"The Dark Knight Rises" by Ben Whitesell
Any discussion of The Dark Knight Rises has to look at how it fits in with the first two films in the trilogy. Batman Begins was a revelation when it came out in 2005: there had never been a superhero movie that dealt with its subject matter in such a direct, gritty and realistic manner. Nevertheless, it was still a comic book adaptation, and while Christopher Nolan brings heavy overtones of the crime, drama and thriller genres into the mix, it can't escape that. At the end of the day, the release and rounding up of criminals from Arkham, the sinister and yet somehow comical treatment of the Scarecrow and his fear toxin, and the fight between Batman and Ra's al-Ghul on the train as it hurtles towards Wayne Towers are all traditional superhero movie trademarks. Batman Begins may be more graphic novel than comic book pulp, but it is still very recognizably a Batman movie, for better or for worse.
If Batman Begins shows what could be done by approaching comic book source material from a mature and even-handed perspective, The Dark Knight proves that something truly great could emerge from the same. The Dark Knight is a crime thriller masterpiece that ranks alongside Heat, The Untouchables, and Once Upon A Time In America in terms of scope, character portraiture and directorial brilliance. Heath Ledger's Joker is one of the finest cinematic villains in history, and Aaron Eckhart manages a genuinely grotesque and sympathetic Harvey Dent\Two-Face. Bale's Batman is no longer simply the tried-and-true millionaire orphan turned vigilante; he's presented as a virtually unstoppable wunderkind, a one-man army, reliant on military tech and invasive cell-phone monitoring software to wage his war against crime. The film deals with so many themes that it's impossible to identify them all here: chaos vs. order, law vs. anarchy, vigilantism and perception and identity, to name a few. On a more surface level, The Dark Knight is just plain cool, filled with jaw-dropping effects and consistent levels of action, and is highly quotable to boot.
If anything, The Dark Knight Rises bookends the trilogy by really showcasing The Dark Knight. It has more in common with Batman Begins, in that it has a very comic-book feel to it, as opposed to The Dark Knight's hyper-realistic crime drama trappings. Selina Kyle and Bane somehow seem less epic than the Joker and Two-Face; this was always going to be Nolan's difficulty in a followup to The Dark Knight, and he acquits himself with a certain amount of grace, but the two characters simply don't carry the same weight in the film-world that Nolan has established in the series.
"Donkey Rises" by BazNet
I think the most surprising thing of all is just how little of Batman there is in the movie. Bruce Wayne doesn't suit up until at least 40 minutes into The Dark Knight Rises' 164 minutes running time. His re-introduction, after four years of real-world time and eight years of Gotham-time, is well-executed, showcasing the Batmobile, Batpod and new vehicle The Bat in one extended, exciting chase sequence. Then he disappears for a while, shows up and punches a few more guys, tracks down Bane, fights him, and then... disappears until the end of the movie, practically. Without going into enough detail to spoil anything, it's not like his disappearances aren't justified, within context, but the end result is still a Batman movie with a very limited amount of Batman to show for itself.
If there is a central theme to The Dark Knight Rises, it's that of pain. Suffering is Bruce Wayne's primary role in this story. He is wracked with guilt and regret over the death of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent, and has sequestered himself from the world for the past eight years. He is a man consumed by pain. Bane, for his part, sees pain as a necessary part of growth, and he does not hesitate to inflict it on everyone around him, including Batman. It doesn't quite resound with the kind of impact Nolan seems to be going for, unfortunately; Bruce Wayne's tribulations in the latter half of the movie not only take him out of the heat of the action for a very long stretch, but also don't quite work on an emotional level. I watched him suffer, heal and rise victorious with a dispassionate eye; I never really felt invested in the process.
"Pixel The Dark Knight Rises" by Munty
Looking at this escalation of antagonist types, Nolan's choices fall into place a bit more than if they're simply taken on their own. It's hard to imagine any other classic Batman bad guy taking Bane's place in The Dark Knight Rises, and while we're always going to wonder what Christopher Nolan might have done with the Riddler or Oswald Copperpot or Mr. Freeze, chances are that one of those villains would have felt like a step backwards (I personally would have loved to see some of the second-stringers of the Rogues Gallery showing up, namely Deadshot, Hush or Black Mask. Oh well, it's not like Warners is going to let this cash cow go, even if Nolan is no longer on board. So there's always hope.)
All in all, The Dark Knight Rises completed the trilogy in a satisfactory fashion, even if it didn't rise to the dizzying heights of its predecessor. I'm looking forward to watching it again - at home, with subtitles on, so I can catch some of the more muffled of Bane's lines.