Christopher Nolan is a very brave man. Not only did he take on one of the most potentially profitable properties in Hollywood – and one languishing in the proverbial mire following 1997’s calamitous Batman & Robin – he tackled it with dogged determination, a belief in a vision of the eponymous Dark Knight so grimly distinctive of the comic book series. The Dark Knight Rises marks the victorious conclusion to that dream.

Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne finds himself a crippled recluse. But in times of apparent peace the greatest danger is born, with Bane and his army of mercenaries nurturing a fire that will rise from the sewers and consume all of Gotham. To save his city, Batman must don his mask for the last time and put everything on the line.

Gotham is safe – or at least as safe as a city can be. The death of all-American hero Harvey Dent has allowed the city’s higher-ups to impose strict regulations on crime. The streets are clean, the mob is silent. The Batman’s era is over and even Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon – all-round good-guy and witness to the twisted justice of Dent’s Two-Face persona – is at risk of redundancy. Ladies and gentleman please set your eyes stage right: enter Bane.

It is time to address the elephant in the room. And what a bull he is. Tom Hardy as Bane is an absolute beast, both physically and metaphorically; in every way the man who could break the Bat. His presence is omnipotent. Even when not on screen there is an expectation, a knowledge that somewhere within the sewers Gotham’s downfall is not only masterfully planned, but inevitable. His sheer size and physical brutality is off-set by a quiet dignity, a refined register helped considerably by Hardy’s no doubt redubbed lines following fan confusion in response to early teaser trailers. Whereas Ledger’s Joker was a man consumed by chaos, an alien nurtured on the fear of others, Hardy’s Bane is a near eldritch beast powered by something no-one, not even the Batman himself, can understand. ‘That, Mr. Wayne, is the power of belief’ as Alfred, a sturdy as ever Michael Caine, states in his Jiminy Cricket way.

There will be comparisons to its predecessors, it’s as inevitable as night following day and despite what some may claim, completely fair. The Dark Knight Rises, or TDKR to those cool enough the care, lives and dies on the strength of its ancestors. While it can definitely be enjoyed on the vibrancy of its own merits – it is, after all, a film with a $250 million dollar budget – this particular reel of 164 minutes is one that, much like the Bat himself, can only be truly appreciated in relation to its legacy. For all of the eye-gorging action, spectacular set pieces and villainous villainy the true muscle on these bones clings to the character emotion, development and relationships on show. This is especially true of its third act and epitomizes the film’s most lurid failing.

It is a compliment to Nolan and a comment on the studio’s trust in its property that even the first act of TDKR could compete with the climaxes of many of its blockbuster brethren. Interweaving scenes of character development – so important in what is, perhaps surprisingly, an ensemble piece – with dashes of explosive action, the first act embodies what the new eight-years-older Gotham is all about; a city of fragile peace, its shaky foundations built firmly in the sand and one ultimately consumed by a prevailing body-wracking pain. The second act takes this feeling and runs a marathon with it, offering cinematic spectacle rarely, if ever, seen before and one which needs little more critiquing than simply ‘go see it’. It is in the third act then that things get a little murky.

As said before, it is probably a compliment to Nolan that the first two acts – save a few questionable edits – work so well together that the third act feels flat in comparison. Yet this is still an issue. The film becomes so concerned with its own prevailing themes – redemption, heroism, pain – that they feel positively ham-fisted following the eventual denouement. Batman/Wayne talks constantly of what it means to be a hero, so much so that he seems purposefully dimwitted prior to his eponymous rise. Gordon-Levitt’s green-eared rookie police-do-gooder, while a thoroughly enjoyable and empathetic character, could not be more of a foil to the caped crusader if he was labeled as such. Plot decisions and twists are not so much surprising as they are confusing, feeling more like anomalies rather than seamless curios. In the context of your average blockbuster this would fine, a minor irk easy to lose in the next big-explosion or hair-raising speech. But this is Nolan, a man famous for narrative boldness and control – if not complexity – and the whole thing can feel frankly a little odd.

Ultimately, the film feels half an hour too long. First taking too long to make a point originally made an hour ago before then sprinting to a panting finish, too busy sweating following its own accomplishment to realize that it’s actually abandoned what originally made it so strong: the cast.

Christian Bale is as robust as ever, even if his Batsuit still seems to push his windpipe in a couple of inches – ‘we can deal with dog-bites but not bronchitis, Lucius’ – with his returning fan-club of Gordon, Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox being as wonderfully, well, supportive as ever. It is the new blood that gives the film vigor however. Anne Hathaway flexes her acting chops and is captivating as Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. Tom Hardy, as discussed before, is a revelation as Bane, doing the impossible and actually existing as his own character rather than as simply ‘not the Joker’. Gordon-Levitt is delightful as Blake and offers a very human and empathetic instrument through which to enjoy the film. What could have originally been a major weakness for the film, namely juggling these character’s individual storylines, is in fact perhaps its greatest strength. Each of them feels fleshed out and real. And each ultimately feels necessary in regaling the Bat’s final story.

It is an immense shame then that these characters feel drowned out by the spectacle of their own vessel, playing a firm second fiddle to narrative-for-narrative’s-sake as the film seeks to demonstrate how awesome it can be. Which it is. But this is a Batman film and awesome comes as a matter of course. Zimmer’s music is as goose-bumpy as ever and New York, sorry Gotham, looks beautiful. Set pieces are hypnotizing and the dialogue feels real. Its just that when all is said and done the smile on your face could quite easily hide the smallest of inkling of ‘huh’, a mustard seed in the brain that could quite feasibly grow and shape and change those butterflies that flap in the stomach when the credits first start to roll.

For anyone that has seen and enjoyed the previous films this should be a no-brainer and the other 5% should give it a shot anyway. Offering bigger and bolder action and a cast of characters arguably more memorable and entertaining than Whedon’s merry crew, The Dark Knight Rises offers a more than fitting climax for Nolan’s caped crusader. But no, it is not as good as The Dark Knight.

Zack Fox

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