MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW - WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST!
Ok, let's start with some small things.
Alfred leaves Batman. Apparently this is some kind of heresy in Batman lore; Alfred should be loyal to the very end. For this trilogy though... I don't know, I kinda liked it. It was the most emotional scene for me - I felt literally heartbroken as it unfolded; as the consequences of Alfreds well-intentioned lie began to dawn on him. "Let the truth have its day" he says. It resonates well, on a larger scale, with Gordons deception about Harvey Dent exposed to the city. The peace they had tried to establish was founded on untruth, and ultimately usurps them.
So thematically it was consistent, and Micheal Caines acting can seemingly never be faulted... But I guess I just wanted more of Alfred. He says he's leaving, and in the next scene he's gone - just a shot of him getting into a car would be nice. But worse, he never appears again until after the day is saved. I feel like maybe he should have been waiting outside the prison when Batman rises, or contributed to the final fight in some way or other. Again, I want more, though it might have hindered the pace of the film even further.
Liam Neeson makes an appearance as Ra's Al Ghul while Bruce is stuck in the pit. A delusion brought on by pain, a maddening desire to save Gotham, and the sudden revelation of Banes connection to Ra's (at least, as far as Bruce knows). This was another great moment - Neeson's appearance perfectly matches Bruce's conception of Ra's, and that of the audience, at that moment. We wonder for a minute if Ra's might actually be immortal, at least in some sense. Only later do we look back on that scene and realize just how severely mistaken Bruce is. It's cleverly done; Ra's' actual appearance on the screen lends an authenticity that makes the coming twist all the more surprising, and his appearance to Bruce in a prison is a nice callback to when they first meet in Begins.
There were a lot of other callbacks to the previous films (particularly Begins), and in my experience they were almost universally satisfying. Obviously there were all the links to the League of Shadows - an apt choice to revisit, because surely they didn't all perish or disband after the events of Begins. They represent a philosophy that is relatable (desire for justice) yet unbearable (justice at the cost of all else), whereas Batman represents a justice tempered by mercy, and faith in a fundemental good in human nature. Of course, this League of Shadows is different. Corrupted, in my opinion, by the desire for revenge - the very thing they taught Bruce Wayne to rise above.
I mentioned that Banes power over his followers is underdeveloped, but there is enough there to draw some conclusions from. It is established early on that boys from the orphanage, when they come of age, are being lured into the sewers because there is work there. So my first idea was that Bane was taking in these boys and brainwashing them in the style of some organisations like the Mafia. So he has an army of fanatically devoted followers. But no, in later scenes Batman specifies that they are 'trained killers', and Bane reveals that he is now in control of the League Of Shadows. So... his followers are ninjas? They don't seem like ninjas, or behave like trained killers, with the exception of a few in the opening sequence. Perhaps the remnant of the League now follows Bane, but he is bolstering his army with stragglers in Gotham? He would have to, to have the manpower to hold a city hostage.
I'm meandering now, this is still the callbacks section. In one of the first scenes we see Commisioner Gordan giving a speech to the big-wigs in Gotham about the hero that Harvey Dent was - intercut with frightening glimpes of Harvey Two-Face from The Dark Knight. Seriously, he's scarier when you see him for half a second than he ever was in that film. I love the way this is done though; it evokes all the heavy emotions of that films (second) climax, and sets up a brilliant scene later when the truth is finally unveiled. These small flashbacks here make us feel Gordans pain more cathartically when Bane exposes him, and he justifies himself to Blake.
When Bruce first attempts to climb out of the pit we flash back to the first film, when young Bruce falls into a dry well, and his father abseils down to get him. "Why do we fall Bruce?"... The question doesn't need an answer, we already know it. We're just waiting for the moment when Batman picks himself back up. Again, I love this. This film ties so beautifully with Begins, it makes me want to watch it again. I'll also mention that the scene when Batman clambers out of the pit is also fantastic, with bats bursting from the wall and frightening him again... until he remembers what they stand for; that symbol established in the first film, reinforced by the flashback with his father, his weakness becomes his strength. It's time for his enemies to share his dread - to strike fear into the hearts of Bane and all his followers... perhaps the climax doesn't deliver on that promise, but it's still a damn good scene.
Scarecrows cameo is also great. There's really no reason for him to be there other than that it's good to see him again. No mention of the Joker, however, and I think given the circumstances it's appropriate. Some have speculated that a name drop, or a shot of the Joker sitting in Arkham (face obscured I guess?) would have been better, but I'm content with what they've given.
Mind you, one idea I've heard tossed around goes something like this: Bane is wreaking havoc, setting the Black Gate prisoners free, and one of his henchmen comes up and says "What about Arkham Asylum", to which Bane replies "No. Those people are too much."
Bam! Awesome Joker moment without even mentioning the name.
There's a few references to other things of the Batman mythos - did you catch the Killer Croc line?
Finally, Robin... I actually didn't like this one. At the end of the film the topic comes up (strangely) that John Blakes' real name is Robin. It's a bit wierd, the dialogue is a bit awkward, and it comes on extremely suddenly - so it has none of those going for it. But the main reason I don't like it is for is thematic dissonance. I'll explain further when I talk about the future of Batman for this universe, but I think the Robin reference would have been much better if, say, one of the orphans Blake talks to is named Robin, or evokes Robin in some other way. If there is a character in this universe that is supposed to represent Robin, it should not be John Blake.
But it is, so let's just deal with it and move on... with more nitpicks.
One thing that was oddly missing was the train built by Bruce's father. It was a major component of the first film, and apparently showed up in the second (though I don't remember seeing it), but is completely absent in any fashion here. This didn't really bother me, but what bothers me about the series as a whole is that Gotham feels like a completely different city in each one. Obviously the reason for this is that Gotham is in fact shot in several different cities in America - for much of this one I believe they used Manhattan. In The Dark Knight, Gotham looks and feels very much like Chicago, and in Begins it feels more like... any city with a slum really, there's not a whole lot of extra-wide shots that establish it quite like the two sequels. Not a huge complaint, but just something I've noticed as the series unfolded.
To this twist now - Talia Al Gul. My opinion on this has changed since I first watched the film mainly because (in my Batman-obsessive state) I played through Batman: Arkham City, the videogame. Amongst other things, that game does villains really really well, and one of the villains featured prominently is Ra's Al Gul and his daughter, Talia. Apparently Talia is someone who has a thing with Batman/Bruce, and wants him to embrace leadership of the League of Shadows and immortality with her. It's probably to the films detriment, but when I found out that Miranda was in fact Talia, a character I had never previously heard of, and was the mastermind behind this whole scheme, I was a little confused, and a little disappointed. In light of what I have since learned about Batman lore, I'd say that Talia is in fact a well thought out character, and a nice nod to comic book fans. If Ra's is there, why not include Talia?
Well, I still hate the otherwise well-excecuted reveal for one important reason - and again, only after I thought about it some more: It cheapens Bane. A lot. This bad-ass menace, this ferocious animal of mysterious charisma and masked intelligence, this cryptic, frightening mastermind - this awesome, awesome villain... is just a sidekick. Yeah, that's typical of the comics and other Batman iterations as well, but it really felt like Nolan was building him up as the Big Bad - and it was working!
Indeed, the last 10 minutes Bane is on screen just utterly destroys his integrity as a character. First he gets beaten to a pulp by Batman (which is fine, by this stage we're really rooting for Bruce), then his mythic backstory turns out to be a case of mistaken identity (if only those prisoners knew some synonyms for 'child', like 'little girl'), and that in fact he was just an ordinary prisoner (up to this point it would have been ok I think). Finally, Talia explains that everything Bane has done he has done out of undying devotion to her, to achieve her vengeance on behalf of a man he had a falling out with - none of it was his idea, and none of it was really his desire. Inexplicably after she tells him to keep him alive, he moves to kill Batman and (as if just to rub it in) he gets offed by the surprise return of Catwoman.
Shot in the back, and for the rest of the film he's just gone. Not even a single shot to show his dead or dying body - not even a moments pause to reflect on his contribution to the film, just more banter between Batman and Catwoman. I do like that she comes back though.
There's quite a bit of stuff that deals with Batman as a legendary, symbolic figure, and again, while I think there's enough of it, it could have been more focussed or more central... but the way it is dealt with in the finale is one of the most satisfying payoffs of the franchise. Let's break it down: Batman has literally sacrificed his life for the city, he has fought, taken the fall for, and now died for the sake of Gotham. He will be remembered as the hero he truly is. Bruce Wayne has overcome his fear, and his own desire for revenge - has finally put his purpose above all else and fulfilled his fathers vision of redemption for the city... and passed on his mantle to John Blake. This was fantastic! A perfect culmination of everything leading up to that point - with conversations between Bruce and John about why he wears the mask, why the symbol is so important, and the idea that anyone can be a hero - it all just culminates into an entirely appropriate conclusion for the Batman mythos: Batman is immortal.
And for this reason, Blake's real name being Robin didn't ring true for me. It adds confusion - is he going to become Robin now? No way! He's going to become Batman. Because Batman is the established symbol for justice in Gotham city, and Blake has just been given access to all of Batman's tools.
One of the last scenes in the film has Batman finally reveal to Gordon his true identity. I really liked this scene - and I felt like after everything he's done, Gordon of all people deserved to be parley to this well-guarded secret. The problem was... it didn't feel like a well-guarded secret anymore. By this stage of the film, it's so hard to keep track of who knows Bruce and who doesn't, it just kind of feels like a given that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Or that the whole world is falling apart, and maintaining a secret identity just isn't that important anymore. As I said, I liked the scene. I liked that Gordon got his aha moment, I liked the callback to the very first time Bruce met him, and I like the drama of it all. I just think the drama would have been a lot more powerful if this scene had taken place in the first half of the film - when all that 'secret identity' stuff still seemed important. As it is, the reveal is almost meaningless.
Ok, last nitpick, I promise, and this brings us to the very end of the film. I think The Dark Knight Rises should have ended one shot sooner.
If it did, perhaps everybody would complain that it ends too much like Inception... but I think it would have been worth it. If Alfred had been sitting at his cafe, looked up, smiled - and then cut to black... I think the film would have been better for it.
The film builds up the fact that Bruce Wayne is going to give his life for the city. From the second film when Harvey Dent says "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain". This was an ironic statement that applied to himself, but also seemed to apply to Bruce. If Harvey lived to become a villain, surely Batman must die to be a true hero? The bomb was inevitable and inescapable, there was no autopilot, and the film actually shows a closeup of Batman in his cockpit about 5 seconds before it goes off...
I think Bruce's survival works on a thematic level, but perhaps Nolan went a little overboard with convincing us that he couldn't make it. The series of revelations at the end produce a sharp turnaround - a plot twist that gives us whiplash it's so sudden. If the final shot had left us in wonder of what Alfred might be smiling at, it would have given wiggle room to either interpretation. The film would have a far punchier (and less contrived-Hollywood) ending, and leave audiences wondering and debating years after.
The fact is, Harvey was wrong. Harvey died the villain, while Bruce Wayne - the true hero of Gotham - lived to see his work come to an end. Bruce stayed strong through trials and adversity, endured false accusations and misunderstandings, because he stood for a cause that was above all that - above himself and all the plans of the police and the mob and the high rollers and the revolutionaries - he stood for the implicit value of human life, choosing not to punish the corrupt but to offer them a chance to repent. Further, he demonstrated what that kind of life might look like. I mentioned in my Dark Knight entry that Jesus parallels for Batman abound... well this film dials that up to eleven.
Nolan says that the first film is about Fear, the second is about Chaos, and the third is about Pain. But the series as a whole is about a hero who overcomes fear, chaos and pain to bring compassion, hope and strength to a dying city - a superhero for the soul.
I love this trilogy.