Christopher Nolan’s epic, unsettling The Dark Knight Rises lives in the shadow of not one but two sets of expectations: those set by its predecessor, the 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, and those set by that most venerated of movie institutions – the trilogy.  It’s not enough that Nolan has to provide a swan song for what many people believe is the greatest superhero movie ever made; he’s also got to end his Batman trilogy with a bang and avoid all the pitfalls that crippled such threequels as X-Men: The Last Stand, Back to the Future III, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Matrix Revolutions, The Godfather III, and Spider-Man 3.

What I’m saying is this: it’s easy (comparatively) to begin a trilogy, and easier still to continue it into the second act.  But providing a satisfying ending….aye, there‘s the rub, and one that’s flummoxed filmmakers just as talented – if not more so – than Christopher Nolan.

So, first things first: if nothing else, The Dark Knight Rises deserves credit for helping to cement Nolan’s Batman trilogy as maybe thegreat blockbuster movie trilogy of the 21st Century.  It might be too long (164 minutes, so avoid major liquid consumption before a screening) and too violent (anyone who complained about the Joker’s mayhem in The Dark Knight is going to hate Bane), but it’s also a rare beast – a conclusion where the excesses actually feel justified, where the traditional Hollywood wisdom (bigger=better) actually provides the only wrap-up capable of satisfying the visceral/emotional/thematic concerns established in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Lord knows, Nolan has his work cut out for him there.  As good individually as his first two Batman movies are, they also move and act like different species; Batman Begins is the pulp adventure, and The Dark Knight the psychologically probing crime saga.  That’s what I love about this new film.  From the jump, you sense he’s figured out how to bridge these two agendas.  The Dark Knight Risesbegins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, and despite appearances to the contrary, all in not well in Gotham City.  Batman (Christian Bale) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) have perpetrated the big lie – that Batman murdered political darling Harvey Dent, and not that Dent turned into a psychotic, disfigured monster brought to justice by the Caped Crusader – in order to avoid further demoralizing the city, but the societal fallout has now outweighed whatever short-term benefits their deception has fostered (the virtual extinction of the mob, of florid madmen like the Joker or the Scarecrow).  Gotham’s financial district (personified by Animal Kingdom‘s brilliant Ben Mendelsohn, whose venal Wall Street kingpin out-sleazes even Bane) has run rampant, further widening the gap between rich and poor.  The police force devotes its considerable scope to working asinine misdemeanors, leaving men like Jim Gordon unsatisfied and praying for retirement.

And Bruce Wayne?  A shell of his former self – physically crippled, emotionally vacant.  He believes his shot at a normal life died the night the Joker blew up his childhood sweetheart Rachel, and he skulks Wayne Manor in Howard Hughes-ian repose (no surprise, really, considering that at one point, Nolan wanted to tell the story of Hughes’ later, grosser years).

Nolan so effectively establishes this moral rot, this creeping unease, that it alone could sustain his third movie.  We care about Wayne, Gordon, and their ever-increasing feelings of impotence (and both Bale and Oldman do some of their best work in the franchise here), and the parallels Nolan draws between Gotham’s class malaise and our own (who’d a thunk that a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster would hinge on the divisions between the 99% and the 1%?) raise the stakes higher than we could possible imagine.  This funhouse mirror shows us, and it no longer needs distortions to make us look horrible – we’re doing fine by ourselves.

And then Tom Hardy’s Bane shows up, and everything goes to hell.

Narratively, Bane helps link The Dark Knight Rises to the popcorn thrills of Batman Begins; without delving too far into spoiler territory, his grand plan of domination and destruction links Bane more to Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul (think glorified Bond villains) than to the Joker’s knotty (and brutal) tests of psychological resilience.  Some viewers might be disappointed by the shift, and in all fairness, Hardy doesn’t give Bane the same revelatory complexity that Heath Ledger gave the Joker.

That said, within the character’s limited confines, Hardy is terrific, generating pervasive menace through his hulking physicality and damaged voice (which sounds much clearer – almost distractingly so – than it did in the prologue preview) and imbuing this savage brute with enough buried intelligence and tenderness that we make the same mistake Batman does.  We assume Bane has a hidden weakness or that – like the Joker – his conquest can be “solved” through mental gymnastics.  In reality, Bane is a goddamn wrecking ball, plain and simple.  All his talk of liberating Gotham’s citizens from its corporate and political oppressors is just subterfuge – he winds up the city so much that it destroys itself faster than any bomb, and Bane needs but to sit back and watch.

It’s that destruction that provides The Dark Knight Rises‘ biggest, grandest thrills.  Borrowing heavily from the No Man’s Land comic book series, Nolan has Gotham’s ruin exceed in size anything else in his Batman franchise; at the midpoint, he literally breaks the city, turning the entire second half into an action spectacle.  Over an hour of the film unfolds in IMAX, and to see it in that format is overwhelming.  Nolan, his long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister, and his effects supervisor Chris Corbould (who also managedInception‘s visual trickery) coat the screen in carnage, their key setpieces – the aerial trickery of the opening sequence, Bane’s “announcement” at a football game, a massive raid between Gotham’s police department and Bane’s thugs, Batman and Gordon’s desperate land/air pursuit of a nuclear device – filling every inch of the IMAX frame.  Credit must also go to composer Hans Zimmer, whose nonstop, percussive score provides The Dark Knight Rises with its relentless forward momentum.

What makes the action stick, however, isn’t just its scale – Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon was just as big but wholly bankrupt on creative and intellectual levels – but rather its resonance.  The thing unfolds like some kinetic and horrifying fever dream of every post-9/11 fear we’ve ever had, as Bane enforces martial law in Gotham and subverts the positive ideals of a democracy’s rebellion against corruption.  It’s cool watching Batman fly around in his spiffy Bat-plane, sure, but the outcome only matters because it hurts watching a world that has replaced due process with kangaroo courts, that makes it acceptable to maim and kill in the name of “order” (Nolan’s depiction of the latter instance is especially chilling).  If Batman’s toys have gotten bigger and better, that’s only because the chaos they oppose has grown, too.

All that, and I haven’t even mentioned Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, in a film overstuffed with delights, provideThe Dark Knight Rises‘ most enduring moments.  Hathaway plays Selina Kyle (otherwise known as Catwoman, though the movie never calls her by that name), and on the page, she has the most rote character arc: she’s Han Solo, basically, a seductive, amoral thief forced to choose between her own self-preservation and the Greater Good in the wake of Bane’s attacks (no points for guessing her eventual decision). Yet Hathaway commits to this internal struggle, allowing equal weight to Selina’s disgust at Gotham’s excesses as well as her emerging moral compass.  It also helps that Hathaway is impossibly funny and charming and shares palpable chemistry with Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Batman personas (bonus points: she looks like Julie Newmar from the 1960’s “Batman” show in her Catwoman costume, a very good thing indeed); she adds some much-appreciated levity to this very dark movie, which suffers – if only a little bit – every time she’s off-screen.

And Gordon-Levitt is a wonder.  Nolan has talked at length about how much he loved working with the talented young actor onInception, but until now, I had no idea how fulfilling their previous collaboration was for the director; it becomes apparent – in many,many ways (some of which I wouldn’t dare reveal) – that The Dark Knight Rises is the best gift Nolan could use to show his appreciation.  His tough, sensitive Gotham City cop gets as much screen time as Batman does and proves just as integral to foiling Bane’s plans. Gordon-Levitt grounds the material: every time it threatens to become too grandiose, he reminds you of the human cost, that the real battle for Gotham’s soul exists not between Batman and Bane but within those regular citizens toiling in the name of reform, no matter how thankless that civic duty seems.  Like Hathaway, Gordon-Levitt hijacks the film from its more outsized personalities – he is The Dark Knight Rises‘ stealth hero.

Only Marion Cotillard underwhelms.  She’s a splendid performer (watch Inception, Midnight in Paris, and La Vie en Rose and try to tell me otherwise), but she’s saddled with the most problematic part of the film.  Screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan fail to define her role as precisely as they do the other characters; her Miranda Tate seems like a list of attributes rather than a person: she is a billionaire philanthropist, a supporter of clean energy, and a potential romantic partner for Bruce Wayne, and Cotillard labors to find the humanity behind the plot devices (further complicating matters: Bale has exponentially more spark with Hathaway’s anti-hero than with Cotillard’s nominal love interest).  It’s a shame, especially considering how the Brothers Nolan sketch such vivid characterizations for actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Juno Temple, Matthew Modine, Burn Gorman, Brett Cullen, Daniel Sunjata, Tom Conti, Brent Briscoe, Rob Brown, and “The Wire’s” Aidan Gillen & Robert Wisdom, some of whom leave an indelible impression with only a couple minutes of screentime at their disposal.

But the problems with Cotillard are small in comparison to what The Dark Knight Rises gets right.  Here’s a comic book movie that dreams big, goes for broke, and succeeds, culminating in a mythic final hour that puts to shame every other big-budget entertainment released this year.  It isn’t quite The Dark Knight – it’s too shaggy, too sprawling – but in many ways, The Dark Knight Rises is something better: a triumphant, full-throttle dash across the finish line.

Warner’s Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack offers the film in a stunning 2.39:1/1.78:1 widescreen transfer.  Yep, you read that right; as in the Blu-ray for The Dark Knight, the frame opens up to better replicate the size of the scenes in IMAX.  Two things: 1) Nolan shot seventy minutes of The Dark Knight Rises in the large-scale format, so the ratio of IMAX to non-IMAX definitely favors IMAX this time around.  2) The non-IMAX stuff hasn’t been DNR’ed to hell like with The Dark Knight.  Obviously, there’s a quality downgrade, but the 35mm footage looks as good as it possibly could without too much image manipulation.  The disc also has a booming 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that roars to life during Hans Zimmer’s thundering, percussive score.

Supplements are on par with the Inception and Dark Knight Blu-rays.  In essence, there are only three special features of merit, but one is a four-part, multi-chapter documentary that covers key moments from the film.  Part one runs about seventy minutes long and deals with production matters; the mini-featurettes in this section are “The Prologue: High-Altitude Hijacking,” “Return to the Batcave,” “Beneath Gotham,” “The Bat,” “Batman vs. Bane,” “Armory Accepted,” “Gameday Destruction,” “Demolishing a City Street,” “The Pit,” “The Chant,” “The War on Wall Street,” and “Race to the Reactor.”  Part two runs a half hour and examines the film’s key characters, specifically Batman (“The Journey of Bruce Wayne”), Bane (“Gotham’s Reckoning”), and Selina Kyle (“A Girl’s Gotta Eat”).  The Batmobile throughout pop culture history gets its own hour-long section, while part four sums up the cast and crew’s reflections on the film (“Shadows & Light in Large Format” and “The End of a Legend”).  After that, the set has four theatrical trailers and a great Second Screen function that rearranges all those featurettes to play during the feature film.

Is The Dark Knight Rises perfect?  No – its first hour is surprisingly poky for a Christopher Nolan thriller, and it lacks the relentless focus of The Dark Knight.  However, the film’s last ninety minutes are genuinely extraordinary; Nolan delivers a visceral and surprisingly emotional conclusion to his sterling Batman series.  This might be the capper to the great modern trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises is now available on Blu-ray Combo pack, DVD, and digital download.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.  Also, show your Dark Knight Rises support on Twitter with the hashtag #TheDarkKnightRises, and visit The Dark Knight Rises‘ official Facebook page HERE.

Culture Movie Review: Brooding, Brutal THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Caps Christopher Nolan's Batman...