Warning: I don't feel I can adequately express what I want to say about The Dark Knight Rises in a standard review. So, if you haven't seen the film (and, who are we kidding, you're probably going to no matter what a review says) then be warned there are massive plot details divulged below. I don't want to use the word spoiler, but yes, some twists will be spoiled. It is a very good film, and well worth checking out. For the rest, hopefully you'll find some insight buried in the ramblings that follow.
I am very fond of the phrase 'accidental trilogy'. For me, it refers to as a trio of connected works that were never intended as a cohesive whole (which rules out stuff like Lord of the Rings), but became widely perceived as a trilogy through any manner of reasons. It's an irregular enough phenomenon, and it's rarer still that it's pulled off convincingly as many stumble, usually during the third film. Toy Story is a good example of a series that achieved the improbable, with each film building on the themes of its predecessors to compelling, and often tear-jerking, effect. You could also probably refer to Ingmar Bergman's Silent of God films as a further example, but they're three films that happen to be tightly linked thematically.
I bring this up because as the credits rolled at the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises, I was instantly certain that Christopher Nolan had crafted his own accidental trilogy. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Robin Blake stands on a rising platform - in a fun visual echo of the film's title and themes - in the middle of the Batcave, a narrative has come full-circle. Bruce Wayne has passed the baton, and now a new hero is primed to become the icon and hero Gotham deserves. It's a beautifully definitive conclusion, and as perfect a punctuation mark as we could get to Christopher Nolan's superb cinematic examination of the caped crusader.
What's most impressive is that it was never necessarily intended to end up that way. Nolan and his co-writer brother are on record as saying they threw everything they had at The Dark Knight. And yes the second film in the series is a satisfying whole on its own terms. A third film could easily have been redundant. Some may argue it actually is.
And perfect The Dark Knight Rises is not. It takes an extended, exposition heavy and occasionally clunky first act to establish the new players and re-establish the familiar ones. The Bat, that monstorous flying machine, serves a few important story functions, but I couldn't help but feel it seemed excessive after the relatively grounded TDK (phone sonar aside). Wayne's survival probably didn't need to be emphasised so bluntly in the film's close-to-final moments - always trust your audience! - and Nolan still has some frustrating directorial quirks (we still have random police officers making pointless observations during chase sequences). Surely he could have come up with a more convincing MacGuffin than a literal ticking timebomb, too? Plus Tom Hardy's Bane could never have been as iconic as Ledger's The Joker, and odd voice work that feels removed from the images on screen doesn't really help (the uneven sound mix in general is a surprisingly mixed bag for a production of this scale).
But Bane is still a convincing villain and a genuine threat to our playboy / vigilante protagonist, as evident in that humdinger of a back-breaking sequence. Yet he's not the film's main antagonist. No, it's Bane's master aka Talia Al-Ghul aka Miranda Blake aka the gorgeous Marion Cotillard who serves that function, much like Two-Face slowly emerged as the villain of The Dark Knight. And, brilliantly, it's an antagonist that harks right back to Batman Begins (with Liam Neeson reappearing as her troublesome father in a series of brief flashbacks and hallucinations). While TDK sometimes glossed over the events of the Nolan's first bat foray, the second sequel delves right into it. It's a satisfying, compelling continuation of a story that already had an ending of sorts. Revisiting it could have felt forced, but it is instead a welcome justification for a third outing, and one grounded in comic history. Again, we come full circle, with Batman forced to face the consequences of his previous actions both physically and psychologically.
Thematically, the film also builds upon the foundations already laid. The film opens with a repeat of Commissioner Gordon's dishonest but convincing re-appropriation of the Harvey Dent 'legend'. Aaron Eckhart doesn't return, but Two-Face's positive and negative legacies powerfully reverberate throughout the narrative. Robin, however, is the beating heart of this story, and probably the most vital addition of all. The films have always been keen on emphasising that it's Batman, not Bruce Wayne, that's the real hero of these stories. It was hinted at and referenced in the first two films, but here Nolan has provided definitive evidence of that narrative core. A dark knight will indeed rise, as will another, and another after him: it's the suit, not the man underneath, that really matters. Watch the film again and you'll surely notice how focused and smart the Robin arc is here. It's an intriguing testament to the power of the costumed hero in popular culture, and its definitive commentary on the iconography of the goddamn Batman makes you wonder where exactly Nolan's successor could possibly take this franchise.
Revisiting and reevaluating the familiar is one of the strengths of this film, and it's evident even in the little details (confession: genuine goosebumps when series musical mainstay Molossus kicked in during the Batman's belated first appearance). But the new stuff is just as great, and after an hour of wondering where everything/one was going it was immensely satisfying to say the labyrinthine plot of double, triple & quadruple crosses, twists, intrigue and action play out. Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle proved a controversial addition during the pre-release hype, but her integration into the film's universe is very well-considered - even if the last minute love story, if you could call it that, feels a bit out of the blue.
Nolan's interest in current affairs also expands the film's thematic scope. The film's superb stock exchange sequence is a fun bit of cheeky liberal wish-fulfillment in the face of recessionary times & the Occupy movement, and a natural extension of the bank robbery opening of TDK. Thankfully the film never takes a preachy political stance one way or t'other, with Bane and Talia's ideological rebellion destined to fail because they're psychopaths rather than the strengths and weaknesses of their positioning. There is undeniably some joy seeing the corrupt punished for their crimes in a kangaroo court run by The Scarecrow, though. Elsewhere, Nolan and co. wryly comment on American military intervention, friendship / loyalty, political dishonesty, the very nature of what it means to be a hero... The themes are never distracting, but generally enhance the story. Dumb fun this is not, and while Nolan doesn't tend to delve too deeply into the social context, having a blockbuster that embraces the iconography and discourse of contemporary society is wonderful to see.
So then: there's a lot to say about The Dark Knight Rises, and I haven't really critiqued the usual reliables like music, performances, cinematography etc... Let's just say that despite a few notable shortcomings, The Dark Knight Rises is a thrilling and smart blockbuster that's head and shoulders above all of its recent competitors. But, most importantly, it's a film that convincingly builds upon the legacy of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, while adding a few new tricks to the mix. Adjusting to the wealth of ideas hurled at the screen takes time, with even the writer(s)/director struggling to establish a busy, complex plot. But the payoffs are worth it. Because The Dark Knight Rises marks the conclusion of a glorious accidental trilogy - the rare sequel that didn't necessarily have to exist, but against the odds emerges as an extremely satisfying conclusion. A new dark knight, or perhaps a sidekick, has risen, no doubt about it. But I don't envy whoever decides to rise to the challenge of rebooting this franchise after Christopher Nolan's remarkable, definitive examination of Bruce Wayne and The Batman.