The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman film. Throughout, the film asks us to consider how much punishment one thing—a man, a city, an idea—can take before it finally breaks. In a way, 2008's Dark Knight operated on the same idea, but for reasons both real and imaginary things seem more final in DKR. For all his demented brilliance, perhaps the Joker was right when he said that he "wouldn't know what to do" if he finally got what he wanted—he was just playing. DKR's villainous Bane knows exactly what he wants: the utter destruction of Gotham City and the torturous murder of Batman. For most of the movie, it looks like he might get it.
One of the coolest things about having a legitimately brilliant filmmaker helm these movies (as opposed to a studio crony) is that he has carte blanche; there really are no boundaries to what Christopher Nolan can do here. Months before this film's release, buzz was high that it would kill off Batman because it was "the only way" Nolan could finish his trilogy. We're not going to say whether it does or not, but if you think DC Comics/Warner wouldn't let Nolan do such a thing, think again. Lots of things happen in this movie that defy expectations and challenge any possible happy ending the film might achieve. It's a dark, tense movie, which seems like the kind of thing any fan of the franchise would want, but we may not be prepared for just how tense things get.
The great strength of Dark Knight Rises, ultimately, is the ride it takes viewers on. If you're invested in its main character, its Gotham City setting, or the idea of heroism in general, Nolan has expertly crafted a film where, for the last two hours, it is almost impossible to not stare at the screen in rapt attention. Surprisingly, things get off to kind of a rocky start—the movie takes awhile weighing us down with exposition about what's happened since Dark Knight (eight years have passed, BTW) and putting its players both familiar and new into position. We re-meet Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Bruce Wayne—now a hermit—and are introduced to the over-strong crime lord Bane, the cat burglar Selina Kyle, and the perfect Gotham City cop John Blake, an orphan who has somewhat magically deduced Wayne's double life (though like Wayne, Batman also hasn't been seen for eight years). These sequences don't always abide by the filmmakers' rule to show, not tell, and Nolan even seems to make a few mistakes in them—there appears to be a major day/night continuity error during Bane's first action sequence, and a couple plot points don't make a whole lot of sense. (Batman can't connect Bane to corrupt businessman John Daggett despite the fact that Bane and his men have stationed themselves at Daggett's penthouse; Catwoman apparently never thought Bruce Wayne might be Batman, even when he's not trying to hide it all that well and she's brilliant at every other time in the script, for example.)
But these are minor critiques, and they're washed away in the final two acts of the film. From the first time Batman confronts Bane face-to-face, this movie leaves behind its somewhat clunky exposition and becomes an edge-of-your-seat, wow-did-that-really-happen finale to one of the best trilogies in the history of cinema. This is not hyperbole. Nolan's Batman work easily stacks up against, and honestly probably tops, things like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. By the end of Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's trilogy has earned its finale, putting both its characters and its audience through an emotional wringer that few films accomplish.
The last hour or so of the movie in particular is a sharp examination of what it means to believe in and fight for something; even though DKR's not a typical superhero movie, Nolan is here telling the prime superhero story. Gotham is desperate, broken, on the edge of annihilation, and one man in a silly costume is going to inspire it to persevere. This film acts as proof that Christopher Nolan is perfectly equipped to produce next year's Man of Steel, but it also basically means that he doesn't need to—he's already told the ultimate story of hope and inspiration. Superman can sit 2013 out on the big screen; we've got our costumed icon, thanks.
Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect film. However, it's perfect in the way that counts: it closes out Christopher Nolan's story of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the best way possible. It's likely not Nolan's best movie, or even his best Batman movie (it is his best action movie), but it's the one that will most make you feel the plight of these characters, the breaking of their spirit, and the redemptive powers of hope. That counts for something. Actually, that counts for a lot. It also makes Dark Knight Rises, easily, one of the best movies of the year. A