After the shots 

Nearly alone for The Dark Knight Rises

Ten minutes before Sunday's early matinee of The Dark Knight Rises at the Village 6, four people were in the audience. An employee told a curious ticket buyer that crowds had been sparse all weekend for what was supposed to be the summer's biggest movie. The theater's midnight premiere a few days earlier nearly sold out, he said, but since then things had been slow.

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  • The Dark Knight Rises

The reason is because of what happened during another midnight premiere in Aurora, Colo. Police allege James Holmes, 24, waited until about 20 minutes into The Dark Knight Rises before he tossed two canisters of gas into the crowd and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58. Eyewitnesses originally thought Holmes, who was armed with two .40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 870 single-barrel pump shotgun, a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle and as many as 6,000 rounds of ammunition, entered through an emergency exit door. Police later said he bought a ticket and walked in with everyone else. Once in custody, Holmes reportedly told officers he was the Joker.

It's not often a film review of a summer blockbuster gets bogged down by national news, but the Aurora killings were impossible to ignore over the weekend. Cable news networks ran stories around the clock. Ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises fell far below record-breaking projections. Instead of debates over the quality of director Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman, debates focused on the Second Amendment. Venerable critic Roger Ebert wrote about the movie on Friday—in a gun rights op-ed for The New York Times.

No wonder so few people were in the Village 6 on Sunday afternoon. Summer blockbusters are about escapism and there was almost none of that here. It's hard to enjoy a movie when you can't help but steal glances at a nearby exit door or feel the need to quickly turn around when an audience member leaves for the lobby.

Making matters more challenging is how The Dark Knight Rises clings to real-life headlines. The plot involves class warfare, with language and imagery mirroring that of the Occupy movement. There are also scenes of large-scale urban terrorism evocative of 9/11. It felt more than a little weird watching Batman stop during an early fight to make a point of saying, "No guns. No killing."

Even beyond its connections, intended or otherwise, to current events, The Dark Knight Rises is a heavy film. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has removed himself from society and retired his alter ego, left to literally limp around his mansion and watch his fortune vanish. A vicious new villain emerges in Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked muscle-bound thug who builds an army of henchmen in Gotham's underground sewers. The reasons for Bane's brutality aren't clear until late in the film, but any motivational shortcomings are made up for with acts of ruthless violence. Wayne realizes the only way to save his city from this menace is to bring back the caped crusader, but that proves easier said than done.

Along the way, Nolan introduces an independent-minded cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) and an eager young police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Anyone familiar with this franchise can guess how those two characters evolve throughout the film; Nolan doesn't exactly hide either one's future identity.

The new villain and supporting characters don't really matter. They're disjointed pieces of a convoluted puzzle for much of the film, and that's the biggest difference between The Dark Knight Rises and past installments. Nolan has been masterful at weaving together various motivations and story lines in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, achieving something near perfection with the latter. His new film eventually builds to an exceptional ending, but it never quite reaches the same level as its predecessors.

To be fair, I spent a long time wondering if the jumbled pieces and lack of momentum were a product of the filmmaking or of the distractions heading into the theater. I'm still not sure. What I do know is that once The Dark Knight Rises hits its rhythm, the film hums with the same urgency and immediacy as the rest of Nolan's trilogy. For at least a little while, it was possible to escape into a land of superheroes.

The Dark Knight Rises continues at the Carmike 12 and Village 6.

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