When we last saw Batman (Christian Bale), he had vanished into the shadows, taking the fall for the death and crimes of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, briefly featured in archive footage). Eight years have passed since that night, and the Caped Crusader has disappeared from Gotham City. Bruce Wayne has similarly withdrawn from public life, convinced there is nothing left that is worth living for, much to the chagrin of Alfred (Michael Caine). That is, until something happens that changes Bruce's dual life: the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist bent on the destruction of Gotham, who is capable of breaking Batman both physically and spiritually. With a little help from his old allies (Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox) and some new faces (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake and Anne Hathaway as "cat burglar" Selina Kyle), the Dark Knight has to return to save his city from annihilation. But what price will he have to pay?
The defining characteristic of Nolan's Bat-films has always been the grounded, reality-based look at the different tropes of the superhero genre, and this chapter shows the director at his most ambitious, throwing in overt references to financial crisis and the US government's attitude towards terrorists (complete with a brief scene featuring the President which, thankfully, doesn't slip into Roland Emmerich territory). These themes are perfectly encapsulated in the figure of Bane, an intriguing villain who, despite never reaching the heights of Heath Ledger's Joker, remains a frightening presence and acts as the main connecting tissue to ideas first touched upon in Batman Begins, which provides the jumping point for many of The Dark Knight Rise's most poignant scenes.
That said, Nolan's ambition is also the film's biggest flaw: even at an impressive 164 minutes, the film feels too short to squeeze in everything he has to say as he tries to bring the trilogy full circle (cue Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy cameos). This is most obvious in the third act, a rushed, action-packed affair that also suffers from unexpectedly contrived plotting. A given in any other superhero film, it comes as a surprise that Nolan, famous for bending or even breaking narrative conventions (he killed off the hero's love interest halfway through the second movie, for crying out loud), should in this case resort to a more predictable climax, effectively embracing the comic-book roots that the trilogy had, thus far, left in a corner. This also accounts for a couple of fan-baiting twists that may prove amusing to some, irritating to others.
Nevertheless, the film's heart is in the right place: after the Joker-centric mayhem of The Dark Knight, the focus in this installment is once again on Bruce Wayne, whose personal journey has been the trilogy's emotional anchor. Bale, who's always been perfect in the role, goes even further this time around with his portrayal of a broken man, touchingly aided by similarly compelling performances by Caine and Oldman. And it's testament to Nolan's skill that, even though some of the new characters inevitably get more attention (Hardy gives Bane the on-screen dignity he was shamefully denied in Batman & Robin, while Hathaway's introductory scene alone would justify a spin-off for her Selina), none of the supporting roles feel like afterthoughts, even when it looks like actors of the caliber of Marion Cotillard and Matthew Modine come off as shortchanged in terms of presence.
Darker and more brutal than its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises still offers a glimmer of hope, and is therefore a fitting epilogue for what is, at this point, the best superhero series put to film. And while the conclusion doesn't exactly live up to what can only be described as sky-high expectations, one should not overlook the fact that this has the guts to actually be THE end. And given the circumstances, it's exactly what we need, and what we deserve.