The last time we saw Gotham City’s resident caped crusader, in the final moments of 2008’s The Dark Knight, he had been witness or party to so much death and destruction—including the murders of his erstwhile lady love Rachel Dawes and the idealistic DA turned disfigured madman Harvey Dent—that he had understandably come to question whether he was, in fact, the hero or the villain of his own story; and if, in fact, the people of Gotham might have been better off without a Batman in the first place. So, taking the rap for a crime he didn’t commit, he sped off once more into the shadows, a figure forever on the outside, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers.

When we pick up the story again in the magisterial The Dark Knight Rises, eight years have passed since that last sighting, and yet Gotham law and order manage to sit in a delicate balance, a RICO-like act enacted in Dent’s name having put most of the city’s organized criminals behind bars, the noble police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) now an all but irrelevant appendage of his own department. And as for the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), he has become a figure more rumored than known, a Rochester-like specter hobbling about the recesses of Wayne Manor, a literally (from years of grievous bodily harm) and spiritually broken man. But something is stirring deep beneath Gotham’s streets as The Dark Knight Rises begins, and it is not long before Bruce Wayne once again finds himself staring into the heart of human darkness.

This being a Christopher Nolan picture, it is altogether unsurprising that time and memory weigh heavily on The Dark Knight Rises, as much or more than they did on his two films, Inception and Memento, explicitly about the workings of the mind. There is the irretrievable past, of course—the one the orphaned, lovelorn Wayne has always pined for—and there is now, too, a sense of the eternal return, of long-banished ghosts returning to fulfill their interrupted destinies. Indeed, the primary antagonist of The Dark Knight Rises is a gypsy warrior called Bane (Tom Hardy), who turns out to be a disciple of the late Ra’s al Ghul, the rogue ideologue (played, in Nolan’s Batman Begins, by Liam Neeson) who once gave a beaten-down, dissolute Wayne the physical and psychological strength to save himself from his own demons, until pupil and master found themselves on opposite sides of a philosophical chasm.

From the start, Nolan’s Batman films have distinguished themselves from the superhero herd by taking their cues as much from the geo-political arena as the comic-book one, rarely more than in the case of Ra’s, an Eastern extremist whose view of Gotham as the acme of Western “decadence” might have been scripted by Osama bin Laden—or by his mentor, Sayyid Qutb, the theorist and author who visited suburban middle America in the 1940s and returned to his native Egypt horrified by what he had seen, including jazz music and the free intermingling of the sexes. Now Bane and his mercenary army have come to Gotham intent to finish Ra’s work, couching his intended genocide in the familiar rhetoric of class revolution, and with a single, ticking nuclear bomb in place of Ra’s al Ghul’s arsenal of dirty ones. And if Bane may not be as singularly spectacular a creation as Heath Ledger’s smirking, privately amused joker in The Dark Knight (and, honestly, what could be?), Hardy nevertheless strikes just the right chill in our blood, and—looking like a cross between Darth Vader and a pit bull—makes for an extraordinary physical specimen.

The Dark Knight Rises captures the spirit—and cultural anxieties—of the times in other ways too, managing to touch on everything from the global warming debate to Wall Street malfeasance to the loss of privacy in the internet era. Inception’s undying femme fatale, Marion Cotillard, is on hand as a Gotham philanthropist with a hankering for clean energy. Elsewhere, Batman finds himself both aided and one-upped by the slinky seductress cum cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a resourceful bandit who aims not to save Gotham but merely herself, from a life of bad decisions and an ever-longer police record, with a “clean slate” computer program that promises to wipe all trace of the user from every extant electronic database. Above all, there is the undying theme that has consumed all of the Nolan Batman films: the fine line between wanting to save the world and seeking its destruction, and the ease with which the rhetoric of one side can be perverted by the other.

The opening sequence—shot, like all of the movie’s action set pieces, in the giant-screen IMAX format, and first released last winter as an extended teaser of sorts—remains a spellbinding piece of mechanical and cinematic engineering. Having allowed himself to be “captured” and extradited by CIA agents somewhere in the Scottish highlands, Bane and his associates proceed to stage an extraordinary mid-air  transfer, in which a larger plane descends on the one transporting Bane, clamps on to it with what look like giant magnets, and proceeds to rip the smaller aircraft (and its crew) limb from limb while Bane and a prize hostage safely rappel their way to freedom. It’s a Houdini-worthy escape predicated on an ingenious sleight of hand—the first of many reminders in The Dark Knight Rises that Nolan, who has made a great film about the art of illusion (The Prestige), remains very much a magician at heart.

From there, the movie unfolds with the carefully measured pacing of an epic, that rare sequel (like The Dark Knight before it) that endeavors to deepen and expand upon what has come before rather than merely repackaging it. It returns us to Gotham and its denizens, taking its time, gradually showing us the lay of the land. As in Batman Begins, Nolan holds back on giving Batman himself an entrance until nearly an hour has passed, and in many ways an alternate title for The Dark Knight Rises could be Batman Begins Again, as an older, weaker, wearier Wayne grapples with the pros and cons of once more donning mask and cape. Strongly encouraging him to do just this is another new character, an idealistic young detective (the superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who grew up in a boys home himself and relates to Wayne as one orphan talking to another. Wishing Master Wayne would hang his alter-ego up for good is the loyal butler Alfred, beautifully played for the third time by Michael Caine, who has one confrontation with Bale on the staircase of Wayne Manor that is as powerful and moving a scene as any he has played in his long and distinguished career. You’ll know it when you see it.

Indeed, Nolan—unlike most of the directors of large-scale pop entertainments—has always been as good with actors as he has with high-tech hardware, having now amassed a sterling stock company (including Bale, Caine, Cotillard, Gordon-Levitt and Ken Watanabe) who appear in various guises across his films with the familiarity of old friends. By the same token, Nolan is nearly as adept at Tarantino at scripting plum comeback roles for great character actors long off of mainstream Hollywood’s radar: Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight, Tom Berenger in Inception, and now Tom Conti, a 1984 Oscar nominee for the unduly forgotten Reuben, Reuben, here playing a wise old man in a faraway prison who, at Bruce Wayne’s lowest moment, nurses him back to fighting form.

I feel obliged to draw attention to such things because as good as Nolan is, it can still be all too easy to take him for granted, precisely because he makes enormous “popcorn” movies that gross small fortunes at the global box office and because, not unlike Bruce Wayne himself, he gets to play with all the biggest, coolest toys. I don’t doubt that The Dark Knight Rises will be embraced by the fanboy (and -girl) community for its simultaneous honoring and clever repurposing of DC Comics mythos, but this is a movie that should be celebrated by all who love movies, period—not least because this is a movie that makes a stand for the sanctity of the moviegoing experience itself in a time of so much uncertainty about how movies will be made and seen going forward.

As the digital revolution has swept through Hollywood like brushfire, Nolan has remained a stalwart champion of shooting on film, and as 3D has increasingly become the blockbuster norm, he has refused to join the bandwagon, advocating instead for IMAX, a variant on the old 70mm process responsible for the likes of Lawrence of Arabia  and 2001, and whose screen-filling images envelop us in a way that only a select few 3D movies (chiefly Avatar and Hugo) have even approached. The result, in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, is a movie so rich in lushly cinematic images—with lustrous colors and richly textured night scenes—that it should be displayed side by side with the likes of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man in public forums devoted to educating the audience about what is being lost as the making and exhibiting of films on actual film becomes a museum art—the latest, but surely not the last, casualty of Hollywood’s relentless focus on the bottom line.

All of this, however, would mean little if Nolan were not so innately gifted a visual storyteller, unerring in his sense of camera angle, distance from the subject, and clearly delineated plans of action. In their look and feel, his Batman films have all harked back to an earlier, less attention-deficient cinematic era, the exotic foreign vistas and gang-infested city streets of Batman Begins alternately calling to mind David Lean and the Warner Brothers crime dramas of the Forties and Fifties, The Dark Knight invoking The Naked City and The French Connection in its sense of Gotham as urban jungle. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan pulls off an even more impressive feat—a long, elaborate set piece consuming nearly the entire second half of this three-hour movie, that begins with a child singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” ends with a bomb literally bursting in air and, in between, stirs and moves us in ways movies (superhero or otherwise) rarely do. It is, I think, one of the great sustained pieces of action in American movies—a sequence that, in its juxtapositions of sound and image, beauty and horror, calls to mind the baptism/massacre from the end of The Godfather, the wedding party in The Deer Hunter, and a handful of other scenes in other movies that have found, in a single scenario, a vivid metaphor for all that is great and terrible, noble and selfish, tainted and hopeful about we the people.