Seven years of appreciation, seven years of hindsight. In 2005, Batman Begins was a critical, creative and financial success. It remains a thrilling introduction to Nolan’s brave new Gotham. In 2008, The Dark Knight arrived to thunderous applause, smashed records, earned more than a billion at the box office, and mounted an equally impressive run on home video. It still stands as one of the best comic book movies of all time; a near-perfect culmination of everything the genre has fought so long to achieve. Then came this past summer and the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Could it escape the dreaded trilogy capper curse? Could it surpass The Dark Knight? Would it deliver a satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s Batman saga? It’s been eight years since Harvey Dent plummeted to his death. Eight years since Batman took the real fall and disappeared from the public eye. Eight years since Gotham City police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) agreed to allow the city to mourn a villain and forsake its hero. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse, his butler and friend Alfred (Michael Caine) is his only contact with the outside world, and his father’s company is safely in the hands of trusted ally in arms, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But when a new evil comes to Gotham with plans to level the city — a terrorist mastermind and former member of the League of Shadows known only as Bane (Tom Hardy) — Wayne decides it’s time for Batman to return. To stop Bane, Batman first elicits the help of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), beat cop-turned- detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Ultimately, though, Wayne has to face his greatest fears if he hopes to pry Gotham from Bane’s steel grip. Even though The Dark Knight Rises was more divisive than many anticipated — it is, after all, a vastly different film than mass audiences were expecting — those who returned to the theater more than once hopefully discovered a more masterfully crafted tale than they may have caught the first time around. Nolan and younger brother/co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan skip the sort of traditional three-act structure that might lighten their load and divide the film into three grand Acts, each of epic proportion.(Beware. Mild spoilers lurk ahead.) Act I: Bane emerges, Batman is broken and Gotham is left unprotected. Act II: Bruce is locked away, Bane makes his move and Gotham is held hostage. Act III: the Dark Knight returns, Bane tightens his grip and Gotham hangs in the balance. Months pass. Seasons change. Power shifts hands. Forces collide. And the game changes forever. It’s almost too much for one movie to encompass. And yet there’s just enough time to pull it off. No scene is wasted, no shot is squandered, no moment is tangential. Every piece moves at Nolan’s command, nothing slips by the director’s watchful eye and every theme, arc and obstacle established in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is brought full circle. My first viewing was thrilling but bewildering. The initially jarring breaks from one act to the next knocked me off balance, and the sudden lurch into “No Man’s Land” territory only exacerbated matters. Wayne’s early sluggishness, wounded and ineffectiveness gave me pause as well, Alfred’s exile from much of the story baffled me, and the film seemed to lack the strong but steady momentum and ragged-edge inventiveness of its predecessors. It was still an incredible experience, made even more incredible in IMAX, but it seemed to lack the dexterity of Begins and the will, fortitude and raw power of The Dark Knight. But oh what a difference a second viewing can make. Once-jarring breaks allowed previously unforeseen heroes to fill the void left in Batman’s absence. Wayne’s resignation and fall only enrich everything that follows. Alfred’s absence strips the Dark Knight of his greatest ally and leaves him vulnerable to the betrayals to come. The film’s ultimate reveal traces back through all three films and unites them more than any other element. And the momentum and inventiveness I craved were out in full force, albeit so radical in comic book nature that I nearly failed to notice the intricacies of Nolan’s master plan.
Over-analyze and you’ll surely uncover plot holes. Resist investing and you’ll see little more than a cumbersome actioner. But lean forward, dig in and open yourself to the delights of Nolan’s trilogy prestige and you’ll come away with few complaints. The action is bigger, bolder and more electrifying than before, the superheroics are grounded but gripping, those wonderful toys are more wonderful than ever, the scope and scale of the story is breathtaking, and the performances are some of the series’ most rewarding. Bale drags Bruce and Batman to hell and back, Cotillard is a sly enigma, Caine’s work is heart wrenching, Oldman walks a fine line between guardian and charlatan, and Freeman gives it his all. It’s Hathaway, Hardy and Gordon- Levitt that steal the show, though, and The Dark Knight Rises is all the more absorbing for it. Hathaway manages to summon every iconic Catwoman from page and screen and create an alluring antihero all her own. Hardy is a presence to be reckoned with, a frighteningly charismatic terrorist and something far more intimidating and intriguing than the brainless bruiser his Bane could have been. And Gordon-Levitt strides confidently into the fray — the vigilant heart and soul of the third film — coolly crafting a very human hero struggling to survive a larger than life clash of the titans.
The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a perfect film, nor does it leave as significant mark on the genre as The Dark Knight. But it comes close, and makes up the difference in ambition, nerve and sheer scale. What will the next Batman project look like? It’s safe to say, though, that whatever it is will have an exceedingly difficult time standing shoulder to shoulder with Nolan’s trilogy.