We’ve come a long way from Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan has evolved from that-Memento-guy-who-kind-of-did-an-okay-job-with-the-Insomnia-remake to one of the biggest directors in the world. It’s hard to remember now, after The Dark Knight, but Batman Begins wasn’t a revelation. It was “merely” an excellent superhero movie with a brilliant, jam-packed first half and a fairly pedestrian second half involving a comic-book-ish microwave transmitter device on a train hurtling to the heart of Gotham City. The villain wanted to wipe the city off the map in a plan with way too many moving parts to be compelling. After the realistic first half of Begins, the stakes suddenly felt too high and too unbelievable, with dense little information dumps dropped into the script along the way.
It wasn’t really until Batman Begins’ sequel, The Dark Knight, that Nolan truly found his feet. Heath Ledger’s frightening, engrossing portrayal of The Joker pushed the whole thing into once-in-a-lifetime territory. Without all the exposition and origin business in the way, Nolan employed the full range of his moviemaking skills to give us a primal battle that was more than just good versus evil—it was about our continual efforts to fight back chaos. It was the best superhero movie ever made, and it only improves on repeat viewings. So it’s surprising that so much of the third and final movie in Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, relies on Batman Begins to make sense. Rather than fleeing from the sillier elements of the first movie, as Nolan seemed to do in The Dark Knight, he embraces them and makes them central to the plot of the trilogy’s conclusion.
It begins with a promising enough premise that diverges from every movie Batman we’ve seen before: Eight years after the events in The Dark Knight, Batman has disappeared, and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, has become a diminished, Howard Hughes–like reclusive figure. Gotham is safe, and complacent. I’m not going to spoil anything here about the plot, but you probably know most of the elements from the trailers and commercials: A muscular madman named Bane (Tom Hardy, sounding like Darth Vader’s pervy little brother) is up to no good, and a cat burglar known in the comics as Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, with a dead-inside voice and very little presence) is caught in the middle.
And it’s enjoyable, for sure. Nobody can accuse Nolan of shooting low: This is a movie that spans the globe and a huge chunk of time and even the breadth and depth of the Batman character. The cinematography has the same breathtakingly vertical scope as The Dark Knight (this one is definitely worth splurging on IMAX tickets for) and Hans Zimmer’s score is atmospheric and propulsive and builds brilliantly on the themes of the previous two movies. And just as The Dark Knight incorporated the war on terror into the plot, Rises examines Occupy-friendly issues of income inequality and corporate power. The themes of the first two movies—overcoming fear, finding balance, inspiring hope—are examined and brought to satisfying conclusions.
But Rises does suffer from the same problem as Begins: The stakes get so high, and the villainous plot gets so convoluted, that it occasionally pulls you out of the movie. There are a few too many moving parts to keep track of, and some of the characters get short shrift. (It must be said: Tom Hardy is a great actor, but his Bane comes up short in just about every way when compared to Ledger’s Joker. He has none of the complexity or charisma and comes across as a little bit generic.) Several of Nolan’s trademark flaws shine through—although his action scenes are a little easier to follow this time around, his female characters continue to feel half-baked, and you occasionally wonder how characters get from one scene to another, thanks to some jarring transitions.
Still, so far as summer blockbusters go, this is the primo stuff. You’ve got car chases, battles galore, intrigue, a quest for redemption, and a test of the bonds of friendship, and it’s all handled with panache and confidence. A couple of scenes (mostly involving Michael Caine, whose trusty manservant Alfred proves to be the heart and soul of the trilogy) could bring you to tears. And it’s remarkable in this age of superheroic top-heaviness, when every movie ends with a mid-credits sting setting off the next movie in the series, that Warner Brothers let Nolan bring his Batman trilogy to a conclusive end. This is a resolution to the story Nolan started telling in 2005, with what feels like very little corporate interference or brand management. You can watch these seven and a half hours of movies back-to-back and follow Christian Bale’s prickly, driven Bruce Wayne through a single, satisfying character arc. Unlike most of the other trapped-in-amber movie superheroes, Bale and Nolan allow Batman to change. That’s a rare treat, and something that Nolan, through the virtue of his body of work, has entirely earned.