For a good deal of its runtime, director Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy threatens to unravel; from frame one, Nolan and brother/screenwriter Jonathan toss a lot of balls in the air, and there are moments where it seems futile to keep juggling. Eventually, it stands to reason, their arms will tire, and this epic Dark Knight trilogy will come plummeting to the ground in flagrant Sam-Raimi’s-Spider-man-3 form.

The discerning viewer – and, of course, the Batman fan – has reasonable cause to be nervous. After all, Rises wraps up a trilogy kicked into high gear four years ago with The Dark Knight, and we all know how that worked out; dynamic box-office performance, near-universal critical acclaim, a posthumous (and well-deserved) Oscar for star Heath Ledger. But it’s not merely that The Dark Knight (and Ledger’s untimely death) lit the fuse on a worldwide, insanely lucrative Bat-explosion; The Dark Knight torpedoed the limits of what a superhero movie can be. I mean, we all remember the comic-book boon of the early aughts, when the first couple of X-Men and Spider-Man films reminded us – for the first time, depending on who you’re asking – that comic book-based entertainment didn’t have to suck. Bryan Singer introduced extended allegory (gay rights, the Holocaust) into his X-Men trilogy, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films dealt extensively with themes of responsibility and survivor’s guilt.

And The Dark Knight trumped all of this. Upon release, Film Freak Central’s Walter Chaw asked, “am I going too far to say this might be the best American film since fellow sequel The Godfather Part II?”; the answer is, of course, subjective, but the mere notion that we could ask this about a big-budget superhero movie spoke volumes about how momentous this was for both comic-book and film cultures. Finally, Christopher Nolan had given Batman – mainstream comics’ most consistently bleak hero, a lone vigilante with deep-rooted psychological issues trying valiantly and thanklessly to single-handedly stave off urban decay in a barely-veiled New York substitute – the movie he deserved.

Now that The Dark Knight Rises is here, and Nolan’s saga draws to a close, what can we expect? After eight years, Batman is in exile, having defeated the Joker and taken the rap for Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s crimes (and his “murder”); he’s sacrificed his reputation for the greater good, allowing Gotham to glorify Dent as a hero, and band together against something. (Shades of Watchmen, there, with the idea that even manufactured tragedy brings out the best in a society.) Organized crime has taken a hit, Dent’s death sending legislative waves throughout Gotham’s halls of power, and the city celebrates a yearly holiday in his honor, while Bruce Wayne (a weary Christian Bale), the millionaire behind Gotham’s most enigmatic (but loyal) hero, barricades himself Hughes-style in a wing of his lavish mansion. Lithe cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has fallen in with a tough crowd, a roughnecked cell of domestic terrorists who use her to obtain information about Batman; beneath Gotham’s streets, a band of hoods led by the masked, hulking Bane (Tom Hardy, positively ferocious) prepares to take the city by storm. And that’s to say nothing about GCPD officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young idealist who discerns Batman’s identity, or Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the lovely Wayne Enterprises shareholder imploring our hero to place all his chips in a renewable energy source, or Bane’s link to the League of Shadows, the mystical band of troublemakers led by R’as Al Ghul in the first film. These all take interesting and surprising turns over the course of the film’s lengthy runtime, and they’re all worth watching play out with minimal spoilers.

What’s important to note is that Nolan has a lot to juggle with this final third, and during the first hour, he seems perilously close to losing the plot. Initially, The Dark Knight Rises is a very talky film; exposition is meted out slowly and meticulously, to the point that we don’t even realize when we’ve received the whole picture. As such, it can also be a slow film. The Nolan Brothers spend a lot of time getting all their ducks in a row, and it’s easy to lose faith.

What’s important is how the movie progresses; each puzzle piece seems much larger in retrospect, each dialogue-heavy vignette weightier once seen as part of a larger whole. It’s to Nolan’s credit that he metes everything out slowly; The Dark Knight Rises is almost agonizing in the way it lays each card out on the table. And then… well, then things get real.

Nolan’s Batman trilogy has never been about action. His films are big-budget summer spectacles, but he doesn’t dumb anything down for his audience; each bit of action is carefully composed, and in service of the larger plot. And yet, the man is inherently capable of some mind-shattering imagery – witness the reams of scenes in 2010′s Inception that suddenly distort reality into brain-melting, irradiated Escher prints – and once Bane and his goons get their paws on Gotham, The Dark Knight Rises goes bananas. The film’s final hour is a giant breath that catches in your chest and struggles to escape; take Bane, silently storming a pro football game as an angelic little cherub sings the national anthem, or that glorious, teeming-with-dread shot of explosions slowly isolating Gotham from the rest of the world. What seemed like a slow, mournful dirge for Batman’s soul quickly transforms; the action and violence of the film are never triumphant, but plump with unbearable sadness and gut-level terror. It’s apocalyptic in every sense of the word, and within the span of a few short moments, we realize that The Dark Knight Rises is in every way up to the challenge of equaling its predecessor; if nothing else, it’s certainly every bit as dark, and even taps into a mine of utter bleakness that The Dark Knight didn’t quite sink to.

Which is heady stuff for a summer blockbuster; why, you ask, do we even need to scrape the bottom? Can’t this merely be escapist entertainment? Can’t we just watch Batman crack a few skulls and save the day? It’s a good question, but one already answered by Joel Schumacher; his late-90s pair of Batman flicks is good for a few yuks (and basically nothing else, but still), but they never truly capture the essence of this pitch-black universe that Batman lives in – a universe which, not for nothing, terrifyingly mirrors our own. The Dark Knight Rises has action to spare, yes – there’s a thrilling overhead shot of thousands of uniformed officers going toe-to-toe with Bane’s army, for example – but in Nolan’s world, violence is real. Pain is real. Heroes don’t just dust themselves off and ride in on white steeds to save the day; in the real world (even one where a millionaire with lethal fighting prowess gets a pass for dressing up as a rodent and beating down thugs), violence and anarchy have consequences.

But set all that aside for a moment. What other hero franchise boasts performances this strong? It’s telling that The Dark Knight is the only “traditional” comic-book film to have an Oscar-winning performance in its arsenal; TDKR oozes with nuanced, character-based performance. Tom Hardy’s vicious physicality and colorfully mangled speech patterns are key to the film, as is Bale’s increasingly ragged, haunted visage; but the film’s MVPs are its supporting actors. Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is one of this trilogy’s unsung aces in the hole – a consummate professional, Oldman has been predictably great in literally everything he’s touched for the past 20 years, but he embodies Gordon’s law-enforcement vet perfectly, never once betraying that this universe exists outside of the world we know. Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchor the film, actually, placing it squarely in real-world territory; Gordon-Levitt is a revelation – the film’s most beautifully acted sequences all feature him, not coincidentally – and surfaces as perhaps the film’s most important character. (Just as The Dark Knight focused on the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises brings the heroic Blake to the forefront instead of the Caped Crusader; Nolan’s challenging us all over the place here.) And then there’s Michael Caine, who has played long-suffering butler Alfred with a quiet grace for three movies now; he gets less screen time here, but makes up for it with several scenes that will stick with you forever.

All this darkness, and all this actorly firepower, sets the stage for one of the hall-of-fame best finales in American cinema. It’s imperative to not release details – all should be experienced firsthand, I must stress – but the film lands gracefully, and often unexpectedly. It’s worth noting that this may be the most emotional superhero film of all time – I can’t recall ever seeing a summer blockbuster, much less one featuring a caped action hero, that had me struggling valiantly to hold back tears. There are twists to spare, but there are moments of grace (and dread) so poignantly played that for a spell, the movie takes on the role of a three-hanky weeper.

But while there’s a lengthy dissertation to be written about Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – officially the greatest trilogy of its kind – the only way to join the discussion is to see it, and see it soon. A film of darkness and light, of bleakness and hope, of tragedy and redemption, of high stakes and real consequences, The Dark Knight Rises is a thing of beauty. To answer your obvious question: no, it’s not as immediate or as visceral as The Dark Knight, quite possibly the best film of any genre made in its decade. But it’s bigger, it’s more nakedly emotional, and it is almost certain to linger for longer.

I picked up my first Batman comic book at age 10, in 1994. It was, not for nothing, the beginning of the “Knightfall” saga, the story arc that introduces Bane, and sees him snap Bruce Wayne like a twig and swat every domino off the Dark Knight’s table. I remained a comic-book reader for about five years, and then I decided that all my hobbies were going on the backburner to make room for girls. But during that time, it was only Batman that truly excited me, that I found intellectually stimulating and dramatically engaging, and twenty years on, he’s the only superhero that is still found on my underwear. (Yes, I own Batman underwear. Wanna fight about it?) As a movie buff from a young age, I’ve never seen that hero, and the scummy universe that he inhabits, brought to cinematic life in all of his pitch-black glory.

So in conclusion: thanks, Christopher Nolan. Just… thanks.

Grade: A

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