The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie starring Christian Bale, was released in 2008 to massive international praise from critics and audiences alike. Featuring a brilliantly dark, posthumous-Oscar-worthy performance from the late Heath Ledger, and a ground-breakingly gritty tone, it has rightly been called one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. But I probably don’t need to tell you that, because you’ve most likely seen it, considering that it had a box office opening of over one billion dollars worldwide.
The question that has been on everyone’s mind since 2008 is: “Can the third Batman movie possibly top The Dark Knight?”. With four years between the films, the hype has built to gargantuan levels, and it seems inconceivable that any movie could live up to the incredibly high expectations. Anything short of perfection would be considered disappointing. But if anyone is up for the challenge, it is Christopher Nolan and his talented team of frequent collaborators.
Released into theaters on July 20, The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, with Gotham in a time of apparent peace. Batman has disappeared, as has Bruce Wayne, who has become a recluse in his lavish manor. With organized crime abolished in Gotham, Batman is no longer needed, or so it seems. A new threat is imminent: Bane, a ruthless terrorist with a shady past and a creepy mask. Bane is introduced in an unforgettable opening scene which involves an elaborate plane hijacking.
The first half of the movie is devoted to Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to combat Gotham’s latest threat, but there are many other things happening as well. Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway, is introduced as a sly cat-burglar. John Blake, a cop played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, develops a bond with Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Oldman. Miranda Tate, a business executive, bonds in a different way with Bruce Wayne, and helps out with Wayne Enterprises’ business ventures. Bane works on his evil plan in the sewers of Gotham. Tensions rise between Gotham’s lower and upper classes, echoing the current issue of economic unrest. This is only a fraction of the detailed plot threads running at once, and with so much happening, there’s the threat that they could get tangled up and make the movie a mess. Luckily, Nolan balances everything perfectly, deftly mixing plot exposition and character development with action and intrigue, as well as some unexpected humor.
As the movie goes on, all of the set-up of the first half comes to a head, and when everything finally does come together, the last hour of the movie (out of its two hour, forty four minute running time) is some of the most exciting blockbuster cinema to come along in years. Far more interesting stuff than this year’s The Avengers, which has shiny action but little emotional investment (and I know that is an unpopular opinion). But The Dark Knight Rises has depth and emotional appeal that few other comic book movies, save for Nolan’s other Batman films, have come close to matching. The dark places that these movies go are a testament to the mature, realistic story that Nolan is committed to telling. By the time the credits roll, everyone in the theater will have felt excitement, hope, fear, sadness, and joy, and everything in between. Yes, the running time is long, but it allows for a truly epic story to be told.
The movie would not be as nearly as strong as it is without its cast. Christian Bale has gotten some flak for not portraying a convincing Bruce Wayne, and for his gravelly voice for Batman. But for my money, his performance in The Dark Knight Rises is his best in the trilogy. The character of Bruce has a meatier role than in the last two films, and this allows Bale to take Bruce to some interesting places. Many skeptics were doubtful that Anne Hathaway could pull off the Catwoman role, or even that such a potentially campy character would work in Nolan’s realistic universe, but they have been decidedly proven wrong. Hathaway proves her range, and manages to make Selina Kyle one of the standout characters in a movie full of them. Her “catwoman” is sleek and dangerous, but also human. She steals the scene whenever she is onscreen.
The fearsome villain Bane is played by Tom Hardy, who is best known for his roles in Inception and Warrior. Hardy once again proves that he is absolutely ripped. Bane is a very different kind of villain than Ledger’s Joker. Whereas the Joker was a clever anarchist who worshipped chaos, Bane is a calculated mercenary, who is as much a physical match for Batman as a mental one. Bane wears a mask that covers the better part of his face, so Hardy is left with a very difficult task as an actor. But, using his eyes, his otherworldly voice, and his hulking physicality, he manages to turn the role into something immediately memorable, and his performance is certainly in the same caliber as Ledger’s legendary role.
The rest of the star-studded cast is too numerous to list, but everyone does a fantastic job, lending Gotham a sense of credible realism. For example, Michael Caine, as Bruce’s butler Alfred, adds some real emotional heft to every scene he is in.
Earlier I said that anything less than perfect would be a disappointment. So is the movie perfect? No. No movie is. There are some minor plot holes, which could potentially distract from your enjoyment of the movie if you are a stickler for details. The first half of the movie can seem a bit long and overly complicated at times, but there is always something interesting happening, and the setup is worth it, considering the brilliant payoff that the operatic finale offers.
The score, while good, is a little overbearing, threatening to dominate every scene like a sledgehammer and drown out the actors’ speaking parts. Another common complaint is that Bane’s voice was unintelligible or not mixed well, which I have to disagree with. If you pay attention, everything that Bane says can be easily understood. All of these minor flaws are very easily overlooked though, especially when you are distracted by the dazzling spectacle unfolding on the screen at every moment.
So, what is the answer to the question, then? Is The Dark Knight Rises better than the legendary reigning champion, The Dark Knight? The answer is complicated, but in my humble opinion, yes. Yes it is. The Dark Knight is still one of the best comic book films ever made, but Rises surpasses it in emotion and scope, and manages to offer an immensely satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Even if the rest of the movie is not perfect, the ending absolutely is.
By now, most readers have probably seen The Dark Knight Rises already (I hope). If for whatever reason you have not seen it, get on that as soon as possible. If you have, see it again in IMAX, which is an incredible and incomparable experience. The Dark Knight Rises is the rare ambitious blockbuster epic that offers thrills, but also a lot of heart. Perhaps its most important quality is that it treats its audience with respect, and for that alone, it is absolutely worth seeing. I really can not recommend it enough. Go see The Dark Knight Rises.