To answer the questions you have in roughly the order they come to me: Yes it's better than Begins. It might be better than Knight, I have to see it again but I don't think so. No, it's not the best movie I've seen all year, but it's in the top 5. Yes it's better than The Avengers. No, no performance in the movie tops Ledger's. Yes you should see it before someone spoils it for you. That about cover it? Alright, to the movie proper.
This is one of those reviews that I was sure was going to be pointless. I was going to review it, tell you it was good, tell you that it wasn't as good as Knight, bitch a bit about Hathaway, restate my love for the 'Nolan' style of doing things and close the browser. But I feel very weird about it, and not just cause I was wrong about Anne Hathaway. The same 'Holy SHIT!' feeling I got coming out of The Dark Knight is there, due primarily to an inhumanly intense final act, which allows the movie to overcome some slight awkwardness towards the beginning.
The plot is devoted to the man himself, Batman. It's been 8 years since The Dark Knight and he's been retired (as in, not going out) that entire time, with Bruce Wayne becoming a massive recluse. When a cat burglar breaks in and steals his mother's pearl necklace, he begins to try and track her down as Wayne, while Batman has his interest peaked by the arrival of Bane, a power hungry mercenary with a plan. A B-Story involves Gordon's increasing guilt over framing Batman for Harvey's murders from the last film and a cop who still believes in Batman, as well as the semi-fascist new measures imposed to fight the mob in the name of Harvey Dent.
All of these new characters are reinvented, per Nolan's MO and all of them come out great for it. Catwoman, although she is never called that, is stripped down to her essentials as a smarmy femme-fatale cat burglar, who is held together by a fantastic performance by Hathaway. She's tasked with moving the plot forward a lot of the time but her actions or character never feel forced. After the shock of the movie has worn off, I'm sure her performance will go down as one of the great interpretations of the character.
Bane, on the other hand, is unlike any villain we've ever seen in a Batman film. Batman villains in the films tend to avoid head on, one-on-one confrontations, because they're mostly just gang leaders in weird getups or mad scientists with odd weapons and would wind up with cracked skulls in a fight with Batman. But Bane here is a character who can take on Batman in the two areas he specializes in, strength and brain and who is unfazed by his various theatricalities. It's also intentionally kind of odd to hear the posh British voice coming out of the freaky mask but Tom Hardy manages to sell his character extremely well, owed partially to how ridiculously huge he is (seriously, he's easily the largest physical presence in a superhero movie this side of Lou Ferrigno). Add in a subtle and quiet, but solid, performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and all of the newcomers to the movie are doing excellent. Even Marion Cottilard does a great job in a smaller part.
Aside from that, all the acting is as great as you'd expect it to be as the movie continues to be inhabited almost entirely by Oscar Nominees and Winners. Bale throws himself into his role the way only he can, Gary Oldman inhabits Gordon perfectly, Morgan Freeman is still pure class as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine remains one of the most inspired casting choices ever as Alfred.
I'm not even going to bother with the technical details. This is Nolan we're talking about and he's a technically brilliant director. The only major issue the movie has is towards the beginning, with a bit of awkward pacing and narrative. The movie has a lot to do, setting up the changed characters and world, as well as establishing a host of new characters and their motivations and relationships. That's a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in and it occasionally ends up with characters staring at the camera and expositing. The film picks up when Batman heads out to confront Bane personally to signal the start of the 2nd act and never lags again.
Oh and one more thing: Those of you looking for politics in it are going to have to look pretty hard. Yeah I know, a lot of people prescribe a conservative bent to the last one (although it's hard to see the interrogation room scene as an endorsement of enhanced interrogation when the subject outright states that it's not working and will not) but that doesn't really come up in this one. The conflict between Bane and Gotham (specifically the semi-fascist police state it's become) is much more the V for Vendetta (comic) conflict of anarchy vs. fascism than the V for Vendetta (movie) conflict of liberal vs. conservative.
Honestly, this movie is kind of hard to review properly, partially cause so much of the plot would have to go under the spoiler tag and partially because the 3rd act leaves such an huge impression that it's hard to remember if I had any issues other than the one I mentioned earlier (seriously though, the 3rd act is easily the most intense I've seen all year). I can say that it's good, hell great, movie, a sincerely moving story, wrapped around engaging action scenes with Christopher Nolan's usual deconstruction of the superhero genre. Come monday morning, everyone will be discussing the big twists and the intense final act act, and you owe it to yourself to see it before someone spoils it for you. I'll probably see you there, I'm going again on Saturday. And maybe again after that. See you next time.
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he hopes the SDCC Man of Steel footage was better, because the trailer attached to this movie fucking sucked.