I’m not sure how dark of a knight Batman is, but director-writer Christopher Nolan certainly seems to be comfortable with his dark side. In Batman Begins, he posited the tragic origins that led Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to adopt a secret identity and scours the streets as a vigilante on the side of right. In that film, Batman’s mentor and later nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) saw the bleak, stylized city of Gotham as a diseased boil of humanity that needed to be erased. It was an almost Faustian dialectic, with Luciferian Ra’s in a face-off with God-like Batman, arguing with biblical vehemence over whether mankind could — should survive.

Then came The Dark Knight — a longer, crazier movie that really did explore the two sides of mankind (represented, late in the film, with the villain Two-Face). There, Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker — a character without an apparent alter ego, a raging id unleashing meaningless chaos on a city of beings he held in contempt. There was no reason, no logic behind Joker’s trail of havoc; he was torturing the citizens of Gotham (which now looked less like a comic-book fortress and more like New York City) with mind games merely to prove an obscure point about human failings. Unlike Ra’s, his mission was merely destructive.

With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan seems to be attempting to bridge these similar but unconnected attacks of Gotham into a unified principle. Once again, the villain is a demonic, Joker-like entity operating entirely on evil impulse. We learn a little about Bane (Tom Hardy), who lives his entire existence behind a mask that gives him the skull-like appearance of a tiger perpetually gnashing its fangs. Who he is seems almost irrelevant again — it’s what he represents, the lesser angels of mankind.

Bane, who was trained (like Batman) by Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows, seems to have a mystical rapture over his minions. He’s a cult leader, who can, with the brush of a hand against a man’s face, convince him to willingly sacrifice his life for a “greater good.” He’s the lead fanatic in an army of fanatics, so bent on bringing Gotham to justice as to make Hitler look unambitious.

It’s eight years after the action in The Dark Knight ended, and Harvey Dent, the D.A. who went mad and became the villain Two-Face, has been lionized as a hero. A law passed in his name that locks up criminals without due process has led to Gotham being safer. Only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) isn’t quite sure he’s done right. Batman took the fall as a murderer, and hasn’t been seen since. Bruce Wayne has allowed Wayne Enterprises (and the charitable Wayne Foundation) to languish while living reclusively in Wayne Manor.

Of course, he comes out of retirement to take on Bane, and the cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who seems to have nine lives.

The main problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that Nolan seems to fancy himself an intellectual when he should concentrate on his storytelling. As he did with Inception, there’s a smugness to the plotting that suggests the audience needs to “figure it out.” But let’s face it: He’s making a comic book movie. Put the pretensions aside, if you please.

There’s a convoluted but important subplot about an energy source and a Wayne Enterprises board member (Marion Cotillard) who wants to tap it, a huge McGuffin about an attack on the stock exchange and the theft of Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints and a conflict between Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) that ends with the latter disappearing for half the movie. Plus Nolan, for all his deconstructionist reimagining of the Batman myth, reverts to some of those “I’ll keep you alive when I should kill you” gimmicks that the old campy TV series did, only without irony or humor. There’s even the old “ticking time bomb” set-up with a clock than magically takes 20 minutes to progress three seconds. Really?!

In the second half of the film, the story even becomes more Mad Max than Batman, with a feral population living like rats under the glowering iron thumb of the insane plans of the terrorist Bane. That’s also when the movie gets really loud.

As murky as the moralizing is, and as familiar as the plot becomes (Bane even vests, as The Joker did, one citizen with the power of life or death over the entire city), The Dark Knight Rises is an intensely watchable film, even as it clocks in at a hair under three hours. Hardy’s voice as Bane has a Darth Vader-esque hiss, softened by a refined British accent that simply oozes danger. Hardy’s physique is just as menacing, a solid chuck of man-meat that, next to Bale’s more sculpted look as Wayne/Batman, lends an undeniably homoerotic energy to the film. (There’s even a suggestion that Catwoman/Selina is lesbian, though they seem to drop that.)

Bale is back in pretty good form as Bruce, but his Batman — as was Michael Keaton’s — is so stolid and humorless, his face frozen behind a cowl as his voice murmurs like a bad dubbing of a foreign language film, that what makes Batman interesting are his toys more than his persona. And the toys are great, especially his scooter with rude-boy wheels that spin like gyroscopes.

Hathaway’s performance puts an interesting spin on Catwoman as both villain and ally (something Julie Newmar did to perfection), and a lot of the heavy-lifting of the plot is carried by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop assisting Gordon. Everyone, though, takes a back seat to the special effects (admittedly spectacular) and Nolan’s sniffy navel-gazing about how Serious and Meaningful his comic book trilogy has become. To me, it’s an improvement over The Dark Knight despite the absence of Ledger, but only a marginal one, and it never reaches the Gothic beauty of Batman Begins — or rather, it does, but only by forcing it on you.

In Amadeus, Emperor Joseph complained that Mozart’s music has “too many notes” for the royal ear to handle. The Dark Knight Rises has too many notes as well. It swells so big from the bloviating of Nolan, you feel forever aware of a hand, shadowy but deft, guiding you on a path of destructive chaos. I have a feeling Nolan doesn’t really identify with Batman; he’s Ra’s al Ghul, and his audience the victims of his sinister vision.

Three stars. In wide release Friday.