Bane is no Joker.
And contrary to its title, "The Dark Knight Rises" never rises above "The Dark Knight."
"The Dark Knight Rises"★ ★ ★
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations, language. 165 minutes
Yet, Christopher Nolan's final chapter in his Batman trilogy remains an exhausting experience, reeking with ambition and intelligence.
Impressive, yes, with a zinger of a finale, but a mostly humorless and overproduced enterprise crammed frame-to-frame with action scenes and Hans Zimmer's percussive, melody-challenged music pounding on our eardrums.
I saw "The Dark Knight Rises" in the IMAX Theater at Chicago's Navy Pier, so my experience recounted here will be slightly different from that in regular movie theaters. Not by too much, I think. (Seventy-two minutes of the overly lengthy two-hour-45-minute running time were shot in IMAX format.)
In the opening scene of "Dark Knight Rises," something nefarious is afoot.
A wicked, burly beast named Bane (Tom Hardy) -- think of Mr. Clean as a sumo wrestler with Hannibal Lecter's mask as designed by surrealist H.R. Giger -- stages a spectacular midair airplane-napping during which he takes a scientist hostage.
Back in Gotham, eight years have passed since billionaire Bruce Wayne (again played by Christian Bale) jumped in his Batman costume and stopped the Joker (the late Heath Ledger) on his crime spree.
Wayne fell on the metaphorical bat-sword by taking the rap for killing people so that DA-turned-criminal Harvey Dent would be revered by Gotham City denizens as the ultraclean hero he really wasn't.
Batman's injuries and age have caused Bruce Wayne to shuffle along with a cane while his lifelong valet and confidante Alfred (played again by Michael Caine) frets over him like a gawking mother goose.
Wayne first meets slinky cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, whose raw physicality, Bambi eyes and ability to fill her skintight black work clothes make her a natural) in his house where she has boosted his mother's pearl necklace from a supposedly theft-proof safe.
She hasn't come to Wayne Manor for the pearls, but to secure Wayne's finger prints, which come into play later during a devastating financial assault against Wayne's businesses.
Meanwhile, the enigmatic Bane and his minions set up shop in the sewers below Gotham City where police Commissioner Jim Gordon (again played by Gary Oldman) becomes a prisoner, and is shot while trying to escape.
Slowly, against Alfred's objections, Wayne begins to think that it's time to dust off the old bat suit.
"You're afraid I'll fail!" Wayne says.
"I'm afraid you'll want to!" Alfred replies.
As Bane plans to destroy Gotham City by turning the public against the rich 2 percent, like Bruce Wayne, Batman receives support from weapons designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who contributes a nifty flying arsenal he names "The Bat" because of its ability to spin on a whim.
Two other key people become significant to Wayne/Batman. Idealistic Gotham detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an orphan, tells Wayne directly "I believe in the Batman," and his actions speak for themselves.
Then comes Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a public do-gooder who's tried for years to get Wayne Enterprises to back her noble projects for Gotham. She's also got the hots for the billionaire.
Nolan, the most daring and imaginative studio filmmaker working right now, modeled "Dark Knight Rises" after both the silent classic "Metropolis" and "Bladerunner," using London as the hub of a metropolitan hell hole where Bane rules like Satan in the Underworld.
No villain could come close to matching Ledger's inspired Joker, but give Hardy credit for supplying Bane with plenty of conviction and gravitas in a movie that, frankly, is less about actors than knockout set pieces captured in eyeball-popping spectacles.
"Dark Knight Rises" isn't so much about good vs. evil as it is about giving people -- even the most undeserving of Gotham's fickle residents -- a reason to hold on to hope in bad economic times.
Even with flaws, it still ranks as a bat-tastic experience.