Neither as sharply focused nor as gripping as the two films that preceded it, this nearly three-hour finale suffers from pacing issues, some unclear dialogue, and a choppy first hour, but finds its footing to close out the trilogy with heart, plenty of action, and some terrific performances. If you thought 2008's The Dark Knight was too dark or sadistic, you'll find much to enjoy here, as The Dark Knight Rises brings the story of Bruce Wayne to a heroic, moving, anduplifting conclusion.
I'll ruin no surprises here, but the basic plot finds an older Bruce Wayne lured out of crime-fighting retirement by a cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries, The Other Side of Heaven) and a brutal mercenary named Bane (Tom Hardy, Warrior, This Means War). As Selina Kyle, (AKA Catwoman, though she's never referred to by that name) Hathaway silences naysayers claiming that she's too sweet for the role, bringing a confident wit and complexity to the character that film audiences have never seen before. As the monstrous Bane, Hardy does most of his acting behind a mask; his dialogue is occasionally hard to understand as a result, but he strikes a solid balance between imposing physical presence, tactical genius, and sheer malevolence. Comparisons to Heath Ledger's Joker are irrelevant; Bane is a different breed of villain.
Newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 500 Days of Summer) and Marion Cotillard (Big Fish, La Vie en Rose) do great work here. Gordon-Levitt, in particular, shines in a well-written role that allows him to illustrate what Batman has come to mean to those people of Gotham City who still believe in him. Franchise stalwarts Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman continue to add reliable class, humor, and genuine emotion. Highest marks must go to “The Bat-Man” himself, Christian Bale, following his 2011 Oscar win for The Fighter with his most likable, emotionally-layered, and inspiring performance yet in the series (and yes, the Bat-voice remains, but it's dialed-down).
As for the film itself, as stated before, the first hour feels disjointed and unfocused; there are some nice moments here and there, but little of it has the desired emotional effect, as relationships and motivations, in general, are ineffectively handled. When Batman and Bane fight for the first time, however, the film starts to gain traction, offering a chilling view of a city in chaos and a rousing example of how one good person can inspire the masses. Reports of a highly politicized screenplay are, in my opinion, over-stated. Though the film addresses rich vs. poor dynamics and some of the wealthy are portrayed as corrupt, a beautiful moment finds Hathaway realizing that people are people and tragedy touches everyone. Hans Zimmer's score is stirring, Wally Pfister's cinematography is eye-catching, and the fight choreography is the best in the series. Chis Nolan's direction of action scenes continues to improve; nothing is hard to follow here.
Though the soundtrack often overpowers the dialogue and the film isn't as enjoyably thorough as Batman Begins (if the Caped Crusader can fly a plane, for example, when and where did he learn that skill?), the sheer emotion of the powerhouse second half mostly makes up for these flaws. Speaking of Batman Begins, you'll want to revisit that origin story to truly appreciate this finale, as it brings Bruce Wayne's story full circle (on the other hand, re-watching 2008's The Dark Knight, as die-hard fans will undoubtedly do, is unnecessary for casual viewers as long as they can remember how it ends). Though it offers despair and menace in spades, The Dark Knight Rises ultimately lives up to its title in a deeply satisfying way, giving audiences a broken hero whose love for his fellow man inspires him to overcome personal pain and tragedy to become his best self.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13. It has a few mild-to-moderate profanities. It is implied that a man and woman sleep together, though nothing is shown but them lying next to each other and talking, covered up. There is plentiful action violence, with shootings, stabbings, a neck-breaking seen from a distance, and a very brutal fight scene ending (SPOILER) with the villain breaking the hero's back (dislocating a vertebrae) by slamming him over his knee.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: All secrets will eventually come out. People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy; one courageous person can inspire others to greatness. Weakness and pain can bring us to humility and faith, which can lead to strength. The greatest love is to be willing to die for others.