Dir. Christopher Nolan
(2012, PG-13, 165 min)

Heath Ledger‘s Joker in The Dark Knight was a game changer for superhero films. He was a villain of substance who didn’t operate under the standard protocols of crush-kill-destroy, world domination, or hellbent revenge. He was a deranged man with a warped, cynical, nihilistic, but not entirely implausible perspective on human nature, and that made him scarier. He reflected back at us the worst in ourselves.

The Dark Knight Rises is disappointing in that it doesn’t further expand the boundaries of superhero storytelling. It reins them back in. In the wake of the Joker, director Christopher Nolan and company have decided to revisit the mysterious League of Shadows from Batman Begins, the well-crafted but unspectacular first film of Nolan’s trilogy. The League of Shadows believed the world to be corrupt and plotted to cleanse it through simple destruction. The Joker would be bored by them.

The group was led by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in the first film, and now a powerful former acolyte named Bane (Tom Hardy) has appeared in Gotham City for unknown reasons. Meanwhile, a class-crusading cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) targets Gotham’s rich and powerful. It’s eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, and Batman (Christian Bale), now an outlaw, may be needed once again.

Organized crime is now a thing of the past in Gotham City, thanks to the Harvey Dent Act, whose exact provisions aren’t explained. The city’s sunnier outlook is reflected in a brighter, well-lit visual style; the photography and production design don’t have the same ominous, noirish atmosphere as the previous films.

Otherwise, The Dark Knight Rises is as well constructed as its predecessors from a technical standpoint, and the performances are strong, especially by Michael Caine as Batman’s butler Alfred, and newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young police officer who becomes Batman’s ally. It’s primarily the writing that falls short. The story is cleverly plotted, but we get more exposition than insight – backstories and origins without the psychological depth we found in Joker or Harvey Dent. And the villains’ nefarious plan, considering their ultimate objective, seems unnecessarily complicated.

It has to do with something Bane says about using hope to cultivate despair, but even then his logic is faulty, for reasons I won’t reveal. He may possess superhuman strength, but he and his cohorts are philosophic lightweights.