Ron Phillips,
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake in "Dark Knight."

It's been a bad eight years for Batman. He's lost the love of his life; he's taken the rap as a mass murderer, leaving his body, mind and spirit in shambles. No wonder Bruce Wayne has become a recluse.

To make things worse, the real bad guy, Harvey Dent — yes, the dubious "Harvey Two Face" — is now Gotham's great martyr and is celebrated every year with Harvey Dent Day. And, yes, Batman is scorned for killing him, too.

At the center of the cover-up is Commissioner Gordon, who, for the greater good, lives with his conscience and perpetuates the ruse. The good news is that Gotham has been enjoying a period of relative peace. But is this just the calm before the ultimate storm?

Remember the League of Shadows? Well, to borrow a famous line, "They're back." A horribly maimed character known as Bane, whose unceasing pain is relieved only by a bizarre mask on his face, stages the spectacular hijacking of a world-renowned physicist who can help him turn a device under development at Wayne Enterprise into a nuclear bomb that will fulfill the league's goal of destroying Gotham. Will this threat to his beloved city bring the Dark Knight out of self-imposed retirement?

"The Dark Knight Rises" delivers some great new characters, including Marion Cotillard as industrialist Miranda Tate, who steps in to save the ailing Wayne business empire. Cotillard is an incredible actress, and in this film, she's outstanding. Catwoman makes her appearance in the form of Anne Hathaway, who is in league with Bane, but to what extent?

And, of course, there's Bane himself. Tom Hardy wears the mask that is weirdly terrifying and enormously frustrating if you actually want to understand the words he's speaking. It's a universal complaint.

This film provides innumerable set-ups for the future, including the introduction of police officer John Blake. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as this orphan who benefited from Bruce Wayne's philanthropy and has a unique insight into his benefactor. Blake is teed up perfectly for the future.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is not without its faults. For one thing, it's too long, clocking in at just under three hours. Not only is the film very dark — it drags in spots and becomes ponderous. And I can't complain enough about the muffled, unintelligible voice of Bane. Add this to the gravelly pronouncements from Batman and the irritation factor multiplies.

On the positive side, the story is compelling, the acting is great, all of the old reliable characters come through and there are great new bat toys.

I came close to 3½ stars but I just couldn't make it stick, so I've settled on 3 stars. "The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13.