THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: The Rules Aren’t Weapons Anymore, They’re Shackles

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Directed by Christopher Nolan – Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, William Devane, Brett Cullen, Thomas Lennon, and Liam Neeson.

If you’re new to the Anxiety and only stopping by because a search engine brought you here, welcome. Be aware that SPOILERS follow. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. Read ahead at your own risk.

The Dark Knight … Quits?

Over the course of Christopher Nolan’s outstanding DARK KNIGHT trilogy, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been obsessed with turning Batman into a symbol, into something that has meaning beyond a guy in a black suit who goes out into the night to punch people. He’s wanted Batman to inspire those who are good to make Gotham better by becoming active and those who who are bad to make Gotham better by becoming inactive. In between the ending of DARK KNIGHT and the start of RISES, we saw that this worked, though not the way Bruce would have foreseen. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) conspire to bury the evidence that Harvey Dent went all Two-Face in order to lay the blame at Batman’s feet. In the wake of Batman becoming Public Enemy No. 1, sweeping crime legislation was passed the the organized crime element of Gotham has been largely erased.

Meaning that Gotham has become, as close as is possible for a major city, a safe place to live.

Then Bane (Tom Hardy) shows up, causes all sorts of trouble (we’ll get to it), Batman comes back to active duty after eight years off because a gorgeous woman steals his mom’s pearls and a young cop shows up at his doorstep and calls him a (meow) quitter (meow), said gorgeous woman betrays him, Bane breaks his back, Bruce gets dumped overseas, Bruce rises, big final battle in which Bats appears to blow himself up in order to save the city and …

He retires to Italy with gorgeous woman, starting a new life under a new identity, and nods to Alfred in an outdoor cafe.

What’s heroic about that ending? Bruce Wayne, who wants to inspire Gotham to become something better, decides to run away with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) because, screw it, his body is wearing down, he’s broke, and if they need anything, it’s not like Selina just can’t steal it for them.

I’m sure Bruce has a great life in Italy painting houses for the rest of his life or something, but it’s a completely dumb ending because the message it sends is that being a hero is not unlike being a professional athlete – you give the best athletic years of your life to your profession, and then when it wears down, you fade away into the sunset.

What bothers me about the ending isn’t that Bruce can’t physically play dress up anymore. When we first see Bruce around Wayne Manor (he hosts public events but will not attend them, preferring to stay hidden inside his big house), he’s limping around on a cane and looking the worse for wear. I completely thought he was faking, and that at some point he’d toss the cane aside and stop pretending to be Bruce and reclaim the Bat mantle. When he tells Alfred (Michael Caine) to schedule a medical appointment for him at whatever hospital the injured Jim Gordon is in, I just thought it was a convenient way for him to get close. Not so. The doctor (Thomas Lennon) lays out all sorts of injuries: the absence of cartilage in his knees, serious brain trauma, and on and on, revealing that Bruce isn’t playing injured, but really has given much of his body over to his bat-related pursuits. That Nolan has gone this way is to his credit; superhero films typically focus on the emotional injuries while any physical injuries are largely cosmetic, but here Nolan pulls back the curtain to show us that all of those shots of bruises and scratches and puncture wounds he’s show us over the course of the trilogy aren’t just to show off Bale’s physique – there’s a real, debilitating consequence to them that adds up over time.

Of course, when it’s time to fight, Bruce doesn’t walk around complaining about his sore back, doesn’t limp around like a pro wrestler selling a injured knee, and doesn’t forget people’s names or how to use things that one might expect from someone who’s suffered that much brain trauma, but it does allow us to see these fight scenes as something other than cinematic ballet. The fight scenes in RISES are brutal. Nolan doesn’t offer up any visual BAM! and POW! but they’re in the movie with every punch and kick thrown.

So Bruce is really injured. Good. He probably can’t continue to be Batman. Cool. But the idea that Bruce runs away to live a life beyond Batman is kinda bogus. There’s no heroism to running away with Selina Kyle and turning your back on a city that needs to be nearly completely rebuilt. Batman saves the day and inspires the city to, at the very least, rise up to meet Bane’s challenge, but then his job is done? Gotham is about to face it’s single biggest challenge in rebuilding itself and Bruce wants to run away?

Bruce is certainly entitled to getting some rest and relaxation after everything he’s been through, but I find it incredibly disappointing that he fails to embrace the words Alfred spoke earlier in the film. The two men have some harsh words when Bruce decides to become Batman again, which results in Alfred quitting. Alfred’s point, however, was that Bruce didn’t need to become Batman to inspire the city. He’s sitting on all this incredible forensic technology that would benefit the police, but he refuses to give it to them because they’re not ready for it and might misuse it. He’s sitting on a new form of fusion energy reactor, but he refuses to let it out to the public because … wait for it … they’re not ready for it and someone might turn it into a weapon. Alfred tells Bruce that he can apply himself to the city in other ways and do just as much good, but Bruce is locked on the idea of being a symbol.

At the end of the film, after Bruce has faked his death, and all of his assets are being sold off to pay for debts, and Wayne Manor has been turned over to the city to be a new home for orphaned children, and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been given the Batcave, and Alfred has been given whatever was left, and someone has fixed the Bat signal, Bruce and Selina have relocated to Italy, leaving behind that demolished city. I’m glad that he’s happy but he’s missed Alfred’s fundamental point – that he can help his city in ways other than being Batman. One of the plot points in the film has Bruce lose nearly entire fortune due to a board member’s illegal trading on Bruce’s account (his plan was to bankrupt Bruce and buy Wayne Enterprises on the cheap), but Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) says it’s possibly to eventually prove it and recover the funds, but Bruce can’t be bothered to do this. He just wants out, and I get it, but he’s not doing what’s best for his city. At the end, he’s doing what’s best for him.

Was that really the point of all this?

Even if he couldn’t get all of that money back, he’s still got his brain, which is as valuable as the money or equipment or symbolism, and it would allow him to have a life beyond Batman and inside his city. Bruce had such a man-crush on Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in DARK KNIGHT that it would make sense for him to follow in Harvey’s footsteps and become the “White Knight” of Gotham, being a philanthropist instead of a lawyer, but giving his money, his time, and his brain to improving the city.

Instead, he tosses them a few gifts and leaves it up to Blake to become Gotham’s new vigilante.

That final argument between Alfred and Bruce rings a bit false, or repetitive, or just silly because what does it prove? That Alfred really will leave? Well, he does, and at first I was really disappointed by it. I wondered when Alfred would re-establish himself in the narrative, but he doesn’t until the epilogue. Nolan has assembled an exceptional cast of actors for his DARK KNIGHT films, but Caine has been at the top of that chart and it’s a curious decision to bench your best player halfway through the film, let alone that it didn’t make much narrative sense for Alfred to bail when times were toughest.

As the film rolled on, however, it becomes clear why Nolan jettisoned Alfred – there was nothing for him to do. Bane ends up cutting Gotham off from the rest of the world and setting up a chaos-filled, down-with-rich modern day revolution, and there’s really nothing Alfred could be doing. I mean, sure, he could hang out in the Batcave and, you know, do all those things he does when Bruce is around. Or he could, you know, be out helping people. Or maybe even fighting, since we know from the last film he was in the military, but that view of Alfred doesn’t fit into Nolan’s world because even though Gotham is going through this massive crisis, no one really does anything they weren’t normally doing. Gordon and Blake are still cops gathering intel and trying to solve the mystery of where the bomb is being kept, Lucius is still the quiet man in charge of the board members holed up and working on science solutions, and Bruce is off building himself back up. There seems to be nothing for Alfred to do in Nolan’s damaged Gotham; he has become a relic and unable to contribute to the narrative.

I made passing mention in my DARK KNIGHT review that Nolan is something of an illusionist and that’s in evidence here to a much greater degree. If you go to a movie for a tight, sensible narrative, you might not enjoy RISES all that much. Nolan’s general storytelling technique is to sketch out a Big Idea but then focus on the arcs of the individual characters talking about that Big Idea. That’s what he’s interested in … characters and ideas, not waterproof narrative coherency. What’s amazing is that he’s such an incredible talent and creates such interesting stories that a good number of people (myself included) are happy to sit in a theater and absorb the show, making a choice to ignore any of the red flags that pop up.

In RISES, for instance, Bane turns Gotham into revolutionary France rather easily. Why? Because the story needs him to do this in order to create a big, fitting end to the trilogy. It doesn’t really make sense that Gotham would so easily turn against each other at the urging of a muscle-bound terrorist with a mask, but here they are, going rabid as soon as Bane tells them to take back their city. Bane is in possession of a retirement speech that Gordon had written where he comes clean about Harvey/Two-Face and exonerating Batman, and he reads the letter and everyone instantly believes him. If anyone questions the veracity of the letters, we don’t see it.

The admission letter itself, is problematic. After all this time, Gordon is going to out his and Batman’s cover-up? Why? Guilt? Go to church. Wisely, Gordon never actually delivers the note, which suggests that writing it down serves as a form of confessional for him, but he must have entertained the idea to deliver the letter because he brought it with him. Maybe this is Gordon’s guilt shining through, or maybe he’s punishing himself for his wife leaving with their children (apparently unable to see him propping up the man who was going to kill his son), or maybe he’s tired of seeing Batman’s name dragged through the mud. Whatever the case, the decision to write the letter now does signal that Gordon misses the old days a bit. He has to realize that revealing all of this information will effectively serve as a jailbreak, letting out countless criminals who were prosecuted by Dent, but there he goes, jotting it down on paper. What’s worse, is that this letter also serves as Gordon’s retirement announcement, as if everyone’s going to go, “Sure thing, Jim, have a nice rest of your life,” instead of arresting him and tossing him in jail for all the crimes he and Batman committed.

Because let’s be clear – Batman is, by the letter of the law – a criminal. He’s not guilty of all the Dent crimes he took “credit” for, but he’s guilty of all sorts of crimes. I’m not sure I buy Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley’s (Matthew Modine) decision to go after Batman instead of Bane, but Foley is a political animal looking to make the collar Gordon never could.

Then there’s Bane’s weakness – his mask. When Bruce has been dumped into the prison where Bane was raised, there’s still prisoners there who remember him and tell Bruce his story. All that’s fine, but then they tell Bruce that Bane is in constant pain that’s only kept in check … by his mask. Meaning that the key to Bruce having a chance to take him down is to … punch him in the face.

I know Cinematic Bats doesn’t have the experience that Comic Book Bats has, but if I was fighting a big, scary dude with a mask on his face, I think I might, I don’t know, hit it, at some point, if only to shut up his modulated voice. I certainly wouldn’t need some dude half a world away to tell me that this was the key to defeating Bane.

The prisoners’ relationship to Bruce is rather inconsistent. They know Bane has dumped him there, and one of them has even been assigned to watch over him, in order that he can watch TV to get updates from Gotham. (I’m not even going to get into how Bruce can get Gotham Cable News in a hole in the ground on the other side of the planet and everyone is totally okay with this.) The only way to get out of this prison is to climb up through the hole that just so happens to look like the well he fell through when he was a kid. They cheer Bruce when he makes the attempt (cheering “Rise” in their native language) but while the medical man tells Bruce about Bane’s weakness, he also lets Bruce believe that Bane was the one and only person to ever climb out of the prison, when in fact it was Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard).

And why does Bane allow all of Gotham’s cops to remain underground? Because he wants them to suffer? Or because the story needs them to stick around so Gordon has some ground troops to deploy against Bane’s troops in the final battle.

Illusionists (like the League of Shadows, the group formerly led by Ra’s al Ghul and now led by Bane) use misdirection, and Nolan does this, too, because while this clunky, contrived narrative is going on, Nolan does such a great job of creating heightened interpersonal drama that I’m largely willing to forgive faults in the story if they’re needed to hit the emotional notes.

Nolan gets another round of brilliant performances from his cast. Tom Hardy is really terrific as Bane, though after an entire movie of being super bad-ass, he’s dismissed by the Cat with one blast from the Bat-cycle. She gives Bats a funny line about how she’s not totally committed to his “no guns” policy (and don’t think Batman’s earlier declaration of that policy didn’t ring extra loud in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings), but it does open up questions the narrative doesn’t want to answer. When Bane reads Gordon’s letter on the TV, Gordon is at Blake’s apartment, and Blake comes down hard on Gordon for having dirty hands. Gordon insists that sometimes you reach a point that’s so far gone that “the rules aren’t weapons anymore … they’re shackles,” and that you need to work outside the law. He and Bats were willing to do this with Harvey Dent for the good of the city, but now Bruce won’t cross that line to take out a gun and pop Bane in the head? Why? Because the physical line is further than the philosophical line? He’s willing to put Gotham through all this pain instead of doing what Selina eventually has to do to defeat Bane?

I’m not a huge Anne Hathaway fan but she’s really good here, too, as is the usual standout performances from Bale, Caine, Freeman, and Oldman. With Selina, Bruce finally has a match. I didn’t think Hathaway had it in her to stand up to Bale’s intensity, but her performance displays a Selina Kyle that’s able to shape situations instead of dominating them. Gordon-Levitt and Modine are also good.

The best line in the movie is when Batman is about to take off with the bomb and sacrifice himself. Gordon admits that he never really cared who was underneath the mask, but since this is the end. Bats doesn’t tell him outright, but does tell him that a hero can be anyone, even someone who puts a coat around a young boy’s shoulders and tells him it’s going to be alright, which is how they first met on the night of the murder of Bruce’s parents.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a fitting end to Nolan’s trilogy, and Nolan proves himself the first director, and Batman proves itself the first superhero franchise, that delivers three excellent movies. There’s no drop-off in quality here, at all, though from much of the critical reaction (both professional and personal), it does seem that tastes have changed a bit since THE DARK KNIGHT hit theaters four years ago. 2012 has been an excellent year for superheroes, though, as the three biggest cinematic franchises currently in operation (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man, and Batman) all released outstanding films this summer. Not only that, but Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, and RISES are all very different movies, with Avengers offering the rousing thrill-ride, Amazing spinning a teen-angst web, and RISES asking the big questions.

The end of RISES infers that Blake will continue on the Bats tradition, but I can’t believe we’ll ever see that future. I don’t envy the director who gets control of Batman next, but what young filmmaker wouldn’t want that challenge? With Man of Steel hitting theaters next summer, and Marvel running full engines ahead with their slate of projects, I imagine we’ll see the Batman reboot in theaters no later than 2017, and probably closer to 2015. Christopher Nolan and his team have done superheroes proud, creating a self-contained universe that took from some of the best comic book story lines in Batman’s history.

As a fan of Batman, then, and even with all my minor quibbles, there’s only one thing I can really say to Nolan for creating these three films.

Thank you.

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8 thoughts on “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: The Rules Aren’t Weapons Anymore, They’re Shackles

  1. http://anbat.toonzone.net/essays/be.html

    Thought you might find that interesting. I found those essays years ago while doing further reading after watching the original animated series and Batman Beyond. The animated stuff really defined the character for me.

    No, I didn’t like Nolan’s trilogy on the whole. This is his Batman… and I don’t think he gets the core of the character very well, as evidenced by the fact that Batman essentially gave up on life for 8 years just because he couldn’t wear a cape any more.

    It’s strange. I like a lot of things in Nolan’s batmovies…. but at times there is so much WTF in Nolan’s depiction that I find myself reaching for the aspirin. I’m just glad its over, and that it ended with more dignity than the nineties Batman movies.

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  2. Whilst I understand your quibble, as you put it, with Bruce retiring as Batman and whether that’s truly heroism, I do think that sells his contribution short. Pre-TDKR, Batman was there to prevent Gotham’s destruction at the hands of the League of Shadows, and then, a clownish lunatic who sets up the DA to seal Gotham’s emotinal downfall.

    Bats comes out of an 8 year retirement to counter a threat to Gotham as significant as those faced in the previous films. He’s not the man he was, either physically or mentally, but he overcomes the odds to finally defeat the League of Shadows for good and rehabilitates the legacy of the Bat whilst seemingly committing the ultimate sacrifice.

    Had Nolan cut out what Alfred ACTUALLY saw at the end and disregarded the auto-pilot end scene with Fox, then there’d be more ambiguity that merely hinted at Wayne still being alive and raised the qualms that you did. Bruce’s final retirement is all but confirmed, but is the fact that he’s no longer making himself available for future heroism a bad thing?

    He’s now over the hill, he’s ensured the end of a mad cult and with the odd exception (Joker) no individual proffers the same kind of threat to Gotham. His absence guarantees the future of Wayne Enterprises, provides for a permanent residence for orphaned children within Gotham and financially rewards Alfred Pennyworth for his 30 years of putting up with Wayne’s misery, which has clearly weighed heavily on Alfred throughout.

    Having spent 8 years degenerating in readiness for his next call out at the beginning of the film, is he so selfish for acting on Alfred’s advice and not returning to Gotham? Should the climax of TDKR be considered his typical Friday and that he needs to get back in the game for the weekend? Is he a bad chap for fully letting Blake in on his secret and essentially giving him the cause to take up the mantle should he wish?

    ….that was longer than I thought it would be! But I’d rather not skimp on detail when offering up counter-points. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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    • Great thoughts, Ian. Thanks for sharing them. My problem with what Bruce decides to do at the end isn’t that he’s retiring from the punching and kicking but that he’s retiring from offering any further assistance. One of his strongest aspects is his mind (though Nolan wasn’t that interested in the detective part of his persona), and there’s no reason why he can’t continue to be a positive force in the city on an ongoing basis.

      Let me address your questions one at a time:

      “Bruce’s final retirement is all but confirmed, but is the fact that he’s no longer making himself available for future heroism a bad thing?”

      Physical heroism? No. Mental heroism? Yes. He’s still smart, can assist Gordon with all his fancy batcave equipment, can still directly train “Robin,” could serve as a mentor to the orphans, etc.

      “His absence guarantees the future of Wayne Enterprises,”

      Actually, it doesn’t. They’re selling off every Wayne Enterprise asset to pay off their debt. If he had stayed he could have recovered the money he lost in the stock loss that Bane engineered.

      “provides for a permanent residence for orphaned children within Gotham and financially rewards Alfred Pennyworth for his 30 years of putting up with Wayne’s misery, which has clearly weighed heavily on Alfred throughout.”

      Both of these are good things, no doubt.

      “Having spent 8 years degenerating in readiness for his next call out at the beginning of the film, is he so selfish for acting on Alfred’s advice and not returning to Gotham?”

      Yes.

      “Should the climax of TDKR be considered his typical Friday and that he needs to get back in the game for the weekend?”

      No, I think it should be what it was – a Bruce Wayne that’s so physically damaged from all he’s done that he can’t put on the suit anymore. But he should have stayed in Gotham and been part of the rebuilding process. He should have gotten his company back and put people back to work. In short, he should have let Batman die, and let Bruce Wayne live. He should have let Blake take up the mantle of Dark Knight and he should have assumed the mantle of the White Knight.

      “Is he a bad chap for fully letting Blake in on his secret and essentially giving him the cause to take up the mantle should he wish?”

      Well, to be fair, Blake had the Batman thing figured out on his own. Bruce just gave him the keys to the kingdom. It’s certainly good he turned that over to someone, and since Blake is a cop he’s had a decent amount of training already, but Bruce would have been incredibly valuable as a mentor, or an Oracle, at least.

      In fairness to Nolan, he apparently wanted to kill Bruce but DC/WB wouldn’t let him.

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