T he Batmobile goes into long-term parking Friday as "The Dark Knight Rises" -- the much, much anticipated follow-up to Christopher Nolan's two previous mega-grossing Caped Crusader movies -- launches its all-out assault on Gotham City, box-office records and the audience's sense of equilibrium. Although Hollywood is never allergic to revisiting a successful franchise (see "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Nolan has said that this is the last Bat trip for him. Which means saying adieu to a lot of characters who have become familiar since "Batman Begins" premiered in 2005.

"We knew after 'Batman Begins' there'd be another movie and we knew after "The Dark Knight' there would be another movie. And we knew after this that there wouldn't be another movie," said Morgan Freeman, who has played Wayne Enterprises brain trust Lucius Fox in all three installments. And is he feeling bittersweet?

"No, actually, and I don't want to sound ungrateful for the experience, but it's the end of something -- the end of making a movie. And when they say 'It's a wrap' you walk away. Those of us who've been in all three are of the opinion we can't top ourselves, so let's walk away with our laurels."


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It would hard to go much bigger. About half the 160-minute film was shot in the IMAX format (as opposed to 28 minutes of "The Dark Knight"). The opening sequence -- involving a midair hijacking/kidnapping -- will likely be regarded as a classic. The vehicles are cooler and do cooler things. (The Tumbler, aka Batmobile, returns, and Catwoman gets to ride a Bat-pod.) The wreckage is more extensive. And, for good measure, there's a nuclear explosion.

Gotham City, in short, is in hot water: When we last visited, Batman (Christian Bale) was being blamed for the murder of District Attorney Harvey Dent -- who, in his grief and suffering, had become the vengeful Two-Face. Now, eight years later, Batman, hobbled and downbeat, has gone into seclusion at stately Wayne Manor. Crime is on the upswing. Terrorists are on the loose. Questions are on our minds.

Why exactly did Batman have to take the blame? Why is Gordon keeping the big secret about Harvey Dent? Why is a terrorist named Bane -- whose name seems intended to provoke Mitt Romney jokes -- wreaking havoc across Gotham City?

All these questions and more may in fact be answered with the arrival of "The Dark Knight Rises." But don't count on it.

With "The Dark Knight Rises" -- co-written with his brother, Jonathan -- Nolan may further his reputation as a director whose plot lines exist only to serve his visual art. Bane (Tom Hardy) and his fellow terrorists, acting like a muscle-bound Occupy Movement, attack Wall Street and its ruling 1 percenters, but their supposed anti-capitalist policies are soon exposed as a mere ploy, a means of terrorizing Gotham into subservience. Why do they want to take over Gotham City in the first place? It's not entirely clear. But when the Gotham police force starts charging down Wall Street to save the world, "The Dark Knight Rises" starts to feel like a campaign ad from a right-wing super-PAC. (Nolan, who doesn't like a lot of computer effects, filmed in downtown Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, and the film has the sense of being filled up with real people.)

But excess is in the DNA of the Batman chronicles. So is moral ambiguity: Is there something dubious, we always asked, about a masked avenger taking the law into his own hands? Yes, and it's been part of the Batman story at least as far back as the Frank Miller graphic novels, which built on the Bob Kane original, but without Kane's more black-and-white take on goodness and virtue.

Nolan takes it a step further: In "The Dark Knight Rises," Hardy plays the villainous Bane behind a mask that suggests Hannibal Lecter and is said to provide a steady stream of anesthetic to numb his constant pain (inflicted when ... no, you have to wait). As a side effect, it also makes him crazier.

But Bane believes in what he's doing. And so does Batman. Both Bane and Batman wear masks. Both their voices are distorted by their disguises. They both suffer excruciating pain (Batman has to go through major rehabilitation in "The Dark Knight Rises" before he can once again answer the Bat Signal). In some ways, you might say, they're the same guy -- which may be Nolan's mischievous last word on the whole subject.