Let's be clear - it's still a better summer blockbuster than most, and it ties up the threads from the previous films in a pretty satisfactory manner. Yet as I watched it, I couldn't help thinking of a quote from the Dark Knight: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Again, this might be a little unfair, in part because the Dark Knight was impossible to properly follow up, what with Heath Ledger's death. But the Dark Knight Rises is ultimately an unsatisfying film.
Spoilers up ahead - proceed with caution
Part of the problem is that very little in it is surprising. From the start, you're fed the idea that it's all building to an ending of some kind. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears on screen, for example, you know he's going to end up replacing someone, whether it's Batman or Commissioner Gordon. And Morgan Freeman's comment about the Bat's faulty autopilot also raised some red flags.
The other side of this whole "unsurprising" business is that the trailers kind of ruined the big set piece, in which Gotham's football stadium blows up mid-game. This is something I've been noticing more recently - the other big offender this summer was Prometheus - and it's a little annoying. One of the things that made me sit up and gasp in the Dark Knight was the scene where Batman flips the Joker's big rig right in the middle of downtown Gotham. There were shots of this in the trailers for that film, but somehow it still worked; on the other hand, the stadium sequence appeared in its entirety in the trailers, so that when I saw the film, I was left with a feeling of, "That's it?"
I think the other thing this new movie was missing was a sense of expansiveness, for lack of a better word. The Dark Knight began with the Joker's bank robbery, which gave us establishing shots of an entire city. Somehow, the Dark Knight Rises manages to feel constricted, so that you don't get a sense of a wider world beyond the caves, and the alleys, and the tunnels. Some commenters have complained about the second film's pacing, but my feeling was that it added to the sense of chaos the Joker created, and the wider city made for a perfect canvas.
And probably the biggest thing going against the Dark Knight Rises is the villain. Part of this is unavoidable, given that Heath Ledger's Joker was always going to be a hard act to follow; but after that mesmerizing, unhinged performance, Bane just didn't seem very interesting. It didn't help that his big plan was to bring down Western civilization by nuking Gotham; this was one of the weaker aspects of Batman Begins, and I was disappointed to see it resurface here. But as a character, Tom Hardy's Bane ends up just being a big dude who walks around pretending to wear suspenders; if anyone should have been given the Joker's motivation of wanting to watch the world burn, it was Bane (I read the comics, and frankly I'm still in the dark as to the original character's motivation).
On the other hand, there were a few good points. For one thing, the performances were pretty good overall - special mention goes to Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Not so much for what she does in the film - ooh, she's bad! Now she's feeling bad about selling out Batman! What next? - but the way she inhabits the character from the first moment you see her. The look on her face when Bruce Wayne notices she's taken his mother's necklace is priceless, and in other points I was struck by her poise; physically inhabiting a character is, of course, part of what makes a role so believable, and I think she pulled it off well.
Among the other supporting characters, Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were well-cast as Commissioner Gordon and rookie cop John Blake. Oldman's another actor who inhabits his roles so well that he disappears into them (I call it the Harrison Ford test), and he's been consistently good as Gordon throughout the trilogy. Gordon-Levitt also has this quality in this movie, and I kind of liked how his arc in this film mirrored Oldman's in the previous two (although I'm not sure about the GCPD's practice of battlefield promotions, to be honest). The only thing that bothered me was how easily Blake deduced that Bruce Wayne was Batman - if a simple beat cop could do it, why not Gordon, who's been around Wayne for years? (I'm aware there's a suggestion that Gordon does know, but it still bothered me).
I also liked the twist toward the end, where Marion Cotillard's character is revealed to be Ra's al-Ghul's daughter Talia. Part of this was fanboy-ism, because Talia's always been a big part of the Ra's al-Ghul stories in the comics, but it was also good to see something in the story that was more than met the eye (one of my big complaints with Inception). And from a continuing fanboy perspective, the image of Bane lifting Batman over his head and then breaking his back like a twig was well-done, just as it was in the comics.
So there you go: in terms of quality, The Dark Knight Rises is probably level on quality with Batman Begins. This makes it a flawed film, but an OK one, and certainly one I'd rather see again than Cosmopolis (yeah, that's directed at David Cronenberg's comments about superhero films).
Final score: 3/5