Completing his Batman trilogy in extraordinary fashion, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises concludes what is, without question, one of the finest trilogies ever created. Nolan pulls off a near impossible feat, one he created for himself of course, by providing an emotionally satisfying and triumphant finale; essentially raising the bar extremely high for all other superhero stories and reinventions going forward. Fans of Nolan’s films will be again amazed at his incredible skillset as a filmmaker and storyteller, while those who have embraced this particular Batman relaunch, from 2005’s Batman Begins to 2008’s The Dark Knight, will fall back in their chairs, spent and smiling, relieved that this Dark Knight does indeed rise and deliver.

Through each and every project, Christopher Nolan’s vision, scope, and limitless imagination makes each task he sets out to accomplish all the more daunting and impressive. Many of those waiting for Rises have been counting down the days since the credits starting rolling at the end of The Dark Knight and that pressure on Nolan had to have felt insurmountable at times. And yet, Nolan is unrelenting. Mixing aggressiveness with confidence, risk with bravery, Nolan adds more layers to his Batman mythology, before a stunning final act leaves you breathless. For those who have complained that Christopher Nolan cannot close out his films and/or screenplays, those critical voices best be silent for awhile. The Dark Knight Rises is, in many ways, an unforgettable experience.

Eight years have passed since The Joker ravaged Gotham City and Gotham’s superhero Batman took the fall for the crimes committed by the heralded and regarded district attorney Harvey Dent. Falsely made a hero by Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Gordon’s enforcement of the Dent Act has resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests and incarcerations, leaving Gotham City largely at peace once again. When given the chance to speak at a memorial for Dent, Gordon opts to not tell the truth about what transpired with Dent, The Joker, and Batman, allowing Dent’s legacy to remain in tact. In turn, Batman, a/k/a Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is relegated to a reclusive lifestyle in his expansive Wayne Manor estate, with his butler and caretaker, Alfred (Michael Caine), still tending to his every need. The massive revenue streams generated by Wayne Enterprises have all but stopped leaving Wayne to be viewed publicly as something of a joke, while his superhero alter ego is believed to be a dangerous threat and a murderer.

Fractures exist everywhere. John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), an accountant serving on the Wayne Enterprises Board of Directors, has an eye on a company takeover after an expensive nuclear energy project was recently shuttered out of fears the nuclear energy source could be co-opted into a nuclear weapon. When a nasty, remorseless thug named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives in Gotham City at the time much of this is going down, an avalanche of events begin to fall into place and Wayne recognizes that he must again become Batman. Attempting to dissuade Wayne in his efforts, Alfred is frustrated and beside himself at the decision. Unrepentant, Wayne, again secretly as Batman, returns to the streets in an effort to restore his name and corporation in the eyes of the public, return peace and calm to Gotham City’s residents, and defeat its newest threat, before Bane can destroy Gotham City once and for all.

That synopsis oversimplifies things a great deal as The Dark Knight Rises covers a great deal of ground in its 164 minute running time. Along with Bane’s arrival, a whole host of new characters are unveiled before us, including the highly anticipated arrival of Selina Kyle, a/k/a Catwoman, into the mix (Anne Hathaway), a young upstart police officer named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an arrogant and narcissistic police deputy commissioner (Matthew Modine), and a wealthy environmentalist and financier, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who has influenced significant elements of the nuclear energy program and is a staunch advocate of Wayne Enterprises’ efforts. Where other films have often become oversaturated in trying to get as many new characters under the tent as possible, Christopher Nolan’s screenplay, written with his brother and frequent writing partner, Jonathan Nolan, integrates most of these new characters effectively.

The key performances all are terrific with Christian Bale excellent in portraying a meekly unaware former celebrity, depressed and resigned to being alone in his mansion forever. Morgan Freeman lightens the mood appropriately in his interactions with Bale, as his Lucius Fox is still hard at work, creating and overseeing some of the most unbelievable gadgets and weapons one could ever imagine. Marion Cotillard is engaging in her beauty and magnetic connection to Wayne, while Anne Hathaway’s playful and quite impressive turn as Selina Kyle reminds us that not only does she possess exceptional comedic timing and sensibilities, but she can seemingly tackle any role or project and find success.

Elsewhere there is strong and solid work again from Gary Oldman as the embattled Commissioner, while Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Tom Hardy stand out particularly strong. Michael Caine brings a sincere and tangible level of emotion to the film, with one heartbreaking scene in particular a standout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is clearly ready to be a leading man and his work here initially feels tacked on and burdensome…until he is allowed to tell his story.

And much will be made of Tom Hardy’s merciless Bane, a thankless role following the legendary turn by Heath Ledger as The Joker in the previous installment. Hardy equips himself fine, buffed up and unquenchably intense. Without being able to recognize Hardy, because of a large facial mask, you are focused to hang every one of his digitized words and heartless actions, with Hardy making Bane as captivating as he is unpredictable. No one will ever top Ledger, but the comparisons between The Joker and Bane are simply not fair. Hardy is quite good in his own right, succeeding through his character’s obvious limitations.

Common with Nolan’s version of Gotham City, the City is a character in its own right and the seediness and unsettling buzz found there is percolating in every scene. The sets are grand, the Hans Zimmer score downshifts and accelerates in perfect rhythm and while other directors would make a film of this magnitude bombastically loud and deafening, Nolan orchestrates a sound design that is gripping and at times, reserved. It should come as no surprise that technically The Dark Knight Rises is worthy of the highest acclaim for its exemplary production work as Nolan’s team succeeds again in making an impossible world seem completely possible and real.

And yet The Dark Knight Rises falters in places. As menacing and curious a character as Bane truly is, his digitized voice seems poorly mixed in important and key places. After orchestrating a horrific scene at a professional football game approximately midway through the film, it seems Nolan found the right button to push as Bane’s voice seems clearer from then on. Some lesser characters seem potentially important only to be cast aside when the film gains momentum. In the case of Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley, one character serves no purpose whatsoever. And for a stretch of time after Bane and Batman’s first confrontation, devoted fans of the series may feel that Christopher Nolan has forgotten that this is indeed the finale to a trilogy about Batman.

Flaws acknowledged, I loved The Dark Knight Rises nearly as much as its 2008 predecessor. Christopher Nolan may say that he has no desire to ever return to the Batman storyline, but curiously the film offers opportunities for his vision to be perpetuated onward in years to come. Christopher Nolan has come a long, long way since his feature film debut, the 76-minute, black-and-white, 1998 suspense/thriller Following, and he has further defined himself as an exciting and inquisitive filmmaker; one willing to rise up and tackle any challenge he deems worthy.

It is too simplistic to say that I cannot wait for Christopher Nolan’s next film. But I will say that I felt a surprising sadness driving home from the theater, realizing that this beautifully bittersweet finale made me care more about a billionaire who dons a Batsuit, then most films make me care about characters who are supposed to be like you and me. The Dark Knight Rises is everything promised and more and easily one of my favorite films of 2012.