Gotham City is reborn. No longer a mecca for crime, it's also no longer in need of Batman. That's why, per the opening chapters of "The Dark Knight Rises," he's at rest, along with his damaged auteur, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). As Gotham City officials celebrate their contained victory, Wayne harbors in the peripherals. It's his place, after all. He's earned it. But while he stews in his billion dollar mansion, evil is festering somewhere below. An evil so tired of this makeshift harmony that it plots a drastic city-wide facelift: Give us our streets, share with us your wealth, grant us your mercy. And with a few carefully assessed strokes of crime, it's time for Batman again.
"The Dark Knight Rises" is a thrilling, epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which began with a soft bang in "Batman Begins," rose to a stellar climax in "The Dark Knight," and winds to a slow, and sometimes clunky, halt in this final installment. The grace and cinematic ease of "The Dark Knight" may be absent this time around, but the working parts – sturdy performances, striking action, guttural score, breathtaking cinematography – are all back and better than ever. The story is at times convenient and lofty, and the 2 hour and 45 minute run time may detract casual followers, but true fans will feel the heart-pounding excitement laced through every meticulous set piece and swift beat of action. The moment Batman reemerges onscreen is like a long exhale: at last.
Still, the movie suffers under its own weight. Nolan went for epic fan service this time around, plucking a few beloved characters from Batman's gallery and sticking them in the meat of his story. Sometimes, the fit is effortless. Bane (Tom Hardy), while almost comically ridiculous in certain scenes, still fits in Nolan's world, and drives Batman from reluctant shadow to rightful spotlight. But the inclusion of Selina Kyle (who is never referred to as Catwoman in the film) feels slightly more tacked on. Anne Hathaway is great in the role – spunky, funny, sexy – but Kyle never gets the sweeping arc she deserves. She flirts with Bruce, she steals some pearls, she ruffles some feathers, and she gets to play with the big boys. But her role isn't integral to the plot. She's there because what's Batman without a little Catwoman to make things interesting?
The real surprise of the movie is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the eager beat cop who fights for the goodwill of Gotham and gets a taste of glory along the way. He befriends Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and takes a keen interest in Bruce Wayne. It's his love of his home turf that hits home. This is how heroes are made: With compassion, devotion and stubborn drive.
Marion Cotillard also shines as Miranda Tate, who convinces Bruce to fund a clean energy machine that will make Gotham the first city run by such a contraption. But the machine is easily manipulated – Bane and his goons want it for their own devilish vision of the city: a police-free, people-governed free for all. The machine is their nuclear solution for crowd control. It's all very topical, with a finger on the pulse of the Occupy Movement (the final blow down was even filmed on Wall Street). The poor hate the rich, the rich hate the poor, the cops are the middlemen in this disorganized chaos. But the story never comes down hard on either side. It's one of Nolan's most frustrating ticks: presenting a political conflict without offering a solution or opinion. It's just there, drenching the story without motivating it. Even the swift and heart wrenching finale feels a little "so what?" in the wake of all that rebellion.
Still, the final moments close with unexpected gravity, and a few lingering talking points. I didn't expect a flush of tears as the music swelled and the credits rolled, but they came anyway. The power of Nolan's filmmaking might mask internal flaws, but you can't deny how fun it is to live in his world for a few hours.