It took some work to reign in my expectations for "The Dark Knight Rises," director Christopher Nolan's follow-up to the greatest superhero movie of all time "The Dark Knight."
I knew there was no way the new film could be as good as its predecessor, especially when you subtract the late Heath Ledger's iconic performance as The Joker.
But I also knew that Nolan wasn't going to just phone this one in, that he would have something fresh and surprising to add to the Batman legacy and that he would — in what is supposedly his last Batman movie — go out with a bang.
Unlike my ACT's, I was correct on all counts as "The Dark Knight Rises" is an epic, spectacular and fitting finale to this seriously realistic Caped Crusader trilogy.
In nautical terms, "The Dark Knight" was like a battleship; sleek, agile and packed quite a wallop. "The Dark Knight Rises" is more like an aircraft carrier; it may not be as nimble or sexy, but it lumbers forth in an impressive display of both size and scope.
"Rises" takes place eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," where Bruce Wayne (franchise bedrock Christian Bale) has hung up his cowl and withdrawn from the world.
He's so physically battered from his exploits he walks with a cane and his emotional scars are of even more concern to his trusted allies, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and, especially, his beloved butler and confidant Alfred (Michael Caine).
But seeing how this wouldn't be much of a Batman movie without a Batman, a new threat comes to Gotham City and brings Wayne out of retirement.
The terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy, who bravely acts behind a mask that obscures most of his face) arrives in town with a bleak agenda. Bane's blithe British accent is almost comically betrayed by his hulking brutality.
If the Joker was a psychological challenge for Batman, Bane is most assuredly a physical one; he barely flinches while trading punches with our hero.
Other new faces to the franchise include cat burglar Selena Kyle (the lovely Anne Hathaway), who is totally Catwoman even though nobody ever actually says she's Catwoman. At any rate, Hathaway completely redeems the character from that whole Halle Berry fiasco.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a fine performance as straight-laced beat cop John Blake, who remains one of the few citizens of Gotham who still believes in Batman.
Rounding out the cast is Marion Cotillard as a Wayne Enterprises executive and potential love interest for Bruce Wayne.
Typically the third installment in any franchise either feels tired and uninspired, or labors as it tries to tie up all the loose ends left by the previous two movies.
"Rises" avoids these pitfalls because Nolan still has plenty to say, not only about these characters, but about society in general, specifically the growing tension between Main Street and Wall Street.
Blockbuster action laced with social commentary has been the calling card of Nolan's Batman films, and "Rises" is referential to the previous movies, especially "Batman Begins," where the legacy of that movie's main villain, Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), drives most of the action.
But "Rises" also stands on its own, and in spite of its grand proportions and a cast of thousands, this movie is at heart a character study.
Bruce Wayne goes from broken to redeemed as he faces down not only the formidable Bane, but his caped alter ego as well.
It's unclear what the future holds for Batman. All involved in this particular iteration of the character say it is their last go around (although Nolan does crack the door on his way out with hints of a possible continuation of this story).
No doubt Batman will be rebooted with a whole new cast and crew because this is a character that has proven his durability.
Either way, it will be hard for any future version of Batman, or any superhero movie for that matter, to fully escape the shadow cast by these three films. All that's left to do is stand and applaud.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.
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