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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The symbol Bruce chooses, of course, is Batman, a masked vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. Bruce’s reasons for crafting this particular persona are highly internal; through Batman, he aims to empower himself by symbolically mastering his own fear.
Yet in a broader context, Batman is a social symbol as well, a distillation of everything a broken culture built on apathy and depravity has wrought. A pure, unstoppable force of rage, passion, and power, Batman is the darkness of Gotham personified for the goal of doing good. It may seem paradoxical, but Batman is born out of anger, the fury of a world gone wrong, a wrath that can no longer be quelled. Every moment in Gotham’s troubled history led to Bruce’s transformation; a breaking point would inevitably be reached, and Batman embodies a great explosion of pent-up frustration.
The might of this fury fuels Batman’s literal and symbolic power. As Batman, Bruce tears through Gotham’s underworld thanks not only to his physical training and intelligence, but also to his deep-seated rage over Gotham’s decline. Likewise, the people of Gotham slowly but surely latch onto Batman as a symbol of hope because he embodies the frustration each of them feels. If Batman came from the heavens, an angelic Knight in shining armor, he would inspire little out of these people, for they would have nothing to relate to in such a figure. But Batman rises from the world in which they live, a dim and dangerous world where darkness prevails, and through intensely palpable emotions, he turns that world on its head. As a Dark Knight, a symbolic warrior, he can inspire hope, and through hope, he can dissipate the pervasive veil of apathy.
This is the symbolic nature of Batman, and thus far, each of Nolan’s films is built around testing the strength of that symbol. Batman Begins is at heart an introduction to the idea of symbols as agents of change. The film pits Bruce and his alter ego against Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows; both entities have seemingly similar goals – the ever-elusive ‘justice’ – but their differing methods are predicated on highly contradictory worldviews.
The League of Shadows concludes that there is no way to address Gotham’s issues but to destroy the city and let society start over; if the problems present themselves again, the cycle will be repeated. What they call a ‘solution,’ of course, is anything but, for it makes no attempt to confront the deeper issues at play. Destroying Gotham will only perpetuate a longstanding cycle of crippling hopelessness and fear, troubles the society that eventually follows will never be able to overcome.
Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, argues that with the proper symbol, Gotham can be inspired to better itself, and that meaningful, lasting change can be affected. Bruce proves Batman is powerful enough to stop the League’s plot, but this is not definitive evidence of his symbol’s strength. At the end of the film, Gotham is still in shambles, and if things have gotten any better, it’s only a starting point.
But the status quo presented at the start of The Dark Knight seems to vindicate Bruce’s theory; Gotham is a cleaner place, the legal system has much more of an impact, and crime is far less rampant. It is not a perfect city by any stretch of the imagination, but things have gotten better, and it’s not just Batman’s doing. Others have rallied behind the same cause; Lieutenant Gordon, Mayor Garcia, and D.A. Harvey Dent are each emboldened by Batman’s presence. For the time being, Bruce’s theory about the power of symbols seems to be coming true.
The Joker’s arrival and subsequent reign of terror, however, disrupts the natural progression. In Nolan and the late Heath Ledger’s interpretation, the Joker is a nameless, maniacal force of nature with no past; he comes out of nowhere, born from the same madness that spawned Batman and evolved far past the point of moral boundaries. At the end of Batman Begins, Gordon speaks of escalation, the theory that one force’s actions will inevitably prompt the opposing force to become deadlier. The Joker is the end result of escalation; for all the good Batman has achieved, the creation of the Joker is also his doing, for extreme measures in a chaotic world will only be met with actions of greater intensity.
The brilliance behind the Joker is that, for all his talk of anarchy and chaos, he is acutely aware of the role he plays. He too is a symbol, just like Batman, and like his foe, he’s gone to great lengths to embody that symbol. He’s cut his mouth, painted his face, dyed his hair, and let go of all worldly bonds. He has gone further with his identity than Batman ever could, freed himself of all rules, boundaries, or limits that could get in his way.
The Joker does this to prove a point. He wants to demonstrate that symbols can be destroyed, and his target is Batman. He knows the effect Batman has had on the city, and through an unbridled terror spree, he aims to prove that even ethereal symbols have their limits.
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What’s so deeply frightening about the Joker – and, by extension, The Dark Knight – is that he comes awfully close to achieving his goal. The Joker’s daily murders shake Gotham’s faith in Batman, and even make Bruce question the power of his alter ego. Bruce tells himself Batman can have no limits, but faced with an unfathomable threat, he nearly succumbs to hanging up the cowl and turning himself in.
It’s Harvey Dent who steps in to protect Batman’s identity and, in turn, restore Gotham and Bruce’s faith in the Dark Knight. Harvey is the film’s representation of what individuals can do at their very best; like Batman, he enacts meaningful change, but he does so without the mask. He doesn’t need to become a symbol to inspire Gotham, and for that, Bruce idolizes him as much as he idolizes Batman.
But the Joker is intent on turning Harvey into a symbol, “pulling him down to our level” and rendering him, in the Joker’s worldview, corruptible. Again, what makes the Joker’s machinations so unsettling is that if even one action went differently, he would be proven right; as Two-Face, Harvey does horrible things, crimes that would shake Gotham’s faith in its white Knight and, by extension, the city itself.
It’s Bruce’s next major philosophical breakthrough that saves the day; with Harvey dead, Batman realizes his own adaptability. As a symbol, he is not only powerful, but malleable. Just as he was there for Gotham as a beacon of hope, a ray of light in the darkest of times, he can be a repository for anger and sadness. The grief the city would surely feel over Harvey’s crimes can be transmitted to Batman; he can take on those emotions, just as he has under different circumstances for the past year, and keep the city’s hope alive in doing so. As a symbol, Batman will change, but his effect will not; he will keep Gotham going, because he’s more than just a man, or a hero, or any other simplistic label we assign to icons.
Or, as Gordon says: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
Though it has changed, the symbol survives. Bruce’s thesis, presented two films earlier, continues to hold true.
This takes us to The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan has said he was hesitant about returning for a third installment, because he was unsure of where the story could go next. His caution makes sense. If the series is an examination of Batman’s symbolic power, how many more avenues of exploration are available? If the symbol could survive even the Joker’s assault, what is there left to prove? Is there any greater hurdle to overcome?
To my mind, there’s only one: death.
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Based on the conclusions I’ve drawn from the first two films, Bruce Wayne must die in The Dark Knight Rises, or the film will feel like a cop-out, one that fails to act on the central themes of this dense, complex three-part story.
Notice that I say Bruce must die, not Batman, for the ultimate way to prove that Batman is “incorruptible” and “everlasting” would be for the Dark Knight to endure after Bruce Wayne has perished. With the mighty Bane as antagonist, it would not be difficult for Nolan to kill Bruce in a satisfying manner. Having seen nothing but the trailers, the danger seems more extreme and enveloping than it ever has before, and even if Nolan’s films weren’t about the ethereal power of symbols, I still wouldn’t be surprised if Bruce fell in combat.
But Nolan’s films are, very clearly, an examination of how symbols are bigger than individuals, and as such, I find it hard to fathom an ending where Bruce Wayne lives. Nolan has been very clear that The Dark Knight Rises is the end of the story, and if the series began with the thesis that symbols can endure where individuals can’t, then the conclusion must provide evidence of this fact. And there can be no greater evidence than Bruce Wayne’s demise.
I say this with the expectation that if Bruce dies, Batman will somehow live on. There are many ways to achieve this, each as likely as the next: The Gotham City Police Department could recreate the Bat-searchlight as a sign of respect; the people of Gotham could hold a candlelight vigil for their fallen protector and rise up as one to create a brighter future; or, for a distinctly less sappy prediction, another character could don the cowl and take over the role of Batman, proving that the Dark Knight is bigger than any one individual. This, to me, seems like the most likely and fulfilling route, the one that would definitively prove Bruce’s point from Batman Begins. My personal prediction is that the series ends with a dying Bruce passing his alter ego on to the next generation via Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, a young, idealistic cop new to the franchise. It would be symbolic in more ways than one, and would bring Nolan’s story full circle in dramatic fashion.
One of the most prescient bits of dialogue in Nolan’s series comes early in Batman Begins. After falling down the well, Bruce’s father comforts him with a simple, profound motto: “Why do we fall?” he asks. “So we can learn to pick ourselves up again.” Later in the film, when Wayne Manor is burning down and Bruce has lost all hope, Alfred repeats these words. “Why do we fall, sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.”
If the series is to come full circle, I believe these words will form the basis of The Dark Knight Rises. If Bruce Wayne falls in battle as I expect him to, it will not be without purpose. It will be, in the spirit of what his father and Alfred told him, to prove that Batman can always pick himself up again, through another individual or the spirit of Gotham itself. If Bruce can teach the city he fights for the simple truth his father related all those years ago, Bruce’s character arc will finally be complete, his goal attained and his life fulfilled. Batman will live on without him, and only then can it truly be said that Gotham is saved.
Nolan’s films are remarkable for the stark, uncompromising way they examine the most immediate of real world issues. While it is unlikely we will ever find a masked vigilante like Batman making headlines, these films speak to our society’s need for symbols bigger than ourselves, for an incorruptible force to shake us out of apathy and set us on a path for a better tomorrow. It is astonishing that Nolan has created such a three-dimensional allegory in the world of Hollywood blockbusters, and whether my predictions come true or not, I am eager to see how The Dark Knight Rises wraps up one of the greatest cinematic stories of my lifetime.
Just as Batman is a symbol for the people of Gotham, Nolan’s films are the ideal for what big-budget filmmaking can achieve in an industry dominated by commercial garbage. Christopher Nolan and his team have provided us a ray of light in the darkest of times, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
If you enjoyed this article, read Jonathan Lack’s extensive four-part analysis of The Dark Knight Rises itself, “Imagine The Fire,” a continuation of the themes discussed here.Previous