Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises (and other Christopher Nolan films).
Christopher Nolan is the first director to make more than two Batman films. In the past, a second Batman film has provided a space for filmmakers to explore their excesses. In the case of Batman Returns, Tim Burton was able to further develop a vision of Gotham as an elaborate fairy tale. Batman & Robin was Joel Schumacher’s venue for exploring Batman as full-blown camp. For Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight manifested a mammoth vision of the summer superhero blockbuster by way of Jules Dassin and Michael Mann, where the Gotham setting gave way to an intricate, sprawling matrix of a metropolis that contains an eternal struggle between order, chaos, and every gray gradation in between.
Until Nolan released The Dark Knight Rises, however, a Batman story reaching a third and final act was without precedent in the hero’s manifestations within the moving image. Not only has no previous director articulated a vision of the Caped Crusader in three parts, but no film, serial, or television show has attempted to bring a definitive end to their particular version of the superhero’s arc. The Batman of the moving image is one that largely exists in perpetuity. That Nolan has attempted a completist, closed vision of the Batman universe is relatively anomalous.
Despite The Dark Knight Rises’s virtues and shortcomings (and the film has both of these in spades), perhaps the major reason for the film’s comparably cool reception and occasionally graceless execution is that the Batman of the moving image is not a character for whom closure seems possible, attended by the fact that only a few components of The Dark Knight Rises are consistent with the more accomplished work in Nolan’s filmography.
After viewing a variety of different formats of Batman-related media the past few weeks, it’s become abundantly clear that no vision of Batman reigns supreme over others in the character’s moving-image representation. While Nolan has manifested the definitive Batman for our era, rooted in the realism of Frank Miller’s Year One, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t just as rich a legacy of Batman encountering the supernatural and the uncanny. Burton’s fairy tale Gotham (despite a total lack of reverence for its source material) is equally with precedent as Schumacher’s Adam West-channeling films or Nolan’s dead-serious approach.
But Nolan’s attempt at a closed story arc did bring about compelling new considerations for how such a character could persist, and for how long. For instance, the battered and broken Bruce Wayne of The Dark Knight Rises (who, based on the timeline set by Batman Begins, is somewhere in his late-30s or early-40s) highlights the fact that Batman’s career could last only as long as that of a professional athlete before the toll on the body becomes too great. A realist approach to Batman entails certain limitations that other iterations of his character need not be concerned with, like retirement, age, and even death.
But one aspect that has connected many iterations of the Batman legend is his presumed existence through perpetuity. The Batman of episodic serials and television shows persists from routine-conflict-to-routine-conflict, and the Batman of films has engaged in bouts with dangerous baddies while maintaining a sense of continued crime fighting “in-between” films. Not so in the world of Christopher Nolan, where Batman’s total career ultimately spans about two years total.
From Batman Begins onward, characters like Ra’s Al-Ghul (Liam Neeson) have discussed the power of Batman as a symbol that exceeds beyond the flesh-and-bone person who dons the mask. Thus, it’s set up from the get-go that Bruce Wayne’s eventual death does not necessarily entail Batman’s. It’s somewhat appropriate that the immortal power of Batman as a symbol is rendered literal with a statue. But the potency of Batman’s symbolism had been in the character’s implicit adaptability to varying circumstances, not some sort of static, eternal essence. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises, depending upon interpretation, undermines what came before by suggesting that John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in a move largely exclusive to Nolan’s batverse, succeeds not to put another body in the same suit and perpetuate the Dark Knight legend, but to signal the rise of a new hero, Robin, in his place.
But even if Blake is intended to be the next Batman, an attempt at closure in Batman’s story simply feels out of place. I’m certainly not saying Nolan shouldn’t have made a third film, but The Dark Knight trilogy is largely unique (especially in the moving image) in its attempt to bring definite closure to Bruce Wayne/Batman’s arc. And in order to do so, Nolan attempts to answer and bring to a close his series’ many questions regarding the nature of fear, the power of vengeance, the reciprocal relationship between order and chaos, and how one constructs an identity. By the end, Bruce Wayne conquers his long-term fears, establishes himself as unquestionably heroic rather than ambiguously so, and – in the film’s biggest stretch – kills Batman in order to bring back Bruce Wayne, somebody Wayne had already implicitly killed, in a glimpsed-at retirement.
Nolan’s ambitions here are certainly worthy ones. However, not only does Batman himself typically exist in perpetuity in the character’s other iterations, but the recurring themes and unanswerable questions which thread the story fuel this perpetuity infinitely. The very point is that Batman gets no rest, and knows no closure to bring either to an end, even if not definitively so, is inherently disappointing given the nature of the character; not because Batman is a hero, but because of the fascinating anti-heroic components that fully dimensionalize his character.