The Dark Knight closes. 

The most anticipated film of the year, The Dark Knight Rises is a sprawling, commanding, entertaining film that nevertheless buckles a bit under the weight of both expectation and the responsibility of bringing this apparent trilogy to a satisfying conclusion.

Director Christopher Nolan, working in a more ambitious vein than any other comic-book-hero purveyor, ultimately meets that final challenge, but trying so hard to tie his Batman films — Batman Begins and The Dark Knight preceding The Dark Knight Rises — together into a coherent, linked package results in a final installment that's a less compelling stand-alone film than his bravura middle chapter.

The film opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, which turned the deceased prosecutor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into a law-and-order martyr and sent Batman (Christian Bale), a wanted vigilante and presumed murderer, into hiatus. In this peacetime Gotham, Batman's gloomy alter ego Bruce Wayne has turned into a Howard Hughes-style recluse, at least until mysterious, alluring cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) knocks him off his feet.

Selena warns of a coming storm, which arrives in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist/warlord villain whose revolution turns Gotham into the equivalent of a failed state but whose motivations are rooted in Wayne's own past.

The Dark Knight Rises is packed with references to income inequality and its implications and to Wayne's privilege. This would seem to be fertile and provocative territory for a Batman movie, but meaning proves elusive. There's a lot of sociological and political stuff here, but it's all murkier — more confusing or maybe just more confused — than in The Dark Knight, which grappled with elastic but relevant questions about ends and means in a more coherent, focused manner.

What The Dark Knight Rises really cares about, more than ideas or pure cinema (the action sequences were generally more bracing in the predecessor), is story.

Drawing very heavily on the series opener Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises is more rooted in plot and backstory and might better please comic-book partisans' hunger for mythology.

The Dark Knight Rises does expand the character universe nicely. And while so much of the focus has been on Hardy's roid-rage Bane as the primary villain, perhaps more interesting are two other imports from Nolan's Inception: Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises board member and ally Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Batman-loving street cop on the make, who emerges as a kind of de facto Robin early on. Best of all is a Nolan newcomer: Hathaway, who gives the film most of its wit and humanity as a nicely sketched take on the "Catwoman" character (though Selena Kyle is never referred to by that moniker in the film). But in a film so consumed with backstory, hers is more hinted at than examined. Selena is the most interesting thing in the film — I kept wanting it to stay with her — but the character is underexplored.

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The Dark Knight Rises
Rated PG-13 · 164 min. · 2012
Official Site: www.thedarkknightrises.com
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer and Bob Kane
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven and Emma Thomas
Cast: Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Josh Pence and Nestor Carbonell

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