Christopher Nolan has a particular knack for producing sweeping, epic visuals in gray sci-fi settings, and the Batman series is the ideal platform for such a chilling aesthetic, as the first two installments already suggested. Fortunately, Nolan does not disappoint in The Dark Knight Rises either. Panoramic views of Gotham as its bridges are simultaneously destroyed tug at the heart, and several scenes, including the cheesiest at the football stadium, bracingly capture the silence before the storm as only the Inception director is able to do so organically.

But the expectedly long-winded conclusion to the dark trilogy is most successful in its dogged mission to not only demonstrate the relevance of Batman as a heroic symbol in the fight between good and evil (of which Gotham is its epicenter), but also to interpret the man — the flawed hero — behind the mask and cape; a man that is unlike all other superheroes because he is truly a mere man in costume whose only power is the ability to embrace fear.

Paradoxically, the loss of fear is exactly what turns Bruce Wayne apathetic and weak, as we find him at the beginning of the film; his loss of fear is, too, what initially prevents him from escaping the prison and climbing the well to return to Gotham when he is forcibly exiled. It is only when Bruce acknowledges all that he has to lose that he is spurred to action once again. This is, perhaps, the point that the trilogy wants to drive home, here more than anywhere else: that there is no superhero more human than Batman. (To that end, it is worth noting that there is no actor better suited to the task of bringing a superhero to life with such credibility and depth than the superlative Christian Bale, who hits it out of the park in The Dark Knight Rises.)

This (self-)discovery is contextualized in the decision-making process of Batman’s return, which is triggered by a host of new side characters. Catwoman and Bane are, like Batman, superhumans of a sort, whose allegiances extend beyond pure good and evil. Unlike Batman, however, they are driven by need — born into sinister circumstances whence they emerged out of necessity and only through exceptional strength, both spiritual and physical, that is ultimately corrupted by the hardships they endure. In them, the conflicted Bruce finds inspiration, a reason to return to his own superpersona, but also a stark contradiction — a reminder that he has actively chosen this identity and that it is after all an alter ego, which he can (and does) park underground for years. Bruce’s butler Alfred, despite remaining absent throughout most of the film and the entirety of the central conflict, plays a key role in this realization. He implores Bruce to abandon Batman forever and opines that he would be able to do more good as Bruce Wayne, the man and heir of an exceptional civil legacy, than as a tainted and abstract symbol. Luckily for the franchise, Bruce immediately dismisses this option, though perhaps not without some painful acknowledgement of its validity.

Another fundamental side character is Talia Al Ghul (alias Miranda Tate), who also fits the mold of such a superhuman, albeit less apparently so and despite the fact that — or possibly because — we do not understand what drives her until the very end. This has the effect of rendering her presence nearly futile, beyond her brief tryst with Bruce, until the very end, when she provides the ultimate twist — an essential mark of any respectable trilogy closer. The casting choice of Marion Cotillard is debatable, and her death scene produced laughs in the theater (it wasn’t supposed to). She is by far the film’s weakest element.

Last but certainly not least, Blake, a young police officer and orphan who discovers Batman’s true identity, is an unwavering beacon of hope and light in the grim and vulnerable reality of Gotham. He is Police Commissioner Gordon’s ally and supporter as he is being squeezed out of the force by governmental pressures, and he serves as the film’s ultimate moral compass, admonishing even ‘the good guys’ when they veer towards corner-cutting and so-called necessary evils. His visit to the Wayne mansion is the final straw that spurs Batman’s return in the aid of Gordon and the city, which is on the verge of being taken over by Bane’s guerrilla. This casting choice is sensible and, although his character’s undefeatable idealism leans towards cliché, he is set up perfectly to become Batman’s sidekick Robin (his real name as revealed at the very end), if the trilogy is ever picked up by another studio.

The Dark Knight Rises, in all of its hype and anticipation, graciously meets every expectation of a trilogy closer… and then some more, going beyond to deliver a blockbuster that is as concerned in the character development of its protagonist as it is in its entertainment value, which is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly. It boasts cinematography of grand and unprecedented proportions that creates an immersive experience thanks to bracing shots and a somewhat protracted pace, but it is also a caricature of society that — considering that the comics came out in 1930s — is surprisingly contemporaneous. For all of its theatrics, it is more than anything a very human, and therefore very dark and murky, story wherein heroes and villains alike are not solely good or evil, or driven by wholesome versions of either pursuit, but are rather infinitely complex beings that define their strengths and weaknesses along the fear and love spectrum. In short, when compared to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it would be fair to say that The Dark Knight Rises is aesthetically less otherworldly than its predecessors, though still imposing and lavish, but decidedly more advanced and intent in its anthropological examination (especially of Batman’s humanity) — and thereby exponentially rewarding to expectant Batman fans looking to find in its cinematic interpretation a more intimate view of the enigmatic Caped Crusader.