Like some other fans of director Christopher Nolan, I've been waiting for him to finish the Batman movies so he can move on to more original films like "Memento," "The Prestige" and "Inception."
I now officially eat my words.
After "The Dark Knight Rises," I wouldn't care if Nolan made five more Batman movies; but I'm pretty sure none would top this complex, enthralling and beautifully acted capstone to the trilogy that opened with "Batman Begins" in 2005.
This undated film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from the action thriller “The Dark Knight Rises.”
What I liked best about "DKR" is that it's not really an action movie - not like "The Avengers," for example, loaded with flashy hardware, big-budget explosions and not-always-convincing computerized effects.
As with Nolan's "Dark Knight" (2008), the action scenes certainly are thrilling - and better yet, the visuals are seamless; you cannot tell where reality ends and digital imagery begins.
And yet the new film really has only three action set-pieces - the opening; an early chase; and a dazzling climax, including one of those countdown-to-detonation scenes that never seem to get old.
The rest of "DKR" is all plot, character and theme.
And what a plot it is.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, this epic clips along at a breathless pace. Every scene, every moment, every line is crucial, as Nolan and his writers weave each story-strand into a thickly braided cord that's plenty strong enough to hold up all 164 minutes.
The climax features several nifty twists - and that ending! First the movie does what you expect it to do, then it does about five things you don't - providing all the closure you could ask for from a trilogy that now occupies nearly eight hours of screen time.
Despite its intricate plot, the tale is almost completely character-driven, with masterful performances from Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and especially newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a hard-working cop) and Anne Hathaway, as Catwoman.
But the actor who deserves an Oscar here is Michael Caine.
Playing Batman's capable butler, he exudes a gravitas that reminds viewers why guys like Nolan hire giants like Caine for a minor role.
On a side note, the late-film takeoever of Gotham City (aka, Manhattan) - in which the rich are stripped of their possessions amid an anarchic attempt to restore "balance" - seems couched as a frightening forecast of what might happen if the "Occupy" movement really had its way.
Yet "DKR" will be remembered chiefly for its radiant humanity, its sense of the difference a few committed people can make, its focus on the importance of hope - especially as reflected in the light-and-dark motif.
As an instance, the story features one of the most detestable villains in film history. Unlike the Joker played by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, Bane has absolutely no appeal, no sense of humor, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Yet by its end, the film manages to show even him in a different light.
Among other things, it's clear that he's a foil for our hero: See how his name resembles that of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, and how his mask controls his pain - a theme developed at some length.
Nolan has fashioned a comic-book-superhero movie that satisfies the conventions of the genre, yet also proves intellectually rich - while at the same time touching hearts across all ages and genders; it's an achievement even he may have a hard time matching.