The Dark Knight Rises is very nearly the thunderous finale that Christopher Nolan’s unprecedented superhero trilogy needed after the pitch-black nihilism that Heath Ledger’s Joker brought to The Dark Knight. Bleak and apocalyptic, the third and final chapter is nevertheless more hopeful than the second, without the same sense of oppressive sadism. Better still, the film provides welcome moral clarity on the moral ambiguities of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises brings Batman’s personal story to a satisfying finale, albeit much telescoped by the trilogy format.
The completed trilogy is a work of towering ambition and immense achievement. The whole story arc is as much about the fate of Bruce Wayne’s soul as the fate of Gotham City — and both are very much in question. Nolan orchestrates his symphony of spectacle, action, doom, hope, destruction and resistance with verve and boldness, making for an overwhelming, enthralling climax.
Yet something crucial is missing — a major omission that lingers over the whole trilogy, a question raised ever more insistently in all three films, and at best left unanswered, if not answered negatively. That question is: Is Gotham City worth saving? Are its citizens fundamentally selfish and ruthless, or is there good in them? Offered a choice between darkness and light, which will they choose?
In Batman Begins, when Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows judged that Gotham was irredeemably corrupt and could only be destroyed, Batman (Christian Bale) pressed for more time. In The Dark Knight, the Joker set out to prove that when the chips are down, ordinary people will eat each other — an experiment that ended on a merciful but inconclusive grace note.
Bane (Warrior’s Tom Hardy), a pumped-up juggernaut in a respirator face mask, recapitulates both Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker. Like Ra’s, he comes to destroy Gotham for its sins, and like the Joker he wants Batman to witness the people of Gotham destroying everything their hero fought to save.
In this battle, whether or not Gotham is ultimately destroyed or saved is not entirely the issue. The issue is who is right: Batman or Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker and Bane? Will the people of Gotham eat each other, or will they finally vindicate Batman’s hopes for them? To the extent that The Dark Knight Rises addresses this question, the answer isn’t encouraging.
When the movie opens, it seems Gotham has been saved — though Bruce Wayne is again “truly lost,” as he was at the start of Batman Begins. Eight years after the death of Harvey Dent and the disappearance of Batman, Bruce is a recluse in his rebuilt ancestral home, diminished emotionally and physically after hanging up the cape and cowl. Yet Gotham City is peaceful and prosperous. But has its peace been purchased through deception and injustice? Have the wealthy prospered at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged?
A slinky catburglar named Selina Kyle, never quite called Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, and yes, she pulls it off), rouses Bruce from his lethargy. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” she warns him, a harbinger of Occupy Wall Street social unrest. “When it hits, you're all going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Bruce, of course, has been Gotham’s leading philanthropist, though it seems the Wayne Foundation’s charitable programs have languished lately.
Bane puts Gotham to its most extreme trial yet: a city-wide exercise in Lord of the Flies sociology, enforced by an army backed with powerful hardware. Bane presents himself as a sort of radical liberator and urges the citizens of Gotham to take back their city, or something, though he’s obviously a terrorist and openly threatens to destroy the city.
If there is good in Gotham, now’s the time for it. With the police sidelined, convicts running loose and Bane’s army making the rules, we expect chaos and lawlessness. Fine. But is that all there is? The title tells us that the Dark Knight rises, but what about his city? Can Gotham rise to the occasion, rise up against its oppressor? Are ordinary Gothamites capable of heroism? Or are uniformed heroes (bearing bat symbols or police shields) with weapons on their belts our only hope?
The shadow of 9/11 has always lain over this franchise. The finale needed a United 93 moment: civilians banding together to spit in the eye of terror and say, “Hell no. Not this time.” At least it needed to show ordinary Gothamites heroically rising to the occasion in other ways — caring for and protecting one another, sheltering strangers from the hordes; that sort of thing. (We do see a good priest in street clothes who runs a boys’ home and does his best to care for his charges. But this isn’t a Good Samaritan moment; he’s only living up to his existing responsibilities. Offscreen, some of the boys spread a message of warning to others — on the instructions of a cop.)
The film seems to hint at a possible counterrevolution as a likable everyman hero named John Blake (Inception’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) furtively chalks bat symbols on street corners — possibly a sign of resistance and hope. (Batman never became the inspiring symbol he hoped to be, due to the strategic lie that Harvey Dent died a hero at Batman’s hands. Bane, though, sets the record straight. When your heroes lie to you, sometimes you need villains to tell you the truth.) Did I mention that Blake is a cop? A rookie, but still.
In the end, alas, the only active civilians (other than those in Batman’s own circle, such as Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox) are Bane’s hordes. To be fair, perhaps most or all of Bane’s hordes aren’t ordinary Gothamites. Perhaps they’re only the fanatical disciples he brought with him and the convicts liberated from prison (though even convicts were capable of heroism and faith in the last film, a theme not repeated here). Perhaps the ordinary citizens of Gotham simply keep their heads down and weather the storm. Nolan doesn’t show us even that. In the end, as my friend Jeff Overstreet put it, Nolan insists that “we have to hope for men with good hearts and big guns.” Not to mention good hearts and big wallets.
Ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises is a story of uniformed heroes, above all Batman and John Blake, the film’s best supporting character. On that level, it’s engrossing, bravura storytelling. No big-screen superhero more clearly has feet of clay than Bale’s Dark Knight. In all three movies, he miscalculates, at times makes things worse instead of better, and fails in the clinch. His butler Alfred (Michael Caine) has always worried over him, but as Bruce’s debilitating tendencies lurch from the paralyzing to the self-destructive, Alfred’s anxiety and grief become truly poignant.
Harvey Dent’s fatalistic line from The Dark Knight — “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” — hangs over this finale. Dent himself lived just a little too long and became a villain, though in the eyes of the public he died a hero. The Batman, too, went more than a few steps down the road of villainy, brutally beating criminals for information (and notably failing) and selling the people of Gotham a lie meant to bolster their spirits.
“Why do we fall, Bruce?” Thomas Wayne asked his son so long ago. In this film he falls again and again and again — though the title is The Dark Knight Rises for a reason.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Much intense action violence, including fatalities and crippling injuries; a non-marital bedroom scene (nothing explicit); some language. Might be too much for younger teens.