The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s iconic follow-up to Batman Begins, has nothing left to prove. It’s one of the few films of the last decade to solidify its classic status – a film that impacted and influenced cinema in a way that will forever shape the idea of what a superhero movie is and what it can be. When plans were announced for a third installment – a follow-up to one of the most successful films of all time – many wondered if Nolan would be able to create a product that could top The Dark Knight.

The idea of a sequel being better than its predecessor isn’t that hard to grasp. Time after time, we’ve seen second installments all but eclipse the films they follow. Third installments, though, are another ball game. Time after time, these efforts are written off as money-grabbing exploits that wring out every last bit of creative zest the said franchises have left. Rare films like Toy Story 3, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi managed to give worthy closes to their franchises – beloved products that honor the films that precede them.

Thankfully The Dark Knight Rises has joined that small group of worthy “threequels.”

In the grandest sense possible, Nolan wanted to give his Batman series a proper send-off – a definitive end to a story that he has spent over seven years crafting. In many ways, Nolan succeeded in giving the franchise an ending worthy of the first two films. This fact alone is worth celebrating.

But did he top The Dark Knight? No, not by a mile.

The Dark Knight Rises feels a step behind its predecessor. Every scene, every new character, every story beat just doesn’t quite match everything featured in The Dark Knight. I know that it’s not entirely fair to judge a film by the one that preceded it, but in this case, I feel the comparison is apt, necessary and unavoidable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Dark Knight Rises is a very, very good movie. Nolan packs in a thoughtfully assembled story, genuine emotion at the hands of strong performances, truly ecstatic action sequences and a finale worthy of fervent praise. He goes for heights rarely reached with Hollywood blockbusters – ambitious ideas that spur larger-than-life set pieces.

Nolan set out to make a stellar last installment, and in many respects, he accomplished his goal. But man, does everything here fail in comparison to what he created with The Dark Knight.

The story takes place eight years after the fateful night that Batman/Bruce Wayne took the fall for the crimes of fallen District Attorney Harvey Dent. Gotham City is now a place where, as one cop puts it, an overdue library book is a shocking offense. With Batman no longer needed, Bruce lives a recluse life in his rebuilt manor, refraining from even attending parties thrown at his estate. But when an evil from his past plans to reduce Gotham to ashes, Bruce must don the cape and cowl once again to take on the threat and save the city he loves from impending doom.

Even though the final installment in Nolan’s Batman series can’t match the iconic nature of The Dark Knight, there’s still a lot to love.

Whereas The Dark Knight largely hinged itself on the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises is definitely an ensemble piece.

Christian Bale delivers his best Bruce Wayne centric performance here, no questions asked. While I think Batman, the symbol, had much better stories in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan wisely gives Bruce, the man, a great deal of focus here, and Bale meets him at every point. This film is Bruce’s journey, and both Nolan and Bale handle the character with confidence.

Michael Caine, Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred, also delivers his series-best performance. Here, Nolan and Caine let Alfred wear his heart on his sleeve – giving the longtime butler a biting arc that really drives home some of the overarching themes of the series. If you find yourself slightly teary-eyed with Caine’s screen time, you’re not alone. He’s the soul of the film and, really, one of its best aspects.

Gary Oldman is as great as ever as Commissioner Gordon, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is always a welcome presence.

Of the new cast members, Tom Hardy’s Bane takes the cake.  Having to fill the large shoes of the Joker, Hardy gives Bane a hulking presence. While his character is more out for destruction than anything else, Bane is a menace, and Hardy’s performance solidifies this fact. Even though the actor spends the entire film wearing a voice-altering mask, his physical performance (watch his eyes) sells me on the character. Hardy’s a gifted actor, and even though this comes nowhere near Ledger’s iconic Joker, Bane serves as an effective, don’t-wanna-mess-with-that-guy villain.

Anne Hathaway gives the film an added spark as Selina Kyle, a sarcastic cat-burglar who crosses paths with Bruce/Batman on more than one occasion. Hathaway’s Kyle is fun to watch, and while her character isn’t as crucial to the plot as she should have been, I feel that the film wouldn’t work without her. She’s got an interesting arc, with her motives and desires left satisfyingly gray throughout most of the film.

I really liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s good guy cop-turned-detective John Blake, and Marion Cotillard brings a graceful presence as Miranda Tate, an affluent Wayne Enterprise board member.

The acting here is the film’s best thing going for it. Nolan has an eye for the ensemble, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the cast.

I also grant accolades to Nolan’s direction. He pulls together some truly inspired moments, such as the opening aerial sequence and the film’s final battle. Nolan has never shorted his viewer intelligent eye-candy, and The Dark Knight Rises adds yet another title to his impressive filmography.

Wally Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score – usual suspects in Nolan’s films – only add to the grand scope Nolan wanted to achieve.

The film’s script, co-written by the Nolan brothers (Christopher and Jonathan) based on story by C. Nolan and David S. Goyer, really takes time to appreciate. It’s such an intricate tale – one that requires complete attention and understanding of the characters/series history. It’s got some great characterization and jaw-dropping twists.

The script is also the film’s biggest disappointment/flaw.

I don’t have an issue with the plot itself like others do (it’s rather self-explanatory), but the way the film unfolds some of its events lacks the fervor and imagination of Nolan’s other films. The story itself is actually pretty great; it’s just the way Nolan and company choose to tell it at times.

The first act bears most of the film’s problems. Logically, it’s sound, but thematically, it just feels uneventful. Besides a few wonderfully written character moments, the film doesn’t really warm up until Batman’s first encounter with Bane. After this, my complaints turned into cheering, but man, the first act of this film feels like it could have used some serious rewrites. It feels unnecessarily busy, but thankfully, these problems disappear.

Besides a slightly problematic first act, The Dark Knight Rises is on the same page with the rest of the series. It’s a big, bold, beautiful film that completes the vision that Christopher Nolan had for his take on Batman.

But it’s not The Dark Knight. And that’s a feeling that I can’t shake off, no matter how much I really, really liked this final outing.

The Dark Knight Rises lacks the iconography of its predecessor but still ends the series on a high note, making it one of the best trilogies ever to grace the silver screen.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

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