Many will doubt this film's ability to trump the success and artistic integrity of 2008's The Dark Knight (generally considered to be the "Godfather" of superhero films). And it's true - this installment can't quite outshine it. And yet, it's nothing short of brilliant; there was, after all, a "Godfather Part II."
The final piece in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy (which started with 2005's Batman Begins), The Dark Knight Rises sees philanthropic billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) having retired from life as Batman. It seems fitting, as the fictional Gotham City is experiencing peacetime thanks to the Dent Act - legislation that granted the police extraordinary powers to fight the mob.
Wayne is lured back into the hero lifestyle when cat burglar Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), tries to make off with some priceless jewels. But Batman bites off more than he can chew when he comes face-to-face with delusional terrorist mastermind Bane (Tom Hardy), who sees himself as a liberator out to "purify" Gotham - supposedly, by reducing the city to a state of anarchy before attempting to kill everyone in it.
Initially, Bane easily throttles our hero within an inch of his life. Bruce is transported to a prison from which Bane believes he will not escape. But he slowly recovers and does get out, returning to Gotham to try and prevent his adversary from launching a nuclear bomb.
The plot of the film has a connection with the first installment in the trilogy, and allows the series to come full circle, while also throwing thought-provoking questions at its audience.
One small complaint: The first half of the story occasionally suffers from a subtle preoccupation with the same idealistic mysticism that was present in Batman Begins. Much more captivating is the straightforward - if not conventional - storytelling that fills the second half of the film, right up to the rewarding climax.
Christian Bale gives a solid performance as the Dark Knight, although one might wish he were a little less deadpan behind the mask. Gary Oldman fits into his role as police commissioner Gordon as seamlessly as ever, while Marion Cotillard is great as Miranda Tate (a role that hides a surprise much too good to reveal here). Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Lucius Fox (Batman's armorer) leaves something to be desired this time around.
On the other hand, Michael Caine is superb as Bruce's butler Alfred, though his role in this film was sadly reduced. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a zealous young working class cop, gives an unexpectedly good performance.
Hathaway, for her part, doesn't try to top Michelle Pfeiffer's iconic performance as Catwoman in 1993's Batman Returns. Instead, she plays the role in a much different way, and it really pays off because of that. Her character benefits strongly from subtlety and playful amorality, rather than theatricality. Hathaway's chemistry with Bale is great - much better than Cotillard's, in fact.
But the real actor I found to be absolutely brilliant here was Tom Hardy. Due to wearing a mask that covers most of Bane's face, Hardy as an actor has to work much harder to convey emotion, and he rises to the occasion magnificently. His portrayal of Bane drips with palpable menace. Hardy uses his eyes and body language to connect with the viewer in an impressive way, exuding brutal ferocity in everything from his tone of voice to his mannerisms.
Hardy, of course, could never outdo Heath Ledger's mind-blowing performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, but he's certainly the next best thing. It's unfortunate he didn't have more screen time.
Some critics declare that Bane represents the "99 percent," and that, thus, Nolan is attacking the Occupy movement. But it seemed to me that Bane is more of an extreme libertarian; a self-important rabble-rouser on par with real-life hacktivist groups like Anonymous.
The Dark Knight Rises depicts numerous acts of blatant terrorism that may hit a raw nerve with the audience in post-9/11 America. An opening scene involves Bane destroying an aircraft, while another shows an unsettling bomb attack during a football game. The uncompromising mayhem could be seen as commentary on real-world terrorism fueled by misguided religious idealism - certainly Bane seems to represent that in full. But the violence could also be seen as exploitative.
The brutality, however, appears also to serve as contrast to underscore the incorruptible and self-sacrificing nature of Batman - great evil depicted only to highlight the importance of greater good. When all the pieces come together and the overall symbolism of the affair is realized, things start to make more sense - none of the chaos seems deliberately gratuitous.
The film ends with a scene that is moving and poetic, and it should absolutely satisfy diehard fans as a conclusion to Nolan's series, and an end to Batman's story - at least in this incarnation of the comic legend.
Moreover, in light of the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, what one can take away from this installment is that, where The Dark Knight saw desperation and an escalation in violence, The Dark Knight Rises sees hope for a positive future.
Unlike its predecessor, Rises may not be able to breathe new life into the superhero genre - but it will certainly keep its heart beating.
The Dark Knight Rises
2012, PG-13, 165 mins.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard