NB: this article discusses all three Dark Knight movies. There are spoilers.
With a resounding bang, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is over. And while debate will continue to rage over the relative merits of all three movies for years to come, they’ve undoubtedly achieved something unusual in mainstream franchises: provided an iconic character with a compelling three-act story.
Nolan’s Batman movies have been about many things – law and chaos, fear and revenge, fall and redemption – but their primary theme, perhaps, is that of cause and effect. Every choice that Bruce Wayne made in his path to becoming the Batman, and those he made afterwards, always have their consequences – and in The Dark Knight Rises, it seems as though every past decision has come back to haunt him.
In the final film, Bruce Wayne’s story comes full circle. Symbols, themes and ideas present in Batman Begins return in the third movie, while the actions taken in 2008’s The Dark Knight provide a potentially disastrous flashpoint for the events in this year’s film. This is why, we’d argue, The Dark Knight Rises provides such a satisfying conclusion to what has grown into a sprawling three act story; Christopher Nolan may not have made 2005’s Batman Begins with two further instalments in mind, but the way the three movies interweave is intricate and worthy of closer examination, even if the individual parts themselves aren’t entirely without flaw.
The birth of the Dark Knight
Batman has his genesis in three defining moments: the young Bruce Wayne’s traumatic encounter with fluttering bats at the bottom of an old well, the brutal murder of his parents at the hands of Joe Chill, and his encounter with the League of Shadows as an adult. Channelling his fear, guilt and anger, Bruce trains to become a ninja, and in the process acquires the skills of combat, stealth and theatricality he’ll later use as Batman.
Wayne’s encounter with the League also puts him on a collision course with Ra’s al Ghul, and thereafter, the fate of the pair of them, and Gotham City, will become inextricably linked.
Law and chaos
Having learned of the League’s plans to destroy Gotham, Bruce vows to become a force for good, and over the course of Batman Begins and its sequels, fights to defend his city from three agencies of chaos. All of these are a direct consequence of the League’s initial plans; in Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul intends to use a Wayne Enterprises invention (a Microwave Emitter) to release a psychosis-inducing hallucinogen into the atmosphere, causing Gotham to be torn apart by its own population.
At the conclusion of Batman Begins, Sgt Gordon warns of the dangers of escalation (“We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing kevlar, they buy armour-piercing rounds”), but it’s already too late: Batman’s rooftop theatrics have unwittingly let the The Joker – part sociopathic terrorist, part sadistic performance artist – out of the box.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker’s anarchic manipulation of Gotham’s criminal underbelly results in the fall of the city’s so-called White Knight, Harvey Dent, and the death of Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s unrequited sweetheart. Batman manages to foil The Joker’s evil plans, but not without compromising his own ethics in the process; when Dent, tipped over the edge into his insane alter-ego, Two Face, jeopardises the legal victories he’d previously won, Batman and Gordon (now Commissioner) conspire to keep his madness a secret, with Batman taking the blame for his crimes instead.
By The Dark Knight Rises, set eight years after the events of the previous films, the consequences of the past have begun to tell. Gordon is wracked with guilt over the cover-up of Dent’s crimes, even though the Dent Act means that Gotham’s now a safer city than it ever was.
Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, with Batman’s reputation in tatters, the years of jumping off buildings and fighting thugs weighing heavily on his body, and his soul aching over the loss of Rachel Dawes. Even the loyal Alfred Pennyworth has his own cross to bear, with his concealment of a letter from Rachel (in which she essentially dumped Bruce for Harvey Dent) tugging at his conscience.
Bruce Wayne will soon be stirred from his torpor, however, by a new agent of chaos: Bane, a League of Shadows acolyte who’s determined to finish what Ra’s al Ghul started, and tear Gotham apart from within.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman series presents a universe of law and chaos, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Dark Knight Rises, where the two collide in scenes of grand destruction.
Batman, a character consumed by anger, guilt and thirst for revenge, may have once sounded like a difficult one for a mass audience to get behind, which would explain the camp avenue the franchise took during Joel Schumacher’s tenure. But in the wake of 9/11, with an American nation shocked by a national tragedy, Batman suddenly made more sense than ever, and Nolan’s interpretation of the character – a dark hero defending his city from chaotic forces – fits perfectly into the 21st century landscape.
Stocks and shares
Taking inspiration from the ongoing fall-out from the global financial crisis, The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne experiencing a few solvency issues. An apparently minor plot detail, the market flotation of Wayne Enterprises in Batman Begins, it turns out, would have far-reaching repercussions almost a decade later.
By the time we arrive at The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce’s ill-advised investment in Miranda Tate’s clean energy research has left the company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and following Bane’s tinkering with the stock exchange, Bruce is left penniless.
It’s little wonder that The Dark Knight Rises’ primary marketing image was of a dissolving Gotham skyline – with his loyal butler Alfred gone, the foundations of Bruce Wayne’s life are gradually crumbling away, even as the rest of the city is about to drift irresistibly into anarchy.
Fear and Bane
One of the key themes in Batman Begins, fear is also a defining element in Bruce Wayne’s guilt-riddled psyche. At the start of the film, we see a young Master Bruce fall into the well mentioned earlier, whose bat-filled tunnel provides the boy with the life-long phobia that will later inform his masked alter-ego.
The well image returns in The Dark Knight Rises, in the form of a subterranean prison located somewhere in the east – possibly India. Here, a well-like opening reveals a tantalising circle of clear blue sky, and prisoners are compelled to make desperate leaps in a bid for freedom – leaps which often result in little more than death or a nasty back injury.
Bruce Wayne’s attempts to escape the prison are an inversion of the early scene in Batman Begins. There, Bruce Wayne’s father comes down by a rope and lifts his son to rescue. The residual fear from that experience, however, has never left Bruce, and it’s surely significant that, at the end of Batman Begins, he’s shown nailing planks of wood over the well’s opening – implying, perhaps, that he’s patched over his trauma without truly confronting it.
In order to escape the prison in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce must find the strength to lift himself out of the well – to escape, he has to truly embrace fear, and take one final leap of faith.
There’s a further parallel to be found, perhaps, between that early well scene in Batman Begins and Bane. The villain’s distinctive mask has been compared to the bared teeth of an angry dog, or like two sets of talons, perhaps. But Bane’s mask also bares a striking resemblance to the spiked aperture from which the hundreds of bats emerge to menace Bruce Wayne in the first movie.
Bane, therefore, is a physical embodiment of everything Batman and Bruce dread the most – a villain capable of breaking them both physically and mentally.
Although Bane almost succeeds in doing both of these things, the words of Thomas Wayne are quite apt when talking about Nolan’s handling of Bane: “All creatures feel fear. Especially the scary ones.” When, towards the end of the film, we see Bane without his mask during a flashback, we can also spot a flash of terror in his eyes. In that moment, we realise that even this monster of a man is capable of fear.
Almost from the very beginning, Christopher Nolan has played with the theme of identity in his Batman films. Aside from the exploration of Bruce Wayne and his developing alter ego, Batman Begins constantly toyed with audience expectations. Liam Neeson at first introduces himself as Ducard, a character familiar to many comics readers as a detective who trained a young Bruce Wayne in Paris.
We later learn that Ducard is in fact Ra’s al Ghul. The character we were earlier led to believe was Ra’s (played by Ken Watanabe) was in fact a stooge designed to protect his true identity, which is a practice he later employs again when he crashes Bruce Wayne’s birthday party.
The Ra’s al Ghul of the comics is, of course, rather different from the one imagined by Nolan. His realistic vision of the Batman universe had no room for Ra’s’ life-restoring Lazarus Pit, for example, though the director has great fun playing with the character’s ability to resurrect himself in the comics. Ra’s makes a brief return appearance in The Dark Knight Rises, making us briefly wonder whether this enigmatic character is indeed immortal, even in Nolan’s sober version of Batman. But no: he was merely an apparition, a “cheap parlour trick” to keep the audience on its toes.
Double identities, it turns out, are something of an al Ghul family hobby. In The Dark Knight Rises’ final act twist, the apparently benign environmentalist Marion Cotillard is revealed to be Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia; born in the eastern prison Bruce Wayne ended up in, and protected by Bane, she’s returned to avenge the death of her father and destroy Gotham City by setting off an experimental reactor-turned-bomb. (It’s worth noting, too, that Talia dies in a vehicle with a dangerous device in it – like father, like daughter.)
Batman’s fateful words at the end of the first film – “I won’t kill you. But I won’t have to save you” – have returned from the past. What would have happened if he’d apprehended al Ghul instead of leaving him to die in that monorail crash? Would this have prevented further bloodshed, or would the League of Shadows relentlessly pursued its desire to destroy Gotham regardless? The latter is the most likely scenario, but it’s a further instance of Batman’s actions having unforseen, potentially devastating consequences.
The blue flower
“There is a rare blue flower that grows on the eastern slopes. Pick one of these flowers. If you can carry it to the top of the mountain, you may find what you were looking for.”
In Romanticism, the blue flower is a common symbol, representing love, inspiration and the unobtainable. That motif is slyly inverted in Batman Begins, where the blue flower is used first as a means of accessing the League of Shadows’ lair, and later synthesised by the same organisation to make the deadly hallucinogen mentioned in a previous section. The blue flower thus becomes a negative rather than positive symbol.
The Dark Knight Rises reintroduces numerous ideas and images from Batman Begins. The ice of the League of Shadows’ Himalayan hideout has spread to Gotham, and in an echo of a scene in the first film, the city’s people are cruelly put to death by being forced out onto its frozen rivers.
Beneath all the city-wide devastation and punch-ups, though, The Dark Knight Rises is about growing old, confronting trauma, and moving on. Like the Bruce Wayne of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns books, this film’s protagonist is worn out, and reaching the point where he’s becoming incompatible with the public image he created. But by confronting his fear – embodied by both Bane and the prison he emerged from – Bruce finally sees a way to remove the mask and put the past behind him.
Selina Kyle is another character looking for a new start, and she too goes through an abrupt transformation, from a criminal motivated by self-preservation to redeemed heroine.
The Dark Knight Rises’ concluding scene has already provoked much debate, with some suggesting, including our own Simon Brew and Clothes On Film’s Chris Laverty, that Alfred’s sighting of Bruce, alive and well in a Tuscan cafe with Selina, may have been an Inception-like dream.
While this is a compelling notion, I think there’s another possible interpretation. The blue dress Selina wears is markedly similar in shade to the flower Bruce picked in Batman Begins. Selina’s put her criminal past behind her – signified by the absence of black clothing she wore exclusively throughout the rest of the film. And with both she and Bruce having survived the events of The Dark Knight Rises, it seems that the Romantic symbol of the blue flower has reverted back to its original form – one of hope.
Where the Batman saga goes from here is up to Warner Bros, but it’s fair to say The Dark Knight Rises’ conclusion leaves plenty of options open for future directors. As for Christopher Nolan, much has been made about his use of contemporary themes to bring his interpretation of Batman to life, and The Dark Knight Rises has inspired lengthy (and dare I say it, fruitless) debate about its references to the Occupy movement.
For me, it’s the depiction of a psychologically complex, fallible, flesh-and-blood Bruce Wayne that’s Nolan’s greatest achievement. Nolan dug deep into the comics to bring forth a human, relatable version of the character.
The journey up to the light was long and hard, but Bruce Wayne has finally found what he was looking for all along – happiness and peace.
For now, the Dark Knight rests.
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