Let’s get the obvious first question out of the way: Yes, The Dark Knight Rises is awesome, mostly in the colloquial sense but at times in the formal sense of inspiring legitimate awe. Christopher Nolan sticks the landing of the trilogy, the follow-up to the enormously successful Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, with considerable style. The Dark Knight Rises is a big, bold movie featuring an array of compelling characters, several jaw-dropping action set pieces, a handful of genuine surprises, and, of course, Batman.
It’s eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is regarded by the people of Gotham City as a hero, thanks to Comissioner Gordon and Batman covering up Dent’s de-evolution into Two-Faced madness. The anniversary of his death is celebrated as a holiday and an occasion for the mayor to give speeches demonizing Batman. Gordon struggles with the urge to confess, to ease the guilt of his moral compromise, and Bruce Wayne shuns the public eye, limping around in the shadows with a cane.
Another shadow-dweller, a cat burglar named Selina Kyle with a political streak and a well-developed sense of panache, infiltrates the domestic staff at Wayne Manor during the Harvey Dent Day gala. The vivid first impression she leaves on the reclusive Wayne is equaled (and not in a good way) by the arrival in town of a huge, masked mercenary named Bane (whose mid-air escape from CIA custody, teased in the trailer, really must be seen to be believed). The forces who conspired to bring Bane to Gotham soon find that he cannot be controlled, and he slips his leash, with potentially apocalyptic consequences for Gotham.
The Dark Knight Rises unfolds in a less episodic manner than Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, which both (especially the former) occasionally felt more like several consecutive issues of comic books structurally than the proverbial three-act movie structure. It’s a long movie, to be sure, but damned if I can find anything to cut. The characters drive the story to a much greater degree than in most blockbusters of this scale, many brought to life by very strong performances. This is Christian Bale’s best turn as both Bruce Wayne and Batman; neither of the prior turns were weak, this is one is simply stronger, as every bit of the strain of the dual identity and the toll it takes is reflected on Bale’s face and in his eyes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does superb work as the young, idealistic cop John Blake, managing to blend toughness and purity seamlessly. Tom Hardy’s Bane is occasionally unintelligible, per those complaints dating back to the first trailer, but Hardy compensates for the obscuring of his voice and almost his entire face with some vividly expressive physical acting.
The most intriguing character, though, and perhaps best performance is Anne Hathaway’s as Selina Kyle. Christopher Nolan’s track record with women characters is, while not the worst, not the best either. They’ve tended to be passive and reactive, like Ellen Page in Inception, or Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige, or Katie Holmes’ and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes in the first two Batman movies. Selina Kyle is a marked improvement over all of those, with incredibly complex personal motivations, agency over her actions, and one moment I can’t spoil that is, quite simply, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. I’m just going to say “Han Solo” and walk away with an inscrutable look on my face.
She’s not the only good female character here, either. Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate is quite compelling, and has a terrific arc. Like Selina Kyle, she takes action, rather than simply going along with it. The pair of them represent a definite improvement for Mr. Nolan, and a welcome continuation of his tendency to add at least one new skill in each movie he directs.
Getting back to the “Selina Kyle = Han Solo” business, there are more than a few moments in The Dark Knight Rises that inspire those kinds of hyperbolic analogies. Nolan’s direction of action scenes (and in general) has been gradually improving for his whole career, and while there are still better directors of action out there, there are moments of great flair here, with excellent use of the IMAX format. (I highly recommend seeing the movie in that format, if possible.) For all Nolan’s famous preference for practical effects over CGI, there is some pretty nifty CG, mainly in service of Batman’s vehicles.
Not everything in The Dark Knight Rises—or in the rest of the trilogy, for that matter—holds up to logical, naturalistic scrutiny. Perversely, these are some of my favorite things about all these movies; the fact that Batman barely even has a secret identity, whether by he himself dropping Batmobile-weight hints, or by any variety of people adding two and two and getting four, reads more as an acknowledgment of the inherent flimsiness of the deception than oversight, and it’s pretty funny, even if one wonders why the legion of people who know don’t simply go right to the media. The other things, mostly “why doesn’t x work that way?” or “why doesn’t y person act this way?” are all things that, at the risk of seeming like apologia, usually make comic-book sense, even if they don’t make real world sense. And, again, these are comic book movies. Comic book logic is perfectly fine under those circumstances.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to let things like that slide in the context of a story with the all-consuming sweep of The Dark Knight Rises. The entire trilogy has shared it, to degrees, though this one is particularly, almost ferociously compelling, on par with The Dark Knight. And oh man is it intense. Subsequent viewings (to which I’m already looking forward) may lessen that intensity, but the first time around? I laughed. I cried. I was on the edge of my seat. I whooped. I said, “Oh hell yeah.” It’s everything it’s supposed to be.
And considering that what it was supposed to be was the conclusion, with complete closure, to the most acclaimed series of comic book movies ever made, “everything it’s supposed to be” is high praise. Christopher Nolan, take your bow. You done good.