The Dark Knight Rises has its fair share of problems, even accounting for it being a superheroic action movie: indistinguishable motivations, character traits that bob to the surface and sink with no rhyme or reason, a slew of missed opportunities, muddy plotting, a totally tonally inappropriate coda, and plenty more besides. In Christopher Nolan’s flawed trilogy, the third film easily creaks loudest. However, if you listen closely, two clean notes sound forth, and carry with them hope for the director’s future. That’s a lot of pressure to place on Bane’s voice and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, but if they didn’t want it, they shouldn’t have been so compelling.
Let’s back up a little first, in the interest of context. Fun though the Marvel films have been (and goodness, are they ever fun), the thing that’s worrisome about their success is the top-down, executive creative board-driven way in which they’re produced. The Marvel Films films aren’t canvases upon which filmmakers express themselves, but maps that allow a little freedom in the getting from Points A to Z, but no more. There’s a reason the year’s highest grossing movie (thus far) is called Marvel’s The Avengers, not Joss Whedon’s. It’s a solidly-made movie, and great entertainment, but it also can’t be confused with the personal, visionary, uneven Dark Knight Rises.
No film that sprung from the minds of a creative/management board would've allowed such a surreally weird voice as the one that springs forth from Batman's not-quite-primary antagonist, Tom Hardy’s Bane. Sounding like nothing as much as Mike Birbiglia doing his white guy doing a black guy doing a white guy voice through Darth Vader's respirator, it's terrifically difficult to tell whether Nolan's playing some kind of elaborate prank on the audience, or he just picked a way to uncouple our attention from the track of cinema’s illusion. It’s difficult to take a would-be revolutionary seriously when he sounds like he’s holding his nose all the time. Even so, in an industry of endless market testing and focus grouping, Nolan’s willingness to follow a weird instinct is admirable, if it’s not always agreeable. Bane's voice is what you get when a powerful director puts his foot down and demands things be done his way.
As for Selina Kyle, having defined a career by not knowing how/blatantly refusing to build compelling, active female characters in his films, Nolan finally broke his streak with Catwoman. She’s not a simple audience surrogate, or an exposition delivery system, or a bewitching obstacle to overcome, but someone who stands as level as any other character onscreen. Sure, she's sometimes thinly defined and frequently contradictory - and not in the way that makes her mysterious, just not fully realized - but she's a good strong step in the right direction. That's a good base from which Nolan could build upon as he quests for things to say cinematically post-Inception.
The highs in Nolan’s Bat-films have been very, very high, but the lows have been pretty terrifically low. They’ve been the work of Christopher Nolan and no one else, though; his singular vision’s tied them together. Even if he’s just been doing them because they gain him the credit he needs to get Warner Bros. to let him make the movies he wants to make, he still can’t help but be himself. After finishing his masterpiece – Inception – it was going to be terribly fascinating to see where he’d go next. If he can still grow and find odd ways to express himself, if we had to trade a mediocre Batman film for better ones in the future, it might be bright indeed.