The Dark Knight Rises

Director Christopher Nolan fulfils the promise made in the first two instalments of his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, his circle-closing finale that isn’t just the year’s most anticipated blockbuster, but an epic in every conceivable way: almost three hours long, crammed with dense, sticky plot, thrilling action and gripping spectacle. With this extraordinary film, Nolan has raised the bar for genre cinema beyond all expectation: taken together, these three films make every other superhero adventure look like crayon drawings stuck to a fridge.

Not that Nolan ever intended his Batman to be a superman. From the opening frames of the first film, 2005s Batman Begins and on into the sequel, The Dark Knight, he has asked the question, ‘what if all this was for real?’ His vision for Gotham city looks like a cross between New York and Chicago, because those are the grand streets he shot on; places that feel palpably real. Eschewing trendy 3D, Nolan instead concentrates on creating three-dimensional characters that are psychologically complex, dark and conflicted. He uses digital effects sparingly, with much of the spectacular stunt-work done in-camera to emphasise danger and suspense and add an unnerving authenticity that computers cannot yet match. The Batman’s weaponry and gadgetry are a close fit for real-world military technologies while the narratives, co-written by Nolan with his brother Jonathan and screenwriter David S Goyer, marry the tropes of the superhero character with tangible issues; terrorism, corruption, economic collapse and class warfare.

Nolan’s achievement is to combine all this in a cutting-edge superhero blockbuster and still maintain a singular, auteurist vision. His Batman is a deeply personal story of a character that, since his conception in the pages of Detective Comics in 1939, has belonged to everyone. Unusually for modern mass-market cinema, where trailers are viewed millions of times within minutes of being uploaded to the internet, Nolan keeps the details of his story a secret. There’s no reason to reveal much more than he already has.

Although it’s only been four years since the release of the last film, eight years have elapsed in Gotham city. An injured Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has squirreled himself away in his mansion, suspiciously around the same time that Batman has disappeared. As the previous installment ended, the caped crusader had been blamed for the death of Gotham’s great liberator, Harvey Dent, who the public believe had cleansed the city of organised crime. With his people having turned their backs on him, and his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) worried about his mental health, Batman is dragged back into his rubber suit by the simultaneous appearance of two masked villains, slinky, super-skilled cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, never referred to as Catwoman) and the hulking mercenary terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), who wears a complicated breathing apparatus that gives his voice a sinister, crackling echo.

Bane has come, seemingly from nowhere, to cause mayhem. His goal is anarchy and he has a simple plan for bringing it about. First, he needs to lure Batman out of retirement and then he means to kill him. Standing in his way are the series’ returning characters, technical expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new faces, graduates from Nolan’s franchise-breaking Inception, noble-hearted philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s resourceful cop John Blake.

The rest of it is a highlight reel of the very best in epic cinema; intelligent, grippingly told and painstakingly crafted. Individual sequences are breathtakingly realised; a thunderous chase along crowded streets and through darkened tunnels, a thrilling attack on a crowded football stadium that acts as a shorthand for chaos, a pitched battle on Gotham’s equivalent of Wall Street that might have been taken from a news bulletin. The only moments that feel false are those unavoidable places where the requirement to push the story along in chunks of easily digested block text breaks the immersive spell that Nolan and Bale have crafted. It might be a little ungainly in execution but the plot, arcing across three lengthy films, is meticulously mapped and contains at least one superbly concealed surprise. Nolan and Bale have made it absolutely clear that they will not return to Batman, even though the final sequence indicates the likely direction an offshoot franchise by Warner Bros will inevitably take.

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