The Dark Knight Rises
First and foremost, I cannot decide at the moment if The Dark Knight Rises (trailer) is a 'better film' than Spider-Man 3, Batman Forever, and/or X-Men: The Last Stand. The fact that I have to outright state as much should tell you what a comparative disappointment this film is. Overall, its many storytelling flaws bring the picture down, offering only engaging acting, entertaining character interaction, and the kind of empty-headed (but oft impressive) action spectacle associated with more conventional blockbusters.
It is a hodgepodge of several classic Batman stories squished into one chaotic narrative that ends up resembling a mash-up of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Rocky III. There are moments of emotional engagement in the first third and the final moments pack an appropriate wallop. But the film frankly drags for much of its middle 90 minutes on its way to a surprisingly unremarkable climax. Save for mostly fine performances, including a terrific supporting turn by Anne Hathaway, and some wonderful character beats scattered throughout, this is sadly the very definition of an unnecessary sequel.
A token amount of plot: Eight years have passed since Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes in order to salvage the hope he represented to Gotham's populace in the wake of The Joker's rampage. Batman hasn't been seen since and Bruce Wayne has become a Howard Hughes-esque hermit, forever mourning Rachel Dawes (seen in photographs as Maggie Gyllenhaal, not Katie Holmes), who he believes was going to leave Harvey for him before she was murdered by Heath Ledger's anarchist clown. However a chance encounter with an entrancing jewel thief (Hathaway) leads to Bruce slowly coming of his shell. News of Wayne Enterprise's financial misfortunes in his absence, and the apparent emergence of a new city-wide threat in the form of international terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), forces Bruce to take control of his life and embrace both sides of his former identities. But with Wayne Industries being manipulated from within and Bruce long past his physical prime, what could can Wayne or Batman accomplish in a city that scorns them both?
Obviously I'm going to avoid explicit spoilers, but you'll be frankly shocked at how few genuine surprises this film has in store. It unspools in a stunningly predictable and straightforward manner. If you have any inkling of what comic book stories are being referenced, you'll know where the plot is going, even though it takes forever to get there. Like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the film spends its first hour with supporting characters (Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon Levitt in this case) trying to deduce a loosely-constructed mystery that, when revealed, makes you realize that you really didn't need to see that first hour at all. Sure, there are some wonderful character beats, especially from Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway (including a terrific introductory scene between Bruce Wayne and Levitt's rookie cop John Blake and a devastating exchange between Bale and Caine), as well as a terribly silly motorcycle chase, but from a plot standpoint, very little of what happens in the first hour or so of the film ends up being remotely relevant. Even Bruce Wayne's character arc, trying to be vague here, basically puts him right back where he started at the midway point.
The picture spends its first half very slowly getting to what should be the end of act one, dragging what is arguably the film's inciting action well past the hour mark and giving incredibly short shrift to what should be the meat of the story, mainly Gotham City in prolonged peril. And for all the talk of how the film somehow speaks to our times socially and politically, HA! Look, I'm the guy who calls The Dark Knight the defining post-9/11 movie. But Bane's few seemingly revolutionary speeches are vague and ambiguous while his actions (using escaped prisoners as his personal army) are that of any super-villain. Bane speaks about 'taking back your city from corruption' but we never see any regular Gothamites doing anything revolutionary, nor do we really see them reacting to much of the second-act peril in any real way. The level of political discourse in this film is on the level of the Penguin's 'glory of Gotham!' speeches in Batman Returns (whose 'Penguin runs for mayor' plot-line was of course a brutal satire of personality politics).
We're told that Gotham City is filled with corruption and that the rich are fleecing the poor, yet we see no evidence of this beyond the machinations to bring down Wayne Enterprises. Even the idea of Gotham having turned itself around post-Dark Knight based on a lie is only dealt with in regards to how it personally affects Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, fine as always, is once again basically tasked to play the role of sidekick this time around, ala Batman Begins). Anything Chris Nolan and company have to say about economic inequality and its harmful effects on society were said much better in the first act of Batman Begins by Katie Holmes, Richard Brake, and Tom Wilkinson.
Action was never Chris Nolan's strong suit, and I generally don't care if a Batman film has decent action (here's a dirty secret -- comic books are soap operas and readers devour them for the melodrama, not the fisticuffs). But the action beats in The Dark Knight Rises are pretty unmemorable, with only the prologue qualifying as somewhat different (even if that terribly written and acted beat borrows from Cliffhanger and Moonraker). Selina Kyle has some fun fight scenes, but otherwise the fist fights and vehicle chases are shockingly generic. And the emphasis on flying vehicles costs the film much of the practical magic that made its predecessor so entertaining (I think the Dent/Joker van chase is slightly overrated, but at least it felt real and unique). Without going into details, at least a large portion of the finale ends up featuring so much 'faceless vehicle versus faceless vehicle' action that yes it does resemble a Transformers film (yes, the film's 'heroes sneak around rescuing a city in peril' third act does resemble Transformers 3).'
The film looks dynamite, and dear lord see this in an IMAX theater if you can, but the pure spectacle mostly fails to engage on any personal level. And even the much anticipated Batman vs. Bane brawl ends up being irrelevant to the overall story (basically, whether or not Batman defeats Bane in the finale doesn't mean a damn thing to the story). That speaks to the core of the film's problem: Lots of things happen with little connective tissue to the overall story, so that seemingly big events end up being merely digressions in the overall narrative.
The marketing campaign has been hiding the film's best new addition, that being Hathaway's wickedly entertaining performance as Selina Kyle (never referred to as Catwoman, natch). To be blunt, anyone who thought Hathaway couldn't pull this off should smack themselves in the face right now. Aside from being scorchingly attractive both in and out of costume (pruriently speaking, she reaches Ella Enchanted levels here), Hathaway gives a genuinely engaging star turn that never calls attention to itself. Her Selina Kyle is whip-smart and genuinely witty, but in a low-key manner that never suggests that what she does should be remotely noteworthy. She also has crackling chemistry with Bale, which makes Wayne's shoe-horned romance subplot with Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) a waste of screen time in a very long film.
Also failing to intrigue is chief antagonist Bane (Tom Hardy). With Hardy's expressive mug hidden behind a mask and speaking in an indecipherable accent that would make Christopher Lambert jealous, Bane is just not very engaging or intimidating. I'm not asking for Bane to be as interesting an antagonist as The Joker (who is?), but I found myself missing Cillian Murphy's delicious off-the-cuff menace from Batman Begins. His plans cause the deaths of many people, albeit the violence is bloodless and relatively video game-like (Bane makes a weird decision to keep a certain group of victims alive, primarily so they can be around for the climax). Lessening some of his impact is the fact that seemingly every character (Gordon, Alfred, etc.) somehow knows all about this monstrous foe in such detail that you have to wonder if Bane has a Facebook page. His membership in the League of Shadows (revealed in the opening scenes) only serves to make Nolan's Batman universe into a very small one, and his connection to Ra's Al Ghul only serves to take up valuable time spent connecting the needless dots.
With a scattered mess of a screenplay, relatively generic action beats, a weak central villain, a needless love interest and countless plot beats that go nowhere and accomplish nothing, The Dark Knight Rises is in the end a mild failure. It earns kudos for apparent ambition, and for telling a supremely comic book-ish story in a manner that suggests grand drama. The central performers are all generally aces, with Christian Bale giving a better performance here than he did in The Dark Knight (although once again he's much more interesting as Bruce Wayne than as Batman). The opening act has a number of strong moments and the very last minutes offer a completely satisfying and fair resolution to this three-film Batman story arc. I just wish the film didn't take so long to get where it was going that it had to skip past the meat of its own story. I wish the majority of the onscreen events actually tied into each other in a way that made them matter. I wish Gary Oldman had more to do save for one great scene with Gordon Levitt in the second act, or that Levitt's John Blake served a function in the story beyond being a place holder.
This is easily the least personal film that Chris Nolan has delivered and arguably his (relative) 'worst'. Seeing the final product, I'm half-inclined to wonder whether or not Nolan ever wanted to return to Gotham in the first place, especially in light of how hard Heath Ledger's death affected him four year ago (there is not one reference to The Joker even while his misdeeds are mentioned on occasion). The end result is a mishmash of various classic Batman stories that doesn't quite fit into a cohesive whole; with a powerful finale that tries its best to justify what has come in the prior 150 minutes (it's one clear advantage over The Avengers is that it has a genuine climax).
Despite a top-flight cast, impeccable production values, and a number of emotional beats that genuinely work, the film doesn't stand up to scrutiny and it pales in comparison to what came before. Moreover, much of the middle of the film is downright dull, as we wait for the inevitable confrontation while little happens between Bane's big attack and the action climax. The Dark Knight Rises is arguably a good movie in that it's mostly entertaining and is worth seeing once on the big screen. But it's the first Chris Nolan Batman picture that doesn't qualify as a good film.