Last thing's first: The conclusion--the actual, immediate conclusion, as in the last few minutes--of director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy are absolutely perfect. Set up throughout the film, and in some instances throughout three films, each of the principal players gets a conclusion that's a logical extension of that character's personality, their role in the series and where they ended up at the end of The Dark Knight Rises.
The road to actually getting there is somewhat more uneven; some critics have suggested that the story doesn't make any sense, and while those people are apparently just not trying very hard, it's certainly an overly-complex plot, where not every part of the film works. As someone who knows these characters and their backstory, it made elements of the movie easier to follow--but when one version of the continuity is presented only to have another version overwrite it shortly thereafter, it's hrad to keep track the lies from the truth from the comics and keep a story straight.
The "realistic" nature of Nolan's Batman trilogy makes some of the film's bigger set pieces feel implausible, and the final minutes of the film--which revolve around, essentially, trying to disable a bomb while on a ticking clock--feel out of place and overly "Hollywood" in a movie that's decidedly not so.
How not so? The fight scenes in this film are brutal; Bane is not only a physically dominating foe, but he's a primal one. Whether he's winning or losing a fight, he fights like an animal (although in a different way in each of those situations), and you don't get any of the typical movie stuff, where the more heinous and bone-crunching parts of a fight are allowed to slip away. The result is a film that retains the visual style of Nolan's Gotham, but still manages to look decidedly different during key moments than its predecessors did.
Bane is, in fact, a fascinating and enigmatic character in the script (that early scene with the CIA airplane is more important than it may seem, as it sets up the difference between Bane the terrorist and Joker the anarchist), but Tom Hardy's voice was indeed a distraction. Not because) as so many had feared) it's unintelligible, but because his accent is odd and frankly has a tendency to swing wildly into sounding like broad comic relief. "Of course!" He says with glee early in the film, and it sounds like he might be pitching something for Chuck E. Cheese. Hardy's physical presence sold the character most of the time, and the fact that Bane is a strong, silent type--or if not silent, at least calm and measured--helped things as well, but occasionally when he would get angry or excited, his voice would be as bad or worse than any of Bale's worst Bat-voice moments.
Selina Kyle gets a number of the film's best scenes, and outsmarts everyone at every turn while never seeming to quite get what she wants. She thinks she's two steps ahead of everyone but really it's only about a half a step, something that leaves her character very vulnerable when Bane and his thugs decide that she's on the wrong side of their little revolution. Hathaway pulls the character off perfectly, which is good because she's far more essential to the plot--both for Batman and for Bruce Wayne, who have somewhat parallel stories happening--than you would think by seeing the trailers. She also gets some of the best quiet moments of emotion and introspection, as she spends most of the film questioning her own decisions and regretting what she feels she has to do in order to stay alive. It makes for a complex, textured character and to whatever degree the film works, Hathaway deserves a ton of credit because frankly much of the story rests on her shoulders.
John Blake and Jim Gordon have an interesting relationship that veers all over the road during the course of the film, and watching the pair of them together is sometimes like an '80s buddy cop movie, just without all the jokes. Gordon is unfortunately not given a ton to work with, other than being the Old Soldier in the film. It feels at times as though Gary Oldman's considerable talents are left on the shelf, as the story tells us about his internal struggles rather than giving him the breathing room to show them. Blake's character is a major part of the film almost by the force of his own will; he becomes part of every plot and subplot simply by refusing to take a step back and breathe. Blake is enormously ambitious and idealistic, lending his character a somewhat anarchic sense of "anything can happen" in the bleak world of Nolan's Gotham, especially Nolan's Gotham under occupation by Bane.
Each of the film's other players gets a fair chunk of screen time, which is probably why the movie clocks in pretty long. Alfred Pennyworth gets some great moments here, even though he's not onscreen as often this time around as he has been in the past. Miranda Tate is one of those characters with a small but important role, and one that's key to the film's climax as her character is deeply invested in the whole neutron bomb plot. Unfortunately, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox--often a spot of light in the darkness of the first two films--is mostly a set piece in this movie. He isn't allowed much opporunity for the kind of banter that made his character so beloved in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and what he does get, we've already seen in the ads.
What's remarkable, given how much footage we've seen from this film before it was released, is how much of that footage was totally misinterpreted. There were a half-dozen or more moments from trailers that seemed as though we knew what they "meant," but that--once viewed in context--were entirely different story beats. The end result was a film that felt wildly unpredictable, as more and more of the moments we've been taking for granted were revealed to be something else entirely.
At the end of the day, what's wonderful about The Dark Knight Rises is that it's a triumph as a film first and as a Batman film later. Following a slew of Marvel movies each made in service of the next in a build toward The Avengers, and knowing that we're looking forward (probably starting with next year's Man of Steel) to a handful of DC/Warner Brothers movies that do the same, there has to be something to be said for a filmmaker who gets to make the film he wants to make, regardless of whether it's featuring a character who's worth billions to the studio.
The movie feels like the natural conclusion of the first two--as though the story was written as a whole and then split up for production, rather than the reality where Nolan was being pressured to make a third one after the monumental success of the second. Changes made to the source material may frustrate some fans, but ultimately the goal here was to call back themes and story beats from the previous movies to make a cogent trilogy that stands alone without worrying about how it stacks up to Tim Burton or how it accommodates the Justice League.
Nolan's Batman is the story of Bruce Wayne's one-man war on crime, about how in service of that war he crafted an identity for himself that was larger than life, and how that war escalated until the entire city reached critical mass. Now it's left to audiences to enjoy the fallout.