The Dark Knight Rises — perhaps the most feverishly anticipated sequel of all-time — landed in theatres this week on a wave of impossible expectations. Following the massive success of 2008’s landmark The Dark Knight, filmmaker Christopher Nolan rises to the occasion and delivers a truly epic, masterful and grim vision of Gotham City under siege, with its Dark Knight tested like never before. The film’s exhilarating, exhausting 165-minute run-time boasts resonant themes, terrific performances, stunning IMAX cinematography and spectacular action sequences which ensure a highly satisfactory conclusion to the greatest superhero saga to ever grace the big screen, even if it occasionally groans underneath its own weight.

In a bravura set piece aiming to top the unforgettable bank heist that introduced us to The Joker, the film opens with another meticulously executed heist taking place aboard a CIA aircraft transporting terrorists. The plane is thrillingly hijacked midair by Bane (Tom Hardy) — an intimidating, hulking figure who radiates sheer will and power, despite having most of his face obscured by a mask — which is made all the more impressive by the fact that this was an actual stunt, pulled off in the air above Scotland (Nolan avoids computer effects whenever possible). Once again writing with his brother Jonathan from a story conceived with David S. Goyer, Nolan sets The Dark Knight Rises eight years on from the events of The Dark Knight, with Gotham enjoying its longest period of peace following the disappearance of the outlawed vigilante Batman and the implementation of the tough-on-crime Dent Act. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, limping around his estate Hamlet-like due to injuries he sustained as Batman and mourning the loss of Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal), while the public whispers Howard Hughes-esque rumours about his sanity. Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) informs him that Wayne Enterprises is in dire straits financially, thanks largely to the clean-energy project he spearheaded and subsequently shelved. Despite tender pleas from Alfred, who accuses him of “just waiting for things to get bad again,” it takes the intervention of several new characters to motivate Wayne to return to public life. His attention is courted by two formidable women: first Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a slinky, cunning cat burglar who lifts his finger prints and family jewels, then Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), an affectionate, wealthy board member who may be the key to solving Wayne Enterprises’ woes. Wayne is also introduced to John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an idealistic and resourceful young cop who believes in Batman and shares some of his childhood traumas.

The film spends much of the first hour questioning whether Batman should come back at all, until Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) — wracked with guilt over his complicity in covering up Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s true end — is critically injured while chasing bad guys through the city’s sewers, and immediately following this Bane and his commandos launch a brazen attack on the Stock Exchange. These two events finally force Batman out of retirement, and an exciting street chase commences featuring “The Bat”, an awesome new jet-helicopter hybrid courtesy of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Bane is the first villain of the series who is physically superior to Batman; a mercenary and former League of Shadows member with ties to Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson in Batman Begins), he was “born in hell, forged from suffering, hardened by pain.” In his first encounter with Bane, Batman finds this out the hard way in a brutal and disturbing scene of hand-to-hand combat. Leaving a crushed Wayne trapped in a dire underground prison (“When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die”), Bane seizes control of Gotham in grand fashion, launching a breathtaking attack on a packed football stadium, set to the US national anthem as performed by an angelic boy. The elegiac action sequence is one of the most stunningly accomplished in recent memory. Bane’s rhetoric promises freedom from the lies the city is built on, but his methods are terrorism as he threatens total annihilation. The exiled Wayne must rebuild his body and mind, but to even have a chance of saving his city from certain destruction, he will need the help of acquaintances old and new. Nolan hits all the expected beats of a superhero blockbuster throughout, but he is operating on such a bold, epic scale here that nothing feels rehashed or predictable.

The returning cast of Bale, Oldman, Caine and Freeman are as reliable as ever. Bale’s turn as Wayne/Batman has always been rather understated but he delivers his best performance of the series here, making the character a more tragic figure than ever and ensuring that he never takes second billing to his adversaries (a common problem for the genre). Oldman once again proves to be the definitive brooding, wary cop, and Caine again provides the franchise’s emotional core, particularly in one heart-wrenching scene he shares with Bale (“I always knew there was nothing here for you but pain and tragedy”). As the film’s most potentially problematic character, Hathaway nails the audacious, mocking tone necessary for the morally ambiguous Selina Kyle (she is never explicitly referred to as “Catwoman”), and provides both the requisite sex appeal in her skin-tight costume as well as some real humanity and believable motivation, pulling off the best female acting of the trilogy. Inception co-stars and franchise-newcomers Hardy, Cotillard and Gordon-Levitt in particular are each given moments to shine, and the supporting cast also includes memorable turns from Matthew Modine as Deputy Commissioner Foley and Juno Temple as Selina’s young apprentice.

Inevitably, Hardy’s Bane is going to be compared to Heath Ledger’s impossibly charismatic Joker and fall short. Having his face obscured is a major disadvantage to creating a compelling character, but with only his intense eyes, disconcerting vocal intonation and monolithic size, Hardy — who gained 30 pounds for the role — delivers another powerfully physical performance (following Bronson and Warrior) and makes Bane a villain worthy of the franchise’s impressive rogue’s gallery. Bane’s facial obscurity and strange voice recalls classic movie villains Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, and he is every bit as chilling as those psychopaths, if occasionally a little more difficult to understand.

Where Batman Begins and The Dark Knight drew chiefly from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One, Dennis O’Neill’s The Man Who Falls and Jeph Loeb’s noirish crime saga The Long Halloween — outlining the conspiracy between Batman, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent to tame Gotham — The Dark Knight Rises takes influence from a wide range of sources, including Loeb’s follow-up Dark Victory, which chronicles the aftermath of Harvey Dent’s fall from grace; Miller’s celebrated The Dark Knight Returns, featuring an older Batman who comes out of retirement to save his overrun city; the epic Knightfall arc which introduced Bane, the man who broke Batman’s body and spirit; and the No Man’s Land storyline, detailing an abandoned and isolated Gotham City following a catastrophe. As an avid fan of the comics, it’s rewarding to see how much respect is paid to them by the Nolan brothers and Goyer, and I was frankly surprised by how faithful The Dark Knight Rises was to its various source materials without being beholden to them. The writers also find influence in Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, which informs this anarchic and revolutionary work at least as much as its comic book sources.

Shooting once again in a mix of 35mm and 70mm IMAX footage with cinematographer Wally Pfister, Nolan delivers the biggest and most coherent action sequences of the trilogy. Approximately 70 minutes of the film is shot with IMAX cameras, which represents the most extensive use of the format in a studio feature, and these scenes really are stunning. Nolan’s preference for IMAX over 3D — and film over digital — is really something to be applauded and this film is a must-see at IMAX cinemas. Composer Hans Zimmer also returns with a magnificently insistent, percussive score which is essential in driving the lengthy film forward and ranks as one of the most memorable of the year.

Many are going to compare The Dark Knight Rises to Marvel/Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which is a somewhat pointless but understandable exercise. Both are comic book-inspired epics — and two of this year’s biggest films — but of entirely different natures. Whedon’s film is a comparatively optimistic and shamelessly entertaining superhero extravaganza, but chiefly a “comic book movie” set in a fantasy universe, which of course has its place. The film Nolan has crafted is perhaps the bleakest, most nihilistic and realistic superhero story to date, and a great epic in the tradition of Homer’s Odyssey or Shakespeare’s MacBeth. This is a film which resonates with today’s biggest fears: economic collapse and terrorism. As with The Dark Knight, Nolan taps into post-9/11 distress and effectively portrays a city in the grips of terror, more closely resembling New York than it has in previous installments (which were primarily shot in Chicago). The politics of the film could be interpreted in any number of ways, but everywhere Nolan turns his cold gaze — including the recent one-percent-vs-ninety-nine-percent culture clash — he finds corruption and culpability, with the motivation of nearly every character depicted as unclean.

The Dark Knight Rises might not quite be able to best its superb predecessor in terms of sheer entertainment or quotable antagonists, but it provides possibly the greatest argument so far for the superhero genre as a medium which can deliver something more than a frivolous distraction; here we are presented with relevant and important questions on law-and-order, terrorism, corruption, vigilantism, America’s financial woes, corporate greed, the haves and the have-nots… in a Batman film! Some will criticise the reveals of the final act or the indulgent running time, perhaps legitimately, but for the most part I found the reveals to be consistent with the earlier films and even at two-hours-forty-five I was left wanting more. Nolan and his collaborators have delivered something of a dark masterpiece here, and even if it feels a little more flawed and less thrilling than The Dark Knight, this final installment in the saga achieves the near-impossible and ends one of the greatest trilogies in movie history in compelling, spectacular, thought-provoking and undeniably satisfying fashion. I can’t wait to see it again.


The Dark Knight Rises is out now worldwide. Watch the latest trailer below.

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