Gloom never looked as good as it does in the mesmerizing "The Dark Knight Rises."
Concluding his "Batman" trilogy, director Christopher Nolan gives us a hobbled, reclusive hero (a soulful Christian Bale), a murderous tank of a villain (the excellent Tom Hardy) and allusions to the 99 percent and the Occupy movement that rob us of the luxury of dismissing this bleak film as comic-book fantasy.
It's a total bummer, except it isn't.
That's because there's always joy in evidence in "Dark Knight Rises." It's the joy of filmmaking, from a director now so comfortable with the technological bells and whistles that the movie just looks like life.
"Rises" offers a parade of visual wonders. Far more striking, though, is the picture's qualitative consistency.
Elaborate action sequences shot with Imax cameras amaze, but quieter scenes do not suffer by comparison. Every scene is carefully composed and equally weighted with portent.
The most obvious shifts in "Rises" happen when the screen format changes from standard to giant Imax. Nolan shot 72 minutes with Imax cameras. The result is huge, vivid images that envelop the viewer in a way images shot in standard format and blown up for the Imax screen (the common Hollywood practice) cannot.
Moments when the film suddenly expands to fill the Imax screen are exciting, because you know something is about to go down. But the non-Imax footage holds treasures, and plenty of tension, as well.
What "Rises" lacks completely are the truly escapist moments available in other comic-book films. The script by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, starts out grim and gets grimmer.
Bruce Wayne is now limping, pale and holed up in his estate. Eight years ago, he retired his Batsuit, and from the looks of it, his verve. Apparently, the events depicted in the second Batman film, "The Dark Knight," turned him into a shell.
It has been four years since "Dark Knight" was released, but Bale believably looks eight years older. He appears depleted, as if Wayne giving his all for Gotham City really took it out of him.
But the new lines on Bale's face also suit the version of Wayne that emerges in "Rises." This guy is wearier but also more wry than he was in "Batman Begins" or "Dark Knight." And Bale still imparts the great sense of responsibility for humankind that Wayne carries with him.
Bale is not really the lead in "Rises." Nobody is. It is an ensemble piece. And that ensemble maintains a serious, consistent tone throughout that matches Nolan's aesthetic tone.
Hardy's Bane is not an outsize villain like Heath Ledger's Joker from "Dark Knight." But he's still scary.
Bane wears a mask over most of his face. But Hardy creates an indelible character with his eyes and voice. Bane looks like the most muscled extra from the set of "Mad Max." But he sounds professorial, and as if he is 100 years old.
That combination suggests authority, intelligence and homicide. It promises that Bane will follow through on his threats. Then he follows through on his threats.
The movie's other baddie comes with doe eyes and a catsuit. As Selina Kyle, a thief who steals from the rich, Anne Hathaway is self-assured, plausibly athletic and remarkably irreverent for such a reverent film.
Hathaway nearly pierces the film's otherwise subdued tone with all the fun she is having. But she tempers Selina's cockiness by showing the anger that fuels her lawlessness.
Selina and Bane both claim to represent a voiceless underclass kept down, variously, by fat cats and unfair laws. In their rebellion lie echoes of the Occupy movement, tea party and other grass-roots movements that arose in between the releases of the second and third Batman films.
The inclusion of topical content gives "Rises" more heft than other summer blockbusters. But the intrusion of reality further dims a comic-book film series that has been nearly windowless from the start.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from Nolan's "Inception") offers moments of hopefulness in his role as a resourceful young police officer. He's as sparky as Hathaway, but more grounded. His performance and Nolan's superior filmmaking skills stave off audience despair for the future of Gotham City and America.
Nolan wastes time on some characters who do not further the story. "Rises" runs two hours, 45 minutes, a length at which digressions can irritate. Matthew Modine's character, for example, is forgettable. And you do forget about him until he pops up half an hour later.
The film's sociopolitical implications push beyond Nolan's storytelling limits in its second half. Basically, Nolan writes a check he can't cash.
That "Rises" is overpopulated and overly ambitious just confirms it as a Nolan movie. Whether he is alternately dazzling and confusing us with "Inception" or overreaching here, Nolan always is masterful and a bit too much.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Cast: Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language, some sensuality