In so many cinematic trilogy examples, the third and closing movie normally has the toughest act to follow.  The first movie of a trilogy covers the introductions and the second movie elevates the story to its peak heights.  The odd third film has to seal the deal.  Some deliver and some don't.  The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie of the original Star Wars trilogy, is commonly considered the best of the series while The Return of the Jedi is frequently named the weakest.  The Godfather Part III absolutely tanked the incredible storytelling and dual Best Picture Academy Award winning pedigree of the first two films of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's  Godfather trilogy, but we accept the overall greatness.  Speaking of Oscars, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third and final film of that modern and instant classic trilogy, won all 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, tying an Oscar record.  In order for Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to enter that pantheon of the best movie trilogies of all-time, this final movie, The Dark Knight Rises has to deliver.

Through those examples, you can see the pressure and hype The Dark Knight Rises has to deal with.  While 2005's Batman Begins was a strong introductory start, the series blew up with 2008's The Dark Knight.  The film grossed more money at the box office (around $533 million) than any movie had in over a decade, ending, at the time, as the #2 box office blockbuster in history behind Titanic (it has since been passed by Avatar and The Avengers).  The Dark Knight earned an unprecedented eight Oscar nominations for a comic book film.  Among those nominations was the posthumous Best Supporting Actor victory for the late Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker.  His performance, regarded by many (including this writer) as one of the greatest villain roles of all-time, regardless of movie genre, and his off-screen death added to overflowing buzz and mystique that The Dark Knight still carries four years later with the release of The Dark Knight Rises.

Like the peak of The Empire Strikes Back and the perfection of the first two Godfather films, how can director Christopher Nolan top The Dark Knight?  The answer is you can't.  You can't match that peak and you can't replace Heath Ledger.  All a smart storyteller like Nolan and his co-writers throughout the trilogy, his brother Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, can do is maintain the integrity and direction of the story they sought to tell and give the final act the character deserves.  Comparisons aside, The Dark Knight Rises delivers just that.  This is a triumphantly epic and fitting conclusion to this unique take on the Caped Crusader and asserts Christopher Nolan's trilogy as worthy of the all-time greats.

I'm going to do my best to keep this whole review as SPOILER-FREE as possible because of the huge hype and anticipation surrounding the movie and the satisfaction that comes from seeing this all play out.  As you may have heard, The Dark Knight Rises takes places eight years after the events of The Dark Knight.  After Batman took the fall for Gotham City's loss of its "white knight" Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), he has not been seen since roaming the streets and rooftops while the city's crime level has dropped dramatically under the leadership of Commissioner Jim Gordon (still the stoic Gary Oldman).  He has become something of an urban legend as a wanted criminal that kids and cops talk about.  

At the same time, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, fresh off of his Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter) has remained in equal seclusion in a rebuilt Wayne Manor with Alfred (the incomparable Michael Caine) as his only contact.  Shying away from the public eye, Bruce has never gotten over the loss of his beloved Rachel (Maggic Gyllenhaal) and his failure with Dent.  While in his Howard Hughes hermit state, his father's great company, with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) still at the helm, has began to fade as well, due to failed environmentally-minded projects.

The four new faces of The Dark Knight Rises each create and carve out new important elements to this trilogy's finale.  The first we meet is the hulking masked terrorist Bane (a beefy Tom Hardy) who has come to Gotham City with the determination to finish the job of razing the city that Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) attempted in Batman Begins.  The second new face is Miranda Tate, played by the enchanting Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, one of the few Wayne Enterprises board members who still supports Bruce Wayne's endeavor to provide sustainable energy to the city.  Third, we have the cat burglar Selina Kyle (a surprisingly good Anne Hathaway), whose agenda drifts to whatever cause suits her, causing her ball of yarn to have quite a few knots.  Finally, we have a devoted Gotham City cop, John Blake (the constantly maturing Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who both Commissioner Gordon and Bruce learn to trust.

Those introductions are as far as I will go.  Let the film show you where paths intersect, where connections are formed, where bonds are made and broken, where secrets are revealed, and what fate has in store for each character.  That being said, The Dark Knight Rises provides a suitable story to raise the level of isolated chaos and anarchy presented in the second film to bigger stage of takeover and societal control.  Where the Joker tested and called out the rules of both Batman and the public he serves, Bane battles the system above the rules and beyond the city's social boundaries.

Those raised stakes fit the grounded-yet-still-grim fantasy world Christopher Nolan has created and operated within throughout this trilogy.  Remember, you're still watching a comic book movie.  You're going to get villainous monologues and over-the-top circumstances requiring the necessary suspension of disbelief for the genre.  If one critic calls these factors flaws, I'm going to call them par for the course.  Tom Hardy's speechifying here is no different than Liam Neeson's ominous doctrines from Batman Begins or Heath Ledger's warped psychological hubris from The Dark Knight.  What Bane does bigger than those two previous enemies is back it up with brute force and a true physical challenge for Batman.  

The mood is as dark as the title and there is plenty of symbolism, theology, and morality to discuss in a spoiler-friendly setting afterwards.  Those calculated strengths, shared by its predecessors, elevates The Dark Knight Rises's story and meaning atmospheres higher than any other comic book franchise, The Avengers and Spider-Man included.

I mean to paint with a broad brush when I say this next statement.  Every technical element of The Dark Knight Rises's filmmaking is as close to perfect as possible, with an emphasis on "film."  The epic scope of quality matches the hype.  Nolan and his trusty cinematographer Wally Pfister made it a point to shoot entirely on film (some IMAX and no digital photography or 3D) and use as few digital effects as possible.  The result is some of the year's best imagery, lighting, camera movement, and stunt work.  Composer Hans Zimmer also returns for another arduous score of infused chanted voices and familiar booming themes.  All of those elements together ratchet up the realism and scale of one eye-popping set piece after another.  The "wow" moments here might outnumber those of The Avengers.  It might have to go to the judge's scorecard for a decision.

Even with all of that backing of technical prowess and perfection, none of those moments would be possible without this coup of a cast assembled for the finale.  Christian Bale, in this writer's opinion, has put to bed the petty British and method acting doubts of how good or bad his Bruce Wayne/Batman would be.  I'll say it now.  He's the truest and best Batman we've ever had.  Michael Caine's masterful emotional anchor and continued devotion to Bruce as Alfred may have you wiping tears away during some moments.  While the deep masked voice of Bane is occasionally difficult to interpret (as was feared), Tom Hardy conveys a physical performance with his eyes and presence that's better than some actors' entire arsenals.  No one can match the raw sizzle of Michelle Pfieffer's iconic take on Catwoman from Batman Returns, but, to my surprise, Anne Hathaway more than matches the character's moral flexibility, ambiguity to good and evil, and inner torment between right and wrong.  Out of everyone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt might just steal the show in The Dark Knight Rises.  He's the closest this movie has to a moral narrator and emotional lens and his character's growth matches ours as an audience.

In talking about the performances from the cast, I'll end with what I think has always been the strongest element to this trilogy, the thing that separates it from the rest of its genre: CHARACTERIZATION.  In so many comic book films, our heroes and villains end up one-dimensional and single-minded.  That's never been the case here with Christopher Nolan's new and challenging interpretations on 70+ year old characters of American literary fiction.  Those who know the comic roots of Batman, know that Nolan and his team have added so much positive characterization to each role.  

Every character is beyond three-dimensional and fleshed out with dynamic emotions, origins, strengths, flaws, victories, losses, goals, and fates.  All of our original core characters and our new entries each have their culminating moments for their characterization that makes The Dark Knight Rises a fitting and deserving conclusion to this now-historic and classic trilogy.  As Richard Roeper will tell you (and I concur with), the last five minutes of The Dark Knight Rises are best five minutes you will see in a movie all year.  

We are truly privileged for getting to see this vision of an American legend played out in three extremely excellent and rewarding films.  Finally, please, Warner Brothers, what ever you do, do not reboot this character in again in our lifetimes.  Let this trilogy be the iconic vision for generations to come.  Come back in fifty years, not five.

LESSON #1: WHEN BRUTE FORCE MEETS SHEER WILL-- Each of Christopher Nolan's three movies in this trilogy has had a single word deemed by the director as its core element.  In Batman Begins , it was "fear," embodied by Bruce's need to overcome his own to become the symbol of hope.  In The Dark Knight, it was "chaos," embodied by the escalation of the Joker to tear down all that was good.  Here, in The Dark Knight Rises, it is "pain." During this chapter, we meet a Bruce Wayne who's emotional and physical pain of loss has sapped the indomitable will that made him great.  Bane is a superior physical opponent to Batman and proves it, painfully.  No matter how physically prepared Batman can get, his sheer will has to be the difference when outmatched.  Will can defeat brute force because of Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: A PERSON'S SOUL IS ALWAYS STRONGER THAN A PERSON'S BODY-- Carrying on from Lesson #1, a person's body can be hurt, harmed, and broken, but a person's soul is far stronger and much harder to damage.  As much as it's the last and most difficult thing to take from someone, it's also the most resilient part of us and the one that makes us tick.  More characters than just Bruce Wayne/Batman find their souls tested in The Dark Knight Rises.  Some souls crack while others are emboldened.

LESSON #3: SELF-SACRIFICE IS THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE OF ONE'S RESOLVE-- Plenty of us puff up our chests and, at times, convey strong words as to how dedicated we are to whatever cause we take up to call our own.  The truly committed put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.  True and complete dedication comes with the resolve to give yourself if necessary for what you believe in.  In true dramatic fashion, every single major character in The Dark Knight Rises, both good guys and bad guys, have this level of resolve challenged before the credits roll.  I would do more lessons, but I would be getting too specific to the film's events and spoil all of the fun.  Enjoy the movie, everyone!