The Christopher Nolan Batman films tend to be a controversial topic in fanboy circles despite their box office success.  Some argue he has raised the character to the level of Important Art while others say he sapped the fun and excitement out of the Batman concept with his dark mood, lengthy running times and totally straight-faced approach to superhero movie conceits.  Regardless of your stance on Nolan’s work, no can say didn’t he put his own highly personalized stamp on the character.

The Dark Knight Rises brings Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films to a close – and appropriate to his singular approach, it’s the lengthiest and most ambitious of the trio.  It starts eight years after the end of The Dark Knight:  Gotham City has grown complacent under the peace established after Batman got rid of the Joker and Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has slipped into a Howard Hughes-style existence.  He doesn’t want to face people, his finances/empire are on the slide and he’s even butting heads with his beloved old friend and valet, Alfred (Michael Caine).

However, change is on the horizon for both Gotham City and its absent ex-hero.  Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who is super-smart, super-strong and super-crazy, has plotted an elaborate, terrorist-style takeover of both Gotham City and Bruce Wayne’s own life.  Batman tries to fight him off but Bane breaks him, both physically and mentally, as he plots a tragic end for Gotham City.  It will take everything Batman has to fight back – including the help of old friend Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and thief-turned-reluctant-heroine Catwoman (Anne Hathaway).

The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is, at its heart, not as complicated as you might have been told: basically, a new bad guy pops up, beats Batman in the first match-up and forces him to step up his game for the inevitable rematch.  However, the scope of the film is what makes the film feel so complicated: it’s got a massive ensemble cast, covers a lengthy period of time and involves action and suspense sequences that grow ever more elaborate as the film progresses.  Nolan plays the material straight and serious but works in occasional bits of dark humor, particularly in the scenes with Catwoman.

That said, the scope is so tough to manage that Nolan can’t give his full attention to everything he’s trying to do.  There are some major plotholes: the most glaring bit has Batman magically returning to Gotham City after seemingly insurmountable circumstances put him far away.  Also, the film gets so caught up in action at the end that it breaks plausibility, like a bit where one character trapped in the back of a crashing van crawls out without a scratch.  On a deeper script level, the film has to plug in several heavily expositional speeches in its dialogue to facilitate the needs of the plot and some characters are set up to serve important functions in the story yet are given no time to fulfill those roles.  The most glaring example of the latter is a police character played by Matthew Modine that is expected to fulfill an entire character arc in four or five brief scenes.

However, The Dark Knight Rises is never less than compelling despite these problems.  The visuals, which often utilize IMAX cameras, are dazzling and Nolan is perfectly at home directing action sequences that are Rube Goldberg-ian in their complexity.  For example, the opening sequence involves a series of amazing stunts in a large airplane that suggests Nolan is auditioning to direct a Bond film for his next gig.  He utilizes the complex array of elements to keep the long running time interesting throughout, juggling the various subplots in a tightly-paced way and pepping the pace with action at strategic points.  Once you get to the final half hour, it shifts into a white-knuckle overdrive that delivers payoff after payoff and setpiece after setpiece.  Whatever the issues of balance in his narrative, Nolan makes sure it isn’t dull.

Most importantly, Nolan has selected an excellent cast and they carry a lot of the narrative weight for him.  Bale’s angsty method approach to Batman fits Nolan’s take on the character perfectly and he gets expert support from Caine as the superego to his character as well as Oldman, who fulfills the real world version of Bruce Wayne’s heroic ideals. Hardy makes a worthy villain, all the more impressive since it is primarily a voice characterization (and that voice is filtered!). Hathaway does quite well as Catwoman: she’s played sassy yet sexy before, most notably in Brokeback Mountain, so she is able to handled Nolan’s smoldering take on the character.

Elsewhere, Marion Cotillard is appropriately alluring as Wayne’s love interest, Morgan Freeman brings class to an expositional role and it’s great to see Tom Conti playing a small but crucial role in the midsection as a sort of surrogate Alfred for Batman.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is a little too unwieldy to qualify as a masterpiece but it’s still well worth watching if you go for the superhero genre.  It’s ten times more ambitious and distinctive in its approach to its material that any other superhero movie franchise at this moment – and even when it errs on the side of trying to do too much, it gets there an interesting and distinctive way.