THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Gotham's fetish parties are to die for!

THERE'S NOTHING like an armed nuclear weapon to bring a city together.

And if there's one take-home message from Christopher Nolan's dark, riveting The Dark Knight Rises—the final installment of his Batman trilogy—it's that. Not exactly a cheery message, but at the center of this gloomy summer blockbuster, it's still a message of hope.

If that other, decidedly more candy-colored superflick, The Avengers, was about the importance of teamwork, The Dark Knight Rises delivers the same message on a deeper, much grander scale.

Eight years have passed since Batman was last spotted in Gotham, and his already shaky legacy has been completely shattered after taking the fall for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent (AKA the villainous Two-Face). The city's crime rate has plummeted thanks to new legislation called "The Dent Act," which gives the police far-reaching powers and keeps criminals confined in prison with little chance of parole. So for now, all is well in Gotham—except of course, it's not.

Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is a steel coil in waiting, knowing all too well that the soul of Gotham is too diseased to stay down for long. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale in his best go yet) is a Howard Hughes-styled shut-in; unshaven, limping around with a crutch, and letting the philanthropy and profits of Wayne Enterprises go untended. He's a broken hero—unable to let go and move on.

Wayne is snapped awake by the arrival of super-strong criminal mastermind Bane—played by Tom Hardy to a much more threatening effect than in the comics—whose grand scheme to imprison Gotham with a nuclear device is only a small part of what he's really after.

Also along for the ride is Anne Hathaway's sassy Catwoman, young hothead cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as well as the trilogy's regular cast of characters (Michael Caine's Alfred, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, et al.). And dark though it may be, there's a certain familiarity to the proceedings, which comforts even during the film's most intense scenes.

Bladders beware: The Dark Knight Rises runs just shy of a bottom-numbing three hours, but you're in competent hands with director Christopher Nolan, who trusts your intelligence enough to delve into the emotional life of these characters while keeping the action hot enough to pull you from scene to scene. You'll wince at the results of Bane's cruelty, you'll overcome your initial skepticism regarding Anne Hathaway's ability to play such a physical role (sorry haters, but she's adorable!), and when Nolan ends the trilogy, he ends it right. There's a finality here assuring you that not an inch of celluloid will be wasted, and Nolan's not going to leave the park without swinging for the fence.

And that moral about a city coming together? It's Nolan and the Dark Knight's lasting legacy; that while a symbol (in this case a bat) might inspire change, it's the role of everyone—sans cape and cowl—to bring change to life.