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.
In order to help everybody in the production key into his decidedly anti-Schumacherian vision of Gotham, Nolan reportedly screened Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for the cast and crew in preparation for Batman Begins. In visiting the finished product, the intended connection seems clear. Nolan wanted to create a Gotham similar to the Dystopic vision of Los Angeles in Scott’s film, a character on its own that fits within a fantastic genre on the surface, but is also an imaginative vision rooted within real-life signifiers that cumulatively build a sense of a real, lived space. Just as Scott’s Los Angeles is simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable, so Nolan’s Gotham is the prototypical American mega-city.
In preparation for The Dark Knight, Nolan engaged in a similar pre-production activity by screening Michael Mann’s Heat for cast and crew. The intent here seems clear as well, for the mutual need depicted between Batman and The Joker (Heath Ledger) is notably similar to Pacino and De Niro’s cop/robber doppelgangers in Mann’s film, and turning every street corner of Gotham into a site of organized, chaotic criminal acts is notably similar to Mann’s use of Los Angeles as a criminal stage.
Thus, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are continuous, mostly interdependent components of a larger narrative, they each possess their own unique look and feel as separate films. Wally Pfister’s lensing of Gotham in Begins portrays the city as grungy and brown, while The Dark Knight’s Gotham is a sleek, cold blue. The Dark Knight Rises continues this vein in certain respects. Like Nolan’s previous two Batman films, the Gotham of The Dark Knight Rises appears strangely discontinuous (here the skyline of Pittsburgh replaces the streets of Chicago) and Pfister depicts the city with tones of grey.
However, in terms of constructing the film around an existing cinematic archetype, The Dark Knight Rises’ only frames of reference are the previous two Batman films Nolan made, and the mammoth effort certainly feels like an attempt to contain and redeploy what was appealing about each of those prior efforts: Like Batman Begins, here Bruce Wayne must envision himself becoming Batman, facing the neurotic fears governing his psyche until he can rise to save Gotham from destruction by the League of Shadows. Like The Dark Knight, here we’re given an eccentric, iconic villain who acts as Batman’s worthy match and manipulates Gotham’s populace to his own craven ends.
Instead of continuing his Dark Knight legend with something new, as Nolan accomplished brilliantly (albeit far from perfectly) in his prior two Batman films, Nolan here attempts to combine iterations of the old, which comes across as overstuffed and even contradictory. E.g., Does Bane (Tom Hardy) really need populist rage to manifest Talia Al-Ghul’s (Marion Cotillard) destructive plan? I’m not talking about plot holes, but rather questioning the practical compatibility of the film’s two central villains in opposition to well-defined and appropriately undefined past antagonists like Ra’s and The Joker.
The Dark Knight Rises is still leagues better than most of Hollywood’s tentpole superhero output, but Nolan’s engaging vision isn’t realized gracefully; not only because it lacks the fresh vision of the previous entries, but because the existential themes of fear, vengeance, duty, and rendering one’s body a symbol that have plagued Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne throughout go unrealized or are given too easy of answers.
Outside of his Batman films, Christopher Nolan’s work has displayed a strong interest in bridging dual competing worlds – one wearing the signpost of reality, the other fantasy. In Memento and Insomnia, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) and Will Dormer (Al Pacino) each create an intricate fantasy around themselves in order to cope with the harsh truths of circumstances that render indefinite previously assumed moral distinctions. In Memento, Shelby picks the fantasy over the reality, and in Insomnia, “truth” does not enter the equation until the protagonist’s dying breath. Similarly, Following is a film about subtly messing with the reality of others’ lives, The Prestige is about the manufacturing of illusions and science’s ability to render the impossible possible, and Inception famously ends with a protagonist (again in search of redemption) who may or may not have chosen to finish his life in a dream induced by a coma.
Nolan’s Batman films are distinct in this regard. Instead of following protagonists through various machinations of fantasy, Nolan takes the fantastic, even absurd (though thematically rich) scenario at the core of Batman mythology and renders it as concrete as cinematically possible, imbuing even the most routine of superhero tropes with movie-logic plausibility and explanation. Yes, one could argue that Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is consistent with Leonard Shelby, Alfred Borden (Bale) in The Prestige, or Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Inception because all these characters to varying degrees use existing reality to create a world of their own; but Batman is the only one of these characters who makes efforts to bring justice to real life on a mass, rather than simply personalized, scale.
Thus, Nolan’s attempt at revealing “the prestige” at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, as he does similarly in the third act of his non-Batman films (that Batman faked his death to live with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) in Italy), here feels out of place to close a series whose major distinguishing attribute from other superhero films has been its extensive attempts at constructing a plausible narrative universe.
Or maybe it is consistent. Both Bruce Wayne and the film want to make Batman the martyr, the paragon of self-sacrifice, and at the same time give him the happy ending that a character this complex, broken, and compromised doesn’t deserve. It’s like a lighter and less morally entangled version of The Dark Knight’s final minutes which finds Batman choosing propaganda over honesty, once again stepping up to the plate for martyrdom. But The Dark Knight’s ending was consistent on top of two and a half hours of giant questions regarding whether or not Batman is Gotham’s problem or its solution; The Dark Knight Rises wants to give Bruce Wayne a self-sacrifice, a happy ending, and render any question of his heroism unassailable all at the same time, thus bringing to an abrupt close any of the lingering questions that made this series, and imbued Nolan’s other protagonists with fascinating flaws unsolved by their closing minutes, so compelling.
At 165 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is too much too quickly, with more doors prematurely sealed shut than in any other Nolan film. Perhaps this disappointment can be largely blamed on the film’s mammoth anticipation. The Dark Knight, by a combination of circumstances of its own making and outside its control, bore the burden of being a superhero film that demanded a seriousness that placed it in a world of its own. I can’t help feeling that the concluding chapter of Nolan’s Batman may have benefited had the first big-budget sequel by the former director of inventive indies like Following and Memento not been one of the defining cultural events of the early 21st century.