Eric Snider, one of my favorite movie critics, gave Rises a B versus the B+ he gave Batman Begins and the A- have gave The Dark Knight. (A B from Snider isn't actually that bad since his ratings don't generally suffer from grade inflation.) Having read several reviews, I went into Rises with slightly lowered expectations, but was pleasantly surprised by the film I saw.
Eight years after the Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent's death, Gotham City seems like a much better place. The resulting Dent Act was used to break organized crime in the city and to deny parole to large swaths of convicted criminals. Crime is at such a low rate that most newspaper headlines are now focused on the so-called "Cat" burglar who has stolen priceless items from members of Gotham's wealthy elite. However, on a much less visible level an inevitable conflict is brewing, much of it instigated by a masked terrorist known only as Bane who is amassing an army in Gotham's sewers.
With Batman gone, Gotham is now patrolled by Gotham's police, who are a lot more respectable than the crooked cops of nearly a decade before. One of these cops is Officer John Blake; an orphan who was inspired by both Bruce Wayne as well as the Batman while in his youth. Blake is a natural detective. He's so natural, in fact, that he deduces Batman's secret identity and realizes that the official explanation for Dent's death is false. Blake knows that something sinister is happening and urges the reclusive billionaire to put on the cape and cowl again. It's not until Bane's operation finally comes to the surface in a brutal takeover of Gotham's stock exchange that the Batman makes his first appearance in eight years.
Batman eventually confronts Bane when Selina Kyle (who is never explicitly called "Catwoman") reluctantly leads him into a trap. The confrontation doesn't go the way that the Caped Crusader expected and the villain is able to set into motion his master plan: to obtain a fusion reactor built by Wayne Enterprises and turn it into a nuclear bomb. Soon Gotham is cut off from the rest of the world when strategic bridges are destroyed. Bane and his army threaten to set off the bomb if the authorities intervene while publicly declaring that their only motive is to return the city to the people (i.e., Occupy Gotham). However, the fact that the bomb is designed to detonate after several months without anyone actually pulling the trigger suggests that fomenting a people's revolution isn't Bane's true purpose.
It's inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises would be compared to The Dark Knight. And given how good the second movie was, the otherwise excellent third movie can only suffer by comparison. The greatest advantage that The Dark Knight had was obviously Heath Ledger's Joker, who set a bar of villainy so high that it would be very difficult for Tom Hardy's Bane to match it. However, the Joker dominated the second film and nearly overshadowed Bruce Wayne/Batman. Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises gives Bruce Wayne the chance to shine and to develop as a character, while also giving us more conventional heroes in the form of Commissioner Gordon and John Blake.
Speaking of Gordon and Blake, one of the greatest strengths of Rises is the fact that the heroes who don't wear capes are able to carry much of the film. As some reviewers have complained, there are relatively long periods of time in The Dark Knight Rises in which Batman is not on screen. I'm not really sure if he gets significantly less time than he did in the previous two movies, though. Either way, when we're not watching emotionally disturbed individuals wearing masks, Nolan and his team spend the time making us care about Gordon and Officer Blake as much as we do for the titular character. By the end, I was cheering for Blake as much as I was for Bruce Wayne. One of the things I liked about The Dark Knight was that it allowed ordinary people to behave heroically (e.g., the ferry scene). Rises continues that trend when a good portion of the Gotham City police face heavily armed terrorists without flinching. Rarely do the cops come out looking this good in a superhero film.
Finally, kudos to Nolan and company for successfully including an additional "villain" (i.e., Selina Kyle) without falling into the same trap as so many other superhero movies (e.g., Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man 3). While still a criminal, Catwoman has often sided with Batman in the various incarnations of the character. The latest Catwoman is no exception, but her motivations for helping out the Dark Knight are a bit more credible and her contribution to the hero's efforts is significant. (Her timely arrival in one scene elicited quite a few cheers in our theater.)
While not quite as strong as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent movie that is at least as good as Batman Begins. It makes a fine end to Nolan's Batman trilogy.