Christopher Nolan is on the record that he initially didn't want to make a third Batman movie.
And even if a trilogy was planned in advance, the final chapter probably included The Joker, who didn't die at the end of ''The Dark Knight'' but the actor who played him (Heath Ledger) did.
That's just one reason ''The Dark Knight Rises'' is such a satisfying finale to the collaboration between co-writer/director Nolan and star Christian Bale.
The script by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, feels like it had to have been planned all along. It draws heavily on ''Batman Begins'' and ''The Dark Knight,'' nicely playing off of the plot points and themes of those films (I watched both again a couple of days before seeing ''Rises'' and that refresher definitely helped my appreciation of this movie, particularly rewatching ''Begins'').
Both Nolan and Bale have said they're done, and the movie feels like a finale, one with an ending that's sure to be debated among the faithful. At the same time, it hints at the path for the next group of filmmakers to follow who take on the Batman mythology (and Warner Bros. probably won't wait any longer to restart/continue the series than Sony did with ''Spider-Man'').
It's an enjoyable, ambitious film, one with far more to say than the eager-to-please, anything-for-a-thrill ''Avengers.'' That complexity and dark tone probably will keep it from overtaking ''The Avengers'' as the summer's biggest box-office hit.
WHAT: ''The Dark Knight Rises''
STARS: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine and Juno Temple.
STORYLINE: After eight years in exile, Bruce Wayne gets out the bat gear for forces plot against Wayne Enterprises and all of Gotham City.
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
And yet, for everything it does right, there are little details that feel out of place, that break the mood. ''Rises'' makes for a fine conclusion, but ''The Dark Knight'' remains the best film in this trilogy.
Nolan's trilogy very much is a part of a post-9/11 world. ''The Dark Knight'' was a story about how, when faced by an enemy whose sole purpose is your annihilation, you have to engage in some unsavory tactics to stop it.
''Rises'' is about living with the consequences of those choices. The movie takes place eight years later. The decision to paint Harvey Dent as a hero and Batman as a villain led to reforms like the Dent Act (kind of like the Patriot Act) that helped imprison 1,000 criminals.
Gotham City never has been safer, but Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) knows it's built on a lie he's helped perpetuate while Batman has disappeared and Bruce Wayne (Bale) lives like a hermit in Wayne Manor, where he nurses the physical injuries he suffered fighting the Joker and the emotional ones caused by the death of Rachel Dawes.
But while Wayne is a recluse, others are plotting to wrest control of Wayne Enterprises behind the scenes, and a powerful, intelligent villain named Bane (Tom Hardy), who wears a mask over his nose and mouth that gives him the tenacious look of a bulldog, is intent on the total destruction of Gotham City.
Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a sleek, sexy burglar who breaks into Wayne's safe, is his one link to everything that is going on. Selina Kyle is better known in Batman lore as Catwoman, but just no one ever called Ledger's character The Joker, Kyle never is referred to as ''Catwoman.''
The movie also introduces Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a wealthy philanthropist who partnered with Wayne Enterprises to develop a clean energy technology. Alfred (Michael Caine) would like to see a personal partnership between Miranda and Bruce as well. And there's Joseph Gordon-Levitt as young cop who shares Gordon's and Wayne's sense of justice.
Along with the returning characters, both expected (Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox) and unexpected (no spoilers here, but stay away from the cast list on IMDB), it makes for a crowded movie that clocks in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes. But it doesn't feel bloated.
Bane makes for a fascinating villain with his combination of brute force and ability to manipulate the masses he effectively uses violence and class warfare to take control of Gotham City. And one of the reasons these films have been so compelling is that don't follow an easily delineated liberal or conservative philosophy. Watching one of these could spark a post-film conversation about the best ways to fight a war on terror. Watching ''The Avengers'' inspires post-movie conversations about what would be the coolest superpower to have not that there's anything wrong with that. But Nolan is aspiring to something more.
But that approach also seems to magnify the missteps. Wayne loses control of Wayne Enterprises after Bane and his men attack the stock exchange. Really? I'd like to think if armed terrorists storm the stock exchange, that trading would be frozen and any moves made that day would be considered suspect. It's necessary for what follows, but it feels contrived.
The movie also is ''quippier'' than the first two movies. Characters toss off pithy one-liners to add a humorous tag to an action scene, kind of like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Considering the somber tone of movie, some levity is nice, but it feels out of place.
There's plenty more to discuss, but not without getting into serious spoiler territory. Expect a few spectacular action sequences (Browns fans will enjoy watching Heinz Field get destroyed, although Hines Ward still scores a touchdown on the collapsing field), a couple of surprising twists leading to the finale and a satisfying goodbye for now to the best superhero movie franchise.