"When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die."
The Dark Knight Rises is best described as an exercise in self-indulgence. Christopher Nolan fans have worshipped the man for years, exalting his modus operandi of gritty self-seriousness and faux gravitas without providing Nolan with the constructive criticism that he needs to grow and mature as a filmmaker. Due to the overzealous praise, Nolan's movies have been growing increasingly overlong and ponderous, and his ego has now reached critical mass with this third Batman adventure. Thus, instead of working to improve his directorial technique, Nolan stuck by his usual filmmaking chestnuts here, hoping to get away with bad pacing and pedestrian action scenes by smothering everything in relentless dramatic music and over-complicating a simple narrative to make people believe they're smart for understanding it. This is not to imply that The Dark Knight Rises is a terrible movie, however - it's just a severely flawed, tediously long-winded effort in need of discipline. While probably polished enough to satiate devoted fans, The Dark Knight Rises suffers from significant narrative and pacing issues.
It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne (Bale) allowed Gotham City to believe that his Batman alter-ego murdered District Attorney Harvey Dent. The events led to Bruce retiring as Batman, and resigning himself to a life of solitude spurred on by his despair over the death of Rachel. Although organised crime has largely dissolved in the aftermath of Dent's death, Gotham is soon faced with a new threat: super-strong, masked mercenary Bane (Hardy). Learning that Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) is in hospital, and that Bane is building an army in the sewers with the aim of crippling Gotham City, Bruce is compelled to bring Batman out of retirement.
The problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that it's a structural and storytelling mess. The picture literally feels like two movies awkwardly mashed together, resulting in two underdone stories with only one payoff. See, the film initially concentrates on Bruce Wayne battling cheesy inner demons as he weighs up whether or not to don the Batman cape yet again. Once Batman finally rises, though, Nolan literally hits the reset button and we're returned to square one, with Bruce having to work his way up to becoming Batman again. It feels clunky, destroying what could have been an interesting narrative flow and causing all sense of momentum to founder. It makes the initial rising - and thus the entire first hour - feel like a waste of time. The Dark Knight Rises runs a colossal 160 minutes, yet the plotting is not necessarily complicated. Plot and character development is important, but the movie is loaded with filler, not to mention the simplest developments are overly stretched out to make them FEEL complex. If the plot is intricate and multilayered, why can it be summed up so simply? If the characters are well-developed, why is it difficult to feel anything for them?
Directly because of the picture's clumsy structuring, Batman receives a woefully short amount of screen-time. Not to imply that the movie should have been full of mindless Caped Crusader action, but the point of a Batman adventure is to use the character properly rather than diminishing him to the point that he feels like any other generic hero. Furthermore, the treatment of the protagonists is maddening. For instance, Bruce retires Batman and essentially gives up on life due to Rachel's death, but this notion is ridiculous. The loss of loved ones is the defining force which has driven Batman since the beginning - it created him, and it sustains him. If anything, losing a beloved childhood friend should make Bruce more determined to fight crime. Meanwhile, Alfred (Caine) loses faith in Bruce and abandons his master. This development admittedly raises the stakes, but it betrays the character of Alfred to his very core. Furthermore, Bruce should learn meaningful lessons as part of his character arc, but he never learns anything significant or deep. The Dark Knight Rises carries a self-serious tone, yet for such a pretentious movie, it's not actually about anything. Sure, Nolan uses Harvey Dent's death as the film's "9/11 moment", and Bane's reign calls to mind the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, but such material is heavy-handed and silly, ladled on with the subtlety and sophistication of a shotgun.
The script (by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) is equally troubled in terms of dialogue; the "telling rather than showing" aspect is off the charts, with the characters spending a lot of time laboriously over-explaining every motivation and relationship. This is felt most glaringly in a late plot twist reveal, when every background detail of a certain character's past is dutifully spelled out via a silly monologue. It's lazy spoon-feeding in what's intended to be a sophisticated action-thriller, halting the climax for much too long. Furthermore, Nolan's approach to his Batman movies hinges on "gritty realism", but the picture nevertheless contains unforgivably idiotic moments. Without spoiling too much, an atom bomb is dropped in the ocean near Gotham City, yet no neighbouring cities suffer from radiation poisoning and there's no tidal wave as a result of the explosion. Plus, the kid-friendly PG-13 rating forbade Nolan from being truly dark in terms of violence - whenever Bane promises to do something badass, the camera awkwardly shies away from capturing it.
Another hugely problematic aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the character of Bane. The comics paint Bane as the ultimate super-villain, an immaculate mix of brains and brawn. While the brains aspect is addressed, Bane's physique is severely underwhelming here, and this betrays the character in a major fashion. In the role, Tom Hardy stands less than six feet and looks more pudgy than muscular. It's a substantial problem that Batman and fucking Alfred are taller than what's supposed to be the most physically intimidating threat of the Batman universe. Hardy just looks like an ordinary dude - in fact random henchmen from previous Batman movies are more physically remarkable than Hardy. As a result, various narrative machinations are hard to swallow, especially since Bane is apparently able to hurt Batman despite his bulletproof armour. How can such a regular-built individual achieve this? It's impossible to believe Hardy as Bane, and it doesn't help that his dialogue is at times utterly indecipherable. Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghoul remains the most badass villain of Nolan's trilogy, easily.
For years, Christopher Nolan has received flack for his poor construction of action sequences, and such criticisms remain justified for The Dark Knight Rises. The big set-pieces are often startlingly incoherent here, as the geography of certain locations is hazy and it's genuinely difficult to discern where everyone is at any given moment. This is felt most glaringly in the opening aerial action sequence, which is full of close-ups and shaky-cam, and consequently is hard to follow. Additionally, the hand-to-hand combat remains as underwhelming as ever, often marred by frenetic camerawork and humdrum choreography.
Man, this review is far more negative than I intended it to be. Truth is, The Dark Knight Rises isn't unredeemably bad - it's just that the film's positive aspects are not as interesting to make note of. Certainly, Hans Zimmer's score is suitably engaging, Wally Pfister's cinematography is often spectacular (action scenes notwithstanding) and production values do impress (it was made for $250 million), but the slipshod writing is more noticeable than these strong surface-level attributes. At the very least, the acting is predominantly excellent. In particular, Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt really bring their A-game to the film. Oldman's Commissioner Gordon is articulate and smart, while Gordon-Levitt affords genuine charisma and believability to his role of the young cop. Easily, these two are the best things in the movie, and the scenes they share are better than any of the action sequences. It's also hard to dislike Morgan Freeman or Michael Caine; the two veterans are predictably great here. Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway is fairly good as Selena Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman (though she's never referred to as Catwoman at any point). Hathaway is colourful and sensual in the role, although she and Christian Bale fail to sell the love interest angle that's awkwardly shoehorned into the script. Speaking of Bale, he's still just okay as Bruce/Batman.
To be fair, the things that work about The Dark Knight Rises really do work; it manages to take bold risks, and there are a few moments of badass Batman combat. At the end of the day, however, The Dark Knight Rises is merely okay - it's not great, not flawless, and by no means is it a masterpiece. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan's trilogy capper is brought down by its long-winded nature and poor script construction. Due to this, and due to the lack of Batman screen-time, the movie honestly feels like a mediocre Christopher Nolan action-thriller which just happens to feature Batman. It seems that Nolan has grown bored with the series and no longer cares. Nolan was reluctant to return to the franchise directly because of this, and he only took up the director's seat due to fan pressure and the promise of a huge paycheque. This is evidenced by the film's ending, which does leave room for further adventures but announces that Nolan has no interest in helming any.