This is one of the hardest movies for me to write about in recent memory.
For the sake of posterity, let me say up front that I enjoy Christopher Nolan's Batman films a hell of a lot. Batman Begins was incredibly impressive, but its successor just knocked my socks off. I LOVE The Dark Knight. It was far and away my favorite movie of 2008, I was every bit as upset as everyone else when it was snubbed at the Oscars, and I maintain to this day that it is - more than any other - the movie that gave a certain amount of legitimacy to the comic book genre (though Whedon's Avengers has now legitimized it as MULTIPLE genres). It made for interesting and stimulating discussion, made a conscious choice to shake things up and not just play by comic book "rules" and explores some really interesting material. All in addition to being an enjoyable movie.
Which is why it really bums me out that The Dark Knight Rises is ONLY a pretty enjoyable movie.
Don't misunderstand, it's not bad. It's mostly good, it's emotional, and it ends Nolan's trilogy on a somewhat satisfactory (if hardly final) note. But it's a mess in so many ways. Without spoiling anything, this film is more or less Return of the Jedi to TDK's Empire. It's bigger, broader, the stakes are higher and the movie is louder, but it's not saying as much. Like Jedi, it has major pacing and story problems, mishandles a couple key characters, and after the most cursory glance the narrative devolves into nonsense. And frankly, I think that Jedi actually retains a good deal MORE of its predecessors' thematic heft than this film does.
But worse than that is this movie has nothing really to say. And HERE is where we get into:
**********MAJOR SPOILER TERRITORY**********
SERIOUSLY, I WILL TALK ABOUT SHIT THAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW
. . . OKAY? GOOD
As is usual, the great Film Crit HULK says most of what needs to be said about why this movie feels so empty. As is often the case, I hate following this, but to paraphrase a much better writer: Nolan's films - notably his four films previous to this one - all have thematic concepts that are woven into the narrative on such a deep level that they surface in the dramatic arcs of the characters themselves. Fear. Showmanship and Sacrifice. Escalation and society's reaction to anarchy and terror. Dreams. You take away these ideas from Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception, and only would the movies get worse, they simply wouldn't work at all. These films live and breath and last beyond their final frame not because of Nolan's grasp on visual film-making (which is unarguable at this point) but because the film's narrative forces the characters to think and feel the central theme of the film at the same time as the audience. It's a shared journey of discovery.
The journey we go on with Batman in TDKR? Rocky III. No, I'm not kidding. Only, this is "What if Rocky had quit boxing for nearly a decade after Rocky II and spent the whole first act getting his groove back?" version. Meaning that the "Rise" is an arc we go through TWICE. Bruce gets back into the game in a first act that actually feels rather fun and adventurous, but it dulls his "ultimate" comeback because. . . dude, we JUST SAW THIS.
There's NOTHING in The Dark Knight Rises that gets explored the same way that Nolan approaches and develops the core concepts of his other movies, NOTHING that gets defined by a character's journey through the film even as it echoes in the film's narrative. There just isn't. The film tosses a few cursory buzzwords at the audience, but it's never given deeper meaning, and the character arcs (such as they are) have nothing to do with the "IMPORTANT TOPICAL SERIOUS STUFF" the film references. Bane is supposedly a revolutionary, but he's not, he's just in it for revenge, and is revealed to be a stooge at that - so much for living up to the Joker. Bane talks about giving Gotham back to the people. . . but why? Gotham is magically crime free - not thanks to people learning to believe in good, but because Dent's death inspired some ultra-harsh laws that we never learn about but magically put all the bad guys behind bars. There was talk from the film-makers about Gotham rotting from within, but we never see that. There's no corruption anymore, no apparent crime (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character jokes that soon the police will be chasing down overdue library books), so what exactly would make the citizens of Gotham restless to the point of an armed uprising?
Nolan has made no secret that he was inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, and that's obvious in the "trial scenes" where a freed Dr. Crane presides over sentencing hearings like Robespierre gone cracked. But where Dickens held empathy for the lower-class' situation while at the same time condemning their crimes, Nolan doesn't bother doing either.
What's worse, we never even SEE "the people." We see the rich (Wayne, Miranda Tate, Lucius Fox), the middle class (Alfred, Gordon, Blake) and some criminals (Catwoman, Bane, etc.). There's a group of orphans that are maybe supposed to be the poor? But they're kids who spend the whole film with their heads down. There is nothing similar to the Ferry Scenario in The Dark Knight to show the street-level stakes or consequences of the struggle between the superhero and the supervillain. The fact that the film literally rests on a "ticking time bomb" scenario (with the "I have a nuke!" threat of all things - what is this, 1995?) serves only to subvert its own steadfastly serious tone. It's plot is very nearly as ludicrous as that of The Avengers (on a conceptual level - in execution, it's so much more ridiculous), but it lacks the energy and adventure of that film to make such an outlandish premise really click. With TDKR Nolan has made his most unapolagetically "comic-booky" film, but still plays as though he's grounding things the way he was in The Dark Knight.
And BOY does that ever not work. Neither do a number of the ways characters are handled. Alfred has one particular scene that should be absolutely heartbreaking (and Caine sure doesn't hold back, bless him), but it feels utterly out-of-character. Worse, he completely vanishes from the movie for more than half the movie with no explanation. Did he leave Gotham? Was he hiding out in a basement somewhere during the nuclear bomb threat, or was he on holiday? And why does everyone just take Bane's word about Dent at face value? An armed terrorist, who just threatened the city with nuclear annihilation, reads some stuff off of some notebook paper and everyone just accepts it? Did Gordon confirm this during the months that Gotham was cut off from the world? Why is Blake the only character we see react to this news at all?
Speaking of Blake, Joseph Gordon-Levitt deserves serious recognition for doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this movie. He's arguably more the protagonist than Bruce Wayne, but is also subjected to some of the most contrived and amateur writing of the entire trilogy. He knows Bruce Wayne is Batman (AND that he didn't really kill Harvey Dent) because of. . . a look. Alright, I get that he's a Tim Drake analog (who did figure out Batman's secret identity), but you can't do that off-screen in such a stupid way. And then he spends a lot of the movie getting told lessons by Gordon and Bruce instead of actually learning anything. And when the film closes, he's positioned to be the next Batman. . . why exactly? Bruce spent years traveling and learning, trained under the greatest warrior in the world to sharpen his skillls (he was well-versed in martial arts BEFORE Ra's kicked his ass), and then STILL had a lot to learn when he returned to Gotham.
Blake was just a beat cop. One does not simply walk into the Batcave and become Batman. Especially when his legal name is. . . Robin? Guys, while I love what you're trying for, you're doing it wrong.
In spite of all this, the film is definitely enjoyable, which I suppose is impressive given the hurdles it arrays against itself. But the talent in front of the camera is to thank for much of the film's success. Anne Hathaway absolutely owns every scene she's in, and even though Selina Kyle is just as muddled a character as Bane (who isn't nearly as as well-served by Tom Hardy's restricted performance) she has a great chemistry with Bruce/Batman and a fantastic sexuality that overpowers even Nolan's traditionally-cold view of physical attraction. This is easily the best incarnation of Catwoman ever put to screen, and has some of the best laughs (yes, laughs) of the film.
The finale also makes sure to give viewers plenty of pay-off. The entire ending largely feels like the sort of fan service that Nolan has thus-far intentionally avoided, and even undermines the film's "Big Damn Hero" moment. In fact, because of the way it's handled, it comes off like a cheating version of The Avengers' Sacrifice Play, and is the zenith of a set piece that's nowhere near as well-crafted, fist-pumping, or character-driven as the one in Whedon's film. While The Dark Knight chose to end not with the big Joker chase/truck flip or even the Doctor/Clown/S.W.A.T. team showdown with the Joker but with Dent's fall (which is the thematic climax of the movie as as well as the narrative one) The Dark Knight Rises goes out with one-on-one fistfights, massive street brawls, high-speed chases (where Batman throws machine-gun and rocket fire around like Rambo no less), and a nuclear detonation. But none of it means anything.
Without Nolan's signature interesting, tangible, compelling, and incredibly well-executed ideas anchored into the movie, all that's left is the bombastic but hollow and logistically-problematic narrative. In the end, it has nothing to say, nothing to explore, it's just spectacle, every bit as empty as your average Michael Bay movie. There's no glue holding it together, nothing from the nonsensical beginning to the Scooby Doo Mega Happy Ending validating the leaps of logic in service to a greater cause.
Because there is none. In the end, this isn't the movie we needed, though it may be the one we deserved.