After three hours, I had a strange experience: I liked it, thought it was great, actually, and I thought it did a very rare and special thing: it made the previous two Batman films seem better than they were.
I had seen both films upon their release and, while well made, I mostly thought that they were a bit of a waste of time and money, breathing life into a franchise that fuels an industry that lies and cheats its creators out of not just intellectual property, but financial security as well. But Christopher Nolan's intermission films the Prestige and Inception were such flat and dull affairs that, slowly but surely, I've come around to the idea that Nolan should be spending money and time on keeping a company icon propped up. A cynical attitude, for sure, but the truth of it is that Nolan hasn't once reached the success of art that announced him to an international audience in Memento. Your mileage will vary on this, of course--but that's neither here nor there, since, with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan, in using this last film to frame all three of his Batman films, rises to and meets the expectation of the start of his career.
The Dark Knight Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight and presents a shut in Bruce Wayne, crippled physically and emotionally by the emotional loss of the girl he didn't have in the previous film, and a Gotham under control from a law drawn out of Harvey Dent's death. From here, Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle drops in to steal from Wayne who, like all good billionaire shut ins, spends his time shooting arrows indoors, and soon enough, Bane, the head of the reformed League of Shadows emerges from the sewers, bringing back the spectre of Ra's Al Ghul, or Liam Neeson, right before he became the new Steven Seagal of action films. However, the upside of this is that it allows for the third film to structurally draw from the previous two films, presenting a character arc for Bruce Wayne that results in a film with less Batman than the previous installment, The Dark Knight. And while Bane never raises to he heights of Heath Ledger's Joker--his voice is partly the problem, but more on that later--his service to the storyline, and the fact that he doesn't steal all parts of the film he appears in as Ledger did, results in a much more consistent and satisfying film.
As a film, it's not without it's problems. All three Batman films could be called the Trilogy of Funny Voices and Tom Hardy's Bane has what I would consider the worse villain voice to be debuted for quite some time. It is simply much too clear, much too articulate for someone speaking through what appears to be some kind of breathing apparatus. Bale's Batman voice is his usual thing and you spend half the time waiting for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's voice to drop a few octaves, though it never does. In addition to that, some of the older characters get a bit short shifted--Michael Caine's Alfred suffers from this, though it is part of the narrative that requires Bruce Wayne to lose everything that matters to him, and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox likewise suffers, while also being strangely unaffected by the previous film. In addition, there are a lot of characters in the film, and another viewer could easily be put of by that, though I wasn't--most in my mind didn't really merit more than they got. And, on the plus side, Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon finally feels as if he has found his place within the films, and Hathaway is actually quite beguiling and charming as Selina Kyle.
But, even for its faults, the Dark Knight Rises is a uniform success. It's use of the divide between rich and poor was nice to see, though I would have liked to see it go slightly further against Wayne, but it was a solid inclusion, a thematic touch that the previous films lacked, and as a whole, lifted the film above the others. As strange as it is for me to say this, I recommend it. I recommend watching the previous two films if you haven't seen it and then watching the third. It's not a mind blowing, conscious altering watershed moment--though I am sure the trilogy itself will be defined by some as that--because it's still a franchise, still built around the rules of commercialism and not art, but it truly is a fine film, and does what the last in a trilogy rarely does: makes the films that proceeded it better.