Is there payoff? Not so much as individually absorbing moments. Batman gets beaten to a pulpy mass in a brutally choreographed mano-a-mano with Bane in Gotham City's sewers, and the face-off puts the hero out of commission for the lengthy second act. His recuperation scenes, set in a dungeon filled with worldly prisoners who become his allies, goes on and on like some kind of spiritual masterclass.

Unlike Nolan's "Inception," which used its narrative momentum to dive through multiple layers of consciousness, "The Dark Knight Rises" feels simultaneously speedy and lethargic, with plenty of unremarkable cutaways and exchanges given unnecessary weight thanks to Hans Zimmer's routinely invasive score (which, like Bane's mask, often makes the dialogue inaudible).

That "The Dark Knight Rises" manages to have any soul at all speaks to its lasting value.

The Zimmer score is matched by IMAX-friendly images of Gotham's cityscape seen from a bird's eye view as its inhabitants fall prey to Bane's gradual takeover. The explosive CGI has its moments, with Batman's new airplane -- The Bat -- adding the latest toy to the series, but Nolan relishes destruction more than the forces challenging it. Bane's decimation of entire football field with the push of a button has far greater impact than any of Batman's achievements, which makes you wonder where the filmmaker's sympathies truly lie. When our ostensible hero does snap back into action, he's less a force of vengeance than a brash machine. "I'm not afraid," Batman growls. "I'm angry." No matter the scale of the Batman movies, their protagonist still comes across as a thin creation.

And in "The Dark Knight Rises," he's not alone. New additions include Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as a muckraking police officer whose history with Wayne allows the younger man to convince Batman he's still worth a damn, but his powers of persuasion ring hollow even when the character grows central to larger events at hand. Marion Cotillard surfaces in a few scenes as a potential Wayne love interest whose true motives arrive later on to bring the arc of the three movies full circle. But she's too underdeveloped to earn that entitlement. Only Michael Caine, as trusty butler Alfred, stands out with a series of desperate monologues urging Wayne to keep himself safe. Caine overpowers Batman better than Bane himself to emerge as the movie's true soul.  

That "The Dark Knight Rises" manages to have any soul at all speaks to its lasting value. Unquestionably the strongest entry in the series, it should go down in history not for its distracting flaws but rather the continuing defiance of big movie clichés: It has few cheesy one-liners or sudden, cheap jolts, slo-mo shots or absurd virtual camera movement. The action props up the atmosphere rather than mowing it down.

Beyond that, Nolan's choice for a conclusion messes with our assumptions in accordance with the same coy, methodical process Nolan brought to the climaxes of "Memento" and "Inception." As original properties, those movies brought fewer expectations to the table. The finale to "The Dark Knight Rises" will undoubtedly infuriate some viewers and perplex many more, but for that same reason the movie will stick with them. That's an appropriate takeaway: Viewed as a whole, Nolan's trilogy is enticing and frustratingly obtuse in equal measures, not unlike Batman's homegrown moral code.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already set to break box office records, "The Dark Knight Rises" will perform well around the country for weeks on end once it opens July 20 nationwide. The real question is whether it can maintain that moment during awards season.

Watch the trailer for "The Dark Knight Rises" below: