2012, Christopher Nolan - in theatre
I can see why some fanboys are reacting negatively towards The Dark Knight Rises. After all, here's a Batman film where Batman is in costume for maybe 30 minutes of a 165 minute feature (and that's a very liberal estimate). The movie, all told, is more of a movie about Gotham City than it is Batman, and unlike The Dark Knight, which is largely upheld as the Godfather 2 of superhero movies, it doesn't stand alone as a great film.
However, it is, I would concede, a good final act to the overall Christopher Nolan franchise, truly bringing various story and character elements introduced in Batman Begins and its sequel to a head in a massive spectacle that at once seems immense and quite contained. It's a bloated film, not unlike the last Batman film to feature Bane as a protagonist, yet unlike Schumacher's horrifically neon-soaked, fetishistic, camp-throwback Batman and Robin, all the cogs are working together to form the singular timepiece instead of against each other to form a nightmarish clockwork fun-time monster.
The Dark Night Rises is epic, a rare third feature that not only justifies its existence with quality storytelling and production values, but actually makes itself essential to the development and understanding of the characters over the entire trilogy and bringing closure to the series as a whole. Where many trilogies have little in the way of characterization to offer an audience by the time it reaches it's epilogue, this film actually tells you more about the quality of character of these heroes, and their increasing shades of grey. While there weren't exactly plot threads dangling from Batman Begins nor The Dark Night, at least none that detracted from the enjoyment of either film, Nolan's latest mythologizes both films and steeps itself in their minutiae. 8 years following the end of the last film (in timeline, not real-time), Bruce Wayne is still reeling from the death of his boyhood love Rachael Dawes and has gone into hiding, and the Wayne Foundation has suffered an incredible blow after Bruce shut down a revolutionary energy project after learning it had the potential to be weaponized. Batman remains in hiding following the death of Two-Face, and the city has prospered in his absence with the enactment of the Harvey Dent Act permitting the police unprecedented powers to incarcerate criminals and tear down organized crime. But an international masked terrorist named Bane has set his sights on Gotham, drawing Batman out and crossing paths with a cat burglar named Selina Kyle.
And it just gets more complex from there, as lies are exposed, prisons are torn wide open, Batman's secret identity is discovered, the city is cut off from the rest of the world and threatened with annihilation, and Batman is broken by Bane.
Batman fans, at least those that were around in the 1990's, should be familiar with some of these things. Obviously with the inclusion of Bane, the "Knightfall" storyline was one inspiration, and with the city cordoned off by military action, others should recognize the "Cataclysm/No Man's Land" influence. And naturally, with a beaten, bruised, and retired Batman, there's obviously a few nods to "The Dark Knight Returns" in there, for good measure. As well, there's some general Batman mythos being played with, especially the "League of Assassins" (as it's known in the comics, "League of Shadows" in the film series), the secret society led by Ra's Al Ghul in the first film, and now Bane here. (I think everyone was wondering if Ra's was alive, or if Nolan would employ the Lazarus pit at all, and there's more than a couple of fake-outs within the film in this regard).
Then there's John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, it becomes quite apparent is the Nolan-verse version of Robin. There's a lot of focus on Blake, a GCPD officer who becomes Gordon's right hand man, and is naturally set up as either a sidekick or replacement for Batman. He's an original creation, but in this regard, Nolan (with his brother Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer) form him out of bits and pieces of not just Robin's past, including Jason Todd and Tim Drake, but also Terry McGinness, Bruce's replacement in the Batman Beyond cartoon.
I quite liked, to my own surprise, Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle. She had a wonderfully dual carefulness and carefree attitude that played well against and among the seriousness of Bruce Wayne and the crumbling Gotham. There was a delightful amount of chemistry between Kyle and Wayne, both in costume and out, rivaling any other pairing previous. The only downside was there wasn't enough of it within the film. The demands of the larger story, kept the pair apart for much of the running time, and the film, and series as a whole would have benefited from much more of their rooftop shenanigans.
I suppose that's where the true disappointment would come in for a Batman fan. After getting a really kick-ass, full-on Batman experience with the Dark Knight, and with Bruce's return to the costume here, one gets a real sense of the comic book Batman come to life, as if we're one step away from him swinging from the rooftops. Had there been two other, more adventurous Batman films between The Dark Knight and this finale, I think the fanboys would be placated in a way they're just not going to feel here. One does have to wonder how if Heath Ledger were able to return as the Joker just how different would be. There's was the Batman: Gotham Knight animated anthology that padded out the Nolan-verse slightly between the first two films. I've heard no rumours of a follow-up but a second would be welcome, or even a "sequel" with more of John Blake.
I do say though that I did enjoy The Dark Knight Rises overall, fully admitting there's some clunky dialogue throughout that made me actually wince a few times, and also not discounting its quasi-failure as a proper "Batman" film. That said, it tweaks the mythos of Batman quite nicely, so much so that it compensates for its moderate shortcomings.
I will see it again. I will own it on some form of digital media. I will watch it in a marathon with its forebears. I may grow to like it more, I may come to like it less. In such a way, upon repeated watchings, the film and the series' true qualities will, ahem, rise.