Third installments have a history of letting us down — in the superhero world especially. You won’t find a lot of folks who list a movie with a “3” at the end as their favorite of a movie series, and frankly, they don’t have a lot to choose from either.
It’s extremely tough to find the perfect third, even with all the ground-breaking Christopher Nolan’s adored and beloved Batman films have accomplished. “Batman Begins” changed the way Hollywood looked at the characters and properties sitting on its shelves, and “The Dark Knight” changed the way blockbusters are made, period. Both set high bars for filmmaking, and in the process, saddled “The Dark Knight Rises” with astronomical expectations.
Many would argue it’s an impossible order, and watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” you get a sense Nolan didn’t care to meet it. No, it’s not about apathy or laziness — he was just more concerned with creating a sense of completeness, with finishing the story arc he dreamed up years ago. In doing so he gives us the first connected and complete original movie trilogy in movie history that doesn’t have the name “Star Wars” attached to it.
Conclusiveness: “The Dark Knight Rises” greatest strength and greatest weakness. Nolan’s drive to achieve finality gives the film a greater sense of purpose and ultimately a feeling of satisfaction, yet at the same time, the film is slave to it; “Rises” doesn’t have its own identity so much as it completes a whole.
The powerful escalation of events in “The Dark Knight” necessitates this, as it should. Batman (Christian Bale) has taken the fall for the corrupted Harvey Dent so that Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) could use Dent’s image to continue to clean Gotham of crime — and it worked. The city is at peace eight years later, only our hero Bruce Wayne stays cooped in his rebuilt mansion, nursing his psyche, unconfident that he can affect the same change as Bruce Wayne that he did as Batman.
Yet Bruce’s sense of purpose is quickly renewed when he crosses paths with a jewel thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and learns of a new masked rogue named Bane (Tom Hardy) amassing a force deep within Gotham. With some urging from Gordon, Bruce takes up the cowl, unaware that his most grueling mental and physical trials lie before him.
Also new to the mix are other Nolan “Inception” alumni Joseph Gordon-Levitt as bold rookie cop John Blake and Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate. Coupled with Hathaway and Hardy, the talent on screen is palpable, and it eases the juggling of the film’s subplots necessitated by their characters’ existence.
The new faces are just one of many factors increasing the scale, stage and stakes of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Like the previous films, the story is immersive and the action engrossing. What the major sequences lack in ingenuity (except for the excellent opening plane hijacking), the film replaces with more visceral combat, which is in a way much more fitting of the nature of the film (and Bane’s scheme). The film is both intensely personal and wildly large, something that becomes easier to appreciate when the chaos has died down and the credits roll.
The personal comes mostly with Bruce’s journey, plus the sense of intimacy we have built over the years with characters such as Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). The film harkens a lot to “Batman Begins,” which is no surprise considering the objective is so clearly to unite the three films. What happens in that first film is firmly entrenched in “Rises,” so anyone rusty on it would benefit from a refresher course.
To bring the entire trilogy full circle, a lot needs to happen. Critics of “The Dark Knight” and its plot contrivances will find more cause to nitpick the many pieces that seem to fall into place here. The destination of the film — it’s final five minutes — is so powerful and satisfying that Nolan must have imagined it from the beginning and determined to construct the film around arriving there. Doing so meant making certain sacrifices to “The Dark Knight Rises” as a singular entity for the benefit of the three-film story.
Yet without “The Dark Knight Rises,” the trilogy would be incomplete and unsatisfying. While it is the least perfect piece of Nolan’s incredible enterprise, is is unquestionably the most essential. Viewed independently, its faults can seem to pile on top of one another, but viewed within the context of the trilogy, suddenly the themes and ideas begin to expand and grow, and the film’s many subplots and characters begin to feel essential.
Why? Because it had to end the way it does. Nolan’s Batman is so rich, his vision and purpose for Batman and what he represents is so clear, that all who love it actually understand it as intuitively as Nolan himself. “The Dark Knight Rises” is predictable in this way, though not because Nolan has regressed, rather because we are on the same wavelength. We know, for example, that in any classic story the good guy is going to win, but just because that outcome is foreseeable doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying to see it all play out.
In that way, “The Dark Knight Rises” gives us a thrilling swan song for Nolan’s Batman. By daring to be a final chapter rather than succumb to the era of four-quels and five-quels in which money necessitates that filmmakers leave the door open for future chapters, “The Dark Knight Rises” accomplishes the seemingly simple yet incredibly obstacle-ridden task of making a great third installment. Like “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” it’s an achievement with no equal.
The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard