Let’s just get this out of the way: with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan has crafted, by far, the best series of superhero films to date.
Having said that, audience members who are anticipating a film that matches The Dark Knight should probably temper their expectations. Where that film, and Batman Begins before it, worked both as standalone films and parts of a bigger whole, The Dark Knight Rises is unquestionably the culmination of a larger story. While it has elements that make it stand apart from its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises requires viewing of the first two parts of Nolan’s trilogy, namely Batman Begins.
In The Dark Knight Rises, eight years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent and subsequent disappearance of Batman. During those eight years, the Dent Act has helped clean up the streets of Gotham City, while Bruce Wayne has become a recluse within Wayne Manor. Enter Bane, a terrifying villain whose plans for Gotham City make those of previous series villains look like child’s play. Adding to the chaos is the emergence of Selina Kyle (note: the name Catwoman does not appear in this film in any capacity), a cat burglar with ever-shifting allegiances.
The film brings back three of Wayne’s (and Batman’s) biggest allies: faithful butler Alfred, inventor Lucius Fox, and Commissioner Gordon, who struggles as much as Wayne with the decision to pin Dent’s crimes as Two-Face on Batman. Also providing influence on Bruce’s dual lives are a pair of new characters: John Blake, an idealistic young cop, and Miranda Tate, a wealthy environmentalist who wants to strike up both business and personal relationships with Wayne.
Tonally, The Dark Knight Rises is dark and heavy. With a story that includes full-scale terrorism and class warfare, the threat of Gotham’s destruction that seemed ever looming in previous films finally comes to the forefront. The tone also colors the characters this time around. Where The Dark Knight in particular derived a certain sense of unpredictability with the Joker, the presence of the very serious, methodical Bane produces an equally serious pallor over the story.
The story itself takes a while to build up momentum, but that’s largely due to the nature of the film as the concluding part of a larger story instead of a standalone film. Once the story gets going, though, it goes all in. It manages to rather successfully introduce new elements into the story while expounding upon threads from the previous films.
Among the returning cast members, Christian Bale shows the most change as Batman and Bruce Wayne. Bale’s previous turns in the role already stand out as the best full representation of the character, but Bale finds new ways to dig into the character as he faces his own demons, both internally and externally. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman all manage to provide new facets to their characters as well, largely from their interactions with Wayne.
Half of the main cast in the film, though, are comprised of new characters to the series, two of which are created specifically for the film. Tom Hardy has the unfortunate task of following Heath Ledger’s iconic turn as the Joker, but having a character that is in many ways the polar opposite of Ledger’s helps him. Anne Hathaway’s take on Selina Kyle provides some relief from Bane’s darkness. Her take on the character is sexy and slightly snarky without going for the sleaze of, say, Halle Berry’s take on the character. The highlight, though, may be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, who serves as the voice of idealism that once came from Batman and Gordon.
Creating a follow-up to The Dark Knight is a tall order in and of itself. Add in Nolan’s desire to conclude his story, and the expectations are understandably stratospheric. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan sidesteps the “third film” curse that typically plagues superhero franchises and crafts what may be one of the best film trilogies of all time. In a summer that already produced two excellent superhero films, The Dark Knight stands out as a truly great film, regardless of genre.