Our resident geek gives “The Dark Knight Rises” two batarangs up.

The third entry in a film trilogy is almost invariably a letdown. Think “Return of the Jedi,” “The Matrix Revolutions” or – shudder – “The Godfather, Part III.” Probably the most notable exception is “The Return of the King,” from the most consistent, satisfying film trilogy of all time, “The Lord of the Rings,” the one trilogy Christopher Nolan, director of the now-concluded Batman trilogy, has confessed to looking to for inspiration. Nolan’s trilogy is no exception to the rule, but with “The Dark Knight Rises,” Nolan’s Batman epic must be considered among film’s greatest trilogies.

“The Dark Knight Rises” offers a slight letdown from its predecessor owing to what it doesn’t have: The Joker as played by Heath Ledger. His work in “The Dark Knight” was so astonishing, so revelatory, so complete in its usurpation of the story from the main character, that while watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” a fan can’t help but wonder, what if it were the Joker back for revenge and bent on the destruction of Gotham City?

Instead “The Dark Knight Rises” gives us Bane, the chemical-fueled behemoth who famously broke Batman’s back in DC’s landmark “Knightfall” arc of Batman comics. As played by Tom Hardy, Bane is vicious, diabolical, intelligent, and so oddly charismatic, even behind the mask covering his nose and mouth, that you can begin to understand how his henchmen have no hesitation when Bane requires them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“The Dark Knight Rises” begins with Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne having sacrificed his Batman persona to a lie: that Batman committed the crimes that were actually the fault of Harvey Dent. The deceased district attorney has been elevated to hero status, and the Dent Act is credited with restoring order to Gotham and giving law enforcement a tool to jail the city’s criminals. Eight years after Dent’s demise, Wayne is a Howard Hughes-ian recluse (one character jokes about how long Wayne’s fingernails must be by now). Wayne also is brokenhearted over the death of the love of his life, Rachel Dawes, killed by the Joker’s incendiary trap in “The Dark Knight.”

In one of the most moving scenes of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Michael Caine’s Alfred tries to shake Wayne out of his doldrums, and while he nudges Wayne toward escaping the confines of Wayne Manor, it’s the appearance in Gotham of two characters with apparently nefarious aims who ultimately motivate Wayne to don the cowl once again. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (she is not referred to as Catwoman in the movie) has ambiguous motivations that could make her a frenemy of Batman. Meanwhile Bane invades Gotham bent on taking control both of the city and of Batman.

Also pulling Bruce Wayne back into the light is Miranda Tate, a Wayne Enterprise board member played by Marion Cotillard. She sees a clean-energy device that Wayne has shut down as a symbol of his potential to use his wealth and knowledge to help the world.

Grim though the situation may be, “The Dark Knight Rises” is not without humor. Batman is naturally the straight man (with one particularly funny exception), so it’s the supporting cast of Hathway, Hardy, Caine and the also-returning Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, who get the best lines. Also back is Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, upon whom the secret of Harvey Dent is an immense burden. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a cop who helps both Bruce Wayne and Batman and provides a non-superhero’s perspective on the dire developments of Gotham.

Much of Gotham is blown up (particularly its bridges), bodies are twisted and broken, and Bane’s goons fire automatic weapons into a crowd in a scene that is especially wince-inducing given the events in Aurora, Colorado. But the violence of “The Dark Knight Rises” is true to its comic-book antecedent, largely bloodless, and more implied than explicit. More likely to resonate after the lights go up are the themes of government responsibility, institutional honesty, the costs of justice, the pros and cons of anarchy, and the responsibilities to others either embraced or ignored by those fortunate enough to be very wealthy.

The quibbles are few: The much-reported, day-instantly-turning-to-night continuity issues; the quality of Bane’s voice, which forces the viewer to listen closely to understand but which also, with its reverb quality, has a tendency to push his words outside the scene; Batman’s reliance on merely his fists to overpower an opponent who is obviously much stronger. But any criticisms are far outweighed by the sheer, visceral, epic thrill of the nearly three-hour ride.

No, it’s not “The Dark Knight,” but nothing could be absent Heath Ledger and the Joker (whose name also is not mentioned in the film). But “The Dark Knight Rises” succeeds both as a story unto itself and as a work that acknowledges its roots going back to “Batman Begins.” The final installment does nothing to diminish the status of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy as a triumph, not just of superhero movie making, but of film.


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