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Superman 3, Spider-Man 3, X-Men – The Last Stand, Alien3, Terminator 3 – Rise of the Machines, The Godfather Part III, Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End, Transformers – Dark of the Moon, Shrek the Third, The Matrix Revolutions, Jurassic Park III, Batman Forever.

All of the above, fairly obviously, are second sequels in massively lucrative film franchises that failed to deliver. The high bar of anticipation built by earlier fan-favourite installments in each case proved too high for the threequel to clear. All of these films were commercially successful but their reception from critics and fans were lukewarm at best. Plainly, the third chapter is a difficult one to get right. But not impossible.

The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King, Toy Story 3, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Bourne Ultimatum, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Back to the Future Part III. It’s a shorter list and I know there are plenty of people who would question the inclusion of one or two there but we have clear evidence that three can be a magic number. And there’s one more film that must now be added to it; The Dark Knight Rises.

We’ve had some big multiplex films this year. The Hunger Games took the teen lit adap to some very grown-up territory, Marvel Avengers Assemble beat the box-office into submission, Prometheus arrived having been hyped into oblivion and more recently The Amazing Spider-Man tested the waters for quick franchise reboots. The hysteria associated with these films is dwarfed by the anticipation surrounding the third film in Christopher Nolan’s peerless reimagining of Batman. I was lucky (or geeky) enough to score tickets to a regional premiere of the film (complete with live satellite broadcast of the red carpet event in Leicester Square) by winning a Batman-themed film quiz. After watching the film that only placed third in my Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2012 post in the IMAX format it’s time to give my verdict on what stands a very real chance of becoming the most commercially successful film ever made.

Eight years have passed since the death of Harvey Dent but the Gotham City DA’s legacy has burned brightly in the form of the Dent Act, legislation that has all but wiped out organised crime in the city. With Dent’s demise attributed to Batman, Bruce Wayne has retreated into the shadows of his mansion, a physical wreck with his business empire crumbling after the apparent folly of a renewable energy project. But Gotham’s dawn and Wayne’s reclusion cannot last forever.

The shadow of The Dark Knight looms large on its follow-up and Heath Ledger’s now iconic portrayal of the Joker is the largest part of it. In his place this time is Bane, last seen on the big screen in the infamous Batman and Robin where he was depicted as a grunting dullard. Tom Hardy’s version is infinitely more compelling, an imposing physical presence, sharply intelligent and supremely confident. This villain doesn’t mess around, displaying brutal efficiency from the bombastic opening scene onward as he carries out his complex plan to bring Gotham to its knees. For the first time in Nolan’s Bat-verse the hero is faced with a man that is his physical superior and their bruising, very violent encounters will cause you to worry for Batman’s well-being in ways you’ve never done before. But he’s much more than brawn, because this is an antagonist who understands the power of his voice.

There was a lot of hoo-hah about the clarity of Bane’s dialogue in the run-up to the film and while there are plenty of occasions when you’ll struggle to make out the words he’s saying Hardy’s extraordinary intonations, sounding like a twisted cross between Sean Connery and Gandalf, provide some spine-tingling moments as the character makes his anarchic proclamations. As a figure he seems unbeatable, both unstoppable force and immovable object and his emphatic plans of destruction unfold with frightening ease. Unsurprisingly he walks away with the film but you won’t love him the way you loved the joker, you might even hate him. Fine example of big-screen villainy though this Bane undoubtedly is he doesn’t topple the Clown Prince of Crime but that would be an unreasonable ask and his whole character is shrouded in menace and shades of grey and it takes something very special to overshadow Batman.

The rest of the distinguished cast are more than up to the job. Newcomer Anne Hathaway slinks into the picture with pizzazz as the resourceful cat burglar Selina Kyle banishing any lingering memories of Halle Berry. While we’re comparing her to previous incumbents she’s unlikely to leave the same impression as Michelle Pfeiffer but she sensibly avoids playing copy-cat. This Catwoman (a moniker never mentioned in the script) is sly, slender and flexible but sidesteps the borderline BDSM eccentricities of the Batman Returns interpretation of the character. Hathaway burgles plenty of scenes and is tremendous fun as an amoral antihero.

 Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes everything of his role as thoroughly decent beat cop John Blake, the kind of wholesome young idealist his tremendously likeable persona is perfectly suited to. His character gets lots of screen time in a film that takes pains to depict Gotham’s finest, so frequently highlighted in past films for widespread corruption, into the light. The luminous Marion Cotillard is rather constrained by limited scenes as the influential businesswoman with a social conscience Miranda Tate, a role that seems to exist for plot device purposes but has her time to shine by the time the credits roll. The returning players including Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine have no difficulty reminding you why they’re household names, Caine’s Alfred providing a number of tear-jerked moments with some very moving scenes.

Christian Bale meanwhile shoulders the enormous responsibility of guiding an emotionally satisfying trilogy-closer brilliantly. If Batman Begins was about fear and The Dark Knight, chaos then The Dark Knight Rises is about pain and few convey the depth of that more capably than Bale manages here. The physical punishment he takes is the obvious end of it and Bale’s on-screen suffering, a very challenging task for an actor, makes you feel everything Bruce Wayne does, but he nails the mental angle just as well. This is a Bruce Wayne who spends his days trying not to feel, overwhelmed by past anguish. His performance delves bravely into the dichotomy between the two characters and Bruce Wayne’s own feelings of helplessness and obsoletion. He has moved through the trilogy from directionless youth to stalwart hero to wounded wreck, exploring a complex character so thoroughly and with such nuance that every other version of Wayne seems cartoonish by comparison.

Nolan’s stubbornness over stereoscopic 3D is completely validated by Wally Pfister’s masterful cinematography, framing scenes with the same kind of stark reality that first helped us acclimatise to the idea of Batman in the real world. The makers have done very little to mask Manhattan as the screen location and seeing familiar structures can be a little distracting but if the spectacle of the previous film was something then the bangs this time round are something else. No, Christopher Nolan does not need 3D to make his films spectacular, the story is already three-dimensional enough. Instead we have bold action and vehicle scenes all created using chiefly practical effects and despite the weight of the story plenty of fun is had with the exciting bits. Watching Batman returning to action riding the Batpod is as rousing as you could hope especially given how long you have to wait for it. Other moments including the well-publicised football stadium scene arrive with a fantastic wallop, assaulting you with the loud physicality of destruction. It’s a pulverising movie.

Having said that, this is probably the messiest of the trilogy from an editor’s point of view. The script wrestles to introduce Marion Cotillard’s character as a possible saviour for Wayne Industries in early exposition scenes and the wait to see Bale suited and booted as the masked hero will require some patience. But as the plot gains steam and Bane’s plan begins to unfold the action and excitement gains weight and the movie takes off, rattling along with the kind of breathless, seat-of-your-pants pace as its predecessor. The turn comes about halfway through when the extent of Bane’s designs and the scale of the challenge facing Batman and the handful of decent people fighting on the same page as him become apparent. The mood of the film’s second half is thickly bleak but in a very fresh and eye-opening way. This is Gotham’s darkest hour, an almost surreal plight and although it’s enormously powerful and builds to an almightily exciting climax you can’t help but feel that the strong realism so praised in this trilogy is being stretched to breaking point. There was a great balance in the way the Joker held Gotham under his influence with his limited resources. Bane’s successes, like his character are slightly overwhelming and there is at least one gaping plot hole to try and find excuses for.

So perhaps it’s best not to think about this film as a follow-up to The Dark Knight. Close comparisons with such an outstanding film are unfair when so much brilliance is plainly on display. The story recalls Batman Begins much more frequently anyway, and the various elements including the pulverising soundtrack and some final reel surprises are all delivered with the kind of gravity that elevate the film on its own merits. No, it is not quite as good as The Dark Knight, the story is too uneven and it doesn’t have the Joker but what it does have is towering cinema all the same. As excellent as films like Marvel Avengers Assemble and The Amazing Spider-Man are The Dark Knight Rises totally eclipses them as it probably does all commercially-orientated films released since The Dark Knight with the possible exception of Nolan’s Inception. The layers if intelligence that punctuate all of Nolan’s work dominate the crash bang fun of even the better mega-budget actioners. And perhaps most importantly it manages to round out a superb trilogy in a totally satisfying way from plot and character perspectives. Not for nothing is The Dark Knight Rises the biggest film of the year.

Verdict

Imperfect but brimming with excitement, emotion and depth, The Dark Knight Rises arrives to tumultuous expectation that it doesn’t exceed but definitely doesn’t disappoint. Christopher Nolan’s unique ability to fuse the commercial with the artistic strikes yet again to deliver an exciting and layered flawed masterpiece and one of the most mind-blowing films of recent times.

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