To start off, this is a ponderously dense and intricately plot-heavy movie, with dozens of mini-arcs and character through-lines. The narrative structure was a little cumbersome and slightly messy, having to cover a lot of ground and tell a lot of story. But the plot itself was exceptionally well crafted, and successfully brought all the disparate pieces from throughout the entire series together in a satisfying way, all the while introducing a number of new characters.
In other words, I loved it.
As the main villain, Bane was an interesting choice. He served his purpose well, and exceeded my personal expectations. He was also perfect for this story, even if I wasn't that excited by the villain in general. Tom Hardy's performance was really excellent, though, striking a fascinating balance between barely contained monster and intellectual juggernaut. He dominated the screen and was absolutely believable as an unstoppable force. His back story was also pretty well done, even though it was a little too truncated, in my opinion.
For those who were concerned about Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, let me put your fears to rest, because she was phenomenal. In fact, for me she was one of the best aspects of this film, and completely embodied the character. I'll go out on a limb and say that I liked her performance as much as Heath Ledger's, but for somewhat different reasons. She stole every scene she was in, and managed to pull off crafty indifference as an endearing character trait. I don't think she'll earn the same accolades as Heath did, because she wasn't the driving force behind the story like the Joker. That being said, I think she deserves whatever praise she gets.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (John Blake) is a far more important character than I thought going into this movie. He is an everyman, and in a lot of ways the main protagonist of the story. He is like Gordon in the first movie, the idealist cop who is surrounded by people with their own agendas. I loved this character, and found myself rooting for him throughout the film. Marion Cotillard (Miranda Tate) is an environmentalist businesswoman that serves as both a romantic interest for Bruce Wayne, and as a plot device for the main story involving Wayne Enterprises. I thought she did a good job, she was likable and interesting, but I think she was overshadowed a little by Hathaway's Catwoman.
Oldman, Freeman, and Caine were all wonderful as usual, each having some great moments to shine. There were also several smaller roles played by some recognizable names. Burn Gorman (Torchwood) had a small role as a corporate rival for Bruce Wayne. Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) had a fun bit part as a CIA agent. Nestor Carbonell (Lost) was back as the Mayor of Gotham. Brett Cullen (Lost, Person of Interest) got to have some fun as a womanizing Senator. Fredric Lehne (Supernatural, Castle, Justified, Lost) had a small part as an unfortunate security chief. And Desmond Harrington (Dexter) was an obnoxious bridge guard. Oh and Christopher Judge (Stargate SG-1) had a bit part as a mercenary. There were some more fun surprise characters and actors, but I don't want to give too much away.
Then we have Christian Bale. Bale's Batman has almost been a secondary character throughout the series, since it has always been more about Bruce Wayne's journey, especially since he spent even less screen-time in the suit than in the previous two movies. But at the same time, Batman's presence was never more felt. Batman hung like a shadow over everything, pun intended. The mask had finally become the symbol that Bruce wanted it to be in the first movie. For me, the character arc was extremely satisfying, and we also had some of the best character moments of the entire trilogy. He got to be funny for the first time. And most importantly, both the actor and the character served as a much needed anchor for the plot, keeping it from flying too far off in the wrong direction. Simply put, without Bale this trilogy wouldn't have been as good.
Acting and plot aside, the movie was gorgeous. Sweeping vistas, beautiful composition, and stunning locations made the entire film feel grand. The cinematography was really wonderful too, and the fight scenes had a visceral quality to them that made you feel every impact. Also, the combat didn't feel as choreographed this time around, which was probably due to Bane and his insanely dominating presence. I was also impressed with how seamless the effects were. If there was CGI, I didn't see it, which is the best praise I can give. Finally, I thought that the music was really exceptional, as usual. There was a scene that involved ritualistic chanting that was awesome, and also a big scene that had a little boy singing The Star-spangled Banner that sent chills down my spine.
Do you have to see Batman Begins and The Dark Knight again to appreciate The Dark Knight Rises? No. But I'd strongly recommend it, if just to brush off your memory and allow all the wonderful story codas to have the emotional impact they were intended to have. However, if you have not seen the first two at all, you might be incredibly lost, since the plot builds on and completes the story started in those films.
I'm not sure where exactly I'd rank it in comparison to The Dark Knight, but it was more than a worthy follow-up.
4 out of 4 stilettos made of steel.