The synopsis is pretty much known, but I'll do a quick rundown. It's eight years after Batman went on the run after taking the blame for Harvey Dent's death, and Bruce Wayne has given up the cowl permanently after the years of broken bones and on-the-job injuries have taken their toll. However, the former caped crusader's interest in his alter-ego (or his real face) is reignited when encountering expert thief Selina Kyle, and his strength of spirit tested when terrorist Bane comes on the scene with the intention of destroying Gotham ala Ra's Al Ghul. But before Batman can defeat Bane, he first has to take an inward journey to discover how strong he really is.
Let's get a couple of things out of the way. First, it's undoubtedly clear that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight should be viewed before seeing the film, perhaps not directly, but neverthless it's necessary to have seen them. There are both story and thematic elements that continue from both films and while there is a recap of sorts, it's like going into The Return of the King without having seen The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring. Second, Bane. Most with more than a passing interest in the film will be aware of the vocal problems with the character in the prologue that was released late last year, but his dialogue is clear to me in all but a few instances. But it is weird and takes a little bit of getting used to. Luckily, the first scene (the prologue) is an action scene, so it's not crucial to understand him completely. The voice is an odd one, but it's supposed to be (having something like that on your face is bound to impede your speech in some way) and it's at times charismatic but generally terrifying when it needs to be. The matter-of-fact of Tom Hardy's speech and his war against Batman is appropriately frightening, so much so that when Batman first goes up against him, our belief in our hero's ability to beat him is as lacking as his own.
Joining Bane is Catwoman aka Selina Kyle. The title "Catwoman" is never used in the film, but it doesn't need to be. Her abilities speak for herself, and while Anne Hathaway was a semi-controversial choice for the role, she basically owns it here, bringing absolute fun to the picture in the form of her confident and assured (and yes, alluring) self as both Selina and Catwoman. But there's also an air of desperation under the acrobatics and the arrogance, one that links in to the depiction of Gotham in the first film where there was a very clear sense of poverty in the city, a cancer that she uses as her justification for robbing the rich and infamous.
This is certainly a theme that runs through part of the film, and somewhat personified by Bane's notorious "Occupy" scene where he storms Gotham's equivalent of Wall Street. But while the scene itself shows that Bane has an ulterior motive for his assault and is using his man of the people Robin Hood persona to conceal this. Explicitly, I don't think Nolan is trying to comment on the Occupy movement itself, no matter what political nuts will say to use the film to support their own agenda, but there is certainly a thread of thinking (that was there in Batman Begins) about Bruce Wayne himself - where his father was uber-philanthropist, Bruce uses his money to develop super technology so he can fight crime. Should he instead be using that money for humanitarium causes and distributing this amongst the poor in Gotham? Of course there is an argument for this, but it'd make a terrible Batman fim.
That's not to say Bruce doesn't have a humanitarium touch, and one of the key elements in the story is a fusion reactor he has built, partially funded by Marion Cotillard's wealthy Miranda Tate. However the reactor has been shut down because of a chance it could be perverted to become a massively destructive weapon. You can see where this is going, and with this and a couple of other elements, you have to wonder if Nolan is a fan of The Wrath of Khan. The reactor is one of two macguffins - another involves a computer program that can erase Selina Kyle's criminal record and give her a clean slate. Both show a continuing thread from Inception that Nolan is a big fan of 007 and perhaps considers this an audition. If Eon Productions are reading this, please give him the job. But both elements are not only in keeping with the comic history, they're also enough on the cusp of reality to work in Nolan's Gotham. The program sounds like something Bruce Wayne could probably pull off pretty easily, while the reactor is in the tradition of the more extravagant supervillain plots in Batman's comic bibliography. It's a change from the moral war of The Dark Knight, and given that intensity it suffers a little in comparison, but given the finality needed for this film it works.
The war here is more literal and painted in broader strokes. Bane, continuing the work of the League of Shadows, is able to throw Gotham into chaos pretty easily and traps the majority of the police force underground. This sets the stage for some covert operations by the remaining officers, led by Commisioner Gordon, who is still racked with guilt after the events of eight years previous, and idealistic rookie John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has a previous connection to Batman and who is suspicious of the official explanation of why the hero went on the run.
Speaking of Batman himself, this is his story. Given the previous films where the attention has been put on the villains, almost to the point of obsession (especially where Tim Burton is concerned), it's a wonder to see an entire three-part story arc centered around Batman - and Bruce Wayne. Where earlier the film was about Wayne being the mask for Batman, and the use of Batman in the world, this film is more about Bruce Wayne, or more accurately the battle for Bruce Wayne's life and soul. A whole chunk of this film is devoted to restoring his spirit and his belief, not in Batman but in himself, backed by a crucial flashback to a moment with his father ("Why do we fall?"). Bruce is now able to answer that question for himself, and its integral to the final act where everything comes together.
The film holds many surprises, none of which I want to spoil, to the point where despite the mass of trailers, there is still absolutely tons to uncover. The scale is huge - it's films like this that make me want to claw back the word epic from those who would overuse it terminally on the internet and as a result the emotional stakes are heightened to a point where - okay this is cheesy - but operatic. The climactic scenes are backed by an intensity that matches the best blockbusters, with an ending that suitably befits the character and the world Nolan has put him in. Nolan's action scenes have improved with each film, and are amazing here, especially those that feature "The Bat", his newest gadget in the form of a flying machine that looks like a cross between the Aliens dropship and a stealth fighter.
And that's the thing, the movie is fun. Humour and entertainment are something that Nolan's films are accused of lacking, with people seeing them as po-faced overserious, which as far as I'm concerned is a load of rubbish. Admittedly The Dark Knight is more serious than both the first and last films, but all have good doses of humour and are a lot of fun. But on top of that, the seriousness leads to a belief in the material and in this generally OTT world. That tone, along with the quality in front of and behind the camera, works gangbusters, especially in The Dark Knight Rises, working to aid suspension of disbelief but not taking it too far, like the wisecracking way of many action films or the later Bonds.
And that ensemble cast really brings the film home. The newcomers are great, with the trio of Hardy, Hathaway and Gordon-Levitt all creating memorable characters, with Hathaway in particular stealing the show. The old standards of Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine are as reliable as ever, especially Caine, who has an emotional moment in the film that will leave you in tears for Alfred. And then there's Bale. His Batman is as solid as ever, but here he puts his life into Bruce Wayne, further cementing that this is his story most of all.
The film is long, but it flies by due to the sheer scale of the thing, a neat pace, and Hans Zimmer's intense score which has a real sense of propulsion. Ultimately, it's as satisfying an ending as we could hope for - it neatly resolves the threads while leaving one or two strands to float in the wind, and packs an emotional punch rarely experienced in films like this.
Sure, there are flaws (and a particularly irritating comic in-joke) but I don't really care. This is the Batman I have wanted for years. And I am ever thankful to Christopher Nolan and the rest of the Dark Knight cast and crew for that.