The last movie of a trilogy is always difficult to get right. With the first installment, filmmakers have the luxury of setting up plot points but not resolving them, promising to do so over the course of the next two sequels. In the second film, often times the best of the series, there is no need for any setup, or even a definitive conclusion. What we get typically is one focused, self-contained story. But when the third film comes around, now it’s time to resolve all the plot points, characters and themes of the trilogy, concoct a satisfying and definitive conclusion, while also telling a story that can entertain by itself. Sometimes this results in a third movie which is the weakest of the series (Back to the Future Part 3, Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3), while other times we get the best movie of the trilogy (Toy Story 3, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Going into Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to the modern day Batman saga, the major question was, which kind of trilogy would this be?
Thankfully, while not quite as masterful as its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises earns a spot next to Return of the King, sending off this franchise in a magnificent fashion. Taking place eight years after the 2008 smash hit, The Dark Knight Rises opens with Gotham as a relatively peaceful city thanks to a new law, the Dent act, which has practically wiped out all major organized crime. Meanwhile, Batman has been chased away after taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders at the end of The Dark Knight. With Batman gone, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in Wayne Manor, with his enterprise crumbling in front of him. When a new terrorist mastermind, Bane (Tom Hardy), threatens to destroy Gotham, Bruce Wayne begins to wonder if it’s time for Batman to make a triumphant return.
Many were concerned from the get-go about the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, Bane. The Dark Knightbrought us one the most memorable villains in film history, the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger. He left some pretty big shoes to fill, and whichever actor played the villain in the next film would have a lot of expectations to live up to. Luckily, though Ledger still has the more memorable performance overall, Tom Hardy’s Bane is absolutely terrifying, at times even more so than the Joker. He has a totally domineering presence, overwhelming his victims and giving us the sense that he knows precisely what he’s doing, and there’s no possible way to stop him. Bane is a villain who, for once, feels as if he could realistically defeat Batman, and someone who finally can physically match the caped crusader. Unfortunately, because the character speaks from behind a mask, his dialogue is often muffled and hard to make out. While it isn’t always a major problem, I challenge anyone to say they understood everything Bane had to say.
Probably the most surprising thing about The Dark Knight Rises is the tone. The Avengers, the summer’s other big superhero film, was light, goofy and fun. Though nobody expected Batman to be like that necessarily, for most of its runtime Rises is absolutely, relentlessly grim. We’re forced to watch as a terrorist mastermind beats Gotham and all of the characters we’ve come to know and love within an inch of their life. As unpleasant as it can get, this is all necessary in a story about Batman rising from absolute despair and against all odds, and it leads to an incredibly satisfying final act. It’s a pretty risky move, though, for director Christopher Nolan to construct a big summer film this dark, which constantly attempts to shock. Because these characters have been so well developed over the course of the trilogy, it feels painfully real in a very disturbing way, which definitely is not recommended for younger kids.
Actually, The Dark Knight Rises is risky in more ways than just tone. For a huge, summer Batman film, you’d be surprised at how little you actually see the Batman costume. By midway through, Rises begins to transcend the superhero genre, simply becoming a very compelling drama about Bruce Wayne himself, and the characters surrounding him. By a certain point, we’re barely watching a superhero blockbuster anymore; we’re watching something far, far better. As much as I love The Avengers, you’d never get a movie this intense, dramatically interesting, and with such rich characters out of Marvel.
Bruce Wayne is of course played again by Christian Bale, who gives it his all in perhaps his best performance of the trilogy. Michael Caine is also a stand out as Alfred, who has some very emotional scenes that the actor nails completely, as we can expect from him. Among the new characters is Anne Hathaway, playing Catwoman (though the character is never referred to as Catwoman at all in the film.) Many were unsure how well she would fit in (as with Heath Ledger), but Hathaway’s Catwoman is the best rendition of the character we’ve seen so far, and her chemistry with Bruce Wayne is quite effective. She isn’t nearly as goofy as in previous movies, but Hathaway still gives an otherwise bleak experience some necessary comic relief. Also introduced is the always memorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a newcomer police officer named John Blake. Gordon-Levitt does a fine job giving us a sense of his idealism and despair in the final act, proving himself a worthy addition to the cast.
Like many of Christopher Nolan’s films, The Dark Knight Rises opens with a lot of exposition and introduction of new characters. As a result, the first 40 minutes or so of Rises can get overly complicated at times. For the third film of a trilogy, it’s surprising just how much setup there is. If anything is wrong with the movie, it’s this opening act, which can get somewhat clunky. Rises also suffers, if only very slightly, from an overabundance of characters. For instance, there’s a new character named Miranda (Marion Cotillard), who the film could do much better without. Some minor characters and plot lines also could have easily been excised or written around without too much of a loss. It seems like Nolan knew this was his last Batman film and so he decided to go all out, stuffing in every single idea he had. It’s admirable, but there could have been a version of the movie with a few less characters and a few less plot lines, which would have been far less bloated and more streamlined than it is now.
But if the main issue with The Dark Knight Rises is over ambition, I’m fine with that, when so many blockbusters these days are happy to give us nothing more than we expected. In the end, Rises earns its place among the finest conclusions in recent memory, very nearly reaching the heights of Return of the King. Nolan ties together all the themes, symbolism, and characters from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in such a masterful fashion that I can’t imagine the inevitable reboot will come close to these heights. Though it takes some time to get back into the swing of things, and Nolan may occasionally try to do too much with too many characters, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Dark Knight Rises is the finest blockbuster of the summer, and that this trilogy will go down as one of the greats. I wasn’t around to follow the release of the Star Warsoriginal trilogy but now, having witnessed Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series from the beginning, I know what that must have been like.