A bit of context: The Dark Knight Rises, the closing chapter of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and arguably the biggest pop-culture event of the year, screened for critics at 10 am on WW's press day the week of its release, forcing us to publish a hastily written "quick hit" review in the current print edition and hold a longer review for the Web. This review was completed Friday. But in the aftermath of the tragedy in Colorado, I decided to hold off for the weekend. As you'll see, I have not refracted my views through the prism of the shootings. The film doesn't deserve to be framed in the context of such senseless madness. But, it goes without saying, my thoughts are with the families of the victims.

Critics Grade: A

“I always knew there was nothing for you here but pain and tragedy,” Michael Caine’s Alfred tells Christian Bale’s gimpy, reclusive Bruce Wayne at the start of The Dark Knight Rises. So did the rest of us, Al; Christopher Nolan’s made sure of that. Through the first two films in his unremittingly dour Batman trilogy, the director stripped the world’s most tortured superhero down to his psychic wounds and let them bleed out onto the monochrome streets of Gotham. It’s a franchise praised for dimming the lights on the character’s cartoon camp, investing the frivolous summer blockbuster season with the po-faced solemnity of a Swedish art film.

Here’s the thing, though: Underneath the pall of ashen gloom, these are still movies about a guy in a cape who fights crime. And for all the critical appraisals that would have us believe Nolan is making steroidal tributes to Ingmar Bergman, their success is measured by the same criteria facing any film based on a comic book: How empathetic is the hero? How threatening is the villain? And how often do the action scenes make us compulsively high-five our buddies in the theater?

In each regard,  The Dark Knight Rises—the final installment of Nolan’s triptych—outdoes its predecessors. It’s better written and better paced. Its set pieces, including a mid-air plane hijacking and an imploding football field, are more spectacular. And, despite ongoing themes of torment and loss and a zeitgeisty plot involving the 1 Percent’s heavily-armed chickens coming home to roost, it’s the most exciting, purely pleasurable entry in the series. Sure, it’s still plenty broody, but take away the grim veneer and you’ll find the framework of a traditional, rousing superhero movie. Perhaps the redemptive title should’ve been a clue: After seven years of Bat-cycling through the wreckage of human suffering, the takeaway ends up being an unambiguous message of hope.

But first: the pain and tragedy. Eight years after his alter ego took the fall for Harvey Dent’s death, Bruce Wayne lives as a battered hermit, with terrible facial hair and Brandon Roy’s knees, limping around his mansion in self-imposed exile. Although Gotham resides in relative peace thanks to the wide-reaching, criminal-busting powers of the so-called Dent Act, forces conspire to draw him out of retirement: master thief Selina Kyle (a superbly slinky Anne Hathaway), who sneaks out of a soiree at Wayne Manor with his family jewels and, more worryingly, his fingerprints; a rookie cop (an earnest Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who deduces Wayne’s identity and wants his Batman back; a philanthropist (Marion Cotilliard, luminous as ever) pushing Wayne Enterprises to reinvest in a halted clean energy project; and a threat so imposing it finally compels him to respond—Occupy Wall Street.

Well, it’s never actually called that, but the allusion is pretty clear. While Nolan has denied politicizing the Batman mythos, the story—which sees Gotham literally occupied by a guerilla army bent on exacting a violent redistribution of wealth—certainly seems like a jab at liberalism run amok. Not that it matters, really. As Bane, the carved-from-granite mercenary leading the revolution, Tom Hardy intimidates with a hulking menace that cuts across party lines. Muzzled by an apparatus that appears fashioned from one of Alien’s facehuggers, he’s a barely domesticated grizzly bear, with Darth Vader’s voicebox and the diction of Peter O’Toole. It is, by nature, a more constrained performance than Heath Ledger’s boundlessly manic Joker, but what Hardy lacks in anarchic charisma he makes up for in sheer physicality. His first confrontation with Batman, in the sewers beneath Gotham, is the franchise’s most viscerally brutal moment. I can’t recall when a superhero has ever been made to look so powerless. It’s like watching Kimbo Slice beat up a cosplayer in the Comic-Con parking lot.

Oddly enough, getting the everloving piss kicked of him is the best thing that could’ve happened to Bruce Wayne. For all his searing brilliance, Ledger’s outsized presence shunted Bale’s self-pitying billionaire playboy to the margins of his own movie. He made Batman seem boring. And even as he cast innocent lives into his twisted sociological experiments, you liked the Joker. You fear Bane. In that way, Hardy is the more effective antagonist, because he puts the sympathy back on the hero. It’s the Rocky principle: A guy gets knocked down that hard, you want to see him get up again.

It goes to show that, for all the talk of Nolan reinventing the epic-sized box-office juggernaut, he’s still working with familiar templates. He may have drained the superhero film of its Technicolor, but he didn’t change its basic shape. Yes, the tone is bleaker than most, but this is also a movie where Catwoman purrs feline puns, Gordon-Levitt deputizes a gang of orphans, two characters stop to make out in the middle of a highly time-sensitive situation, and a villain delivers a five-minute soliloquy outlining the convoluted details of their dastardly scheme. (And that’s not to mention Bale’s persistent Bat-growl.) Sounds like a superhero picture to me. In truth, the snappy banter of The Avengers is more uncharacteristic of a comic book adaptation than any of this movie’s overwrought speeches on the nature of heroism, where you can practically see the speech-bubbles forming around the words. But The Dark Knight Rises is still the better, more interesting film, for what it is rather than what some so stringently argue it isn’t. A certain segment of the audience will find that disappointing, as if the only way for this kind of movie to qualify as high art is to detach completely from its ink-and-paper roots. In the words of somebody we used to know, I ask: Why so serious?