Note: In this article, I speculate on how The Dark Knight Rises will conclude the Batman story. I do so not having seen the film, nor having any knowledge about its content beyond what the officially released trailers have provided. There are absolutely no spoilers here, and if my predictions turn out to be correct, this is purely coincidental. Thank you, and enjoy:
Whether or not The Dark Knight Rises lives up to all possible expectations when it arrives next week, Christopher Nolan’s three-part saga will go down in history as one of the most celebrated and influential cinematic efforts in the history of the medium. On a technical level, the changes Nolan and company have wrought upon the modern filmmaking landscape are incalculable, from bold tonal choices and risks, to massive innovations in cinematography, to music so audacious and iconic that it has given birth to entirely new styles of film composition.
But Nolan’s work with Batman will be primarily remembered in the annals of film history for the trilogy’s vast sociopolitical themes and the clarity with which these concepts are realized. Where previous comic-book films tended to address the trials of individuals and singular emotions, Nolan tackles macrocosmic musings on the nature of crime, the failings and limits of law enforcement, and the citizen’s role to affect change in damaged communities.
Nolan’s exploration of such themes is grounded in the notion that a widespread irresponsibility to the importance of public issues has led to a steady crumbling of modern society. That Gotham resembles recognizable American cities more and more with each passing film is no coincidence; the films are set in our world, and in Nolan’s view, our world is falling out beneath us. Criminals run the streets, officers look the other way, politicians act in their own self-interest, and though ordinary citizens pay the price time and time again, even they are not without blame. A profound apathy has settled over Gotham; so long as individuals avert their eyes and allow an increasingly flawed system to perpetuate itself, the destruction will continue unchecked.
This is the world Bruce Wayne is born into, and the murder of his parents prevents him from ever keeping his eyes closed to the truth of his culture’s status quo. Thomas and Martha Wayne were good, intelligent people, perceptive of Gotham’s trouble and active in attempts to forge a better future. Yet in Nolan’s brutal vision of Gotham City, the efforts of two people, no matter their influence, will never be enough to enact change; the Wayne’s are murdered by a petty criminal, a member of the same hopeless, disenfranchised class they tried so hard to save.
The dark irony of his parents’ murder is never lost on Bruce Wayne; throughout his life, he carries the knowledge that individuals can be destroyed, and the best of efforts may ultimately be for naught. In Batman Begins, Bruce internalizes this as simple nihilism until experiences abroad make him think otherwise. Training with and confronting Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows leads Bruce to a philosophical breakthrough, one that forever changes his life and the fate of Gotham. It also happens to be the thesis behind everything Nolan has to say in these films:
Though the lives of individuals – be they criminals, heroes, or ordinary citizens – are temporary, the effects they leave behind fleeting and forgotten, symbols and the ideas they represent are eternally powerful. Symbols cannot be destroyed, corrupted, or diluted, and as such, they can inspire change in ways individuals cannot.
Or, as Bruce puts it to Alfred on the plane trip back to Gotham: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood; I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”
This is the most important piece of dialogue in the franchise, nothing less than Nolan’s thesis statement. It outlines how we are to view Bruce and Batman in a larger societal context, and establishes the core debate of the franchise: Can the symbol Bruce speaks of save Gotham? Can it truly overcome barriers an individual could never surpass?
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