If you look at Hollywood's long history of trilogies it seems like ending the series on a no-reservations high note is nearly impossible. The first film may spark interest and build a fan base, the second film may improve upon the first in every aspect, but then, once the third film comes along it seems most trilogies can never quite stick the landing. In fact, the only two trilogies I can think of in which every film is as good or better than the one before are Toy Story and The Lord of the Rings.
So what about The Dark Knight Rises? Does it join Toy Story and The Lord of the Rings or does it fall victim to the third movie curse and join the ranks of Return of the Jedi, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and Spider-Man 3?
The answer, unfortunately, is the latter. Now let me be clear, this film is not bad, in fact it's actually quite enjoyable and ends up being a rather satisfying conclusion to Nolan's Bat-films, but there are a lot of areas where it fails to recapture the magic of its predecessors, particularly the second film which many people rightly call the best super hero film ever made.
The Dark Knight Rises feels like it's afraid of its own shadow. The legacy of the first two films looms so large over this one that it almost feels as if the film goes out of its way to be "bigger" and "more epic" in every way in order to live up to the incredibly unrealistic expectations people have for it, and its to the film's detriment. It kind of falls into the same trap as Iron Man 2, where there are just so many plates spinning all at the same time that it becomes overwhelming and slightly schizophrenic. At 165 minutes the film is very long, and in reality it probably could have been cut down and streamlined into a more efficient story if they had set aside the goal of being bigger than The Dark Knight. The plot of the movie is actually quite interesting; it has intriguing story beats, a compelling villain, a handful of excellent new heroes, and a great take on the final evolution of Batman's relationship to Gotham. The problem, however, is that the way the film is structured does a disservice to these interesting ideas. Too many characters are introduced early on that are essentially single-use plot devices, and by the time you actually start keeping track of who they are and what their motivations are they've essentially exhausted their usefulness to the plot and are discarded. Certain moments of plot revelation and character growth are handled in ways that are clunky and, in some cases, redundant, and although the basic story is easy enough to follow the details become so muddled and convoluted that it begins to distract from the narrative rather than add texture to it.
The narrative simply is not elegant in the same way that the first two films were. The second film particularly had a lot of ins-and-outs with shifting motivations, betrayals, deceptions, character revelations, etc. but despite these complexities of the plot, the narrative was told in a very elegant way; one thing flowed into another logically, and everything served to enhance the narrative rather than distract from it. Inception is another great example of this; despite all the complexities of the plot, the narrative was told in a way that was intuitive, fun for the audience to follow, and, as I've said, elegant.
Despite this, though, the movie still is a very enjoyable experience, and the things it does well it does *really* well. Anne Hathaway is fantastic as Selina Kyle (Catwoman, although none of the characters in the movie actually call her that) and she completely steals the show every time she's on screen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, a Gotham City cop who grew up being inspired by the Batman is a great addition to the cast (and, in a lot of ways, is more the main character than Batman himself is this time around), and then you of course have the returning cast who are, as always, excellent. The action set pieces are exciting and the cinematography is great, particularly in the expanded IMAX format. As for arguably the most important thing this film had to do, concluding the story of Christopher Nolan's Batman, it does so in a way that is both fitting and satisfying. The film also, somewhat surprisingly, has more comic book fan service nods than I was expecting given the tone Nolan has gone for with this world. One of them in particular at the end of the film is a little bit too on the nose, but I can forgive it because the overall effect works.
This feels like the kind of movie that my opinion on will evolve with subsequent viewings, and I expect to either warm up to it a bit and forgive it for some of its narrative missteps or perhaps sour to it and see the structural issues as more glaring. At this point, though, I'm going to call it good, but not great. It's still definitely worth seeing, and I would try to catch it while its still playing in IMAX because Nolan and Director of Photography Wally Pfister are currently unmatched when it comes to using that format to its fullest potential. It may not have stuck the landing, but it was an admirable, if flawed attempt that still manages to be entertaining and satisfying as an overall experience.