In 2005, director Christopher Nolan redefined the superhero origin film by grounding the first chapter of Bruce Wayne’s story in heightened realism on practical, emotional, and philosophical levels in “Batman Begins.” It was only three years later that Nolan would completely transcend the genre all other masked heroes called home with “The Dark Knight.” It was a modern crime drama that forced Batman to wonder what his intended symbol of hope actually inspired, all while battling an anarchist who wore clown makeup and had a knack for predicting mankind’s wavering relationship with morality. Now, Christopher Nolan and his award-winning collaborators have returned to deliver the inevitable conclusion to the story of Bruce Wayne and the city he protects. “The Dark Knight Rises” is an all-out war movie with not just lives, but souls and the very nature of heroism at stake. It is a masterful epic that proves the final hour of this trilogy is also its finest.

It has been eight long years since Batman took the blame for the death of Harvey Dent and all of the murders Gotham’s fallen district attorney committed at the end of the last film.  At large, Gotham has prospered, but the two men behind that noble lie, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), have been crumbling under that burden. This is especially true of Bruce, who’s not dawned a cape or cowl since, and isolated himself within the confines of Wayne Manor. The death of Rachel Dawes, the love of his life, still weighs heavily on Bruce and he no longer seems to crave that “normal life” she represented.

Without question, this is Bale’s best performance in the series. His Batman is still as convincing as ever, but it is his work without the mask that drives the entire film. Subtlety and nuance are to be expected from Bale, but never quite like this. Heartbreak, anguish, anger, amusement, and hope can all be seen and felt even when Bruce Wayne, in or out of the mask, isn’t saying a word. The story challenges Batman like we’ve never seen before and it is Bale’s endearing, soulful effort that makes us as worried about his fate as his adoptive father, Alfred (Michael Caine).

What Caine shows is that Alfred’s paternal love for Bruce is rivaled only by the absolute shame he feels for failing to help the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne lead a happy, healthy life. By tolerating and assisting Bruce in his crusade, Alfred knows he’s been an enabler and when the former feels compelled to come out of retirement, a difficult choice has to be made. The raw, sincere emotion pouring out of Alfred in each of his scenes ought to garner Caine supporting actor nominations from any award-giving body.

This series’ two other father figures, Gordon and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), are much more in favor of Batman’s return. Gordon, who does not know the man behind the mask, is sickened by his allowance of his friend’s reputation to be destroyed. Oldman finds just the right pitch for Gordon as a man torn between idealistic sensibilities and a jaded sense of reality. Lucius Fox has taken a step back from his role as Batman’s conscience in “The Dark Knight,” opting to provide encouragement and new toys. Freeman’s still a delight, even if he does not have as much to do in this installment.

Despite the opinions of those closest to him, it is the newcomers to the trilogy who are most successful in getting Bruce back in the cape and cowl. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is an appropriately dressed cat burglar whom Bruce finds more amusing than dangerous, but she is actually both. Hathaway is smart, funny, and lethal as she builds a character who seems to play on whichever side best suits her.  Her wit every bit as sharp as the serrated heels on her boots, Hathaway’s Catwoman is the biggest source of fun in this intense film, yet she is still grounded by an emotional arc of her own.

The real threat to Gotham comes from Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who might have a legend equaling that of The Batman. He is certainly every bit the fighter that The Dark Knight is, with disastrous consequences. Having most of his face covered by a mask proves little trouble for Hardy. The ferocity in his eyes is terrifying enough, to speak nothing of Bane’s actions. No, he does not have the charisma of The Joker, but he more than makes up for it by being a villain that is smart enough to get to Batman, and strong enough to do what needs to be done once he’s there. He’s not likeable because he’s not supposed to be.

Bane is the revolutionary general in this war film, recruiting new members of his army along the way, including Gotham’s worst felons. Physically, Hardy’s Bane looks like a beast, but his heart and mind are much scarier. He is a master strategist capable of inciting civil war to distract Gotham’s citizens from their real problem. Bane is the kind of terrorist that could exist in our world, but we hope like hell we’ll never see.

In one of the few things Batman has going for him in this conflict, a seemingly anonymous beat cop turns out to be an invaluable ally. Police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) replaces Harvey Dent as the new idealist in Gotham, but he holds up much better under tragic circumstances for reasons we learn fairly early in the picture. He’s considered a rookie by his peers, but his courage demonstrates that heroism comes from within, not a costume on the outside. Levitt’s performance is understated at times, but always assertive. His impact on the story is earned, making him a wonderful addition.

Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) round out the new cast with their own great performances. Tate is the lovely temptation of normalcy for Bruce, and she might just be the one who can convince him to move on with his life. In many ways, Foley represents the people of Gotham with a character arc that one imagines was shared by much of Gotham’s citizenry. In each phase his character goes through, Modine delivers.

From the ashes left behind by the devastation of war, a powerful theme arises. Fascinating questions about what constitutes courage and what makes a hero are asked. The answers are empowering, providing a ray of hope to shine through the black clouds of smoke. It all builds to the finale, which is an emotional payoff to the events of the entire trilogy, inspiring tears for a variety of reasons, and a tremendous sense of pride in those who’ve long-held Batman as their hero. Undoubtedly, it is a definitive ending to the story, and a phenomenal one at that.

In order to lift Batman up higher than ever before, Christopher Nolan had to take The Dark Knight to his lowest point. The result is a brutal yanking of the heartstrings that generates a powerful wave of emotion that is difficult not to be overpowered by. It is worth enduring, though, as the investment pays high dividends by showing a beloved character at his very best, all while showing us yet again how he inspires the very best in others.

“The Dark Knight Legend” may have concluded within the world where this story takes place, but by telling a definitive tale of Bruce Wayne and The Batman he became, Nolan has ensured the legend of his trilogy will live on forever. “The Dark Knight Rises” is Batman better than we have ever seen him before, and perhaps better than we ever will see him again.  –Sean Gerber