The question of expectations, especially as regards a tentpole flick like this, is a necessary evil in any account of The Dark Knight Rises, but for once in my life, I went into a thing without my blinkers. I was neither primed for a pale imitation of the pitch-perfect previous film, nor desperate to declare The Dark Knight Rises the greatest film since Citizen Kane. I'll admit to high hopes... but there's no harm in those.
Above all, I was aware that the last chapter of Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of all things Batman would have to change things up hugely to escape the long shadow of its immediate predecessor, and the tragic absence of its stunning star.
I don't know that it does, ultimately. In fact The Dark Knight Rises is such a deliberately different film from the summer smash it succeeds that it invites the very comparison one suspects the filmmakers were attempting to sidestep. In a sense, it begs the question. And alas, it can only answer in the negative.
That is certainly not to say this final chapter is a failure. On the contrary, it trumps Batman Begins, the above-par but sub-sterling origin story which kicked off this trilogy, and which The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back to both narratively and thematically. Beyond the initial set-up, however, so little of this series' centerpiece survives that Nolan's lavish new movie feels almost... compromised.
Eight years on from the events of The Dark Knight, crime in Gotham City is at an all-time low because of an act championed by the late DA. Accordingly, the caped crusader - having taking the fall for the death of the very fellow: the duplicitous Harvey Dent - is in retirement. Yet when a new threat arises, Bruce Wayne dons the mantle once more to meet the challenge posed by what amounts to a muscle-man in a gas mask — only to be found unequal to Bane's brute force. Beaten, if not wholly broken as in the pseudo-source material of the surprisingly straightforward screenplay by the brothers Nolan, The Dark Knight must now rise again... again.
Of course it's not a question of "if" but "when" - and perhaps "how" - and in this protracted act The Dark Knight Rises is at its weakest. We who have seen films before know perfectly well that Batman is going to come back, and the time Nolan takes to patch up his protagonist is inexcusable. Superficially this seems a mere over-indulgence, but beneath the sheen the sequence is more insidious still, for what does it offer except a convenient means to a predestined end? How many times must we watch the same Bruce Wayne defeat the same demons in the same film, one wonders.
This repetition does The Dark Knight Rises a disservice, made doubly more damaging because of its incredible length, and the various ways in which - even then - this second sequel fails to flesh out the vast majority of its supporting characters. Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon are all sidelined or saddled with thankless arcs, meanwhile a few of the major new players also fall flat: Marion Cotillard's Miranda is as wasted as the franchise's past attempts at a love interest, and as Blake, an idealistic young police officer who just so happens to have worked out Batman's deepest secret, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nearly meaningless.
Almost without exception, however, the star-studded cast makes a herculean effort. In the title role, Christian Bale is a substantially better Bruce Wayne than he's been in the past, and Tom Hardy's Bane is a more credible antagonist than his silly voice suggests, however short-changed he is by the last act. Finally, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle strikes a smart balance between a damaged femme fatale and the Catwoman of the comic books, complete with cartoonish antics.
Credit where it's earned, incidentally: hers is a character you can imagine easily oversexed, objectified with precious little effort, and yet - despite a few long shots of her bum on the back of the Batbike - she is by a large margin the best-developed woman the Nolans have written into existence. Which may not be saying a great deal, given the caliber of the last candidates.... but every little helps!
I've raised a fair few of my issues with it over the course of this review, but you mustn't misunderstand me: at the end of the day, I had a pretty fine time with The Dark Knight Rises at the IMAX. The unbearable sense of tension that made its predecessor so remarkable may have taken a time out, yet the action is every bit as astonishing, and if Hans Zimmer's score is more of the same, it's more of the same stunning score — plus, it adds at least one memorable new dimension.
It must stand as a testament to how very much the filmmakers do right in this crucial conclusion that even with so much wrong, still The Dark Knight Rises rises above the vast majority of comic book movies. It's more of a sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, and it fares far better in the former comparison than the latter... but then, what wouldn't?