I always feel sorry for the third movie in any trilogy. It has to tie everything up. It has to end at least somewhat happily. It can never be that second installment, which is almost always the best one, its middle-ness allowing for the seeming endless extension of a maddening and extremely pleasurable itch of unresolved tension. It gets to be The Empire Strikes Back. And then, when you're Christopher Nolan and your middle film was the insanely dark, insanely good and sometimes just frighteningly insane The Dark Knight, and your follow-up break-from-Batman film is Inception you've got a lot to live up to. And the great news is I believe he just did.
It's eight years later. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is back in seclusion, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is hiding the truth about the death and secret life of Harvey Dent in order to keep a lid on crime and the prisons stocked with criminals, "cat" burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) blithely plays both sides of the nemesis/ally divide, Alfred (Michael Caine) comes to an emotional breaking point and the brutally evil Bane (Tom Hardy) shows up in his own creepy mask to breathe like Darth Vader, croak-speak like Sean Connery and maybe try to use a nuclear device for his own purposes. Meanwhile, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) weave themselves in and out of the story, offering varying degrees of help to Wayne and/or Batman. That's a lot of plates to spin for one movie and Nolan's precision keeps them all moving smoothly. He knows who to use when and where, allowing Hardy the space to create his own supervillain out of the now legendary shadow of Heath Ledger's Joker, giving Levitt the space to turn what could have been a generic stand-up-guy into a soulful, integral component and, best of all, gives wild card Anne Hathaway the opportunity to be both comic relief and physical menace without uttering a single campy purr.
Most importantly, this chapter doesn't rest on the previous films' accomplishments. It comes with its own surprises, emotional resonance and chaotic power. It's visually stunning, coherent and satisfying, not just a great third act, not just better than the sum of its mechanical parts, but also a fitting finale for what is really a 7 1/2 hour opera of blackness and tragedy. It's about the world right now in all of its confusion and terror, made even more unsettling by mixed-up displays of corruption and revolution and a button-pushing, almost dangerous willingness to exploit it all visually in the service of keeping the audience wondering where its heart truly lies.
In the end it's about more than a neurotic man in a cape and mask fighting bad guys. It's about the seeming impossibility of holding modern life together. And it's the heaviest, most anxiety-ridden, lights-out thing to ever be born from a series of comic books, the melancholy, moving flipside of The Avengers' optimistic, rousing, we're-all-in-this-together spirt, the summer movie we deserve instead of the one we think we need.