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After defeating his most charismatic nemesis, The Joker, what must The Caped Crusader do for a final act?

Save himself, and save Gotham City in the process.

In "The Dark Knight Rises," director Christopher Nolan completes his eye-popping and epic trilogy by taking billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his crime-fighting alter-ego Batman to the emotional depths and the height of heroism.

In so doing, Nolan again transforms Bob Kane's classic DC Comics creation into a superhero for our times, flawed but fighting against supervillains and also the decay and corruption that created them.

The movie begins eight years after "The Dark Knight" left off. Batman hasn't been seen since the night Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney, died — and the official line in Gotham City is that Batman killed him, and only Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows the truth. Organized crime is nonexistent, thanks to the draconian laws passed in Dent's name.

Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in his mansion, seen only by his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Wayne Enterprises is teetering, as CEO and inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) tries to convince Bruce to develop a fusion reactor with his leading investor, the charming Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, one of several "Inception" co-stars Nolan brings to Gotham City).

Bruce's financial fortunes reflect Nolan's bigger theme — the economic divide between Gotham's citizens and its elites. Two new villains on the scene aim to even the odds in ways the Occupy movement never considered. One, the sultry cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), robs selectively from the rich and gives to the poor (namely, herself). The other, the brawny and bad-ass Bane (Tom Hardy), has broader aims and uses brutal methods against a Gotham that he sees as morally decayed.

Batman has his allies, including Gordon and an idealistic young cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But as Batman/Bruce Wayne plunges deeper into Bane's plot and his own self-doubts, he discovers old enemies never are vanquished totally.

The returning cast continues to deliver the gravity needed for this tale, with Bale's tortured hero and Oldman's regular-guy decency standing out. Among the newcomers, Hardy brings a muscular menace (if not the devious wit of Heath Ledger's Joker), Hathaway finally taps into her inner bad-girl, and Gordon-Levitt turns a fairly thankless role – essentially the voice of Gotham's better angels – into something authentically inspiring.

Nolan, again writing the screenplay with his brother Jonathan and sharing story credit with David S. Goyer, balances the brooding drama with riveting action sequences – such as a brilliantly staged midair hijacking and a hellacious attack on a football stadium.

The pacing of "The Dark Knight Rises" is a slow burn at first, as Nolan puts all the pieces in place. But patience over nearly three hours is rewarded with surprises and a stirring finale that deftly ties up the trilogy's loose ends and delivers a fitting send-off for this complex and compelling hero.

Twitter: @moviecricket


'The Dark Knight Rises'

Christopher Nolan's epic take on Batman concludes with our flawed superhero facing challenges to Gotham and his psyche.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, July 20.

Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.

Running time • 164 minutes.