"The Dark Knight" set a new standard for blockbusters. Here was a colorful comic book adaptation that addressed some of our darkest fears in the post-Sept. 11 era.

"The Dark Knight Rises," which completes the trilogy that Christopher Nolan started with 2005's "Batman Begins," ups the ante in every way. Batman's toys are more complicated, his nemesis is more menacing and civilization itself risks collapse when faced with its biggest danger yet: its own success.

Now, this is still a comic book movie. There's plenty that's preposterous here. The updated Batmobile is a rather conspicuous car in which to be tailing someone surreptitiously. Batman is a superhero who emphasizes his lack of special powers. So how does he know, as soon as he's saved one life, that another friend is in danger miles away?

On screen
3 out of 4 stars
Stars: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
Running time: 164 minutes

Worse, poor Michael Caine is given all the lame lines of the film. His butler character, the closest thing to a father Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has, serves to drive a point home repeatedly: Bruce doesn't have a reason to live when Batman doesn't have a reason to fight.

He's given one, though, by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy). And this is where "The Dark Knight Rises" transcends the sense of silliness and becomes, amazingly, one of the most relevant films of our time -- the post-financial crash era.

Bane makes an audacious raid on the stock market in a scene that emphasizes the similarities between the made-up Gotham and the real-life New York. "This is a stock exchange. There's no money you can steal," one brave soul on the floor tells him. Bane responds coolly: "Really? Then why are you people here?"

This villain has swagger, but he can't be called a savage: Hardy, in a miraculous performance, manages to communicate the intelligence behind the muscle using just his voice. Imagine what the world might look like if Occupy Wall Street had been successful beyond its wildest dreams, and you've imagined what Bane unleashes upon Gotham. Capitalists are put on trial -- though their guilt has already been established.

That is the terror that Batman comes out of retirement to stop. Nolan presents scenes of real horror. Bane and his crew make a daring escape on motorbikes, using financiers as human shields. He later lets loose the criminals of Gotham, who file out of prison, each one holding a gun.

Bale, who was a little bland in "The Dark Knight," rises to the occasion here, both as the reckless playboy and the broken hero. Anne Hathaway is a welcome addition as the cat burglar Selina Kyle -- who's never referred to as Catwoman, and makes this character her own. Gary Oldman, as Commissioner Gordon, is so good, it's criminal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the perfect choice for a young cop who's still filled with earnest idealism. Marion Cotillard is underused.

In parts, "The Dark Knight Rises" is profoundly manipulative. One tableau, set to the determined sound of a boy's breaking voice as he singes "The Star-Spangled Banner," would be over the top in lesser hands. But this movie, in the end, is deliciously equivocal. Might America become the victim of its own success? Might the good guys become the bad guys simply by doing what so many ordinary people who became evil have done: following orders?

I'm as surprised as anyone to report that perhaps the only recent film to ask such essential questions, with seriousness, is the sort of comic book blockbuster that Hollywood normally aims squarely at teenage boys.