"The Dark Knight Rises" takes place eight years after "The Dark Knight". Gotham is doing much better than it was and Bruce Wayne has effectively retired from being Batman. But when a dangerous mercenary leader named Bane threatens the safety of Gotham, Bruce Wayne has to find the dormant strength to once again confront and stop evil.
I have to warn you that this review may sound more negative than my final score reflects. The reason is that the numerous things The Dark Knight Rises does well were also done in the two previous Batman films, and so don't require as much comment here.
The cast is wonderful and performances are great without exception. Returning actors bring the same humanity to their roles as they did in the past, and Michael Caine delivers his most sympathetic, heart-wrenching performance yet as the loving and loyal Alfred Pennyworth.
Newcomers also bring great things to the table. Anne Hathaway surprised me by portraying a Catwoman that can believably take on beefy bad guys, thanks in large part to using her body weight as leverage in acrobatic combat. She also displays levels of complexity in her character that make her engaging and sometimes unpredictable.
Tom Hardy does a fine job as Bane, delivering dialogue with a nice range of expression, even though director Christopher Nolan strangely likes to make dialogue difficult to hear clearly at times. (An odd factor in all three of his Batman movies.) Despite the mask, Hardy is still able to create an interesting character.
In general, the greatest strength of the film is its drama. These characters and their stories and motivations are captivating and easy to invest in. I would love to see Christopher Nolan produce a weekly TV series called "Gotham City", a crime drama about Gotham and the people living there. Instead, Nolan chose to make this movie. Which brings me to my chief complaint.
This is not a "Batman movie". It's a movie about Gotham and some of the key people who live there. I walked into the theater still wondering why The Joker had to be left out of the movie. I left the theater wondering why Batman was left out of the movie.
Bruce Wayne does not appear onscreen as Batman until 60 minutes into the movie. (Forgivable in an "origin story". Not good for the climax of a superhero trilogy.) He then has two or three relatively short scenes as Batman over the next 60 minutes. It isn't until about the last 45 minutes that we stop seeing Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and start seeing him as Batman regularly. And even during the last 45 minutes, Batman doesn't really shine in the way he should after the movie spends so much time hammering Bruce Wayne into the ground.
In this movie, Batman relies on his gadgets when I wanted to see him being physical, and brawling when I thought he should be using gadgets. In his last fight with Bane I kept asking myself why he wasn't using those razors that shoot out of his gauntlets, as we saw in his final fight with the Joker in "The Dark Knight". And the climax involves him leaning too heavily on his flying vehicle for my taste. Lots of people could fly that vehicle. For me, Batman action scenes mean more "cape and cowl" activity and outsmarting the bad guys with ingenious foresight. Very little of either in this movie, relative to the nearly three hour run time.
Batman Begins had to grow on me. I wasn't expecting it to be as grounded as it was. The Dark Knight had to grow on me some, too, but not near as much. The Dark Knight Rises likely will not improve as much with age for me. It just strays too far from Batman for too long. Including a final fate for Bruce Wayne that, while cathartic, is very out of character with the Batman of the comics. The time spent straying from Batman is well done and still good movie making in general, but seeing a great drama that was marketed as a comedy will still be disappointing if you were expecting two hours of laughs.
The movie also lacks some of the focus of the previous two films and doesn't always make sense. We're to understand that Bruce Wayne's entire body is a wreck from years of being Batman. But after putting on a leg brace he's back to swooping down from above and traversing the field of battle with supernatural ease.
In another scene, Jonathan Crane (The Scarecrow) makes a cameo, but doesn't behave at all according to his previously established character or scarecrow persona.
Although the film does very well within the limitations needlessly imposed on itself, I still sensed that the entire experience was "plan B". I believe a more satisfying climax to the trilogy would have featured the Joker or at least Two Face. (Batman survived that fall and was jogging away soon after. Why couldn't Two Face have pulled through in critical condition and been kept hidden away somewhere as part of Jim Gordan's lie?) Chris Nolan squeezed nearly all the potential he could out of Bane's character, but Bane just isn't near the catalyst for storytelling that The Joker or Two Face are.
There are a number of scattered themes worth talking about in this movie. Lying, self-sacrifice, human depravity, and probably a few more that don't come to mind. But none of these themes were consistently given enough of the spotlight to stay with me beyond the scenes in which they were present.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is a very good film, and the drama and story alone may make it a great one for you. But if you are hoping for a "Batman movie" to close out a "Batman trilogy", prepare for this one to fall short of its potential in noticeable ways.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
Listen to this review this weekend on The Spirit Blade Underground Podcast!