The subject was always heroism.
No, not the superheroism of so many comic-book adaptations — or caped-crusading heroism solely — but the individual and communal gumption required to face down evil. Or at least give it your best try.
The heroic is what Christopher Nolan's rebooted Batman franchise has explored with a slow-burning, often brilliant intensity, since 2005's "Batman Begins" introduced us to a not particularly warm crime fighter named Bruce Wayne.
Much of the franchise's simmer has come by way of star Christian Bale as Wayne, the billionaire orphan whose icy facade disguised a roiling anger. Yes, he's a playboy, an industrialist, but Bruce Wayne is no Tony Stark.
From the moment "The Dark Knight Rises" opens, it is visually bold and masterfully paced. Sure it clocks in at Nolan's preferred 2 ½ hour runtime, but the wildly choreographed action set-pieces are punctuated with character revealing pauses.
The director and cowriter/brother Jonathan Nolan pay heed to Wayne's wounded emotional arc. And the film is a feat of painstakingly crafted closure. Although Nolan knows that "closure" is a provisional notion.
The final chapter arrives with a new nemesis named Bane, a new frenemy in Selina Kyle/Catwoman and a slew of nagging questions about how to rise to the task of the hero in the face of villainy, of evil.
Marion Cotillard, who had a pivotal role in Nolan's "Inception," plays Wayne's corporate ally Miranda Tate. She wants the businessman to use his resources to better the world. Another "Inception" alum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, portrays police officer John Blake, who believes in Batman when other cops are trying to bring him down.
Photos: "The Dark Knight Rises"
"Dark Knight Rises" doesn't just ponder the heroic, it serves as a reminder that celebrating false heroes seldom turns out well.
It's been eight years since Bruce Wayne became a recluse and as many years since Batman was last seen. In those years, Wayne and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) have allowed the good people of Gotham to believe deceased D.A. Harvey Dent/Two-Face was a hero and that Batman was his killer.
The lie worked for a time. The city was free from organized crime. Bane's arrival changes this. Hobbled physically and emotionally, Wayne will have to stir from his sour mood, his grief over the loss of Rachel Dawes in "The Dark Knight," and leave his cave of sorrow.
He's roused from his stupor by an unlikely person. Anne Hathaway portrays Selina Kyle/Catwoman, a cynical and gifted cat burglar. Not only is Selina clad in the film's hottest couture (a wide brim hat hints at Audrey Hepburn) , she's accessorized with the movie's finest quips, often delivered with an insouciant evenness.
Look up "Bane" and you'll find "slayer," "poison," "woe," "destruction." Tom Hardy's character is all that and more.
He wears a mask over his mouth that looks like the muzzle needed for a dangerous dog. Beckoned to Gotham by Wayne Industries board member Roland Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), he has grander schemes. He's amassing a muscular army seemingly fueled by class resentment for his purposes. Is he the revolutionary he presents himself as or an anarchist exploiter of economic disparity?
Occasionally, Hardy's dialog gets muffled in that mask. Yes, you get his gist but when he issues an ultimatum, it would be nice to hear it. "What did he just say? How much time before the bomb is detonated?" are not the questions you want to be whispering in the pitch of battle. In a film of such impeccable craft, it's a minor blemish.
Wayne's gentlemen support team remains in place. Michael Caine returns as Alfred. The Wayne family butler continues to see his role in Bruce's life as one of moving his ward toward a more human, dare he hope, happy, existence. As Lucius Fox, the billionaire's right-hand man at Wayne Enterprises, Morgan Freeman comes bearing bad news (you're broke) and gifts (a flying machine called "the Bat").
Rated PG-13 "The Dark Knight Rises" requires the same caveats as its immediate predecessor: Violent intent and scenes of wholesale destruction are rendered expertly enough that parents may not want to burden their young kids with them.
For all the uncanny, rabid splendor Heath Ledger achieved in "The Dark Knight" as the Joker, it was another scene that rattled our sense of heroic to its very core. The Joker had wired two ferries to blow. One was full of jump-suited prisoners. The other was packed with frightened commuters. Each ship's passengers had been given the detonator to the explosives on the other boat. Who'd push the button first? It remains the franchise's signature moment: the place where moviegoers can most realistically enter the fray and decide what they're made of.
Bane must have consulted with the Joker because a trigger and a bomb — a much bigger bomb — figure into this saga too. And there are many more moments for people not wearing masks to pick up the gauntlet of an ethical challenge.
If all this sounds a bit weighty for what one might want to shrug off as just a movie, and a tentpole one at that, it is.
Christoper Nolan continues to prove himself a serious moviemaker with superlative skills and a fondness for "intelligent escapism," as one Brit wrote in the highfalutin' movie mag "Sight & Sound."
Yes, "The Dark Knight Rises" engrosses and thrills. So much so, we might feel we've taken leave for a brief spell of our world of conflict and contention. Yet, we haven't, or not exactly.
Nolan and his dynamic cast and crew have delivered a movie that recasts daily tensions on an epic pop-culture scale. Still, the finale's nudge is unmistakable: Go out from your muliplex cocoon, leave your IMAX cave and a be prepared to be a hero.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/bylisakennedy
"THE DARK KNIGHT RISES." Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Photography by Wally Pfister. Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Rated PG-13. 2 hours, 44 minutes. At local theaters and IMAX starting Friday, July 20.