Fifteen years later, we can all still take comfort in blaming Joel Schumacher. Following the dazzling black hole of bad taste that was his 1997 franchise-killer Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. had no choice but to find a new direction for the series, and hiring Memento's Christopher Nolan proved an inspired decision. Outside the context of the greater DC Comics universe, Batman and a selection of his famed rogues gallery exist in a reality not far removed from our own, an idea Nolan capitalized on by fleeing to the grittier, less fantastic end of the spectrum, where the darkness faced by the Caped Crusader might better resonate in the real world.
The resulting Batman Begins stands as the most convincing (dare we say plausible?) superhero origin story, and its sequel The Dark Knight remains the most psychologically challenging film to ever gross $1 billion.
Now here is The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's final word on Gotham City. In many regards, it's an immense success, most strikingly in the degree to which it closes the series out by embracing what's come before. In franchise-minded Hollywood, it's unusual to see properties like this given leeway to tell a big story and then be done with it. Nolan (co-scripting with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer) revels in the opportunity, beginning with how Batman's supposed murder of Harvey Dent transformed the city in the eight years that elapse between the two Dark Knight films and expanding until nearly every story thread from throughout the series is given its due. (The lone exception: not even a single reference to the Joker, out of regard for the late Heath Ledger.) The combined weight of three exceptional films has the effect of a truly grand finale for which no comparisons come to mind.
It's fortunate that The Dark Knight Rises leaves so strong an impression as a piece of the trilogy, because on its own terms it's also the point at which novelty and smarts are nudged to the side by the sore pairing of fatigue and expectation. That the majority of fans will be left wanting more does little to excuse the film's bloat; at nearly three hours, it's the least structurally sound in a series that's struggled with that problem from the beginning.
It's not even a matter of being overstuffed. The Dark Knight Rises balances rogues Bane (Tom Hardy, inscrutably terrifying in an entirely different way than Ledger's Joker) and Catwoman Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, not only atoning for Halle Berry but somehow exceeding Michelle Pfeiffer) as successfully as the previous films' pairings of Joker/Two-Face and Scarecrow/Ra's al Ghul. The movie's two distinct sections—a colorful peacetime Gotham and its pallid, snow-covered twin under occupation by Bane—are equally welcome. But each has scenes and segments that linger unnecessarily, and others that aren't given enough space, as if Nolan only realized the script was too long once he got to the editing room. "Epic" is in the attitude and the scale, and The Dark Knight Rises wants for neither; there was no good reason to hedge bets with the run time.
Still, the biggest problem isn't how much The Dark Knight Rises has to do but how little it has to say. Much of The Dark Knight's effect had to do with how its themes of justice, duality, and chaos tied seamlessly into its thrills. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, is philosophically opaque to the point of distraction, and clumsy with the few ideas it does engage. One can see, for example, how a nitwit ideologue like Rush Limbaugh might decide Bane resembles "an Occupy Wall Street guy": his debut on the streets of Gotham involves terrorizing a stock exchange, and his thrall of the city is nonsensically couched in the rhetoric of punishing the privileged in the name of the common citizen.
It's not a matter of disagreeing with the film's politics; what's troublesome is that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't actually have any politics to speak of. Once the smokescreen clears, all these provocative ideas are revealed to be every bit as irrelevant as we noticed them to be, part of a narrative feint that also accounts for stray corner-cutting and story oddities that include keeping Batman sidelined during the most interesting part of the film. The purpose for all this contrivance? Little more than a heady twist on the fan service usually reserved for comic-book movies with no investment in seeming cerebral. The Dark Knight Rises is thrilling and magnificent, sure, but not as smart as its siblings and too caught up in itself to be fun.