In addition to Bane, The Dark Knight Rises welcomes several newbies into Batman's world, including do-good cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose performance is thoroughly strong), an admirable officer who shares Bruce Wayne's boys' home background and possesses an unflappable degree of faith in Batman. Also fresh to the party is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a businesswoman who earns a spot on the Wayne Enterprises board and shows interest in overseeing the company's clean-energy project. In Gordon-Levitt's Blake, Nolan's Batman universe has an all-important beacon of non-costume heroism, a guy who's more than able to make Commissioner Gordon's (Gary Oldman) job slightly easier and work his way into that "white knight" role Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) so desperately wanted to fill, and Gordon-Levitt handles the boy scout assignment with sympathetic, very likable aplomb.

Nolan's true trilogy intentions are clearly apparent, interweaving subplots and mythologies introduced in its predecessors into this film's conclusive, end-all-be-all look at an emotionally tormented hero's struggles with his role in Gotham's turmoil.

Tate, on the other hand, leads to one of the film's major problems: She's the love interest for Bruce Wayne that The Dark Knight Rises doesn't need. During the first act, she's a hole-filler meant to absolve Bruce's pain in the wake of Rachel Dawes' (Maggie Gyllenhaal) death in The Dark Knight, but the script barely establishes an attraction between Miranda and Bruce before they're smooching beneath the sheets. It's Christopher Nolan who's in question here, though, so the character isn't just some throwaway romantic diversion; in the end, Cotillard has more to do than just look pretty, and the Academy Award-winning actress definitely rises to the occasion, yet, once The Dark Knight Rises ends, her character's whole bedfellow arc feels manipulative. And that's all that'll be said. Here, at least.

Suffering a similar fate is Bane, a largely formidable bad guy who's never able to match the domineering presence of The Dark Knight's Joker but, nevertheless, mesmerizes with his oddness. Save for a few moments of eye-driven emoting, Hardy's performance is totally muscular, frequently chilling the mood with his broad-shouldered walk, two hands curiously gripping his leather coat's collars, and says things like "[I'll] eat their souls" with an unwaveringly cool and calm disposition. Using his face mask as a sort of megaphone, Bane gives dictatorial monologues to Gotham's scared, shell-shocked inhabitants, preaching about his agenda as their "instrument of liberation" while secretly aiming to blow them all to smithereens.

In that, Bane is actually a far more threatening nemesis for Batman than Joker, whose carefree nihilism suggested a waking nightmare; Bane, however, wants to kill people in their sleep. Which is why his unfortunately overshadowed final moments on-screen are such a letdown. Throughout The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy's impressive work is utilized for paralytic terror; but in the end, he's shortchanged.

Yet, again, Nolan is too gifted a filmmaker to let a few narrative slip-ups spoil his fun. There may be no better shotcaller working in Hollywood when it comes to eye-popping action, and The Dark Knight Rises has that in bulk. Save for a painfully heavy-handed decision to kick off the mayhem with a kid singing the "The Star Spangled Banner" (as heard in one of the trailers), Bane's devastation of Gotham City, during which he blows up a football stadium, decimates all outward-bound bridges, and sets off miniature bombs on the city's streets, is one undeniably tremendous set-piece. One that, staged with direness and an alarming sadism, leaves the NYC-set finale of The Avengers looking like an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

As one would expect from the guy who made in-depth character studies like Memento and The Prestige, though, Nolan isn't an action first/substance second kind of dude. With The Dark Knight Rises, he's undoubtedly most concerned with tying his Gotham City saga together through Bruce Wayne's redemption, and, in that respect, the film is abundantly pleasing. Just as Batman Begins was dedicated more to Bruce Wayne than his caped alter-ego, the director's third installment sets out to conclude his story, even if it means leaving the actual Dark Knight on the sidelines; frankly, it's easy to forget that one's watching a Batman movie most of the time. But once the costume gets put back for the film's show-stopping final 45 minutes, Nolan's ambition to give the die-hard, wait-in-line-for-hours-to-buy-tickets fans an all-out spectacle of a conclusion is phenomenally endearing, and it's made all the more impactful thanks to the director's excellence behind the camera.

If this truly is Christopher Nolan's final trip to Gotham City, he should be endlessly commended for putting it all on the line. Rather than play it safe, the undisputed blockbuster champ closed the series' doors with its darkest, meanest, and most grandiose entry; in trying to do so damn much, he also happened to jumble a few story elements along the way. Well, as they say, shit happens. Imperfect superiority is always a welcome substitute for flawlessness. Besides, fans who are typically spoon-fed brainless spectacles during the summer months deserve someone who's unafraid to stumble while climbing a cinematic mountain, not a filmmaker who'll lazily sidestep the smallest of hills. Nolan is that rare ascender, and The Dark Knight Rises is his, as well as superhero cinema's, Kilimanjaro. Bask in how he scales it.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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