

As before, Caine and Freeman serve as father figures, but Caine’s role takes on added nuances that make him the film’s emotional heart, and also the first amongst equals for a likely slew of Academy Awards nominations.

Blockbusters aren’t supposed to be this brainy in the summer. You’re supposed to switch your brain off and just roll with it, which is essentially what The Avengers did earlier this summer. It was a fun movie but not a deep one.

The Dark Knight Rises is soul-deep. It prompts us look at our most private fears and how we cope with them. It questions what happens if we give into those fears.

It’s a demanding movie, one that could leave you exhausted as well as exhilarated during its nearly three-hour running time, which is perhaps a shade longer than the film needs to be.

But we can forgive a few script excesses because we’re invested in all the characters.

And if all else fails, just sit back and marvel at the images.

Nolan aims to capture our minds and also to dazzle our eyes, and he succeeds admirably on both counts.

The Dark Knight Rises is not just the summer’s grandest blockbuster, but also one of the year’s best movies.

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.