1. The first two Batman films from director Christopher Nolan were so transcendent, so ambitious and challenging and grand, that The Dark Knight Rises feels like more of a disappointment than it should. The first two movies, especially The Dark Knight, were miracles, an impossible combination of universal themes, strong characterizations, committed (sometimes to the point of mania) actors, and a supremely talented filmmaker working at the absolute top of his game. They were big blockbusters, but, it seemed, almost by accident: They were basically brooding Michael Mann-esque crime thrillers that occasionally featured a guy in a cape. For all their darkness, though, they still remained entertaining on a popcorn level: They essentially did everything right. It is not fair to judge The Dark Knight Rises against its predecessors, because on its own, it's a massive, sprawling, swing-for-the-fences rampage. But in the end, that's sort of all it is. This is the first Nolan Batman movie that, alas, feels like a superhero movie.
2. I wonder if part of the problem—and please, note that I say "problem" lightly; compared with anything other than the first two movies, this is a terrific film—is that the events of The Dark Knight Rises begin eight years after the end of the last film. This span of time sets up the film's premise, which is that Gotham has had eight years of deceptive peacetime that is threatening to explode in class violence, but it starts the audience off at a curious remove from the characters we've come to know and understand from the first two films. Their plights have always had immediacy and urgency. Here, Bruce Wayne is a recluse who has spent eight years hiding in a locked room of his castle mourning the loss of his beloved Rachel—he even uses a cane—and the Batman has vanished. Frankly, I don't buy it. The Rachel relationship was always the weak link of the first two films; that Wayne is so shattered by her death that he can't face the world (and even splits with Alfred!) seems more a narrative device than a believable facet of his character. (He doesn't even spend that much time mourning her at the end of TDK, though, to be fair, he was a bit busy.) One result is that you sit through most of the first third of the film waiting impatiently for him to just get on with it and don the batsuit already. In the first two films, you felt like Wayne was compelled to be the Batman; here, it feels obligatory, clobberin' time. (It doesn't help that the film is a little bit too proud of its bat gadgets, including a bat plane that, while fun, is probably the least realistic-looking thing to appear this entire series. It's oddly Lucas-y.)
3. The Dark Knight Rises is at its best when Bane, this installment's bad guy, is wreaking havoc on Gotham, and on Batman. Bane's motivation—and his plan, really—is sort of vague throughout the whole movie (he's a member of the Ra's Al-Ghul's League of Shadows and wants to destroy Gotham, but, like all supervillains, he wants to take his time and teach it a lesson first, providing the heroes plenty of time to try to save the day). In any case, he sure is powerful. Rather than try to compete with Heath Ledger's immortal Joker, Tom Hardy, taking a page from his ass-kicker in Bronson, is an immensely physical brawler, and the pain he inflicts on this city and its defenders is substantial and awesome. He's as formidable a Batman opponent as The Joker was, and while he might not work as well as a character as The Joker did (who stood in for anarchy and terrorism far more capably than Bane stands for class warfare), he is an outstanding impenetrable fortress. There's a 20-minute stretch in the middle, when Bane is just destroying everything in sight, that is as hypnotic as anything in this whole series.
4. Still, Bane is just one of four major new characters introduced in this film—along with the four we already know and care about—and none of them is as sharply drawn as Harvey Dent, The Joker, or even Carmine Falcone. They feel more like comic-book archetypes than the brooding humans of the past two films. Anne Hathaway is a perfectly serviceable Catwoman—she's better than you think she's going to be, I suspect—but her character still feels somewhat extraneous to the story. (I think she was initially meant to supply some of the film's Occupy Wall Street undercurrent, an interesting idea that the movie doesn't have the time or the stomach to delve into all that much.) Marion Cotilliard is more vital to the plot but still registers less of a presence; she doesn't have much to do other than look alluring. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is more thematically (and franchise-sustainingly) important but his only job here is to be the guy you root for. All these guys are fine and fun to watch, but they're paper thin, plot points more than flesh-and-blood people with their own flaws and their own tragic arcs like in the last film. The key to the Nolan films has always been that they placed the fantastical in our physical universe and made it believable, made it almost raw. Here you can see the seams showing. This one is almost too eager to impress.
5. Still, let's be clear: It certainly does impress. The movie's two hours and 44 minutes long but never drags, and it has at least five separate action set pieces that will drop your jaw, particularly if you see it in IMAX, like I did. (Highly, highly recommended.) That the movie can't reach the operatic heights of The Dark Knight is hardly a fair criticism. It is a powerful, riveting action movie, full of dread and weight and pain and looming apocalypse. It is an amazing accomplishment to have created this whole dark, sad universe and turned it into an insanely popular franchise; these are without question the grimiest action spectacles ever to gross a billion dollars. The Dark Knight Rises isn't fun, exactly, but it sure is propulsive and kinetic and transfixing. It doesn't quite stir the soul like the last two films did, but that's no crime. The Dark Knight will be the film people talk about in 20 years, but Dark Knight Rises is a fitting conclusion to this incarnation of the franchise. Nolan has shown us a new way to awe audiences, with carnage and madness. I'm not sure he really changed the way big tentpole movies are made. I think he did something more impressive: He went up against the unwieldy beast of the comic-book blockbuster and wrestled it into something that is uniquely, profoundly his own. Now that's heroic.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.