Starring Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Alon Aboutboul, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Expectations: High. I expect it to be the worst of the three, but I’m pumped.

[Editor’s note: I’m gonna try to stay spoiler-free, but if want to see it unspoiled you really should just get out there and see it! The comments below I can’t vouch for at this point, but I’m guessing they’ll be spoiler-filled.]

Having just watched all three of Nolan’s Batman films in the space of a few days, I can say one thing definitively: this is an excellent superhero trilogy. Each film has its share of flaws, and I’m of the mind that each subsequent film is worse than the last, but each one is made with supreme skill and care, delivering some of the best films based on comic books we are ever likely to see. It’s a stroke of genius not to adapt any specific Batman story from the comics, instead combining multiple storylines into one cohesive narrative that blends together into a cohesive trilogy. While The Dark Knight feels removed from Batman Begins, like another story about Batman as opposed to a direct sequel, The Dark Knight Rises is a direct sequel to both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

I’m going to forgo my traditional second paragraph plot synopsis because I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone. I went into the film only having seen the first trailer once, and even then I felt like I had seen too much. As it turns out I hadn’t, as the film is nearly three hours long and the trailer seemed to focus on the one scene that I really didn’t care for. It’s set in a football stadium, and while the scene itself is well constructed, I hate the CG FX employed to achieve the big “WOW!” moment. Nolan is, and hopefully always will be, focused on mostly practical FX, and this one moment sticks out among the rest of the realistic explosions and car chases. My fear from seeing this in the trailer was that Bane would bring the pain, not only to Batman and Gotham City in the form of massive destruction, but to me in the form of ugly, painfully obvious CG. Thankfully, everything else was splendidly done, and even this one moment isn’t horrible, but it does look a bit too ridiculous to blend in with the rest of what’s going on visually.

This one is supposedly set eight years after The Dark Knight, but if they said the specific year count in the movie, I missed it. During this time, three things happened that are crucial to the story, but also rub me the wrong way. The first is the complete lack of acknowledgment of Lucius Fox’s resignation at the end of The Dark Knight. Did they forget that this happened? I forgive them because I love Morgan Freeman, but it seems quite lazy on their part. Next: the “rebuilt” Wayne Manor. Am I really supposed to believe that this obviously decades-old building is the new Wayne Manor only built a couple of years ago? Huh? Again, they make no mention of rebuilding it, so perhaps they moved? This really bothered me as the destruction of Wayne Manor in Batman Begins, and the choice not to rebuild it and have Batman living in a fucking shipping crate for all of The Dark Knight were two very specific points that I love about the direction of those films. And finally, the idea that Bruce Wayne/Batman is now a recluse is a great idea taken from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but here it never feels like he’s actually become a recluse. Sure, he’s got a scraggly beard, he walks with a cane and there’s sheets on everything, but it all feels kinda cheap. I’m willing to overlook this particular element and just enjoy the film, but it definitely doesn’t stand up to criticism.

Anyway, Nolan’s willingness to take the character to any lengths for the story is evident by his lack of respect for common Batman elements. Do you think Burton or Schumacher would’ve had the balls to make a Batman movie that doesn’t feature Wayne Manor? Not a chance. By combining multiple comic book storylines, Nolan can have a ton of “Oh shit! They just did what?” moments from the comic books in every one of his films and it’s a big reason these films are as successful as they are. Sure the ’89-’97 series is fun in its own way, but you went into every one knowing exactly what you were getting: a variation on the same Batman story with different villains. Nolan completely subverts that in his trilogy and it’s nothing short of spellbinding to watch for a big Batman fan like myself.

But even though there’s a couple of these already out there, I’m sure someone is still going into this film looking for simple “dude in tights” thrills. They ain’t here. There’s flashes of superhero heroics from time to time, but like The Dark Knight, the focus isn’t specifically on Batman the whole time; it’s more about Gotham City and Bruce Wayne’s personal struggle than anything else. The movie is so thrilling that this shouldn’t be a problem, but I once knew a guy that was very disappointed with The Dark Knight because he just wanted a simple “Batman beats up the bad guys” movie. I’m sure he’s also disappointed with this one, but for me, a guy that much prefers a dark, brooding, psychologically conflicted Batman, Nolan’s trilogy is the fucking bee’s knees.

So I’ve managed to write quite a bit without actually writing much directly about this movie, and I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. It’s hard not to make this review about the trilogy as a whole, especially as I’m trying to avoid spoilers. I do feel like some specific elements of The Dark Knight Rises need to be talked about. For one, I think Anne Hathaway was great as Catwoman. I knew she would be, and she totally delivered. I still kinda hate the character and always have, and this film proves to me that she’s a character that only so much can be done with. Tom Hardy was Grade-A awesome as Bane, and for that matter Bane was the shit! I was worried that his character would be too similar to the Joker, in that Joker was an agent of chaos (fun, playfully sadistic chaos), and Bane would be a more extreme agent of chaos. This turned out to be somewhat accurate, but the two characters are very distinct and never once did Bane remind me of the Joker in any way.

In terms of action scenes, The Dark Knight Rises delivers some great stuff. Where The Dark Knight slowly built its intricate plot to a fever-pitch, The Dark Knight Rises does the same thing but does it arguably better. Nolan is a master at handling large, unwieldy plots, and by another director this could have easily been a complete clusterfuck. Nolan manages the varied storylines with ease, with what seems like the entire final hour being one sustained, tense build up of excitement and action. Seriously, the action here is fantastically fun to watch. I think my mouth was open the entire opening aircraft scene, and the climax was just pure, sustained action heaven.

I must make special mention of one specific aspect that I think was vastly improved for The Dark Knight Rises. As a martial arts film fan, I’ve always been disappointed with the hand-to-hand fighting in the series, and I found Nolan’s filming of these scenes in the first two films to be rather ugly and hard to follow. Batman Begins is horrible in this aspect, and while The Dark Knight improves on it greatly, the fights in that still stick out as a major weakness to me. I joked in my Dark Knight review that Nolan should never make a martial arts film. Well, then I saw The Dark Knight Rises. Clearly Nolan focused on improving this specific aspect of the action with such a physical enemy as Bane, and I was very happy to see that the hand-to-hand fights between Bane and Batman in The Dark Knight Rises were highlights instead of glaring problems. I specifically thought their second encounter was formed of pure, golden awesome, but their first is only a hair behind.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fantastic end to a fantastic trilogy. It has a number of flaws, and there’s some plot elements that will bother you if you think too much about them, but the quality of the overall film is enough to easily outweigh these minor complaints. Nolan’s Batman trilogy will forever be looked back on as one of the greatest achievements in comic book filmmaking. Damn, I can’t wait to watch them all again.