DON’T GO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS!
Taking a franchise that many felt had peaked in 1989, Christopher Nolan’s root and branch reimagining of Batman not only revitalized his standing as a pop culture icon, but did so by boldly grappling with some of the contradictions at the core of DC Comics most popular character.
That boldness reaches its natural conclusion in the black, brooding and often brilliant The Dark Knight Rises, a more than fitting last hurrah for this rightly lauded incarnation of the caped crusader. Successfully building upon the solid foundation established in Nolan’s previous two Bat-films, Rises takes many of the ideas and themes set-up in Batman Begins and fuses them with the style, intensity and scale of its 2008 follow-up, The Dark Knight.
Chief among these returning elements is the spectre of Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Shadows, which seems wholly appropriate for this Batman’s final chapter. While hewing closely to material established in the comic books the one major change that Nolan and co-writer David Goyer made to Batman’s origin in Begins was the co-opting of Ra’s as Bruce Wayne’s mentor.
In this continuity it was Ra’s who gave Wayne the idea to adopt a dual identity based around theatricality and deception, while also famously telling his star pupil that with devotion to an ideal he could transform himself into a legend. Unsurprisingly, it’s the playing out of this second idea that essentially forms the backbone of The Dark Knight Rises.
Set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, we find Gotham becalmed and in a state of relative prosperity. Organised crime has been routed thanks to the draconian laws contained within the Harvey Dent Act, while Gotham’s now legendary former DA has become the city’s officially sanctioned hero.
With Batman taking the rap for Dent’s murder and pained by the death of his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne has not only hung up his cape and cowl, but also withdrawn from public life.
Spending his days holed up in Wayne Manor like a modern day Miss Haversham, Wayne’s disconnect from the world is not only proving harmful to his health and reputation, but also for his company. Thanks to Wayne’s insistence, a costly and wasteful investment in a failed clean energy reactor has left Wayne Enterprises on the brink of a hostile takeover.
However, Bruce’s connection to the world is partly re-established when his mother’s pearls – a potent symbol of Batman’s birth – are stolen by sassy cat-burglar Selina Kyle. Bruce clearly enjoys sparring with Kyle and before long he’s back in the Batcave, researching Kyle’s background and attempting to track her down to recover the stolen jewellery.
But while Bruce concerns himself with Kyle, Gotham is coming under threat from a new visitor. An ex-communicated member of Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Shadows, the mercenary known as Bane has to come to Gotham, seemingly at the behest of disgruntled Wayne Enterprises board member John Daggett.
Based in the city’s sewers and slowly building up an army of Gotham’s dispossessed, Bane is planning something big. Young beat cop John Blake recognizes things are not as they seem, but it’s not until Commissioner Gordon is injured by Bane that Blake decides to pay Wayne a visit at his manor house.
A fellow orphan and one-time resident of a Wayne sponsored children’s home, Blake’s worked out Wayne’s dual identity as the Batman and confronts the older man about it. He urges Bruce to get back in the game and come to the aid of Gordon to try and stop Bane.
But as Batman begins to re-emerge and Bane makes his move, Bruce is also confronted with problems at Wayne Enterprises and it’s here that the films fourth new character is introduced.
A successful businesswoman in her own right, Miranda Tate is an urbane professional who’s more than a little reminiscent of Rachel Dawes. When Wayne is forced to cede control of the company he pushes for Tate to become CEO as she pledges to protect Wayne’s clean energy reactor that resides beneath the city.
Using Kyle to get close to Bane, Batman engages the former protégé of Ra’s Al Ghul in battle and is utterly defeated. Taken from Gotham to The Pit, a prison at the bottom of a giant well in India, Bruce is left broken and forced to watch as Bane begins his plan to destroy Gotham.
Cutting Gotham off from the mainland, Bane dragoons Wayne’s fusion reactor and turns it into a makeshift nuclear device. Threatening to detonate the device if anyone leaves or enters Gotham Island, Bane begins a campaign of terror throughout the city.
First freeing the criminals imprisoned under the Harvey Dent Act, he sets up kangaroo courts and stages public executions, all with the express purpose of fulfilling Ra’s Al Ghul’s original plan to help shame and destroy the corrupt Gotham once and for all.
But while Bane tears Gotham apart, Batman languishes in the seemingly inescapable Pit. Allegedly it’s the place where Bane was born and raised. However it’s also rumoured to have been home to the child of Ra’s Al Ghul, the only person ever to escape from its oppressive walls.
Looking like an expressionistic version of the well that Bruce fell into as a child, the broken Batman has to rebuild himself inside the prison and finally climb out of the darkness that’s seemingly imprisoned him his whole life and move towards the light.
Despite the media’s obsession with linking The Dark Knight Rises to the debate surrounding Occupy Wall Street, I’d argue that attempting to imply that the film is a direct parallel to contemporary events is pretty much a waste of time.
Certainly there are resonances in the wider culture that Nolan is using as points of reference, but generally Rises is far more concerned with matters of its own internal mythology and consistency than how it fits into the ideological debates of the day.
An intense and relentless experience, Rises is a story much more in tune with ‘classical’ literature than anything else, with its approach to storytelling hewing closer to Joseph Campbell and Charles Dickens than anything ripped from the current headlines. As a result, Rises is a film as much about legacy, myth and recursive symbols as it is about wealth, class and revolution.
From the images of snow and ice, which permeated Bruce’s early journey in Begins and return here at the Dark Knight’s end, through to Bane’s aerial kidnap sequence which mirrors Batman’s Hong Kong rendition in TDK, the film is stuffed to the gills with echoes and reflections of the previous two movies.
This echoing is also apparent in the way new characters Selina Kyle and John Blake are introduced to Wayne. Bearing in mind that both characters end up essentially apprenticed to the Dark Knight, it’s clearly no coincidence that during their first encounters with Bruce that his look is reminiscent of Ra’s Al Ghul.
And this doesn’t stop at Blake and Kyle. Miranda Tate’s introduction to Wayne at a high society function is also reminiscent of his confrontation with Ra’s in Wayne Manor during the final act of Begins, while Tate’s relationship with Bane has echoes of Bruce’s relationships with Rachel, Gordon and even Alfred.
However, despite all of the various links to the past, it’s Ra’s talk of legends and Bruce’s subsequent conversation with Alfred about that same subject in Begins which serves as the driving force of The Dark Knight Rises.
In that scene, Bruce tells Alfred that he plans to become both an incorruptible symbol and a dramatic example to shake the citizens of Gotham out of their apathy and inspire them to take back their city.
Clearly at this point, Wayne’s plan was intended as a short-term project and in TDK Wayne is completely convinced (not incorrectly as it transpires) that the time to continue as Batman is coming to an end thanks to the emergence of Harvey Dent.
But with Batman out of the way and Dent now discredited, it’s actually Bane who picks up that mantle and runs with it, inspiring the worst aspects within Gotham society as he oversees show trials, executes prisoners and generally revels in his manipulative, florid and symbolic revolutionary rhetoric.
It’s only after Batman sheds the weight of his accumulated guilt and shame, as well as the baggage of being Bruce Wayne, that he’s finally able to rise up and depose Bane to become the symbol that Gotham needs him to be.
In leading the similarly symbolic and ‘costumed’ Gotham police force against Bane and his revolutionary gang, Batman not only saves Gotham one last time, but in the process becomes a true symbol of justice and moral courage who is firmly embedded within the civic culture of Gotham City.
After this day he’s no longer the ambiguous figure that Commissioner Gordon had to deny he ever worked with, nor is he a scapegoat for Harvey Dent’s appalling crimes. He’s now, literally, a symbol that will serves as an inspiration for the city’s population as long as it exists. But with the Dark Knight ascending, there’s no need for Bruce Wayne to fill that role anymore. Freed of shouldering the legend of Batman and the legacy of his family’s name, Bruce is free to rise above it all, leave Gotham and finally join the human race.
Now for people who love the open-ended pulp-opera of super-hero comic books this ending is probably anathema, but from day one serving up cosy comfort food hasn’t been on Nolan’s agenda. Instead he’s been chronicling a clearly defined modern hero’s journey and telling it with a level of sophistication, insight and rigour that popular cinema has seldom seen.
Bruce Wayne may have been devoted to an ideal, but in much the same way so has Christopher Nolan. Sticking to his storytelling principles and being utterly faithful to the characters and world he established in Batman Begins, Nolan exits the franchise rightly garlanded as a legend in his own right.
Most superhero franchises stumble as the reach their final acts, uncertain of where they should go and with nothing interesting to say about their core characters. Thanks to Nolan and his collaborators Batman never comes close to suffering that fate.
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