I. Non-Spoiler Review
Eight years have passed since the final moments of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, his crimes hidden by a lie that Batman and Jim Gordon agreed to, has been remembered as a martyr. Some tough anti-crime legislation in his name has allowed the city to put most major crime away. Batman has not been seen since then, and as we all know very well, that absence must end when a new threat arises.
The first of the movie's many acts is stolen by Anne Cathaway as Selina Kyle. She's as confident and glamorous as any Catwoman you've imagined, without ever for a moment trying too hard. She may have been tacked to the plot as an add-on or even merchandising gimmick, but at times the gimmick exceeds the main story in worth.
Though whatever shortcomings the movie may hold, it's not for a lack of inspired performances. Tom Hardy's performance as Bane is brilliant, as is the character himself. One imagines many action casting decisions over the years where a powerfully-built brute is chosen and capable acting is sacrificed. Not here. With a megaphone-like voice emanating from his mask, Bane intimidates you in your seat in three ways at once, for his diabolical evil, his great power, and the quickness of his mind. Neither the script nor Hardy try to make this role bigger than the last movie's Joker, but there is nothing to apologize for in the choice of villain.
Christian Bale gets to play Bruce Wayne / Batman many ways in this one. As a scraggy shut-in, a man of uncertain will to live, and with - in comparison to the earlier films - more (and more comprehensible) time in the bat mask itself.
This is a film with many, many nods to comic books and graphic novels. Fans will challenge one another to see who can catch more sly references, though some of them are exceedingly obvious to anyone who knows anything about Batman. More front and center, fans may ask themselves which previous Batman opus is the most important inspiration for this plot. There is no one right answer.
For me, and I suspect for by far most viewers, this film will languish in comparison to The Dark Knight because it lacks, for the most part, that film's moral complexity. TDK, as I argued in my review, transcended the super hero genre entirely, and served as a workable crime movie of the second, if not the first, rank. The Dark Knight Rises is an action movie. Even in comparison to Batman Begins, this is a movie of the pre-Nolan genre of super hero movie, and no matter how well it carries off that task, it will have people second-guessing the Joker's line from TDK: "You've changed things. There's no going back." This is an epic story, in more ways than one. But all of the things that made Nolan's Batman remarkable were put back on the shelf. One wonders how, having earned the plaudits he did for the previous movies, he could be so willing to go back. This film might have served as a good third movie in the previous Batman series. If it had come then, no one would have complained. Coming after TDK, the appeal will have to be in just how well it does as an epic.
II. Spoiler Review. Very big spoilers follow. After a few blank lines, they begin. You were warned.
For eight years, Bruce Wayne has been shut in his home, reclusive and so beaten up from his days as Batman (perhaps just that last fall that killed Harvey Dent) that he cannot walk easily. Gotham has moved on and it thinks it's doing fine. It seems fine, but that's because nobody knows that Bane is coming. Like a freight train he's coming, and in a sharp distinction from the comics' Knightfall, he's not after Batman. He's simply after Gotham. Like R'as al-Ghul and the Joker before him, destruction is his goal, not profits. In fact, we will learn early on, he like Bruce was trained by the League of Shadows. As we learn while his plan is underway, he in fact wants to pick up precisely where R'as left off. Destroying Gotham so it may begin a renewal is his only aim. He is perfectly willing to overcome Batman when that proves to be necessary, but that is an afterthought.
In the first of many events shocking in terms of the Batman comics' mythology, Selina steals Martha Wayne's very pearl necklace right in front of Bruce's eyes. She's very skilled, morally gray (a thief, but not a destroyer), and she helps wake Bruce from his long sleep. In fact, she's working for Bane, although she doesn't appreciate the evil she's serving.
Bruce somehow manages, after years of hobbling on a cane, to rush out to challenge Bane's gang and end up escaping the police. The speed of his recovery is inexplicable; was he insufficiently motived to walk normally during the last eight years? The dialogue of the police officers is drawn right from Batman's reappearance in The Dark Knight Returns; moments later, when Selina disappears on him, he says, "So that's how that feels," a line Bruce says about Superman in Kingdom Come. So we see the homages are in full force. Even more so when we find out that Bane's first caper served simply to bankrupt Bruce.
As Bane's evil plan moves forward, Jim Gordon works through a Nolan favorite, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective Blake, who gets a curious amount of screentime. Bruce gets in bed with another Nolan regular, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. Both of these serve very well all film long before escalating dramatically in importance during the final minutes.
Bane of course breaks the poorly-conditioned Bruce in a fight which is no fight at all. He keeps Bruce in custody, in a death trap that's almost impossible to escape from, which of course means that he escapes from it. The mood here has a touch of Batman, R.I.P. to it in that Bane wants Bruce to suffer psychologically, broken, and watch the harm he does to Gotham. The harm he does is brilliantly effective. Using a nuclear weapon to hold the whole city hostage indefinitely, Bane creates a city cut off from the United States, clearly a nod to No Man's Land, right down to the chalk bat-symbols written on walls.
Of course, Bruce gets back into shape, escapes his prison, and goes back to Gotham to stop Bane. It is in carrying out these obligatory steps where the film is by far the weakest. It is so formulaic that this all must happen, we wonder where the brilliance of The Dark Knight went. It is obligatory, and takes a long time in unfolding. The scenes of Bane's destructive three-month dictatorship over Gotham (with Jonathan Crane returning as a judge in a kangaroo court) come as a refreshing break between scenes of Bruce getting in shape which may as well have had the Rocky theme playing over them.
Bruce does return, and he does get the best of Bane in a fight. As soon as he threatens to kill Bane, the movie becomes something else entirely. Suddenly, Miranda (note, the wizard's daughter from Shakespeare's The Tempest) drives a dagger into Batman's ribs, and the comic fan may recall that in Bane's second attack on Gotham, he was allied with Talia. So here, where their backstories are intertwined in a bit of explication with scenes of a child whom we thought was Bane in flashback was actually Talia. Her knife attack seems fatal, and given the movie's promotional claims that the legend ends, we wonder if it might be. In fact, being bled by a woman is Robin Hood's death, and this simple act resonates with a vast web of comics (and meta-comics) lore: Alan Moore cited Robin Hood as the sort of legend that Batman ought to be, and Neil Gaiman gave Batman such a death (among several) in Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? That story comes back in yet another reference as Batman escapes the injury to lash the nuclear bomb to his flying "Bat" vehicle and soars off to sea, getting far enough that the detonation spares the city, but takes him with it, very like a sacrificial death Batman chooses in Gaiman's story. By this time, Bane and Talia are dead. The city is saved.
More twists await. While Bruce (whose secret was at last made known to Gordon) has gone, we see that Detective Blake, himself an orphan, is preparing to play a very Batman-like role which will begin in the near future. The kicker: We learn that his real name is Robin. And for the twist of twists, a la The Dark Knight Returns, we see a final sighting, real unless it's Alfred's wishful thinking, of Bruce and Selina romancing one another in Florence.
This is a movie full of wonderful elements, but for the reasons I've already noted, it sags terribly in the middle act, and aspires to something so much less than it could have been. This will not be remembered as the best movie of the series - more likely the worst, but the worst of a very good trio. And though it endures poorly, it ends well. And isn't that what a super hero story is supposed to do?