Movie Review: 'The Dark Knight Rises' (Spoiler-Free)

It's a rare case that the third movie in a trilogy is better than the second. In the case of "The Dark Knight Rises," it might not quite top "The Dark Knight" in top-to-bottom quality, but it appeases fans of the comics in ways that only an all-out third installment can.

Without giving away too much, the story takes place eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," with Batman retired and Bruce Wayne living as a recluse. With the tough on crime but potentially corrupt Dent Act passed, though, the city doesn't seem to need the Caped Crusader anymore... that is, until Bane shows up.

As the story progresses, we watch a seemingly unstoppable terrorist outwit and outmuscle an out-of-the-game Batman, who has lost a step or two in the past eight years. "Batman Begins" was about Bruce finding his identity as Batman, "The Dark Knight" was about changing it to be what Gotham needed. "The Dark Knight Rises" is about the fear of losing that identity: is Bruce so tied to Batman that he can't live without it? Does he want to continue living at all?

As any good action film should, "TDKR" gradually builds suspense and quickens the pace as the movie goes, until the final 20 minutes bring a thrilling non-stop race against the clock. However, that strength is also the film's weakness: the first act is very slow indeed, with a surprising number of new characters to shuffle through and plenty of heavy-handed dialogue to go around. There is a very nice opening action set piece that introduced Bane (not quite as well as "TDK" introduced the Joker, but close), but other than that we have to wait a fairly long time for the action to return.

For that reason, "The Dark Knight" will always be more rewatchable than "The Dark Knight Rises." It takes us until the second act to see Batman at all in this installment, whereas in the second movie we had the luxury of jumping right into Batman being Batman. There is value in giving Bruce a debate as to whether to pick the cowl back up again: namely, the excitement at seeing our hero back on screen in full costume (the theater cheered). But it would make that first 20 minutes laborious to watch again (and again and again).

Since this is the closing of a trilogy, the action is bigger and the scale larger, making "TDKR" more of a terrorism movie than a crime thriller, as "TDK" was. It still suits this character, and Nolan handles things nicely, but at times the central threat seems a little too comic book-y. Actual, physical ticking clocks can sometimes cheapen third acts with their nail-on-the-head presence.

But it is the comic book-y nature of the movie that provides the most joy, too. Fans of the comics will notice nods here and there, including a particularly fun line lifted straight out of Kingdom Come, and surprise appearances by characters from various books and storylines make for exciting revelations.

There's a bit of an imbalance with the villains, though both Bane and Catwoman get their chance to shine. Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway should be lauded for their efforts, too: Hathaway brings a feline ferocity to her role that isn't cartoony, and manages to infuse the needed sexuality into Catwoman without it being her only characteristic. Hardy has the unenviable task of giving his entire performance with very little of his face exposed, but manages to be riveting purely through his vocal and physical delivery.

Fans of Nolan's Batman trilogy likely already have their tickets, so telling them how great "The Dark Knight Rises" is won't change much. For the rest, it's still a ride worth taking. However, due to the heavy ties to the rest of the trilogy, "Batman Begins" in particular, this is a movie that must be enjoyed only after the other two have been watched.

Rating: 9/10