by Jarrod Jones.  “When the chips are down, these ‘civilized people’? They’ll eat each other.” That ominous assurance from the Joker (Heath Ledger) becomes something of a prognostication for Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in what is now (somewhat pretentiously) referred to as The Dark Knight Trilogy. While the Clown Prince of Crime is nowhere to be found in this installment, the ramifications of The Joker’s finely orchestrated chaos still resonates throughout the film.

Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, and in that time the city has prospered to the point of decadence. The men who put an end to organized crime in Gotham—Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the Batman (Christian Bale) —have both suffered consequences in their conspiracy to cover up the crimes of their fallen ally, District Attorney Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart). Gordon gives speeches lamenting their fallen White Knight while bitterly holding back the truth, and Batman has hung up his cape for a life of isolation within the empty corridors of Wayne Manor.

While the two men accept that their war is at an end, a back door is left wide open for an army led by a masked mercenary known only as Bane (Tom Hardy) to infiltrate Gotham City, allowing them the time with which to hatch a master plan that will bring the city to its knees.

Gordon’s legacy is partially responsible for Bane’s ascension; the Gotham City Police Department (represented by Matthew Modine’s indolent Deputy Commissioner) has grown lethargic, though its dramatic wanting of resources—which could easily be supplied by Wayne Enterprises’ tech-guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)—rests on the shoulders of Bruce Wayne, who is unwilling to share the contents of his vast armory. “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon,” he says.

Bruce’s fear of Wayne technology falling into the wrong hands keeps a sustainable energy program mothballed, which irks a Wayne stockholder/potential love interest named Miranda Tate (played by a distant Marion Cotillard). Of course, Bruce has his reasons; whenever Wayne’s corporation innovates, there always seems to be a legion of foes chomping at the bit to turn their endeavors into weapons of mass destruction. We’ve seen this before—Wayne Enterprises all but gift-wrapped Liam Neeson’s ace in the hole in Batman Begins—so it’s no surprise that Wayne has become gunshy.

Nolan spends the better part of the first 40 minutes of Rises getting these plates spinning. Thrown into the mix is an antagonistic cat burglar with her eyes on the Wayne family pearls (Anne Hathaway) and a plucky young crimefighter with a tragic past and “sidekick” practically written on his forehead (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). If all this sounds ambitious (not to mention crowded) after the showstopper that was 2008’s The Dark Knight, well, it isThose who hope that Rises could outdo its predecessor would be well advised to instead luxuriate in the film’s many kinetic spectacles.

Context is also key to appreciating the film, especially when it’s clear that Rises is more of a spiritual sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight. The comic book-y superheroics applied in Begins and neglected in Knight are inflated considerably here; Nolan seems at home in this world, more so than in Begins where his struggle between stark realism and blockbuster silliness conflicted. Alongside Christian Bale, who plays Wayne/Batman this time around with a Bogart-like weariness, Nolan embraces the film’s ultimate goal: Knock out a stirring finale. Yet Rises has so much more to offer.

In fact it has too much to offer, and there is much that suffers for it: Tom Hardy’s Bane is more than a formidable opponent for Bale’s Batman—their introductory, bone-breaking scrap inflicts just as much angst on the audience as it does winces—but he weaves in and out of the film like some aloof phantasm in order to make room for the film’s widening narrative. His booming vocals echo longer than his presence, but when he’s onscreen, Tom Hardy crushes. And though the film requires very little of her, Anne Hathaway acquits herself sharply in the role of Selina Kyle, though the “Catwoman” moniker is maddeningly absent.

There’s every reason for this 250 million dollar epic to implode under its own weight. Everything here is bigger: The action sequences are shot more confidently than ever before, its scale at times evokes the work of David Lean (thought that’s likely on purpose), and its story is enormous and labyrinthine. And yet, despite its own swelling heft, The Dark Knight Rises still succeeds in providing a satisfactory cap to Nolan’s legend of The Batman. It’s astounding, confounding, monumentally poetic… Downright superheroic.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, and Charles Roven.

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.

Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Morgan Freeman.

Rated PG-13 for grown-ass adult themes and some brutal bone crunching.