Editor’s Note:***SPOILER ALERT*** We’ve had Nick write a commentary which is intended for those who have seen the film. Fair warning!
Over at Christianity Today, Nick’s commentary on Christopher Nolan’s filmography, “Deception’s Darkness,” may be of interest as a complementary piece to his take on The Dark Knight Rises.
Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises does not begin by dumping the viewer in the middle of a villain-reveal. Instead, Rises opens with Commissioner Jim Gordon addressing a crowd in celebration of “Harvey Dent Day.” Gotham has enjoyed eight years of peace following Dent’s death. Yet Gordon’s conscience is uneasy with guilt stemming from his decision to cover-up Dent’s fall at the hands of the Joker. The man on the verge of murdering Gordon’s family is propped up as Gotham’s White Knight; they still “believe in Harvey Dent.” But the good commissioner isn’t feeling so noble about his lie. In fact, he’s on the verge of revealing the truth, but he still feels Gotham cannot handle it.
When we last saw the Dark Knight, he was in a bleak situation. The Joker couldn’t get Batman to reveal himself, but he did force enough of a quandary that the bat-signal is memorably destroyed, and Gothamites have put their hope in a false civic hero. I still cringe when I hear Gordon’s voice-over at the end of the film: “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes the people deserve more.” And then he concludes with what seems like a false dichotomy: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Seemingly, the Joker was proven right: The best we can do in the face of evil is lie. Is deception the nature of darkness or the name of the “game?” Can Batman succeed at leveraging darkness to pursue the light?
Rises is compelling for me because it feels like a culminating answer to the question which haunts Nolan’s work: is the truth good enough? It would have been par for the course to end on a tragic note—to continue his serious tone and his commitment to illusion as comfort. But Alfred delivers what feels like an essential line—one that, for Nolan, felt brave: “Maybe it’s time we stop trying to outsmart the truth, and let it have its day.” Though much of the film delivers Nolan’s characteristic noir, the prevailing tone is the light at the top of a dark well—rest from paranoia’s fear.
Yet the Dark Knight’s rise is not without pain. We first see this in Alfred, who is deeply concerned for his friend. Taking blame for Dent’s actions necessitated Batman’s “retirement,” and Bruce Wayne has fallen into depressive paralysis ever since. This initial melancholy reveals something important: Bruce Wayne doesn’t know what to do with himself as Bruce Wayne. In fact when Bane forces Wayne to suit up again, Alfred is concerned that Wayne has more of a suicidal (or at least careless about dying) rush to fight than a heroic concern for justice.
Believing Wayne’s perpetual place in Gotham represents his marriage with tragedy, Alfred pleads with him to consider pursuing a life beyond the cowl. He knows Rachel Dawes’ death is partly responsible for Wayne’s emotionally crippled state, so he confesses to burning Rachel’s letter, and describes its contents. Initially, Alfred’s truth-telling has significant consequences; their friendship is strained and Wayne dismisses his trusted ally from service. Can Wayne move beyond his role as Batman to have a life beyond the burdens of his tragic existence? And if so, can he do it without abandoning the people of Gotham?
Part of what makes the tonal transition in Rises effective is the introduction of two new characters: John Blake and Selina Kyle. Blake functions as a ray of light, an effective cross between Batman and Gordon’s best traits; he is angry for justice and frustrated by the legal system, yet he is earnest, persistent, and never quite cynical. As an orphan, Blake has a special connection with Wayne—even to the point of recognizing that Wayne is Batman. And unlike others in Gotham law enforcement, Blake recognizes Batman’s essential character; he knows Gotham needs the Dark Knight. When Bane exposes the lie about Harvey Dent and Gordon defends himself, it is the rookie who calls out the grizzled veteran, letting him know his hands are dirty.
Meanwhile, Selina Kyle functions as an important reference point for the film’s political undertones. She struggles to decide which uprising she believes in. A Robin Hood-style thief, she initially revels in Bane’s coming storm, providing voice to an underclass trampled by greed. There’s something credible about the accusation when she chides Wayne’s billionaire kin for “living so large and leaving so little for the rest of us.” Yet on the other hand she is repulsed by the brutality of the Bane regime, and unwillingly attracted to the nobility and sacrifice inherent to Batman’s creed. Her evolution suggests that the up-close view of the great and powerful may also be the truest.
What’s compelling about Batman’s encounter with Bane is that it’s a tale of two rises. Bane makes the contrast clear when he tells Wayne he has not merely “adopted darkness,” but he was “born in it—shaped by it.” The implied contrast, recalled from Batman Begins, is that Batman’s compassion—his adopting darkness in a way that is subservient to his pursuit of justice’s light—is his weakness and his downfall. What also works about Wayne’s rise from Bane’s hell-hole is that it recalls his childhood rise from the dark well. It’s an image that effectively captures the nature of Batman’s plight. His faithful fight to protect and serve Gotham has been dark from the beginning—rooted in tragedy, waged outside the bounds of the legal system, and taking a disintegrative toll on him personally. Yet, the light of day is what fuel’s the Dark Knight’s righteous pursuit of justice. He persistently believes people are worth saving. Thus, Wayne’s triumphant rise out of Bane’s underground hell has a pivotal significance. And upon his return, there are some interesting changes.
In one climactic scene, a resistance clan of freed cops, once-cowardly cops, and a few citizens band together to take on Bane’s army (I agree here with Steven Greydanus: the scene could have been bolstered by depictions of Gotham’s citizens being virtuous during Batman’s absence). The resistance looks somber until Batman makes a triumphant appearance, galvanizing the people to give a battle cry full of hope and righteous anger. Two aspects of the battle scene are noteworthy as they relate to Batman’s rise from Bane’s hell. First, Batman is fighting in broad daylight, for all to see; and, second, he’s fighting with the people and not merely for the people. It seems Batman’s rise has inspired Gotham’s virtue in a new, significant way.
Part of what fuels the Dark Knight is his deep desire to protect the helpless. And so another way he inspires in the film’s third act is his effect on Selina Kyle and John Blake. Though aware of her thievery and betrayal of trust, Batman still believes Kyle is capable of “better” than what her behavior indicates. Ultimately, she is faced with a decision between the uprising she initially welcomed from Bane and the one that Batman has wrought. Beneath Bane’s supposed freeing of the people is a callous, enslaving darkness. But beneath Batman’s billionaire-funded, fear-inducing gadgetry and theatrics lies enlightened protection of the weak.
If Selina Kyle’s arc reflects Batman’s vanquishing of Bane’s darkness, then Blake acts as the inheritor of a tradition passed down from Gordon and Wayne. His character suggests the lasting and effective nature of Batman’s legacy. From the beginning, Batman has inspired the people, and it’s an inspiration that Blake will uniquely ensure is protected. What becomes of Wayne Manor—and what is evidenced in John Blake during the film—coalesces into a satisfying conclusion for a Gotham without Wayne.
The beginning of the film centered on upholding the noble lie: Harvey Dent Day. But in the end, the central figure of praise is a statue of the Dark Knight. Though the film’s politics and celebratory conclusion are complicated by Batman’s tendency to work outside the law, the truth of his underlying virtue nonetheless has its day in Gotham.
But what of Bruce Wayne? Given a final café scene in the film, some have questioned Batman’s heroic removal of a nuclear bomb as less of a sacrifice and more of an escape—one that may trivialize the memorial nature of the final scenes. But based on Alfred’s desperate pleas with Wayne early in the film, it’s notable that if Batman had sacrificed himself it would have been an escape in the form of a death-wish—an especially dark shade of tragedy. No, the Dark Knight’s “escape” was really Bruce Wayne’s rise to a new life. If Alfred is to be believed, Wayne’s triumphant protection of—and escape from—Gotham is his reaching the light at the top of the well. Perhaps his rest is one from fear. And, in some sense, Wayne’s rise may justify the rise of a new Dark Knight. Making war against evil by shining light on the darkness and pursuing justice righteously, the knight whose task is to take faithful charge is true.