Adhering to its filmmaker's penchant for darkness—both in its cinematography and its themes—Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises delivers exactly what it promises: a compelling humanization of the Batman myth; a commentary on the grimness of modern urbanity; and plenty of adrenaline-boosted action sequences, flashy gadgets, and a Batmobile to end all Batmobiles.
Much of the film draws on the characters and consequences of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the first two installments in Nolan's trilogy. But even Batman novices will be quickly wrapped up in the intricacies of Nolan's storytelling.
The film opens with a tribute to Harvey Dent—Gotham's late district attorney whose crimes Batman took responsibility for so his beloved city could have a hero. Eight years later, a crackdown on crime known as the "Dent Law" has brought about a Pax Gothama. Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne, sulking without any sense of purpose, a crippled recluse with a broken spirit, and, in the words of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), stuck hoping things go bad again.
Bad they go indeed. Enter Bane, played by an unrecognizable Thomas Hardy, whose mask is as much of a mystery as his motives. Bane is a disorienting monster—his brute physicality is ill-matched for his decorous dialect and rational approach to evil-doing.
The plot is set in motion by Selina Kyle, Anne Hathaway's electrifying reincarnation of Catwoman—a small-time thief whose "associations" with Bane lead to the movie's big-time crisis. Her trickery is countered by the benevolence of Miranda Tate, the alluring philanthropist and Bruce Wayne love interest, played by Marion Cotillard.
Gary Oldman is back as a Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon—like Batman, a war hero lost in peacetime, but revitalized once disaster strikes. He becomes a mentor to a wet-behind-the-ears cop played by the fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Themes of justice, privilege, and the decay of social institutions prevail throughout the film, and car chases, fist fights, and pyrotechnics are aplenty as Bane executes his plan to hold the city hostage with a nuclear weapon. And what is a Batman movie without Bruce Wayne's arsenal of weapons and vehicles, shepherded by Wayne Enterprises' Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
It is merely a coincidence, albeit a canny one, that the name of the film's antagonist sounds like the oft-villianized company of a certain presidential candidate. That Gotham's greed and inequalities allow the evil plot to ensue—Bane literally hijacks the Gotham Stock Exchange—is not. In the artifice constructed by Bane and his thugs to justify their actions are seeds of an Occupy Wall Street protest gone horribly, horribly wrong.
But don't let the allusions to modern day societal ills fool you: At his core, Bane is a terrorist, not a class warrior and The Dark Knight Rises is a super hero movie, not a political manifesto.
The film turns on Bruce Wayne's internal struggles: When his indifference to life renders him too weak to rescue Gotham, Wayne must embrace a fear of death. The external struggles—the class tension and populist uprising—are the narrative devices that push him to his evolution.
The Dark Knight Rises can only carry this emotional weight by matching it with a breathtaking action sequences, the terrific acting of its cast, and an intricate and surprising storyline. In a cinema landscape littered with super hero movies, reboots, and sequels, Nolan's emerges from the pack—a well-crafted summer blockbuster and a study of the man behind the batmask.