Due in part to the late Heath Ledger's iconic portrayal of the Joker, The Dark Knight's huge box-office performance cemented writer-director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of the Batman legend as a zeitgeist-defining spectacle. The three films in his Batman trilogy have aroused a wide range of responses, spanning such topics as the director's aesthetic approach, the self-consciously realistic tone of the films, and even their political underpinnings. In fact, the bounty of critical conjecture and fan praise that followed The Dark Knight was in many ways more important than the film itself, which has become an indirect measure of success in our current age of blockbusters.
Given the enormity of The Dark Knight and the circumstances under which it was released, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's third and final entry in the series, was certain to generate similar buzz, despite also shouldering an enormous burden to meet unreasonable expectations. The film represents the most sprawling installment of the series, as well as the most vulnerable to criticism. While critical and audience reactions have been mixed, I found it more emotionally involving and less aesthetically jarring than The Dark Knight. Yet, despite my enjoyment as I watched it, I came away from the experience curiously having retained very little of its frenzy of plot and action. The reasons for this are similar to those that plagued the earlier entries. In short, the film is a muddle of images and ideas. As such, however, The Dark Knight Rises is more significant than the previous films in Nolan's trilogy. I would even go as far as to say that it's a defining statement regarding its director, not necessarily due to the concerns and ideas he embeds into the film, but for what it says about his concept of storytelling. I arrived at this somewhere over the course of the film's nearly three-hour running time, during which many character and story arcs converge and expand amid endless jawing about social equality and revolution, before finally deflating and signifying nothing.
At the center of all three of films is a deep tension regarding heroism and its tangible impact on the mass corruption infecting much of society's institutions. This was most potently explored in Batman Begins, which established Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a man engulfed by a fear that society has cast on him. He comes under wing the League of Shadows, where he learns to conquer and embody his fear. Upon his return Gotham City, Bruce channels his corporate and financial resources into an effort to become a symbol of fear that crime lords would fear. Batman Begins reflexively explores Joseph Campbell's hero myth in a definitively post-9/11 world; it questions the notion of the hero while also sustaining its resonance. Nolan stretches this concept further in The Dark Knight, wherein the Joker (a.k.a. an "agent of chaos") maneuvers within organized crime rings as well as the city's police force and nearly successfully destroys the city's symbols of hope, pushing Batman to the brink in the process.
The Dark Knight Rises continues along the same lines as its predecessors, offering up another villain that seeks not power, but annihilation. Batman's foe is Bane (Tom Hardy), an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows who seeks to finish the work that Ra's al-Ghul (Liam Neeson) started and destroy Gotham. His mission and methods are not unlike those of the Joker, but Bane is different in two key respects. First, he's a physical specimen the likes of which Batman hasn't faced, which results in a more threatening fistfights between the two. More importantly, though, rather than exploiting the crime bosses like the Joker did, Bane enlists the working class as his henchmen. He calls construction workers and other blue-collar types—along with the imprisoned—to his cause and stirs tensions within the social power structure that defines Gotham. (In Bane's first act of terrorism, he sends the financial markets into upheaval before escaping the stock exchange with the help of a construction crew that paves the way for his exit.) The film never shows how Bane amasses so many followers, but his revolutionary rhetoric coupled with a domineering presence suggests it wouldn't be too difficult. Lurking in the sewer system, Bane systematically destroys the city from the ground up and establishes a new social order in which the exploited rise up to reclaim the city.
Obviously, this is topical stuff. But Nolan is keen to avoid any affinity for a political position and instead opts to, in his own words, "throw a lot against the wall and see what sticks." He wants to provoke, an idea that I will return to later. First a few words on how The Dark Knight Rises plays out and plants the seeds of its own contradictions. The film notably starts strong, with Batman in a self-imposed exile after taking the fall for Harvey Dent's in the previous film. With Batman gone, Bruce Wayne has also disappeared from city affairs. He's become a recluse and is physically withered due to his physically punishing past as Batman. Despite pleas from Alfred (Michael Caine) for Wayne to let go of Batman, the rise of Bain forces Wayne to don the costume again. Along the way, there are new characters and several subplot—too many to list here, but suffice it to say that the film takes several strange turns in setting up a third act that comes across as somewhat detached from rest of the film.
In all three films, Batman engages villains who exploit various social sects in attempt to unleash nihilism on the world. But in its final stretch, The Dark Knight Rises realizes the visions of both Ra's al-Ghul and the Joker and shows Gotham in the throes of chaos. It's Batman's job, then, to restore social order. This wouldn't seem so out of place if the films hadn't worked so hard to establish these very systems as corrupt at their core. The film vaguely alludes to how institutions need to be fixed from the inside and on the shoulders of good people, but this and other philosophical puffery is lost amid what eventually comes down to Batman beating up bad guys and restoring the status quo.