There isn’t a single thing about The Dark Knight Rises that isn’t epic. It’s the highly-anticipated sequel to two of the greatest comic book movies of all time; its central villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), is an absolute monster; the cast is filled with recognizable faces at every turn; and it clocks in at nearly three hours long. Hell, when shown on real IMAX even the projection of the movie itself is epic. And while any major structure is bound to have a few cracks at the result of its own size, the most important thing about Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is that it’s a fitting conclusion to the story that cements the trilogy as one of the greatest of all time.
While Nolan had no problem letting Heath Ledger steal the show as The Joker in The Dark Knight, one of the best things he does with The Dark Knight Rises is he makes sure that it’s Batman’s story. Set eight years after the events of the last film, when Batman was blamed for killing Harvey Dent and forced to go on the run, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) starts off as a broken character who has a gaping void in his life due to the absence of the Batman, and the real heart of the story is the hero’s determination to find his way back to the cape and cowl so that he can once again become Gotham’s watchful protector. While madness explodes and the city and Bane works to take power, it’s Wayne and his ascension (hence the title) that truly drives the film. Nolan makes his struggle powerful and captivating, creating pathos and getting the audience to not only root for the hero, but to empathize with him.
A big part of what makes the film so special and satisfying is that it knows that it knows it’s more than a simple sequel, and instead acts as a capstone. It uses plot elements from both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to fuel its narrative, and makes the audience feel like this was always where we would end up. It even goes as far as to take advantage of tiny details from the previous movies, such as a particular string of pearls, and even ties off some loose threads that you may have completely forgotten about. Because the director has been so adamant about this being his final go-round with Batman, The Dark Knight Rises need to provide not only an ending to its own story, but the story of the entire franchise. And it does so wonderfully.
With the stronger focus on Batman comes a stronger performance from Bale, but he’s not the only powerhouse in the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Gotham Police Officer John Blake, continues to establish himself as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Though we are only introduced to Blake for the first time in this movie, Gordon-Levitt infuses him with a strength and richness of character that makes us feel like he has been in the series the entire time, just off in the background fighting crime somewhere away from the action. Conversely, Hardy’s Bane feels like he comes out of nowhere, but that only serves to make the character even scarier. Because most of his face is covered by a mask, the actor has to sell his performance through his eyes, and the result is stunning, whether he is filled with intense rage or having fun toying with the Bat psychologically. Not to be ignored either are Anne Hathaway (who puts her own memorable spin on Catwoman) and Marion Cotillard, as well as franchise strongholds Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine. Nolan has always had a talent for both assembling great casts and getting the most out of them, and The Dark Knight Rises is no exception.
But being so damn epic does come with a cost. It’s a surprising thing to say given the film’s 165 minute runtime, but The Dark Knight Rises’ greatest weakness is that it moves far too quickly. Upping the ante from the last two movies – which is clearly no small task – the finale introduces a slew of new and interesting characters and has a true journey for the hero to embark on, but the consequence is that the first 20 minutes feel like they happen in a flash. While the audience is just getting re-settled back into the world of Gotham, Nolan and his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer (who wrote the script) rush to establish a ton of plot. Within the first few minutes we learn that Bane is a powerful villain, that eight years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent and the disappearance of the Batman, that Harvey Dent Day is now an annual event, that Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) is going to be replaced soon, that Miranda Tate (Cotillard) lost a great deal of money on an investment with Bruce Wayne, that Wayne has a crippled leg, and that Catwoman has a penchant for thievery.
There are many people out there, like me, who would have no problem sitting through a 10-hour journey through Nolan’s Batman universe, but the challenges of normal Hollywood running time mean everything has to be established at lightning speed. This continues, though to a less exaggerated level, through to the end of the second act, and not helping is the film’s timeline, which rushes past days and months. The director does finally give his story some room to breathe in the third act, and the result is that it’s the best part of the movie.
The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in The Dark Knight Trilogy, but given the standard established by the previous two movies that’s practically a compliment. While you can’t ignore the pacing issues, ultimately Nolan has created exactly what he needed to: an epic conclusion and satisfying ending to a brilliant and unforgettable franchise.