I want to say that I loved The Dark Knight Rises. It was a dense, complex movie with a lot going on. This was both what made it great and what gave it flaws that perhaps made it not quite as incredible as The Dark Knight which came before. This is going to be rife with SPOILERS, so beware of this going in.
First off, I'm going to talk about what made the movie awesome, and then nitpick it from another angle. I loved Bane. I think they did an excellent job of turning him into a fearsome villain with presence, a force that moves through Gotham like a knife through butter. It is remarkable what Tom Hardy was able to do with only body movements and the use of his eyes. And, what's more, Bane is Batman's superior in almost every way, and it shows. There isn't a fight in the film where Bane doesn't kick Batman's ass, thoroughly. The only way he is overcome is through the cheap trick of punching his mask, which felt about as rewarding as beating Darth Vader by bitch-slapping his respirator.
It is worth noting that Christopher Nolan improved on the Bane of the comics by, on top of making Bane deadly, turning him into a sympathetic character. It is truly touching that Bane, a prisoner, essentially sacrificed his humanity to save the life of one little girl. Doing so turns him into what is clearly a monster, unable to connect with people and discarding them like sacks of worthless flesh. It is only with Talia that he is able to become a protector and show a scintilla of compassion. I wish they had spent more time on this dynamic, but given the twist of Talia's appearance, it could not be.
One thing important to note about this movie is how important the events of Batman Begins are to the plot. Indirectly, Liam Neeson's Ra's Al-Ghul drives the entire story; Bane is trained by the League of Shadows and his plan mirrors their twisted philosophy of purging civilizations in order to purify them from corruption. Bane's excommunication from the League tells us two things: it requires us to take him seriously since this is akin to someone being kicked out of the Soviet Spetsnaz (an infamously dangerous special forces) for being too violent; it also illustrates that Bane is a dark shadow of what Batman could have become. It is also worth noting that Talia's parasitical entrance into Gotham's society would not have happened without Batman allowing Ra's to die at the end of the first movie. Revenge drives the movie, with Ra's Al-Ghul a specter above it all.
The Dark Knight Rises also returns us to the Asian and Middle Eastern influences of Batman Begins. I thought that one of the most powerful moments of that first movie arose from Bruce Wayne's time abroad in the Tibetan mountains, training with the League of Shadows. Similarly, Wayne's time in captivity in this movie, as well as the backstory surrounding where he is imprisoned, includes many of the more poignant scenes in the film. It's interesting that the most intriguing moments for me in this trilogy were the moments where we aren't in Gotham and when we aren't dealing with Batman; instead, it is those moments where we confront the psyche of the man behind the mask. We get a great deal of that in The Dark Knight Rises, possibly more than any of the movies that came before.
The Breaking of the Bat
Speaking of which, let's talk about Batman. Christopher Nolan does three things that are shocking for a comic book movie like this. First, he cripples Batman's spirit; the first half of the movie is a trail of Batman seeking a purpose in a world that hates him, and then being destroyed for it against the immutable wall of Bane. Second, he cripples Batman's body; Bane's thrashing of Batman is so brutal that he must spend months retraining his body and popping his freaking vertebrae back into place. Lastly, he kills Batman. Who does that? The only apparent way that he gets out of it is by some weird factor of Christian Bale being immune to nuclear explosions or Alfred being so mentally deranged by the events of the movie that he hallucinates Bruce Wayne's appearance in Europe. However, this is another area where I wished that they would spend more time allowing events to resonate with the audience. Things moved so fast that it was hard to connect with Bruce Wayne's anguish; we were too swept up in Gotham going to hell that it was more difficult to mull over the more quiet moments of the prison and Batman rising from his slump.
The French Revolution
One thing which I thought very daring on the part of Christopher Nolan was making clear references to the French Revolution. That same French Revolution that brought on the guillotine, the execution of Marie Antoinette, the kangaroo courts, and an atmosphere where you could be killed for any reason; a barely controlled anarchy. I have long regarded the French Revolution as the most terrifying event I've ever read about in history. Imagine going for a walk and being branded a traitor, brutally raped and murdered, just because you wore a watch. This was a time period where the lower class's hatred of the rich grew to such levels that they would lynch, torture, and kill anyone who had even the barest hint of privilege. If you spoke in a refined and polite manner, you'd likely be pointed out and killed. People reported their neighbors, old rivals, and anyone who pissed them off that day as traitors to the new order. And, because the desire for a purge of nobility was so powerful, it made absolutely no difference whether the claims were true or false; they'd guillotine you anyways. People accused one another just to focus the mob somewhere, anywhere, else. It was worse than living under some warlord's or drug lord's yoke; it was humans murdering one another for expressing rational thought, a bloodbath that targeted civilization itself.
We see that same sort of spirit in the revolution that Bane brings to Gotham. People are encouraged to replace the existing order, to kill those in charge and to overturn old idols. It is exemplified clearest at all in the monstrous court created by Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow of previous movies. He seats himself atop a ruin of thrown papers, books, chairs, and tables, the same devastation which Bane has brought to the order of Gotham. And, from this perch, he listens to people try to explain why they aren't guilty, but sentences them to death regardless, a mockery of the justice system of old. The fear that overtakes replacement Commissioner Foley is indicative of the same fear that overtook the average person during the French Revolution; people hoped that by remaining quiet and suppliant they might escape the carnage when, in fact, what was needed was a gathering of the silent majority in opposing it.
This was unexpectedly impressive food for thought but, like with the meditation of Batman repairing his sense of self, I felt that the French Revolution aspect of Bane's agenda came by so fast that it wasn't allowed to fully resonate with the audience. I'm willing to bet that the average movie goer completely missed that this was a perfect cautionary warning of how the excesses of groups like Occupy Wall Street could cause them to radically deviate from their agenda. It also is a perfect fictional illustration of the fact that, throughout history, we've seen populist movements before and that they must be taken with a grain of salt or risk spiraling dangerously out of control.
Altogether, I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises immensely, but I can't help but wish it had been a longer movie or that it had tried to tackle a bit less. All the points and characters that it brought up were incredibly interesting, but I found myself wishing for some longer scenes, for things to slow down just a little bit so some of what was happening could feel more fleshed out and less frantic. This is, perhaps, a hilarious complaint for a movie that's already three hours long. Perhaps this nitpick should be rescinded in favor of the fact that this will lend itself well to multiple viewings, which is always good for any movie.
But The Dark Knight is probably the better movie, if only barely. I say this just because, upon leaving The Dark Knight, I felt awed and thoughtful. By contrast, upon leaving The Dark Knight Rises, I felt overwhelmed and that I had a LOT to process. This isn't necessarily bad, but it's worth noting that I didn't find myself reaching that cathartic moment where the movie ends and everything feels tied together. But, then again, it isn't like we had that moment with the movie, Inception, either. It's a truly tough call.
If nothing else, I did want to comment that I find the idea of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a new Batman to be a little bit ridiculous. It isn't that he doesn't have the acting chops, it's more that he looks so young that I can't picture him in a Batsuit without laughing. Also: Catwoman was well done by Anne Hathaway but, like I predicted, I never felt like her presence in the film was really necessary. Batman didn't have to be trapped into a fight with Bane; he was going to fight him anyways. And someone else could just as easily have saved him and helped him out in the final confrontation. Her only salient point was giving Batman a sort of curious kick in the pants at the beginning, prompting him to stop being Howard Hughes and to put the Batsuit on again, if only to recover a lost necklace.
Anyways, enough nitpicking. All in all, it's a fantastic movie and I'll definitely be seeing it again at some point. I'd be curious to hear other impressions in the comments below, if anyone wants to contribute.