I have loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; could it be possible that The Dark Knight Rises could give us one of the only trilogies in Hollywood blockbuster history made of three strong, well-crafted films without any letting the trilogy down?
That of 'let down' is certainly the feeling I had for all of the first 60 minutes in; the dialogue is weak and a little naff at times. It is below the standard I've come to expect from the Nolan brothers' writing. That problem does seem to wash away after the 60 minute mark, and more appearances from Michael Cain's Alfred and Gary Oldman's Tom Gordon, do their best to rescue the film from the jaws of stupidity. Their job is only partly done for reasons to which I'll return. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the first 60 minutes is Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, who is going through a genuine period of angst and inner turmoil, who finds the difficulty in becoming The Batman once again a genuine difficulty. It isn't just a three-minute pep-talk that will get him back behind the mask, and as a direct result, The Batman the character has much more gravity. It would have been easy to gloss over this struggle and with a running time of 164 minutes and shooting with a camera that cost half a million (US) dollars, I'm sure there would have been pressure to keep it short, and I'm very pleased Nolan resisted the pressure to economize on Wayne's struggle with The Batman.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an action star is something I hadn't until now found entirely convincing, but my reservations were set aside by his performance here. Anne Hathaway's sexy interpretation of Catwoman delicately balances a character which has traditionally been used as not much more than a sex-appeal additive, by keeping the sex appeal without stooping to vulgar objectification. I have read some reviews which complain that the dialogue of Tom Hardy's Bane is difficult to understand or unintelligible. This I think is nonsense, I had no problem understanding any of it, nor did any of the seven friends with whom I saw the film. Hardy's performance is strong and consistent.
The themes explored bear greater resemblance to the first, Batman Begins, than to the second of the franchise. While in The Dark Knight, Nolan crafted an epic battle between the forces of chaotic self-interest, and self-sacrificing communitarianism, The Dark Knight Rises once again pits the League of Shadows (or at least some incarnation thereof), as the principle villain against the poor citizens of Gotham. Where Batman Begins simply pit the innocent victims of Gotham against an evil organization, The Dark Knight pitted the evil within the citizens of Gotham against their better nature. That level of sophistication, to my sensibilities, is what made The Dark Knight the superior film and by a comfortable margin the best blockbuster action film of 2008 and several years prior.
The Dark Knight rises does try to tap into that same genius, the darkness within the citizens of Gotham, but the Nolan Brothers' attempt at such is structurally weak, and that's a big disappointing surprise. There are overtures to the French revolution, to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and to a lesser extent to the 'Occupy' movement, but what could have been an excellent exploration of such themes is let down by structural weakness. The justification for the 'mob rule', with it's references to the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, isn't established well enough. The factors which ought to inspire it, mostly opposition to the Dent act (which in turn references popular opposition to America's PATRIOT Act) are not established properly. The tragedy is that it would have only taken a few minor tweeks to get there.
Where the film really succeeds structurally is the dungeon sequence. From minute one we see that Bruce Wayne has both internal and external demons to fight, and victory over either is as important as victory over the other. The dungeon sequence pulls on this thread and does an excellent job of tying those two types of battles together. It sets up both an incredibly well done twist later on, and provides the right platform upon which Batman and Bane clash in the ultimate battle.
Lastly I need to bring up the final sequence. There is a cartoonish nature to it which immediately reminded me of a certain cartoon movie, and the timing is distorted to fit the narrative, rather than harmonizing them to support the realism Chris Nolan can usually achieve. For what Nolan knew should have been the best action sequence of all three movies, he lets himself, and the franchise, down a little. It's not bad, it's enjoyable, watchable, engaging and entertaining, but Nolan has done himself the disservice of setting the bar too high for himself, and the finale of the finale doesn't achieve it. There is an ambiguity in the ending, too, which actually betrays some of the set up if interpreted a certain way, which, again, is somewhat of a structural weakness. But like the end of the other films preceding it, it is engaging and emotional.
It is a very good film, I've dwelt on what's wrong with it and perhaps neglected a lot of what's right with it in this review, but I do tend to do that if I see so much potential in a film, so much which could have been better but for a few minor choices, and The Dark Knight Rises is such a film. Perhaps I'm expecting far too much, perhaps audiences generally will expect too much, and perhaps in this way, Nolan has set his own bar too high. The Dark Knight Rises has, however, left behind it a solid trilogy which is only slightly lacking in consistency, but is still perhaps the best to come out of all Hollywood blockbuster trilogies. Go and see it, enjoy it. immerse yourself in the IMAX-filmed action of it (those cameras are damn expensive, enjoy their product). Just don't expect a film as good or better as The Dark Knight.