The Dark Knight Rises (12A)

Glum, dark and brooding, as you'd expect. But this third outing on the Batcycle is serious fun

In Pixar's The Incredibles, the Achilles heel of the fiendish Syndrome is his tendency to let his guard down and monologue. Traditionally, monologuing is a predilection of supervillains, but in the latest Batman episode The Dark Knight Rises, everyone indulges – not just the bad guys, but Batman, his butler Alfred, cops, politicos, financiers, even an inmate of a hellish foreign prison, played by Tom Conti in a hellish foreign accent. The talk is of corruption, redemption, fallibility, being true to yourself – the latter a specialism of Michael Caine's Alfred, who is, to his employer, a mix of Polonius and Jiminy Cricket.

As in Christopher Nolan's previous Batbusters, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, we're a long way from the candy-coloured frivolity of the 1960s TV Caped Crusader.

Before the week's horrifying events in Denver, The Dark Knight Rises was just another superhero movie, albeit one laden with unusually intense, even excessive public expectation. In fact, this Batman inhabits a bleak realm of high moral seriousness: imagine The Brothers Karamazov with helicopters and high-speed motorcycle chases.

I'm in the minority, but I couldn't buy the idea that The Dark Knight was a milestone of cinematic myth-making – however creepy was Heath Ledger's leprous-looking Joker. A little decorum can be a great thing in pulp, but I found the film's self-regarding solemnity ponderous and depressing. So I approached the final part of Nolan's trilogy not expecting much, and while I pretty much got what I did expect – glum verbosity, thunderous firepower, stygian darkness – I found myself liking the combination a lot more this time. Perhaps it's because, after the recent glut of more throwaway superhero fodder, I'm inclined to appreciate what's peculiar to Nolan's approach. Unusually, he manages to impart reality and solidity to his world – a sort of physical seriousness. He believes that objects – guns, vehicles, buildings, human bodies – actually have weight, tend to fall to earth with a crash. Because Nolan shoots on film, rather than digitally, even his use of spectacular CGI has a certain heft, as if faith has been invested in its reality. Watch what happens when villain Bane ignites a chain of explosions – a cityscape bursts with flames, bridges collapse, a sports stadium caves in. For once, you may actually gasp.

Nolan's other trump is his interest in human presence. Artificial and inhuman as the film ultimately is – it's all about spectacular weaponry and a lofty but hollow arsenal of grand notions – at least Nolan casts it brilliantly. There are real people before our eyes, sometimes seen in close-up with rough skin and sweaty pores: who more human-looking than Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman or the magnificently weaselly Ben Mendelsohn?

Batman himself isn't quite as human, nor is he meant to be – not with that sculpted cowl and sepulchral rasp of a voice. But his alter ego Bruce Wayne is supposed to be flesh and blood, and while Christian Bale looks like an ordinary mortal, I find him one of the most emotionally opaque of screen actors, which makes it hard to care about his character's Byronic agonies. And what agonies: still mourning his lost beloved, Wayne is stripped of his millions, humiliated by Anne Hathaway's cynical (but surprisingly socialistic) thief, and left in the grimmest of jails, a pit of despair that even Dante would have found a bit steep.

This martyr-like passion of Bruce is the film's most ludicrously solemn pretention, yet it ends up connecting with the trilogy's opener in a surprisingly satisfying way – not least because Nolan and co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David S Goyer pack the last act with twisteroos.

As for the heavies, Bane is little more than a malevolent strongman, but Tom Hardy makes him surpassingly strange. His mask, with a clenched-fist shape over nose and mouth, is part Predator, part bondage gimp, and gives a resonance to his delivery, which is ripe and exaggeratedly British: imagine Sean Connery impersonating John Huston, with a dash of Ian McKellen. That you can't see Hardy's mouth (he never blinks, either) makes him all the scarier.

There's next to no levity, which is why Hathaway is so welcome as Selina Kyle (Catwoman to you). Rom-com trouper Hathaway is the odd one out in this august cast, yet she brings light relief, with an acidic twist: her Selina has an urbane impertinence that suggests that she, at least, doesn't take the whole show in crushing earnest. Selina even cracks a joke or two, and even if they're not that good, nothing's more welcome than a quip in the abyss. After the past few days however it feels as if there's less and less to quip about. In this context, she's like Dorothy Parker heckling at a Nietzsche seminar.