The long and the short of it: Rises satisfied my own considerable expectations. In fact, I’d be willing to say I enjoyed the finale more than the previous two installments in the series.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
To be sure, not everyone will walk away feeling the same. I suspect that more than a few fans and critics will judge 2008’s The Dark Night as the superior film, a position that isn’t without merit. But then again, I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily mind when a superhero film portrays its protagonist as, well, unabashedly heroic.
That’s not to say that Nolan succumbs to wooden or adolescent storytelling. He aims for the same edge and complexity demonstrated in the first two films—attributes that help to differentiate his work from much of the genre. When we first meet Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in this film, he’s physically and emotionally broken and withdrawn, unable to move past previous tragedy and embrace a life in which his alter ego may no longer be needed.
However, in the face of a new, extraordinary threat from the uber-terrorist Bane (Thomas Hardy), he rouses himself to once again don the cowl. But it’s only after a brutal defeat at Bane’s hands that the Dark Knight indeed rises, both literally and symbolically.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, Christians can be overambitious at times in finding Christ figures in movies. The redemptive correspondence that often is in films is—usually quite appropriately—much more limited in scope. But in this case, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking Nolan has trafficked heavily in the Christian story. After all, his hero is seemingly broken by evil and afterward lowered into a genuine pit of a prison (one described as “hell on earth,” no less). And yet this place proves to be the site of a—dare I say it—resurrection of sorts. Bruce/Batman is reforged in his confinement and escapes what Bane had intended to be his grave, intent on bringing the fight to the terrorist once again.
Batman’s return, not surprisingly, means Gotham’s liberation. He frees the city’s captive cops, inspires the heretofore morally suspect Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) to join his cause, and personally defeats Bane. The plot then twists as Batman is betrayed in the moment of victory by a woman who turns out the daughter of his former mentor turned foe, Ra’s al Ghul. But this ultimately instigates a final act of heroism: he appears to sacrifice himself for the sake of millions, perishing in the blast of a massively destructive bomb he’s raced to tow out to sea. I found myself mentally cheering throughout.
In the process of all this, Batman the redeemer also becomes Batman redeemed. Having survived his ordeal, Bruce Wayne takes the earnest appeal of a man he’d previously alienated to heart, seemingly content to begin his life again in anonymity and without the driven necessity of his alter ego, even paving the way for another to take up his legacy.
All of this has proven too much for some. I’ve seen mention that the film’s conclusion is too tidy, reflecting more of “happily ever after” than the shadows in which Batman often operates. I can’t help but wonder, however, if this is born of a mindset that is both overly preoccupied with the portrayal of moral shades of gray and almost reflexively distrustful of that which might appeal to a large swath of moviegoers. Don’t get me wrong. Massive box office receipts don't equate to cinematic excellence and moral complexity is often appropriate (and, in any case, not lacking here). But the need for nuance in such things need not preclude a robust, if still imperfect good triumphing over genuine evil. Similarly, if recognizably positive character development is off the table, then our dramatic options become severely limited indeed.
The film isn’t flawless: for example, a few plot points are either unexplained or call for a bit more suspension of disbelief than I’d prefer. At the same time, it certainly contains other features worthy of mention. This includes at least one respect where Nolan did depart somewhat from the conventional: he (quite deliberately) made it very difficult to imagine another Batman film in continuity with what he's done. To “end” a story in one medium that has existed for decades in another involves resisting no small temptation. And as much as I’d readily embrace more chapters in Nolan’s universe, the trilogy’s finality adds to its strength as a whole. I’ll look forward to the future iterations of Batman that will certainly come from other filmmakers. But the bar is no doubt higher now.