By Jeb Inge -- firstname.lastname@example.org
With 2008's "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan crafted a superhero epic that succeeded both as a blockbuster juggernaut and as a creative masterpiece. It had everything you could ask for in a movie of its kind: top-notch writing, Oscar-worthy acting, and visionary cinematography. It was everything everyone expected, and then some.
The popular consensus then, was that any attempt to follow up "The Dark Knight" would, at best, result in noble failure.
That consensus was wrong.
With a realistic rawness that makes the world of superheros look startlingly like our own, "The Dark Knight Rises" not only eclipses its predecessors, it stands as the greatest superhero movie ever made.
Chaos is the rising watchword in Gotham City. Viewers can take their pick of high-level terrorism, Occupy-on-steroids-style destruction, governmental impotence, or clean energy turned weaponized anarchy.
"Rises" begins eight years after the conclusion of "The Dark Knight," and Gotham City's crime rate is almost a memory. The legacy of former DA Harvey Dent, whose crimes and death at the end of "Knight" were protected and absorbed by Batman, lives on through legislation giving extreme liberties to police. As a result, police have eradicated organized crime and corruption, leaving warriors like police commissioner Jim Gordon obsolete.
Enter Bane, a one-man tornado who personifies the worst parts of the French Revolution, Night of Long Knives, and the Great Purge. The dude is so bad, he wears a muzzle over his mouth like a steroided-out pit bull. Bane's goal is simple: to destroy Gotham City as his predecessor failed to do. (Note: It's quite important to re-watch "Batman Begins" before seeing this movie.)
Despite the elaborately designed story arc, "Rises" inevitably will be the showdown between Batman and Bane. That showdown isn't the maniacal, elaborate push and pull like that between Batman and The Joker. Rather, it's a straight-forward test of physical human endurance. And it's often very difficult to watch.
The acting in "Rises" exceeds the movie's expectation. Christian Bale is absolutely riveting in his final appearance as Batman/Bruce Wayne. It helps that the film focuses so heavily on his character, as it relied less on him in "The Dark Knight." While the predecessor deals heavily in themes of Batman's potential for corruption, "Rises" challenges Bruce Wayne's potential for redemption. Bale's performance gives his characters their highest level of empathy. If the highfalutin Academy wasn't notorious for snubbing Nolan films, Bale would be nominated for this performance.
Tom Hardy is absolutely terrifying as Bane. While some will complain about the audio quality of his voice (he wears that mask muzzle for 99 percent of his screen time,) his physical delivery is rock solid. There's little room for comparison between Hardy's Bane and the late Heath Ledger's Joker, and that's a good thing. While both see chaos as the catalyst for destroying Gotham City, (and they share a fondness for explosives) there's no mistaking one for the other.
Anne Hathaway provides the film's most surprising performance as cat burglar Selina Kyle. The Catwoman/Batman dynamic has long been an institutional favorite, and "Rises" only adds to that mantle. Hathaway brightens the screen each time she sneaks onto it.
The regular cast of Batman's posse return as well. Gary Oldman delivers a solid performance as Jim Gordon, and Michael Caine delivers his most compelling performance of the trilogy as Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is notable as Gotham cop John Blake, and much of the speculation on his inclusion in the movie seems to be well-grounded.
There were a few let-downs, however. Marion Cotillard was disappointing as environmental conservationist and Bruce Wayne love interest Miranda Tate. For 20 percent of her screen time, Cotillard dazzles, but for the remaining 80 percent, she tanks. Morgan Freeman provided his first dud of the trilogy as Batman's armorer Lucius Fox.
The most powerful performance however, comes from the hand and eyes of Christopher Nolan. Calling "Rises" a visual spectacle is an understatement. Nolan's ability to shape cinematic scenes has never been sharper, and "Rises" succeeds through his vision. Camera angles are sharp, color in sharp contrast and violence so riveting you would almost swear it's beautiful. (The scene of a burning bat signal is the single most moving scene of the entire trilogy.)
"The Dark Knight Rises" does what every great movie achieves: It makes the viewer feel that they have taken leave of reality and entered the euphoric chaos their $10 ticket has delivered.
In an era where blockbusters and superheros hold pop culture by the bat belt, Nolan's films remain a rare instance where visual astonishment walks hand-in-hand with meaningful storytelling.
For that, we'll leave the bat signal shining.
Five out of five stars
Rated PG-13, Run time 2 hours 44 minutes
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Ann Hathaway, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman