Apparently, director Christopher Nolan never got the memo that the third installment in a franchise is supposed to be the party killer. Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand went so thoroughly off the rails, both franchises hit reboot for The Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men: First Class. But Nolan claimed he had a trilogy in mind from the get-go, and The Dark Knight Rises not only proves he clearly had a specific story he wanted to tell, it also cements this franchise as, hands down, one of the best movie trilogies of all time.
Where Marvel’s The Avengers was a fun, upbeat popcorn movie blast, Dark Knight Rises is a complex, emotional counterpoint that has no qualms about moth-balling the main hero’s costume for most of the movie (it also has the goods to make you barely notice that fact). Picking up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Rises finds Gotham enjoying a period of relative peace. The Batman — whom people still blame for the death of former D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) — has disappeared, and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) lives like a Howard Hughes-esque hermit in his sprawling mansion. When word begins to spread that a new threat is gathering in the sewers of Gotham — a hulking, masked behemoth named Bane (Tom Hardy) who runs his organization more like a cult than a criminal gang — Wayne is forced to dust off his cape and cowl. Along the way, he runs into a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who seems to enjoy chaos as much as Wayne does law and order.
That’s only the set-up, of course, but what follows is an epic, multi-storyline thriller that manages to give great moments to old friends (Michael Caine’s loyal butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s sly Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman’s true-blue lawman Jim Gordon) while introducing new faces (Marion Cotillard’s Wayne Enterprises executive Miranda Tate, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s golden-hearted police office John Blake) and taking the time to flesh them out so that they’re vital to the story. This is no mean feat when dealing with a movie that’s trying to say and do so much — including making an unapologetic Occupy Wall Street analogy that dispenses with subtlety. And just when you think the threads are going to lose you, Nolan brings it all back (sometimes a little too conveniently) with a monster payoff.
The greatest trick Nolan pulled here is making you wonder how Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker would have fit into this story at all. Rises brings the events started in Batman Begins full circle in a variety of clever ways that only a complete jerk would spoil for you, and you’re left thinking that the Joker was merely a detour — a crazed, oddly magnetic, and incredibly memorable one, sure — in a much larger story. Given the impact the role had when Dark Knight was released, the fact that you don’t miss the character is truly remarkable — and Nolan was helped by Hardy, who makes Bane almost as compelling a villain, but in a much different way. Covered with a mask and obfuscated by a growly, Darth Vader voice, Bane is worlds away from the grinning, preening Clown Prince of Crime. But Hardy’s physical presence leaves a mark, and every time he’s onscreen you feel the appropriate levels of dread. This is not the Bane we saw in 1996’s Batman and Robin — a lumbering, idiotic manchild. This is a man who is every bit Batman’s intellectual match and, just maybe, his physical superior.
A nod should go out to the rest of the cast as well. Nolan gets great performances across the board, even from the oft-maligned Hathaway. Selina (the word “Catwoman” is never uttered once, thankfully) may have a few clunky lines, but Hathaway plays her as a perfect match for Batman. Just as Bruce teeters between his various identities (“playboy Bruce,” “Batman,” the “real” Bruce), so Selina seems at war between her theatrical cat burglar persona, her stone-cold crook persona, and the genuinely wounded Selina. And to top things off, Michael Caine delivers a whopper of a speech that almost — we said almost, dammit — moved us to tears.
But the heart and soul of the franchise remains Bale, who supplies Wayne with an emotional weight that makes his trials seem consequential. This is not a super-powered hero who can punch a giant alien space slug and not even scrape a knuckle. Batman suffers. Bale shows you every bit of Wayne’s agony, and the intense strain being a nocturnal vigilante has taken on him. And we don’t often feel compelled to mention a film’s score, but at one point (again, no spoilers), the story, Bale’s performance, and Hans Zimmer’s music coalesce into a moment as uplifting as anything in Rocky, and there’s nary a cape in site. It’s truly a triumphant moment in a movie filled with triumphant moments, as well as some great twists. If you can avoid any and all spoilers going in, you will be rewarded with some monumental, unexpected treats. Nolan has wrapped up his Batman story in grand style, with a movie that’s scary and downbeat and rousing and action-packed all at once. You simply have to see this. End of story.