Dark Knight Rises Cast

At this point in time, Christopher Nolan must have actors lining up around the block to work with him. For someone who works, these days, on the scale he's accustomed to, for all the spectacle he puts on screen, he also doesn't forget to draw out stunning performances from his actors, from Guy Pearce's indelible turn in "Memento" to Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker in "The Dark Knight."

And while he likely had his choice of actors for the final installment of his Batman series, over the past few years and films, Nolan has put together a rep company of sorts to draw upon. Of the eight leads in "The Dark Knight Rises," the director had worked with all but Anne Hathaway on previous films -- Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Freeman on the previous Batman films (plus "The Prestige" with Bale and "Inception" with Caine), and Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Inception."

They've all done fine work with him in the past (and interestingly, Hathaway, the only first-timer, is the one that truly steals the show in 'Rises'), but we thought we'd use this opportunity to take a look back at the finest hours of the cast's careers to date (as we did with the year's other major superhero ensemble, "The Avengers," a few months back), and highlight the performances that we think mark their best to date. Agree? Disagree? Weigh in in the comments section below.

The Fighter
Christian Bale - "The Fighter" (2010)
As superb as Christian Bale is as Batman across the trilogy (particularly "Batman Begins," which gives him more to do), there were signs that the actor was finding it a little hard to shake the part. Starring roles in blockbusters "Public Enemies" and "Terminator: Salvation" were principally grim-faced reprisals of Bruce Wayne, and it was easy to worry that he might be falling into typecasting. But thankfully, "The Fighter" changed that. In David O. Russell's film, Bale plays Dicky Eklund, the half brother and sometime trainer of Mark Wahlberg's lead, Mickey Ward, and he was stepping into heavy shoes; not only was Eklund a real-life figure, but both Matt Damon and Brad Pitt had been attached to the role in the past. But Bale was truly extraordinary in the part, and won his first Oscar for his trouble. Arguably, physically transformed to an even greater extent than in his previous work on "Rescue Dawn" and "The Machinist," with thin, bald-spotted hair to go with his newly skeletal features, Bale managed to combine the swagger of a Boston boxer with the wasting away of the crack addict that Eklund became. But Bale isn't somber in the part -- there's a bouncy, wiry energy to the performance, and a lovely sense of humor, a reminder that Bale can be genuinely funny when necessary (we're dying for him to do a full-on comedy at some point soon). And he nails the pathos too, with a lovely fraternal chemistry with Wahlberg, and a gradual self-realization of the levels he's sunk to (his scene watching the documentary about himself in prison is a heartbreaker). You perhaps only realize the greatness of the performance in the closing credits when you see footage of the real Eklund, and it dawns on you that Bale's been doing all of that, and a pitch-perfect impersonation of the real man too.

Tom Hardy - "Bronson" (2008)
Before "Bronson," it looked like Tom Hardy might have blown his chance. The actor had had major opportunities in his early 20s, with Hollywood roles in "Star Trek: Nemesis," "Band Of Brothers" and "Black Hawk Down." But Hardy struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and while there were a few film roles, they were on a smaller scale than before. But then, he crossed paths with Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn, and made "Bronson." A biopic of the infamous British prisoner, who changed his name to match the star of "Death Wish," and has spent most of his adult life behind bars, Hardy talked and met with the inspiration for the role, part of a meticulous Method approach that the actor modestly downplays. Most eye-openingly, he bulked up enormously, proving totally unrecognizable from the pretty, almost feminine figure he'd cast before, hiding it behind a shaven head, a mustache and monstrous physique. And yet for such a powerful, violent man -- one who fights a crew of prison officers stark bollock naked -- Hardy has a light-as-a-feather touch, perfectly matching the playful tone of Refn's theatrically-minded film (Hardy plays it almost like he's in a Steven Berkoff play). He's proven time and again before and since that one of the great advantages of casting him is that you'll get line readings that are entirely unexpected and unconventional, and no film proves that better than the one that brought him to the attention of Christopher Nolan.