Alright, let me put your worries at ease and answer the two questions that everyone who hasn't seen the movie is going to be asking until they actually see The Dark Knight Rises: Yes, it is an amazing movie that goes where no superhero movie has ever gone before, and no (I repeat "No!") it is not the best movie in the series, a designation that still belongs to The Dark Knight. Allow me to explain.
This final part of the Gotham trilogy is certainly not better than The Dark Knight for a couple of reasons. One, there was Heath Ledger, who gave a transcendent and amazing portrayal that was both a feat of acting and artistry unmatched by anything we've ever seen in a superhero movie before or since. And two, it struck the right balance between dark fantasy and the darkness of futuristic and dystopic urban reality. The Dark Knight seems to have forgotten that it is based on a comic book and there are many sequences that require a bit of levity but director Christopher Nolan is hellbent on making things as internally foreboding as possible. At times, the movie unfolds in a half dream state, while at others it seems to think it is a stream of consciousness tale. Imagine taking Batman and dropping him into a movie about existential realities like The Hours or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He's Batman, you're crying on the inside, not Virginia Woolf! Why is he so introspective? I doubt that even Ernest Hemingway was this moody or serious.
But this may have been a criticism that the makers were expecting all along because they've included so many car chases and speedy action sequences that clearly belong in the movie but which don't feel as organic as they ought to. They haven't been tacked on, per se, but they have been used to prop up what is a very different and concurrent flow of events inside the mind of an eccentric billionaire. Anne Hathaway is generally the woman in charge of these sequences, playing Selina Kyle, the slinky and seductive masked avenger who is never called Catwoman - not once in the entire movie. You can ask Halle Berry why.
The performances are all very good, especially those of the newbies to the franchise, including Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tom Hardy, who plays the villain Bane, is nowhere near up to the par of Ledger's The Joker, but he suffices and that is perhaps the best that we should hope for. I am also happy to report that Christian Bale's voice is not nearly so low and gruff as it was in the last movie, where it bordered on caricature. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are as they should be in their respective parts: perfect.
I won't divulge whether or not Batman survives the end, not for fear of spoiling the movie (in a way, it's really incidental to the whole enterprise) but because this movie doesn't feel like an ending at all, which may be just what the studio and the director have wanted all along. It plays like the beginning of something, though whether that 'something' is the story of Bruce Wayne or not I'll leave for you to decide. But rest assured that the anti-superhero movie that is this superhero movie has forever and irreversibly altered the template for every movie based on a comic book that will be made in the future. Depending upon your tastes, that is both an amazing and terrible thing.