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Originally published July 18, 2012 at 11:14 AM | Page modified July 18, 2012 at 11:48 AM

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'The Dark Knight Rises' — breathtaking Batman finale

"The Dark Knight Rises," Christopher Nolan's conclusion of his "Batman" trilogy, is a breathtaking film that immerses its audience in a world both real and heightened. Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman, the film is playing at several Seattle area theaters.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Dark Knight Rises,' with Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman. Directed by Christopher Nolan, from a screenplay by Nolan and Joseph Nolan. 164 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. Several theaters.

The Dark Knight Rises (Trailer)

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And so it ends.

Christopher Nolan's majestic Batman trilogy concludes with "The Dark Knight Rises," a satisfying and often breathtaking tale of good and evil. Beginning eight years after the events of 2008's "The Dark Knight" (and with, appropriately, no mention whatsoever of that film's villainous Joker, who was played by the late Heath Ledger), it begins with a superhero licking his wounds. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), after his caped alter ego Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's deranged crimes, has gone into seclusion; a brooding warrior without a purpose. "You're not living, just waiting," says faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Two new villains quickly emerge: Bane (Tom Hardy), a growling masked terrorist hellbent on destroying Gotham City and its people, and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a sleekly amoral cat burglar who toys with Wayne like he's a trapped mouse. (Don't call her Catwoman; this movie doesn't.) Other new faces are young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who desperately wants Batman to return to the city that needs him, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a trusted philanthropist and Wayne Enterprises board member; they join franchise regulars Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Nolan's created a now-familiar world that mixes emotional honesty with the over-the-top quality of comic-book action. Bruce Wayne has a conversation with Alfred that's so moving and raw you forget that it's in a superhero movie; meanwhile, Batman and Bane throw conversational bombs at each other in voices that sound like a cross between a death rattle and a gargle. (Nolan reportedly rejiggered the audio on Hardy's Bane, after an early preview proved him to be nearly unintelligible. He now sounds as if he's speaking into a microphone in a huge empty room, with nothing to soak up the sound.) The streets of Gotham City look like a city we might know, even as a good cop looks to a man in a bat costume for safety. It's a tricky balance, but Nolan delicately walks that tightrope, immersing us in a world both real and heightened. This Gotham is a fascinating city to visit, though you wouldn't want to live there.

The new film presents Bane as the ultimate villain: a faceless killing machine. It's hard to judge Hardy's performance — the weirdly amplified voice and the mask make him seem more evil robot than man. But he's a can't-look-away presence; just the way he carries himself seems terrifying. Hathaway, in a role very different from Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in "Batman Returns," plays with shades of light and dark in a way that no other character here does. In her flipped-up night-vision goggles — they look, cutely, like cat ears — and sleek jumpsuit, she's a mercurial, alluring presence, and her teasing, feline rapport with Bale is a kick. (At one point, as they dance at a party, you're not sure if she's going to bite him or lick him.) Gordon-Levitt, as the film's regular-guy hero, is moving as a young man who understands, like Batman, "what it feels like to be angry in your bones"; Cotillard brings her own airy glamour to her role; and Caine, Freeman and Oldman are splendid, as always.

This very long movie (nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes) almost never feels long — except for a point midway through, where we lose Bruce Wayne/Batman for a while and things sag just a bit. Bale, the calm center around which the other actors flit, is the story's quiet heart. Nolan's a wizard at action sequences, and "The Dark Knight Rises" has some truly spectacular ones (many filmed in IMAX, best seen on a vast IMAX screen). But what elevates this trilogy is the somber, quiet storytelling, with the actors' words and emotions given time to register.

There's a broad sequel hint at the end of the film, but it doesn't matter: This is clearly the end of Nolan's vision of Batman and Gotham City, and he lets us leave this world satisfied. Our last glimpse of Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman feels earned, and just right. What's next, Mr. Nolan? I can't wait.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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