Director Christopher Nolan and gang saved the best for last in The Dark Knight Rises, bringing the intense, brooding superhero franchise to a satisfying conclusion.

The story begins eight years after Dark Knight ends. Batman, aka Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has taken the rap for the death of Gotham City do-gooder Harvey Dent. As we may remember, Dent turned into a vengeful psycho after having had half his face blown off by the Joker, a blast that also killed Bruce’s love, Rachel. So, Batman goes MIA, as Bruce goes into seclusion. Only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) know the real truth but go along with it because, well, Bruce has just had it, physically and mentally. Besides Gotham has entered a period of peace and harmony, so the Batman isn’t really needed.

That is until Bane (Tom Hardy) comes into the picture — a badass terrorist with a Darth Vader complex. He’s ready to reduce Gotham City to ashes but first, he puts some hurt on Wayne Industries, thus forcing Bruce to come out of his reclusiveness and for the Batman to put on the cowl and suit once again. Bruce/Batman also has a run-in with a jewel thief, aka a “cat burglar,” named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who wears safe-cracking tech goggles on her head like cat ears and a sleek leather suit, all which give her a very feline appearance. We all know Selina as Catwoman but interestingly, the film never really calls her that. Other key players include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as an earnest cop who never stops believing in Batman, and Marion Cotillard, as an entrepreneur who aligns with Bruce Wayne.

Bale once again embodies the tortured spirit of his alter ego with aplomb. Truly, no other actor could have played Batman with such gravitas and sincerity. His scenes with the always superb Caine are particularly moving in DKR, as Alfred tries to help Bruce see the light at the end of the tunnel. Returning allies Oldman, as the can’t-keep-me-down police commissioner, and Morgan Freeman, as Bruce’s trusted gadget supervisor, continue to lend their skills to the proceedings, with Gordon-Levitt adding a fresh element to the good-guy arena. Hathaway does a surprisingly effective job as Selina, who is neither good nor bad but more self-serving; her only job is make sure she lands on her feet. But does she have a soft spot for Batman? Hmmm.

Hardy’s Bane, however, doesn’t come close to the sinister, over-the-top Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker – and DKR suffers in the slightest degree because of it. Ledger propelled The Dark Knight and simply made the film as great as it was. Period. Bane, on the other hand, while not being a very nice guy, is also restrained and frankly, hard to understand with the mask covering most of his face. It just seems a waste to have someone as powerful as Hardy in a villainous role in which he can’t chew up the scenery, literally and figuratively. Cotillard is also kind of wasted and miscast.

Oh, my, there’s so much more to The Dark Knight Rises, but I only have so much room on a page, and the story is really best left told onscreen. Suffice to say, this third installment comes full circle to where Batman Begins began. It’s a big circle, mind you. Nolan clearly wants to explain and wrap up every detail and doesn’t care that it going to take nearly three hours to do it. Most of the film is worth the time, though, especially in the heart-pounding action sequences and brief comedic moments, but DKR could have been just as compelling with 20-30 minutes cut out. The ending is gloriously the best part, leaving just the smidgeon of hope this really isn’t the end of the Batman franchise as we’ve come to know it. Here’s crossing our fingers.