Director Christopher Nolan brings his Batman saga to a stunning end

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Three is the hardest number. Francis Coppola tripped on it ("The Godfather Part III"). So did George Lucas ("Return of the Jedi") and David Fincher ("Alien 3") and Sam Raimi ("Spider-Man 3") and the Wachowski brothers ("The Matrix Revolutions"). Peter Jackson pulled it off with "The Lord of the Rings," but all of those movies came from the same book and were shot back-to-back.

One of the most striking things about "The Dark Knight Rises," the third (and, without question, last) entry in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman movies, is how bold and confident and precise it is -- as if the filmmaker had always known how the story that started in 2005's "Batman Begins" and continued in 2008's "The Dark Knight" would turn out.

The truth is, Nolan was making it up as he went along.

"I've always thought of this trilogy as Bruce Wayne's story, and every story has a beginning, a middle and an end," he says. "The ending is the most important part to me: That's the first thing I had for 'The Dark Knight Rises.' The trick is to know it on a subliminal level -- have the idea of it -- but not write it down and make it concrete until you're ready.

"I've had the great luxury of working on these movies for nine years and letting things grow naturally, knowing the feeling of what I was going for but allowing the narrative to come into focus over time. You have to live your way through stories in order to discover what they are. I wasn't already planning for this movie when we were making "Batman Begins," because I'm superstitious. But I was always hopeful I'd get to tell the whole thing."

Set eight years after "The Dark Knight," the new film, which opens today, catches up with billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his fortune is dwindling, his body is battered (he has a permanent limp and walks with a cane) and his alter-ego of Batman is wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent (played in the previous movie by Aaron Eckhart).

The crime rate in Gotham City has plummeted under the watch of Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who continues to feed the lie that Dent died a hero, using him as a martyr to help keep the peace. Then the terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked thug with a penchant for brutal violence, emerges from the city's sewers. He brings an army with him.

"The Dark Knight Rises" borrows elements from two classic Batman comic-book storylines -- "Knightfall," in which Bane snaps the hero's back, and "The Dark Knight," Frank Miller's seminal graphic novel about an aging Batman forced out of retirement by a crime wave. But the film's screenplay, which Nolan wrote with his brother (and frequent collaborator) Jonathan, charts its own narrative path, throwing in a curvaceous cat burglar (Anne Hathaway), an idealistic police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a philanthropist (Marion Cotillard) who helps Wayne with his struggling finances.

When the $250 million production began shooting, the large number of new characters concerned fans, who speculated that Nolan might have fallen prey to the "more is more" approach that had mired the 1990s Batman film franchise in campy excess.

"The third movie in every trilogy is supposed to go into the toilet," says Michael Caine, who reprises his role in "The Dark Knight Rises" as Wayne's faithful butler Alfred. "But when I read the script for this one, I knew it would be special -- and I'm not just saying that because I'm in the movie! Christopher (Nolan) is an incredible caster of actors, he's an incredible director and he's also an incredible writer. He's all three of those things, and that's something I've never encountered before in this business."

Unlike most makers of big-budget blockbusters, Nolan writes his own scripts. His canvasses are enormous, but he can work his personal obsessions into them. When Nolan's planned biopic of the wealthy recluse Howard Hughes was derailed by Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," he simply incorporated aspects of Hughes' life into "The Dark Knight Rises," turning Wayne into an eccentric hermit who rarely leaves his mansion and has started to go a little batty.

"I always loved the relatability of Bruce Wayne," Nolan says. "He is not a superhero in the usual sense. He wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider and he wasn't born on Krypton. He's just a guy who's done a lot of pushups. His only real superpower is his extraordinary wealth. He's someone who suffered enormous trauma as a child -- his parents gunned down in front of him -- and what he's carried with him all his life is an extraordinary level of rage, sadness and all kinds of angst. All these negative elements in his soul are pushing him in a certain direction, and he's desperately trying to turn that into something good. That's why his best adversaries are the ones who represent some other, darker direction he could have chosen."

Like most of the filmmakers of his generation, Nolan, who turns 42 on July 30, admits to having been influenced primarily by 1970s cinema. But although he works in the Hollywood-blockbuster arena, he doesn't cite the expected names as inspirations -- no Spielberg, no Lucas.

"The great filmmakers of the past -- Terrence Malick, Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg, all those guys -- created very experimental and interrogative works that pushed the grammar of film forward," he says. "I've been inspired by some of the more outrageous cinema I've seen. But I have found a way to use that influence in a much more mainstream way. I was talking to Christian Bale, who is making a movie with Malick right now, and I joked that whatever Malick is up to, I'll be ripping it off in five years, but making it really understandable to people."

"Kubrick was inimitable: You can't really try to do what he did, because it was very abstract and unique. But he had a way of calmly achieving an image that expressed a lot of emotions without firing in too many directions at once. He inspired me to always find the simplest, most direct way of getting an idea across. In hindsight, when I look at what I've done . it's a cliché to say you steal from the best, but there is some truth to the idea."

The combination of high-minded filmmaking and pulpy source material is one of the reasons Nolan's trilogy will endure as a standalone three-part epic, regardless of how soon the inevitable Batman reboot arrives.

With "The Dark Knight Rises," Nolan also achieves something that has never been done in the realm of comic book movies: He has given a finite end to a story involving a character that will live forever, in various incarnations, in the popular culture

Sean Howe, author of the upcoming book "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," says that if "The Dark Knight Rises" succeeds, it could result in more filmmakers choosing to tell self-contained story arcs from iconic comics.

"When you're watching comic-book movies, the stakes aren't very high, because just like when you're reading the books, you know the (hero) is never going to be destroyed," Howe says. "Writers who sign on to work on existing comic book titles have their hands tied, because they know the series has to continue beyond them and they can never end the story. If there's a clear ending to this new Batman movie, then that's pretty admirable. Films would be able to complete a story in a way that even the comics can't do. If that catches on, it could lead to a great utopia of comic book movies."