As a stand-alone movie, The Dark Knight Rises is pretty darn good — better than most summer action movies, but not as good as The Dark Knight. But as the culmination of an epic trilogy, three films that are tight enough to be a single movie, it's incredible.
Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy does something nobody's ever done before: tell a long, coherent story about the creation and deconstruction of a heroic symbol. He's explored the meaning of Batman in a way that deepens our understanding of the tropes of the superheroic "secret identity."
Minor spoilers ahead... And by "minor spoilers," I mean mostly stuff you already know from the trailers. Plus some vague generalizations. No major plot points or anything.
I hadn't seen Batman Begins in years, and I meant to watch it before seeing The Dark Knight Rises. And then Comic Con happened, and I didn't get around to it. So I went into Dark Knight Rises with only vague recollections of Nolan's first Bat-movie. And as a result, a lot of stuff in TDKR seemed a bit poorly set up, or even a little trite. Then I finally rewatched Batman Begins, and a lot of stuff clicked into place — there are a ton of things in TDKR that are paying off the first hour of Batman Begins, thematically and emotionally, rather than anything in TDKR itself.
(That said, I stand by the assertion that this movie isn't in the same league as The Dark Knight. There's nothing as miraculous in this film as Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. Tom Hardy is great as the main villain, Bane, but he's mostly playing a pretty one-dimensional baddie. Anne Hathaway gets the job done. This film is a lot more linear, and less surprising, than Nolan's second Batman film.)
The third Nolan Batman film really does work best as the third act of a three-act story. In the first, an emotionally wounded Bruce Wayne devotes himself to creating a symbol to strike fear into the hearts of criminals: the Batman. In the second, Bruce hopes that Harvey Dent, a flesh-and-blood paragon, can make the larger-than-life Batman unnecessary — but when Harvey Dent falls short, Bruce sacrifices Batman's reputation to save Harvey's.
In a sense, the Dark Knight falls at the end of The Dark Knight.
The third movie is largely concerned with playing out the consequences of Batman's choice at the end of the second film — but also with interrogating Bruce's reasons for crafting the persona of Batman in the first place, way back in Batman Begins. There are a lot of moments in TDKR that reframe stuff that happens in the first movie, so we start to see Bruce's quest, to conquer his own fear and create a fearsome symbol, in a new light.
Most superhero movies treat the mask as a simple method of concealing the hero's identity — or just as part of the image of the character that's going on lunchboxes. The Spider-Man movies can never wait to unmask Spidey, so he can emote. But the Nolan Batman movies are fairly unique in the amount of time they spend talking about the mask as symbol. (Although I love the bit in Amazing Spider-Man where he tells a little kid to wear his mask, because it'll make the kid strong.) Over three movies, Nolan spends a lot of time discussing the meaning and purpose of Batman's cowl.
Bane, the main villain of The Dark Knight Rises, has his own mask which defines his face, rather than concealing. Almost Bane's first line in the movie is, "Nobody cared who I was, until I put on the mask." The promotional materials for TDKR heavily feature a shot of Bane holding a broken Bat-cowl in one hand, letting you know in advance that Batman's facade is going to be shattered by someone who understands the use of masks at a deeper level.
Legends Vs. Propaganda
Nolan draws extensively on the Batman comics for plot points in all three of his films. But the thing where Batman agrees to take the blame for Harvey Dent's crimes is created out of whole cloth. (I think.) And it's a pretty unique spin on the character — Bruce Wayne deciding that Batman is more useful as a fall guy than as a symbol of justice. (It's hard to imagine how the comics could do that, as a major development, and make it stick.)
Back in Batman Begins, Ra's Al-Ghul talks a lot about the difference between a man and a legend — but the new movie spends a lot of time exploring the difference between a legend and propaganda. Batman was a legend, but now Harvey Dent is propaganda. It's not just that Harvey's martyrdom is a lie — but also, his myth is used to prop up the social order. The powers that be in Gotham are all invested in the Harvey Dent story. Like Ra's said, a man can be corrupted — or co-opted — even after death.
You've probably seen the bit in the trailers where two Gotham power-broker types are talking about how the Mayor is dumping Jim Gordon in the spring — because Gordon was a war hero, but now it's peace time. That kind of complacency runs through the first chunk of the movie, and it's built on the Harvey Dent story.
And that's where Bane comes in. He's basically a pure propagandist, who often talks like an issue of People's Daily, circa 1975. Everything Bane does is either about killing people or about crafting a piece of political messaging. You often get the sense that Bane doesn't care if you believe half the things he says, as long as you get sucked into their underlying logic. The best propaganda doesn't require you to believe that it's true — as long as you behave as though it might be true. Bane's superpower is getting his enemies to accept his frame on reality.
And that's one of the reasons why rewatching Batman Begins makes TDKR a lot richer — the first hour of Batman Begins is basically a tutorial in using "theatricality and deception" to create something more than just a person. (And the emotional logic of Bruce turning the thing he fears most — bats — into an avatar of terror to use against his enemies.) But that theatricality and deception depend on a legend that's tarnished when Batman confesses to murder.
Meanwhile, the officially sanctioned story of Harvey Dent is political rather than mythic, and Gotham City's politics have not gotten any purer since the first movie. So a lot of this third movie is about the superheroic identity, as symbol and tool, and the terrible things that happen when you enslave it to the needs of the state.
The Rise and Collapse of the American City
If you've watched the trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, you've already seen lots of shots of urban destruction, including Gotham's bridges being blown up. And a football field collapsing during a game. It's not the kind of indiscriminate urban destruction we're used to seeing, like in Cloverfield or a Roland Emmerich movie. This is very local. And it's engineered.
Nolan's first Batman film features a villain who wants to recruit Bruce Wayne to help him destroy Gotham City, because it's become decadent and corrupt, as a world financial power. Instead, Batman does such a good job of rooting out organized crime that he creates a vacuum that can only be filled by the Joker, who trashes huge pieces of the city in the name of proving that Gotham's people are still inherently corrupt, or corruptible. And now, in this third movie, the actual infrastructure of Gotham is being chipped away, while everybody is helpless or complicit.
Gotham City is a major feature of all three films. We spend a lot of time looking at its structures, both social and architectural. And by the time Bane's done with Gotham, you get a clear sense that all along, Nolan has been asking what makes cities — by showing people trying to un-make them.
In a year with a lot of apocalyptic films where the apocalypse is weirdly abstract, Nolan makes the apocalypse concrete. A lot of the images that stick in your mind after this film aren't of fight scenes or explosions, but just of urban desolation — plenty of these images are in the trailers, but they get pretty relentless in the actual film.
You'll hear a lot about the politics of The Dark Knight Rises over the next few days — already, people are talking about it being an Occupy Wall Street movie, even though there was no Occupy movement when the film was written. But if there's a political message in the film, it's about Giuliani's New York, and the hidden fragility of a city that's been "cleaned up" with a heavy hand, based on propaganda.
Nolan is interested in structures, and how they fit together. And inevitably, the gaps between them wind up being as crucial as any of the structures themselves.
Like I said, The Dark Knight Rises is not likely to become one of my all-time favorite movies, on its own account. There are way too many scenes in a row where people give bombastic speeches instead of talking to each other. You can feel Nolan pushing levers, to get people to do things that the plot requires of them. Nolan's oft-remarked inability to capture real emotion is very much on display. There are a lot of plot points that feel at odds with Nolan's famous commitment to realism, and some parts of the denouement are downright goofy.
But when you think of it as a conclusion to a trilogy, all of TDKR's flaws as a standalone film recede, and what's left is something powerful — and moving, on a visceral emotional level. Ideas and feelings resonate throughout the trilogy, and the seven and a half hours of Bruce Wayne's journey come together into a psychological progression.
And with all of its themes of masks, and legends, and the relationship between the hero and his city, Nolan's trilogy is both a powerful myth and a great commentary on myth-making. There probably won't ever be another trilogy like this one.