'The Dark Knight Rises'

I can't be sure if The Dark Knight Rises is the best standalone installment in director Christopher Nolan's visionary, game-changing Dark Knight trilogy. Knowing that for certain takes time. It takes rewatching each movie with a fine-toothed comb, especially the third part, which was so exhilarating and also draining that it's hard to point too discerning an eye at it. What I think I know, now that my pulse has slowed a bit, is that The Dark Knight Rises was my favorite part of what might just be the greatest trilogy in movie history. (Again, we need time to really make those sort of assessments with any certainty, but it has to be part of the discussion now, certainly.)

There's some couching and nuance there, and it's intended -- partly because it's hard to judge its place in the pantheon just a few hours after the credits rolled and partly because The Dark Knight Rises' immediate predecessor could be a better standalone film without being as jawdropping and entertaining as the conclusion to this three-part masterpiece.

Whatever its ultimate place in the trilogy and in movie history as a whole, The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting conclusion to Nolan's decade-plus with The Batman.

It picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, and as the title implies our hero Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has nowhere to go but up. Wayne is a recluse in his family's rebuilt home, hobbled literally and figuratively by what The Joker and Harvey Dent took away from him -- his beloved Rachel and Batman, his raison d'etre, respectively. I suppose you could argue that setting things so far in the future disrupted the momentum -- the abrupt and stunning acceleration from organized crime to The Joker -- of The Dark Knight, but I found the big jump forward to be highly effective. It illustrated just how broken and stuck Wayne has become. Time has not healed all wounds for him; in fact, it's quite to the contrary as they seem only to fester and consume him from the inside. He gimps around the East Wing of Wayne Manor, with only his loyal servant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and photos of Rachel and his dead parents to keep him company, unable even to turn to his alter-ego to cope courtesy of the Faustian deal he made with, oh, no one in particular to conceal Dent's fall from grace.

The lie, at least, seems to be worth it for Gotham as a whole if not for Wayne himself. Organized crime has virtually vanished, mitigating the need for Batman or even "war-time [police] chief" Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). This is an illusion shattered by the mysterious Bane (Tom Hardy) in breathtaking fashion. A hulking villain who wears a mask to dull the pain from severe injuries suffered as a child, Bane -- as a result of the mask -- speaks with a slightly garbled menace that escalates from creepy to downright terrifying as his plans begin to unfold. He sets out to terrorize Gotham City, and he succeeds in a way that even The Joker, Batman's supposed arch-nemesis, couldn't.

In this way, Bane seems, in retrospect, like a necessary evil, because the big lie maintained and nurtured by Gordon and Wayne is allowing a different kind of insidious poison to seep into Gotham City. The posthumous lionization of Harvey Dent has destroyed Wayne, yes, but it has also laid the foundation for other big lies to be perpetuated. Enter three new characters: Det. John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who knows Wayne's secret identity and seeks him out as Bane begins to marshal his considerable forces quite literally in the underground of Gotham; Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who fancies herself as Robin Hood in a skintight jumpsuit and, tapping into the real world, warns Wayne that growing income inequality means a "storm is coming"; and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a member of the Wayne Enterprises board, who attempts to usher Wayne back into society and finish work on major scientific project that the suddenly struggling company has invested big in but seen little reward for so far.

All three do their part to coax Wayne/Batman out of retirement (or is it exile?), where he winds up toe-to-toe with Bane, easily the most devastating and destructive villain he has ever had to face. I can't go much further without risking major spoilers, but I've only really covered the first and parts of the second act, and with three new major characters, plus Bane, plus series standbys like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, well, you can start to piece together why The Dark Knight Rises bumps up against three hours in run-time.

I suppose the film's length might also be a problem for some folks, but I was too engrossed in the tale to notice at all. (There's only one scene that struck me as extraneous at the time, though that may change upon repeat viewings.) The new characters only added value for me, and Bane and his cohorts engendered a more visceral hatred from me than even The Joker by the film's end. It wasn't even close, actually; Ledger's performance as The Joker was certainly more memorable than Hardy's Bane, but I didn't have quite the same vitriol for him, which is saying something.

The Dark Knight Rises cast such a spell on me, in fact, that I didn't see several major twists coming -- twists that actually would have been fairly obvious to a savvy Batman fan like myself if I hadn't been so wrapped up in each and every moment. That's Nolan's true gift, I suppose. He has the care to dangle the obvious right in front of you, but he's able to keep it just out of reach because he's such a gifted and all-consuming storyteller. The end of his trilogy is, essentially, a series of quick reveals, most of which you've been set up for at some point along the way, only without being consciously aware at the exact moment when you were being set up.

Nolan's gifts, of course, are worthy of our appreciation, but so too is the way he was able to unpack and repack and unpack one of the central moral conundrums of the entire Batman canon, not just his trilogy. What is the price Bruce Wayne, or any man, should have to pay if and when he decides to pursue vigilante justice? Is there a sacrifice that's too great for him? Should there be?

It's a question Nolan first dug in to in Batman Begins, but it's a thread that I thought was lost for most of The Dark Knight as The Joker took center stage and as he began to share his sacrifice with Harvey Dent. That all changed at the end when Wayne decided to let Batman be what his city needed him to be, a scapegoat for Dent's/Two-Face's crimes. Eight years might elapse in Gotham City, but in this sense at least, The Dark Knight Rises picks up right where The Dark Knight left off, with Alfred, and to a lesser extent Catwoman, playing devil's advocate to Bruce, who seems willing to go to any length for his city. As it should be, that theme is the heart and soul of the conclusion of the trilogy, and with Bane wreaking havoc, the ultimate sacrifice is always on offer.

That Nolan is able to weave this sort of overarching, human theme into one comic book movie, much less throughout three, defies all of the odds. As The Dark Knight Rises hurtles toward its memorable conclusion, I was taken aback by my own raw emotions. I hated -- really hated -- Bane. I desperately wanted success and, yes, true happiness for Bruce (in this sense, Alfred speaks for us all). I was worn out by the time the dust began to settle, almost as if the movie had taken a true physical toll on me. Simply put, when a movie -- a trilogy -- makes you feel that way it has transcended its genre, and maybe even its very medium.