Class warfare, terrorism, 9/11 and societal collapse flicker ominously throughout "The Dark Knight Rises," Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman film, a work of escapist entertainment that also poses IMAX-sized questions about America and its recently rocked foundations. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but "The Dark Knight Rises" is an epic and then-some send-off to a character, and a franchise, that made it safe for superheroes to get serious.
Though not so serious that fans won't enjoy themselves. "The Dark Knight Rises" provides the missing pieces to the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who fought his first evildoers in 2005's "Batman Begins" but lost the spiritual battle against The Joker in 2008's "The Dark Knight."
Opening eight years later with a rusty Wayne emerging from self-imposed exile, "The Dark Knight Rises" introduces two classic but modernized Batman villains. One is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a lowborn cat burglar who preys on the rich, and the other is Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked monstrosity who stokes the populist rage of Gotham while leading it toward doom.
It's all right that both villains combined don't add up to Heath Ledger's infectiously insane Joker (never mentioned here). Hathaway's sneer is almost as deadly as her serrated high heels, and her anti-elitist sarcasm provides the film's few moments of humor; Hardy's tank-like body is a thing of impressive ugliness, even if his accent -- a distracting mix of British, Russian and German movie villains -- is just plain ugly.
Nolan confidently juggles several armfuls of characters, with appealing new faces like Marion Cotillard as the eco-conscious Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the idealistic cop Blake meshing nicely with familiar figures like Oldman's Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman's gadget-developing Lucius Fox. More than ever, Michael Caine, as the faithful servant Alfred, feels like the secret heart of the story.
Things bog down badly with a late-hour spiritual odyssey that we've seen before, and there are moments when characters lapse into comic-book speak, delivering lengthy explanations of their nefarious plans. But "The Dark Knight Rises" is a satisfyingly grand finale to this series and -- surprise, surprise -- a rousing opening chord to another.
PLOT Eight years after his retirement, Batman faces his most powerful foe yet.
PLAYING AT Area theaters. Opens Friday, but many theaters will have screenings starting Thursday night at midnight.
BOTTOM LINE A seriously grand send-off to the Caped Crusader, with room for the legend to continue.