We've gone on about Bane and Tom Hardy at length at this point, but the actor's not even the best new addition in the film. The truth about Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character remained a secret right up until opening, including the fact that he's virtually the film's protagonist, at least alongside Bruce, with the clearest and best-achieved arc in the film. John Blake's an orphan with a troubled past, who, inspired by Batman, grew up to a be a good, honest cop, and is able to recognize in Wayne (who he's correctly guessed is Batman) the same anger in himself. He's a nice mirror of the ideals of the character, and Gordon-Levitt makes the character a man of courage and integrity without ever being simply a bland, heroic do-gooder. Even better is Anne Hathaway. Her casting drew a lot of raised eyebrows in some circles, but she more than proves her place here. Her Selina Kyle shows all the hallmarks of Catwoman -- moral flexibility, smarts, sex appeal, being able to kick ass. But Hathaway really grounds the character too, and without a ton of screen time, neatly suggests where she's come from and how she came to be the way she is (trying to survive above all else), without a heap of exposition and backstory. And the way she gradually falls for Bruce, their playful back and forth, and the effect that he has on her, through his faith in her, makes her heroic return near the end feel genuinely earned. We suspect that the spin-off that's been vaguely brought-up will never happen, but it should at least see Hathaway's stature grow even further.
Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him -- and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman -- it’s a crushing scene. Alfred fears hurting Bruce even more than he has already suffered, but he’s even more scared of what the end result will be when he returns to the streets of Gotham. His teary resignation might be the most emotional scene of the entire series to date, breaking apart the one constant in Bruce’s life that seemed unshakeable. Bruce Wayne has always been a loner -- a man on the outside -- but without Alfred, he faces Gotham one last time utterly alone, and without his must trusted friend and ally. It's disappointing that Caine isn't in the film more, but his absence truly hammers home what Bruce is up against.
Nolan was not a great action director when the series started. Which is fair enough, given that "Batman Begins" was only his fourth film, and on a far bigger scale than anything he'd done before. But he's improved each time at bat, with his chases and fights becoming increasingly less choppy as time goes on, and "The Dark Knight Rises" certainly features his finest action work to date. Clearly "Inception" has given him the confidence to simply let the fights play out in longer wide shots, and that gives the confrontations between Bane and Batman (especially the final one) a really bruising quality. And there's a clarity and handle on geography to the chases, particularly in the early motorbike sequence. Even the Bat dodging missiles feels genuinely exciting, when the risk was it might have felt too CGI heavy (it helps that much of it was achieved the craft being dangled from a helicopter, for real). Not to mention the staggering opening scene, possibly the best sequence in the film. And of course, the IMAX lensing makes everything feel absolutely enormous, whether you see it in that format or not.