When writer/director Christopher Nolan declared he would put his stamp on the Batman franchise with a jet black trilogy of downers, he wasn’t joshing around. The Dark Knight Rises, a sound-n-fury series send-off that feels more funereal than fun park, continues the tradition of taking adolescent concepts and hurtling them into an unrelentingly nasty and political adult world.

Watching this mushroom cloud of grimness where Adam West, “KA-POW” and those goofy 60’s outfits feel cultures, worlds, universes removed, I felt like somebody had stolen the comic books I most loved as a teenager, compressed them into a rock-hard brick and proceeded to bludgeon me across the face, using my tears to wash their hands afterwards.

In Nolan’s version of Gotham city, the shady metropolis where billionaire Bruce Wayne’s caped alter-ego has traded knuckle sandwiches with crooks since his genesis as a comic book hero in 1939, any kid who partakes in something as innocent as playing with toy figurines in their bathtubs would surely be drowned by a random snarling psychopath before the water turned lukewarm.

If the tooth fairy exists in this world, it’s a guy in blood-stained overalls who visits little tykes with a hammer in the dead of the night, smashes apart their pearly whites before carefully placing a shiny dollar underneath their pillow. It’s that sort of place.

The story of TDKR — particularly the opening act — borrows from Frank Miller’s superb graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In Miller’s similarly somber story, Bruce Wayne is an arthritis-addled man well past middle-age, who hung up his cape many years ago but grudgingly comes out of retirement when a new gang of loonies takes over the city. Slower and weaker than ever before, he’s on his meds and every punch hurts.

This potent older-than-ever plot pivot exists in TDKR, based eight years after The Dark Knight (2008), but it’s more or less abandoned, the protagonist’s weakened body supplemented by new technology.

The Dark Knight ended with poor ol’ Bats collecting the blame for crimes he didn’t commit, literally chased by police and hounded by dogs. Batman hasn’t been seen since, partly because he’s a wee bit miffed by the whole affair and partly because new legislation — ‘The Harvey Dent Act’ — has cleaned up the city.

Bruce Wayne has also slinked into hiding, hobbling around with a cane in his mansion and whining to his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), who is still prone to impressive feats of off-the-cuff sermonising. Wayne’s reclusive lifestyle is upturned when a buff masked villain named Bane (Tom Hardy), who looks like a WWF outcast and sounds like a muffled version of Darth Vader, arrives in town with ghastly plans to give the city back to the people, which in villainous dialect translates to “blow lots of stuff up.”

There is also the emergence of a sexy cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) — a cat WOMAN, if you will — who has an agenda of her own that goes beyond, but certainly includes, pilfering pearls.

The threat of anarchism and hells bells chaos that lingered in sub-plots in the first two films spills over into virtually every story facet of the third. This is a Rome is burning blockbuster and boy, it flames on.

When the city under siege element takes off it grips the film like a vice, dumping the hero into hapless sidelines for a considerate chunk of the running time. The level of on the street detail Nolan conjures as the bedlam unfolds is brilliantly vivid and bleak, the action scenes staged fast and close but without the awful freneticism of a Michael Bay movie.

The Dark Knight leveraged a lot of its thought patterns from the Joker and its post-9/11 rationalisation of his character as emblematic of a terrorist entity ever present in one form or another. There is a scene in which Alfred explains to Wayne, who is clearly accustomed to fighting old school criminals compelled by money and power, that there is a certain breed of antagonist who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Such a pithy line, and such broad character context, doesn’t come with Bane, but we certainly get to watch the world burn. Famous for being the character who broke Batman’s back in the comics, the ideology and motivations driving his utterly foreboding presence (acted with eery huff and puff by Tom Hardy) aren’t clear. Is he a socialist? An anarchist? A terrorist? A heavy lifting champ always waking up on the wrong side of bed?

Bane’s plan to take over Gotham and rig it with a nuclear bomb belongs to the tradition of silly Bond villains who say they want to liberate people by detonating massive explosions. The film also hints, albeit briefly, at an Occupy Wall Street type movement, a tantalising take-the-power-back plot involving stock brokers and international conglomerates and the powers that be, but it doesn’t make much of it.

The Dark Knight is a more complicated and nuanced film, because it’s full of moral dilemmas hatched by the devilishly inventive Joker and busies itself by contrasting notions of personal liberty with utilitarianism, Batman relegated to the conservative role as the representative of a surveillance state where ‘the greater good’ threatens to corrode individual morality.

TDKR shifts the focus from questioning what decisions people might make in complex moral situations to how they might respond when ghastly decisions with far-reaching ramifications have already been made for them.

This is terrorist fiction writ large: bracing, visceral and intensely atmospheric, the loudest and most ferocious post-9/11 movie to come out of Hollywood so far. Nolan conveys a shocking sense that the audience are powerlessly strapped in for the ride, like the poor schmucks stranded in Gotham, with little intellectual oxygen to ponder why all this madness is happening and what it might mean. One thing is for sure: it’s a hell of a spectacle.

The Dark Knight Rises’ Australian theatrical release date: July 19, 2012.

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