It’s strange: on surface value, The Dark Knight Rises looks very familiar. It’s got the same cold sheen of its predecessor, the same sinister ambience; but something is wrong. Gotham and its weary citizens don’t grip me the way they did last time around. Any twists that the story takes, however much they reshape the characters’ journeys, just don’t interest me. The problem is that The Dark Knight Rises is a typical example of style without substance. 

The Dark Knight was a rare example of a film that could pair mass market appeal with some intellectual weight. Its style was something beautifully sinister, with a Hollywood-quality finish that made it hugely popular with an entire global generation. But its style merely served as a backdrop for the drama that was center stage: the hefty questions of morality and society acted out through The Joker’s unmotivated lust for violence and Bruce Wayne’s belief in preserving peace at whatever cost to democracy or truth.

The Dark Knight Rises is even more ambitious, but it tries to cram so many ideas in that the result is a bit of a mess; even its 165 minute running time feels constricting. At its peak, the film apparently borrows inspiration from 9/11, the Arab Spring and Occupy all at once. Which would be great if it could find an interesting way to reflect on these events. Instead, it only steals aesthetic ideas. The most emotive scene is when Bane takes control of the city for the first time: he announces his dominance with a series of horrific explosions throughout the city, trapping the police force underground and killing many in a packed football arena. Just to squeeze that last tear out of you, it’s soundtracked by a young boy breaking the stadium’s respectful silence with The Star Spangled Banner. I was tricked into thinking that this would be the beginning of an extended metaphor for the attacks of 9/11, and hoped that the film would offer some new perspective. Instead the film continued on from this sequence in its sloppy way, without saying anything worth mulling over, and I felt emotionally duped.

On top of the heaps of aesthetic influences that stew in this thing, there’s an endless conveyor belt of new characters, most of which are inconsequential. In fact, following the film’s big climactic twist even Bane is shown to be a pretty pointless addition to the franchise; he’s just the head goon of the real evil mastermind. Add to this some CIA cop, two old guys in a prison somewhere, a chauvinistic deputy commissioner, a nuclear physicist, etc, etc... Jesus, the list of uninteresting, underdeveloped characters never ends. Mercifully, two of the most prominent additions, Anne Hathaway’s Selina and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake, are well acted and play characters of some substance. Ben Mendelsohn was also pretty entertaining as the testy, greedy company exec but again, his character was too one dimensional. (See? I told you the list never ends.) The guys who captivated in previous films were either pushed to the shadows (Gary Oldman is literally half conscious for much of the film, Cillian Murphy features for about thirty seconds but almost steals the show anyway); or they are no longer with us (the fact that Bane is such an empty character stings so much worse when compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker).

Look, The Dark Knight Rises is pretty damn good when viewed as a superhero film. That’s hard to dispute. There are plenty of gripping set pieces, and the fights and chases (despite feeling pretty stock) keep the crowd appeased. The problem is that as a follow up to The Dark Knight, it just feels soulless.