Christopher Nolan reinvigorated Warner Bros's flagship superhero franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, an origin story that, unlike its series predecessors, delved deep into the mind of Bruce Wayne. Nolan's dared to pose a simple question: Why does a billionaire dress up as a bat and fight crime? The answers served up spectacular results, and things got better with 2008's Oscar-winning sequel. A sprawling crime epic evoking Michael Mann's Heat and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City, the film saw Batman tussle with arch-nemesis The Joker (a stunning final performance from Heath Ledger) while corruption spread like a virus through Gotham's corridors of power.
It's understandable, then, thatThe Dark Knight Rises arrives on the back of deafening hype. It also promises to do something unprecedented for a comic book franchise - bring the curtain down on its three-film story arc with a definitive full stop.
The harmony doesn't last, however, as Tom Hardy's terrorist Bane - introduced in a daring mid-air plane hijack - arrives on the scene. A blend of hulking physical power, impressive intellect and strange English gent accent, his MO is to tear Gotham to the ground through crashing the stock market and reigniting the city's streets of fire with an underground army. It's a smart and socially relevant plot point in the wake of 2008's market crash and last year's Occupy movement.
This unstoppable force must meet an unmovable object, though, and Bruce is forced to don the cape and cowl again to stand up to the masked psychopath, who turns a Wayne Enterprise energy reactor into a giant bomb. It's a race against a ticking clock, and swirling around the Dark Knight's quest to stop him are old allies James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). They're joined by Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), determined Gotham cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).
Like an expert orchestra conductor, Nolan is able to balance summer movie thrills with some exceptional character moments. Alfred, so long Bruce's trusted butler, has his loyalty tested when his employer chooses to go beyond the limits. One exchange between the pair (referencing Rachel's underlined final letter from The Dark Knight) is perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of the trilogy.
The Dark Knight Rises barely lets up throughout its two-hour, 45-minute running time as Nolan precision-engineers a full-throttle blockbuster with the walloping, Hans Zimmer-backed action sequences of The Dark Knight and the emotional weight of Batman Begins. It's the events of the 2005 series restart that tie very closely to what unfolds in Rises, as Bruce's past and present collide for a jaw-dropping trilogy closer. The Dark Knight Rises is intelligent, heart-pounding spectacle cinema that grips like a vice from minute one and won't let go.