Four years after The Dark Knight - and seven after Batman Begins - comes quite possibly the most anticipated sequel to ever grace the blockbuster spectrum. While TDK was certainly a magnificent production, its obvious brilliance was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic, untimely death of Heath Ledger, its Oscar-winning Joker. This, the final part of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, stands on its own as the best of the bunch. You get the sense that Nolan was really building towards something all along, and the conclusive film to the series delivers.
Perversely, the best way to view The Dark Knight Rises is by knowing as little about it - other than the context gained from the previous two films - as possible. But for those who really want to know, Bruce Wayne is now a recluse, both mentally and physically scarred from his battles with The Joker and Harvey Dent. The (admittedly contrived) legacy of the latter has seen a crackdown on crime in Gotham under the 'Harvey Dent Act'. Organised crime in the city has pretty much come to an end, with a thousand criminals who formerly ran the streets now behind bars. Batman has taken the fall for the demise of Dent, and Wayne sees no need for him to reappear; that is, until a new, terrifyingly powerful and enigmatic villain called Bane turns up intent on causing widespread carnage.
What Christopher Nolan has done is impressive in many ways, but none more so than the journey he's taken these wonderful characters on. He took on the Batman franchise with a plan from the very start, and when the credits roll on this trilogy, that jolt of clarity will hit audiences square in the face. Meticulously bleeding new characters (such as Gordon-Levitt's hotshot cop) while slowly blending them with the calming presence of old hands underlines what he was trying to do all along: make a series of great crime films, not comic book adaptations. His work is as skilled, paced and cerebral as you'd expect, given his already stunning back catalogue.
If one guy has been overshadowed throughout this trilogy, it's ironically the star, Christian Bale. There has always been a trend with Batman movies where the villain outshines the hero, but not here. Bale really owns this character, so much so that it's difficult to envisage anybody else embodying him with the same level of intensity. While Hathaway is surprisingly stronger than expected as Selina Kyle, her presence is fun but ultimately acts as padding. Hardy is suitably imposing but a little inaudible at times, while Gordon Levitt is excellent in possibly the most ambiguous role in the entire series. He has a lot of convincing to do for his guy to exist in a world full of iconic characters and he couldn't have pulled it off with more aplomb. The legendary Sir Michael Caine offers his usual effortless warmth as Alfred.
Listen: The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect film. It's extremely dense in plot and hard to follow at points, not to mention the several lines of cheesy dialogue. What it is is a challenging, spectacular example of cinema helmed with the skill and stunning precision of a master. It might also contain the best movie ending in recent memory.