I don’t envy director Christopher Nolan. Following up the mega-success of his THE DARK KNIGHT with another equally if not surpassingly successful follow-up may not be comparable to delivering a new STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES movie (both of which George Lucas spectacularly failed at), but its nonetheless a daunting task that will have to now meet expectations that, over the years, have ballooned to unrealistic proportions. And in a way, its unfair to measure the success of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES against THE DARK KNIGHT due to the one-two punch of Heath Ledger’s iconic performance and real-life death. Nolan doesn’t have the safety net of a singularly great performance masking whatever shortcomings the film may have. I’m sure Nolan hoped that Tom Hardy would deliver an equally memorable performance in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but all in all, the success of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would depend much more and solely on the strength of its story. In that sense, a better measure of its success would be to put it up against Nolan’s first Batman film, BATMAN BEGINS.

After seeing it twice, once on the IMAX format and the second time on a regular-sized screen, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES not only surpasses THE DARK KNIGHT, but it’s the best of the trilogy. Perhaps enjoying more freedom from studio control than he will ever enjoy, Christopher Nolan plays on a much bigger canvas and he does so with relish in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Nolan ends his trilogy on a grand, epic scale that explores the mythological aspects of being a superhero and how it figures into the psyche of our society. At the same time, the film transcends its comic book roots by tackling, in a not-so-subtle fashion, real-life political/social events such as the Occupy Movement. On top of all that, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES gives us a rousing villain with Bane and another, much more complicated, romance for Bruce Wayne/Batman in the form of Catwoman.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has a complicated storyline that has been criticized for its complexity on various internet sites that either clearly have a short-attention span or are mentally unable to think beyond simple ideas. In short, this story takes place 8 years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT. Gotham City has become an exemplar of a crime-free and safe environment. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has turned into a Howard Hughes-like recluse in his own manor and has neglected the running of Wayne Enterprises. Wayne has also retired Batman, which is a good thing because after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, where the Batman was blamed for the death of Gotham’s District Attorney Harvey Dent (AKA Two-Face), Batman is now a wanted fugitive. Amidst all this, Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, mask-wearing, bald-headed cult leader anarchist, enters the scene and through his cult of worshippers, takes over Gotham City. This prompts Batman to come out of retirement, but he quickly realizes that he’s no match for Bane and, to make matters worse, he has to deal with the Police Commissioner (Matthew Modine), who has it out for him. Thrown into the mix of this story is Selena Kyle (AKA Catwoman – however this name is never used in the movie) (Anne Hathaway), a thief whose loyalties to Batman are questionable at best, an idealistic young police officer by the name of John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a sharp businesswoman who takes over Wayne Enterprises to bring it back from bankruptcy.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a very loose adaptation of a storyline that ran in the Batman comic books back in 1993. The storyline took about a year to complete and it introduced the Bane character (so no, Rush Limbaugh, you arrogant fat dolt, Bane was not an original creation by Christopher Nolan for the intent of impliedly ridiculing Mitt Romney’s Bain & Company). I think for any comic book fan such as myself, the decision to use Bane as the villain and to use elements of the Knightfall storyline for the screenplay was met with trepidation. Knightfall was not a well-received story by critics and it was widely regarded as a publicity stunt by DC Comics to boost Batman comic book sales. Moreover, Bane was regarded as nothing more than a big dude in a lucha libre mask who had the distinction of breaking the Batman’s back. He had none of the playfulness, creativity, and dimensionality of Batman’s classic villains such as The Joker, Riddler, and Penguin.

I thought it a no-brainer that Riddler (along with Catwoman) should have been Christopher Nolan’s next choice for villain. I felt the Riddler was better capable of being grounded in Nolan’s gritty and realistic version of the Batman universe. However, what Nolan has done in interpreting Bane, together with Tom Hardy’s great performance, has turned Bane into a fascinating character. Unlike the Joker, whose goals were to simply create chaos and destruction, Bane has a meticulous and detailed plan to take over Gotham City. Highly intelligent, Bane’s vision of a sort of militaristic Occupy Movement has gained him a cult following. With the Joker, you never really believed that he could ever defeat Batman because sooner or later, Batman would catch up to him, pound him into a pulp, and lock him in Arkham Asylum. Bane is a different story. He’s stronger than Batman and he’s always one step ahead of him intellectually. Bane is a far bigger threat and for most of the film, he has the upper hand against Batman.

As much as I loved Heath Ledger’s Joker and still consider his portrayal as one that will forever be remembered, I was more taken in by Bane because I was always waiting to see what he would do next; what next step he would take to bring his vision to fruition. Bane provides a different enjoyment than the Joker. Bane’s plan for Gotham City escalates to increasingly grander and more ambitious results and, admittedly, despite the ruthlessness with which Bane carries his mission out, you can see the appeal his vision holds for society.

A lot of what makes Bane successful can be credited to Tom Hardy’s performance. It must be unimaginably difficult to have to follow up Heath Ledger’s performance with something just as memorable (or at the very least, something that won’t be laughable like what Joel Schumacher did with Bane in BATMAN AND ROBIN). What’s more, Hardy has the additional difficulty of having half his face be hidden behind a mask for the entire movie. All Hardy had to work with was really his voice and it is what he pulls off with this limitation that makes his performance all the more remarkable. Even for someone as evil as Bane, Hardy manages to humanize him and make us sympathize with his cause and ultimately, with him.

The second “villain” in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t really a villain as much as she is a morally ambiguous anti-hero. Anne Hathaway silenced every naysayer and critic with her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Her performance is probably the biggest surprise performance of the movie. Her sultry allure and dry wit practically steals (no pun intended) every scene in the movie as she delivers in both the dramatic and action moments of the film. I was a huge fan of Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Catwoman in Tim Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS, but that was mostly because I consider Pfeiffer to be the most beautiful actress we have yet seen in Hollywood. However, in terms of capturing the essence of the comic book character, Hathaway runs away with it to give us the best portrayal of the character yet. Another noteworthy aspect of Anne Hathaway’s performance is that we finally get to see a strongly written female character by Chris Nolan. The director has been criticized for his lack of strong and/or interesting female characters in his past movies (the primary reason why the romantic subplots of INCEPTION and the two Batman movies never worked for me). Nolan’s female characters have usually been one-note and although Selina Kyle certainly bucks that trend, the Miranda Tate character has very little going for her. She is presented as a very bland character and when her true intent is revealed later on in the movie, she’s nothing more than a one-dimensional villain bent on taking over the world. Very little is given for what her motivations are and her scant screen time is partly to blame for that.

Of course, the most talked about character in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is John Blake, the young Gotham City police officer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Internet speculation immediately became rampant after we saw our first glimpse of John Blake in the trailers and almost everyone I knew figured Blake was either Robin or Azrael. My only doubts as to whether Blake would turn out to be Robin was Nolan’s statements around the time BATMAN BEGINS about how he did not like the Robin character and that he would not be featured in his Batman universe. To some degree, Nolan did keep his promise because we don’t see John Blake don the Robin costume. Furthermore, although he is referred to as Robin by the end of the film, whether that will ever happen is uncertain because the film ends with Bruce Wayne with Selina Kyle at a café, implying that Batman may be alive, but he is done with crime-fighting.

Gordon-Levitt does a fine job imbuing the Blake character with integrity, honor, and bravery in fighting for what is right, regardless of whether or not the police force he works for sees things the same way he does. Unlike the boyish-type roles he’s played in the past, Gordon-Levitt broadens his range as a mature and tough cop with a keen intellect. I didn’t have a problem like some others did with how quickly Blake figured out Batman’s true identity. Like many superheroes in the comic books, I’ve always wondered why most people can’t figure out a particular hero’s identity when the only thing protecting the hero’s identity is a mask covering his eyes (or in the case of Superman, a pair of glasses). For someone as clever as John Blake, I don’t think it would be implausible to have him come to such a conclusion.

Much has been made about the inordinate amount of exposition and plot holes in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Based on Nolan’s last film, INCEPTION, its safe to say that Nolan doesn’t like simple storytelling. His films tend to involve an intricate web of plotlines and unique ideas that necessitate (especially in INCEPTION) his characters to explain to the audience what is going on. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is unlike INCEPTION in the sense that it doesn’t present us with one complex idea whose premise is confusing without a straightforward explanation from one of its characters. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has many characters, each of whom has his/her own story that interconnects with another character’s story. In short, the film is jam-packed with a lot of narrative that, at times, is best conveyed to the audience through simple exposition.

As for the film’s narrative plot holes, I take it as a given that most, if not all, films will contain plot holes, especially films such as THE DARK KNIGHT RISES where so much is going on in the narrative. I’m sure that the filmmakers are well aware of these holes, but when the purpose of any film is to entertain, sometimes certain plot issues have to be overlooked for the sake of maintaining a film’s dramatic arcs, tension, momentum, or whatever you want to call it.

However, with all that said, there were a few things that bothered me. These are not strictly plot holes, but rather narrative issues that I had with the film. First, for someone as loyal of Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), I find it hard to believe that a man who is essentially a second father to Bruce Wayne and who is seen as one by Bruce Wayne, would have a falling out with his boss over a letter concerning a dead girlfriend to the point where he leaves his employ. It would have to take so much more (and perhaps there shouldn’t really be anything) for Alfred to leave Bruce Wayne. On top of that, the audience is left guessing through the remainder of the film as to what happened to Alfred. Its not until the very end that we see him again. That relationship and Alfred’s story should have been developed differently.

Second, the film contains two “comebacks” for the Batman. The first time Batman emerges is after his long self-imposed exile and Bane has begun to cause problems in Gotham City. The second comeback occurs after Batman has been defeated by Bane and sent away to a prison pit in some other part of the world. Given the storyline, I can certainly see how you would have Batman come back twice and without thinking about it further, I can’t really see how you could avoid creating these two comebacks. However, the flow of the film suffers for it and it ends up looking awkward in the end.

A final issue with the film that has generated some controversy is Nolan’s blatant incorporation of a socio-political subtext (the Occupy Movement) in the movie. Some have expressed how overbearing and distracting this subtext was. I disagree. To the contrary, Nolan did not lean too heavily on this thread and the subtext gave what would otherwise be a standard superhero story a realistic substance that gives the film some weight and offers the audience food for thought. In fact, I wish we saw a little further exploration of this theme as it would have provided even more substance for Bane’s plans.

I enjoyed Hans Zimmer score for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but it is nowhere near as present as his amazing score was for THE DARK KNIGHT. Here, the score serves more as atmospheric background music (with a few exceptions such as the police chase when Batman makes his first comeback) than anything else. Conversely, the cinematography by longtime Nolan collaborator, Wally Pfister, is as beautiful as anything he’s ever done before.

Having seen THE DARK KNIGHT RISES twice, I still believe it to be the best of the trilogy. It is the culmination of everything that Nolan has built up over the past two films of the trilogy and, in addition, I feel that he’s taken some of the things that did not work in other films (i.e. the weak action sequences in INCEPTION) and improved upon those skills in this film. It will be sad to see Christopher Nolan depart the Batman universe, but on the same token, I am very excited to see what lies in store for him in the future.