I get tired of having to restate this opinion, but let me verify that I do not spend $15 to see a movie with the expectation, much less the intention, of hating it. Even with this particular film, against which this week has me particularly jaded, I went in with an open heart and a cautious mind, as I do with every film. When you get down to the bare skeleton of it, the film either has to be entertaining or compelling, which is something I can say both previous Batman films from Christopher Nolan did in unison. "Batman Begins" was stunning, insightful, and tightly plotted for the first 70 minutes, and "The Dark Knight" was a nonstop hammering of terrifying notions of terrorism, insanity, and political morality. Moreover, it was a complete piece of cinema, honest and deliberate in all its ideas.
Christopher Nolan has frequently stated that he always devotes himself to the film at hand, not thinking about the future and allowing for there not to be one after the film concludes. I assumed that would go both ways, with films not relying on past sympathy either. In respects to "The Dark Knight Rises", he breaks the promise that each of his films must stand on their own. However few people who go into this film with no previous knowledge of the series will be lost in rushed and extraneous story arcs. It doesn't work as a film on its own, but it doesn't trust the memory of the previous films. Alone, it's a string of plot details carried on from the first two films, but it doesn't tonally reconcile with the first two films in the slightest.
"You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me. Set the dogs on me, because that's what needs to happen." That was the promise Batman made at the end of "The Dark Knight", much like the promise of escalation at the close of "Batman Begins". At the start of "The Dark Knight Rises", we see that promise broken. Eight years have passed, Batman disappeared from Gotham in that moment, and Bruce Wayne has done nothing in his mansion for eight years. A man who stood up against Gotham's criminals because of the unjust murder of his parents no longer does anything for Gotham, all because of the death of a girl eight years ago. This is not the Bruce Wayne we knew in the first two films. This is a pathetic billionaire, too afraid to do anything, and absolutely inconsolable.
Gotham is in an inexplicable state of peace. The Harvey Dent Act has made it possible for criminals to be locked away without the chance of parole, a rather promising notion of what separates a criminal from a citizen trying to make their way in this sick world. We never see the politicians responsible, or the moral repercussions of this legislation, making it merely a hollow plot device to clean the streets. And therein lies the main problem with the antagonizing force of this picture, the reemerged League of Shadows. Gotham was rotting with criminality nearly 10 year ago, and so they had a case for their plot then. In a Gotham of clean prosperity, there is no reason for the city to be destroyed.
Bane is the big baddie of this installment, but he's made hollow right from the word go by the fact that he is not acting out his own beliefs. He doesn't have any for that matter, or at least never gives proper explanation for them. He lacks the passion The Joker had, and therefore doesn't make him understandable or intimidating, for he has no motivation beyond this rehash of a plot already spread pretty thin in "Batman Begins". In the end, this Bane bares unfortunate similarity to the version seen in "Batman and Robin" for the fact that he is grunt enforcing the will of somebody else, and not a true villain of his own.
Gotham was a major presence in "The Dark Knight", a public who was forced against a wall morally in the face chaos and destruction. The Gotham of this film is so gaudily displayed, with selfish businessmen and glory-seeking cops trading forth glib remarks that attempt at comic relief and not only miss the mark wildly, but create a Gotham just as inconsolable as Bruce Wayne is. As baseless as the destruction of Gotham is, we don't care that these people might die. The violence in the film is trivialized, spurting out every couple minutes and killing people without the audience batting an eyelash, much less caring about their deaths.
In Nolan's lesser films before this I would still find exceptional things to say about the below-the-line aspects and the performances in the film. I struggle to find any such factors in this film, it pains me to say. Much of the cast is suffocated under the weight of the film's glib and heavily, excruciatingly plotted writing. I shudder at judging the performances of previous actors in the franchise because their characters feel so dishonestly warped, the lead played by Christian Bale being the most relevant example. Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox wasn't given much to do in the first two films, but he still had a very legitimate moral code and purpose in both films.
Michael Caine's Alfred is still acting within character, but he is inactive for most of the film and fades too distantly from memory. There are moments with his character that completely give away the destination that this film will end at, and multiple moments like that squandered the film of its intensity. Worst of all the supporting returning characters is the disservice done to Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon, previously a heroic family man who now spends most of the film out of commission (no pun intended), and no longer even shows or mentions his family. The first two films were grooming him as the true hero of Gotham, and when the final action sequence commences, all he does is scurry around town with a box.
Tom Hardy's showmanship is utterly wasted on Bane, though not because of the voice or the mask. He is still able to emote rather fervently though the film, but at a point I realized that his physicality did not match up at all with the dialogue. Take the opening prologue for example, likely the only genuinely thrilling sequence of the film. The voice work is entirely different from when it was shown in IMAX in front of "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", and much less honest and motivating. Too much of the film felt that way, and it shows immediately that this film compromised on itself due to audience complaints that now rendered his performance disjointed and absolutely inauthentic. Hardy's original performance, likely a thing of greater elegance, has been lost as a compromise that doesn't make him any less difficult to understand at moments of the film.
Anne Hathaway is a lovely actress with plenty of sass, but Catwoman has no purpose in this film beyond being a romantic companion to Bruce Wayne/The Batman, which might work if the actors had any real chemistry, which they don't. Selina Kyle is also weight down by a ridiculous motive of finding a program hilariously titled "the clean slate". As for the other "original characters" of the film, both of them become involved in rather unsurprising, not to mention unconvincing, reveals in the film's final act. Take Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, the only one who feels faintly honest and complete, but is nonetheless marred by a revelation he has early on regarding The Batman. I do buy for a second him being able to so instantly come to that conclusion, and so much of the film is built upon it from there.
Marion Cotillard's character is entirely pointless, meant to serve only for plot purposes which are convoluted at best, not at all convincing, and rob one particular character of any dimension he had before. As for below-the-line factors, Wally Pfister's previously stunning cinematography is given hardly any chances to paint symbolic or emotional strokes into the film, making the film a surface level experience at best, but with nothing below that. Much of it is broken up by hasty and rampant editing, including a rather thrilling shot of Batman illuminated only by gunfire as he gets closer and closer.
Everything that could be a strong moment is cut up by disjointed editing of events, as well as annoying cutaways that distract from the current action of the film and smack us over the head with events from the previous films or flashbacks to narrative prior the film's action. The sound mixing and editing muddles the dialogue so as it's incomprehensible, and not simply Bane's. Hans Zimmer's score overpowers and oppresses the already hammy and painful dialogue, through no fault of his. Some moments, like Bruce Wayne's obvious, but still somewhat rousing, climb to freedom are given weight by the score's emotionality. Other times, it beats you over the head with a sledgehammer.
What's more despairing than the film is the fact that this came from the same people who made the first two films, which set a standard of excellence for all superhero films. "The Dark Knight" struck such a chord with its depictions of violence against civil and public society, much thanks to The Joker and Heath Ledger's next-level intense performance. Then Heath Ledger died, and the Christopher Nolan that we see represented by this film is much similar to the Bruce Wayne we are shown. He has stopped taking risks and has shut himself away after the death of somebody he worked with closely.
My only dream for what this film could have been lies in a line from its predecessor. "One day, Batman will have to answer for the laws he's broken." That never comes to fruition. The line that most eloquently states what the film actually is comes from "The Prestige". "You've climbed too high to get away with professional embarrassment. We don't do any tricks we can't control."