The Dark Knight Rises is a big movie.
I think that’s one thing we can all agree upon, whether we loved or hated the film, whether we were disappointed or uplifted. The ambition behind Christopher Nolan’s final Batman story is monumental, and from the nearly three-hour runtime to the mammoth IMAX presentation to the sheer scope of the story to the staggering wealth of character, sociopolitical, and philosophical themes on display, The Dark Knight Rises is the first true ‘epic’ Hollywood has produced in at least a decade, dating back to Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Movies, for better or for worse (I tend to think the latter), just aren’t made like this any more.
The film’s incredible weight makes it nearly impossible, to my mind, to ‘review.’ I can boil down my ‘review’ of the movie into one (admittedly complex) sentence: The Dark Knight Rises is a spectacularly satisfying conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, a wickedly smart and audacious story propelled by phenomenal character work, tremendous performances from all involved, and some of the most awe-inspiring visuals of the modern era.
It’s not very insightful, though, is it? Nolan’s trust in his audience is so great at this point that shallow surface analysis simply will not do. To properly explain why or why not one thinks the film succeeds, one must dive deep into what the film says, pick it apart, and have a meaningful discussion on the story, characters, and how it all operates in a larger context. This is what The Dark Knight Rises asks of us, and this is the challenge I now intend to confront.
In this article, I have written four interconnected essays that analyze The Dark Knight Rises on what I consider to be its most significant fronts. You may read them all sequentially, or navigate to individual sections using the linked table of contents below. There is an awful lot of material here for you to immerse yourself in, but given the magnitude of the film, I believe the size is justified. This is by no means a definitive analysis, but I hope you find it to be an invigorating starting point to a truly fascinating discussion. Enjoy.
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Part One: A Storm Is Coming
The Structure of The Dark Knight Rises
I find it highly amusing that, after spending two films working hard to cement his Batman story in a real-world context, Christopher Nolan employs a full-on comic-book structure for The Dark Knight Rises.
The entire story is paced like the world’s darkest comics run, with several ‘issues’ (the first act) establishing each character and how they fit into the new status quo, developing these characters over a series of episodic but highly interrelated incidents (Gordon going down to the sewers, Bruce investigating Selina Kyle, Batman chasing Bane’s men after the heist, etc.) until a massive, show-stopping ‘turning point’ changes the direction of the story (Bane breaks the Bat). Development continues as the villain gradually unleashes his plan, while the hero waits in the wings recuperating, all leading up to one grand, extended climax segmented into multiple phases (Batman frees the cops, Batman takes on Bane, Batman flies to stop the nuclear device, etc.).
One can imagine each phase of the film’s story as an isolated comic issue, and I found that episodic, serialized pace absolutely invigorating. It’s extremely different than what Nolan has done before, but it suits the nature of this particular story. The Dark Knight barreled along with relentless flow and intensity, barely stopping to catch its breath, a chaotic pace reflective of its lunatic, anarchic villain.
But Bane is very, very different than the Joker. He’s not terrorizing Gotham for pleasure, or even to prove a point. He is out to destroy with a clear, concrete plan, and the film’s structure is reflective of this. It’s rigid; it’s segmented; it has steps, laying the groundwork in piecemeal fashion and growing larger and more frantic as it moves along. And in its own way, I think this form of organized chaos is just as terrifying as the Joker’s machinations in the second film.
But a serialized structure isn’t the only element Nolan borrows from the comics this time around. In many ways, he veers closer to popular Batman mythos here than in the other films, bringing back the Batcave, giving the Dark Knight more hi-tech toys to play with, and inhabiting the film’s universe with more ‘larger-than-life’ characters than ever before.
Take Bane. There are, of course, differences between Tom Hardy’s Bane and the character’s typical comics depiction – Bane’s mask staves off pain in the film, where it usually provides him with the powerful Venom serum in the comics – but he’s still a giant, hulking monstrosity with a strange, fearsome device covering his face. It’s a terrifying, heightened image, one born from the amplified world of comics.
Yet it’s Bane’s voice that creates the dramatic contrast. To hear that voice – jovial, proper, dignified, eloquent – coming out of that monstrous image, with an extra, mangled dimension to it…unsettling doesn’t even begin to describe it. What Hardy does with the role – and I’m among those who firmly believe the man deserves an Oscar nomination for his incredibly committed performance – plays off the unique visual and sonic elements of the cinematic medium, but it is, again, rooted in comic-book concepts. Hardy’s Bane is the equivalent of a comic character who is illustrated one way, but has a particular lettering and speech style that suggests something else. This is done to imply a focused auditory element to the reader, but in film, there’s no need to merely ‘suggest.’ You can bring it all to life, voice and image, and this is what Hardy and Nolan have accomplished with the character.
They have also borrowed liberally from Bane’s most iconic comic-book arc, Knightfall, a narrative choice that pleased me to no end. It’s by no means a literal adaptation of that story, but the general structure of Bane and Batman’s conflict is strikingly similar. In their first fight, Bane completely destroys Batman, and Nolan even recreates the legendary panel where Bane “breaks the Bat” (which is as brutal a moment as I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood blockbuster). Bruce’s imprisonment is unique to The Dark Knight Rises, but as in Knightfall, Bruce uses the time he spends healing to study his enemy, learning the function of Bane’s mask and, therefore, his weakness. In the final fight, Batman then defeats Bane by disconnecting the tubes on his mask, throwing Bane into agonizing pain (in Knightfall, this robs Bane of his Venom and his power, but the general concept is still the same).
The biggest difference between this Bane and most popular comic interpretations is his connection to the League of Shadows and Talia al Ghul. It’s a change that makes perfect sense in context of the larger trilogy – Nolan’s story would feel incomplete if the League didn’t return in this final chapter – and by including Talia, Nolan doesn’t stray as far from Batman mythology as it initially seems.
Personally, the reveal of Miranda Tate’s true identity does not come as much of a surprise. Anyone can probably tell there’s more to Miranda than meets to eye, if only because one doesn’t hire someone as spectacularly talented as Marion Cotillard for a bit part. For those even partially versed in Batman lore, though, mentions of Ra’s al Ghul, the League of Shadows, and a mysterious offspring indicate Talia is hidden in plain sight, and it’s a good bet she’s the woman Bruce Wayne is bedding.
I’m extremely satisfied with the film’s take on Talia, even if I feel more could have been done in the first act to establish why Bruce is smitten with this woman. I think some will be troubled that the reveal comes so late in the film, but that’s part of who Talia is. The truth about her identity has to hurt Bruce, and it has to hurt the audience as well. The revelation has to occur in the most crucial of moments, or its impact is lessened; as portrayed here, there’s a real, painful weight to the truth about Talia, one that adds to the already considerable emotional push of the last act. Cotillard’s Talia is a much more morally compromised character than the comic incarnations I’m most familiar with, but like most Batman characters, Talia is a highly malleable creation, and since Nolan nails many of the little details, I’m okay with him altering other specifics to suit the film’s thematic needs.
Those little referential touches – as well as nods here and there to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns – got the fanboy in me pumped, but nothing in this film excited me nearly as much as Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Yes, she is only ever referred to as Selina Kyle in the film’s diegesis, but this is Catwoman through and through, and I felt positively giddy watching this character brought to life so flawlessly.
There is, of course, no singular interpretation of Catwoman in the comics, but the Selina that Nolan and Hathaway have brought to life here is the one I’m most familiar with. Her playful, sensual attitude; her precise, acrobatic fighting style; her frisky back-and-forth banter with Bruce and Batman, and the near telepathic connection they share in battle. Everything I connect with Catwoman is there, and Hathaway is just mesmerizing in the part, embodying the character in mind, body, and soul.
The amount she suggests through unscripted material – glances, movements, inflections, etc. – speaks volumes about the character’s psyche and motivations. We’ll dive deeper into how Selina functions on a thematic level later on, but Hathaway is simply brilliant at illustrating the fundamental truth behind this character: That she’s a frustrated woman in a brutal man’s world, a cunning strategist who manipulates the ‘male gaze’ to get ahead, subverting typical male ideas about feminine sexuality and outward appearance to find a semblance of balance in a grossly imbalanced social hierarchy.
But again, we’ll talk more about Selina later. For now, it’s just important to reiterate how much fun Hathaway is to watch in the part, what amazing chemistry she shares with Christian Bale, and how surprising it is to see Nolan veer this close to the comics.
Bane and Catwoman both, to my mind, exist outside the strictly ‘realistic’ boundaries Nolan set for himself in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I don’t believe those films ever strived for the same level of realism as, say, The Wire, but they did work hard to establish a palpable, relatable context with which to view this world; with larger-than-life characters, a more overtly comic-book structure, and a vastly heightened scale (Gotham becomes a full-fledged war-zone), The Dark Knight Rises is all about blowing that context to hell. The horror Bane rains down upon Gotham is frightening to watch because it happens to a world we view as startlingly close to our own, and therefore, Nolan is able to discuss his themes on a scale that is both shockingly epic and profoundly intimate.
We shall first examine the intimate side of these themes by discussing the completion of Bruce Wayne’s journey, before continuing to take a look at how The Dark Knight Rises operates in a larger sociopolitical context.
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Part Two: More Than Just A Man
Character Closure in The Dark Knight Rises
In my “Why Do We Fall?” piece (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety), I wrote that “ … 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 went on to explain that if Bruce Wayne died and Batman lived on, then Bruce’s mission would be complete. Batman would prove immortal, his effect and powers eternal. And in a certain sense, I was correct. Exploring the symbolic impact of Batman is a major part of The Dark Knight Rises, and several new characters – most notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake – are introduced for the sole purpose of demonstrating the impact Bruce’s actions had on a younger generation.
But I did not accurately predict the scope of Nolan’s thematic intentions. Just as Bruce Wayne does in the film, I saw only one end to the character’s journey, and I think this was Nolan’s intention. At the start of this final chapter, we’ve spent two films situated squarely inside Bruce’s psyche, and since he sees no other ending to his story than dying for his cause, this is the fate we predict for him as well. What Bruce fails to realize is that in giving himself over entirely to what he fights for, he may lose himself in the process.
This is, in hindsight, the only natural place Nolan would take the character for a final installment. His fascination with Batman has always been the deeper psychology behind the character, the mental and emotional anguish that would compel a person to dress up like a bat and abuse their body to the limits of human potential night after night. The Dark Knight Rises poses a question that, in this context, eventually had to be asked: What toll would leading a brutal double life – giving oneself entirely, as Ra’s al Ghul would say, ‘over to an ideal’ – take on the human soul?
The cost, as it realistically would be, is steep. At the outset of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is a broken man. He has put too much stock into Batman to ever lead a normal life again, and after retiring the cowl, he has only the pain and sorrow of past mistakes and personal demons to keep him company. Bruce’s soul is in decay, and with Rachel dead, he sees no clear path back to the light, no connection to humanity.
And if the man who is meant to be a hero, the guardian of an entire city, loses his own sense of humanity, what is he? If his soul has been shattered, the lives of those closest brought down with him (consider how much Jim Gordon has lost at the start of the film), what has he fought for? Bruce created Batman to make people better, to protect and empower the citizens of his beloved Gotham, but can he protect the humanity of others if the deterioration of his own soul is eating him alive? Can he inspire change if apathy and cynicism has settled into his heart? Can he inspire hope if he has none left for himself?
Alfred warned Bruce of this eventuality, over and over again, in the first two films. Though supportive of Bruce’s noble ideas, Alfred spent much of Batman Begins urging his surrogate son not to leave Bruce Wayne behind entirely, to invest in his own spirit as much as he does the spirit of Batman, or of Gotham. But Bruce did not listen, and in The Dark Knight, it is clear Batman has consumed him. The consequences of these actions do not become clear until The Dark Knight Rises, but the foreshadowing is heavy. Alfred compels Bruce to “know his limits,” but Bruce is in too deep to have any, and Rachel finally abandons her childhood sweetheart, knowing that “a time will no longer come when you don’t need Batman.”
Rachel and Alfred are both correct. Bruce has invested too much in Batman to walk away with his spirit intact; he reached his limit, and then pushed forward until he shackled his soul in a dark, lonely prison of his own making.
The true tragedy is that, for the good he has done Gotham, Bruce’s personal corrosion is reflected in the city he loves so much. Organized crime may be gone, but its death knell was predicated on a lie. By taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes, Bruce corrupted Batman, and worse still, failed to heal the wounds the Joker inflicted on the fabric of Gotham. Restoring Harvey’s legacy was only a band-aid; the spirit of Gotham carries much deeper injuries. Eight years later, they are impossible to ignore, just as the reclusive Bruce is unable to deny how far he has fallen.
Thus, the arc of The Dark Knight Rises – the arc of Bruce Wayne’s final journey – is to heal the spiritual deterioration of himself and the city he protects. For only by finding inner solace, healing his soul by reviving his dormant humanity, can the Dark Knight rise high enough to inspire Gotham to salvation.
This is a thematic concept I was blind to when I wrote “Why Do We Fall?”, just as Bruce fails to see spiritual redemption as a course his life could take. Alfred, though, believes Bruce has it within himself to change, and he is the first character in the film to suggest that Bruce would be best served by rising above his inner darkness.
I must digress, for a moment, to praise the staggering emotional impact of Michael Caine’s work in this film. What he and Christopher Nolan have done with Alfred goes so far beyond any previous interpretation of the character, and of every attempt Nolan has made to bring Batman into ‘our’ world, I think Alfred remains the most palpable human touchstone. After seeing what Caine does with the part, it is impossible for me to look at prior versions of Alfred and understand how the man could live with allowing his surrogate son to act so dangerously. Caine makes Alfred’s pain – which has been simmering as deeply and for as long as Bruce’s – immediate, visceral, and heartfelt. He is not just the archetypical voice of reason, nor Nolan’s sounding board for thematic points; he fulfills both these functions, but excels at many more, all while remaining recognizably and profoundly human.
It makes sense that a character so deeply felt would be the one to introduce themes of spiritual healing to The Dark Knight Rises. Alfred isn’t just worried about what Bruce is doing to his body this time around; he’s worried that, in Bruce’s decision to resurrect the Batman, Bruce isn’t confronting the deeper issues at play. Gotham does not need a broken, incomplete hero to save them, and Bruce’s heart will never heal if he dives deeper and deeper into Batman’s dark world without a connection to humanity.
But Bruce will not listen; if he did, The Dark Knight Rises would be an extremely short film. He rejects the hard truths behind Alfred’s words, and Alfred leaves, the only path left open to him if he is to stop enabling Bruce.
Alfred’s departure creates a significant disorientation not just for Bruce, but for the audience. There is a certain engrained, comfortable structure to how Alfred appears throughout Nolan’s movies, and when he is gone, his absence is deeply felt. It’s like there’s a dark, lingering void at the heart of the story, one that is impossible to ignore. Alfred is Bruce’s and the audience’s greatest connection to humanity in this series, but we don’t quite recognize his importance until he is gone.
That is, of course, Alfred’s goal in leaving. If he can’t get Bruce to reexamine his life choices, maybe his absence can. With no one left to turn to, perhaps Bruce will finally look inward.
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But Bruce still has his Batman persona to turn to, and with Alfred gone, he retreats behind the cowl even further than before, embarking on a truly reckless mission to find Bane. Given what Bruce knows about his enemy, and what relatively little time he’s spent training his body for the confrontation, it’s Bruce’s arrogance, as much as Bane’s ruthlessness, that leads to Bane breaking the Bat.
Yet in the film’s darkest bit of irony, it’s Bane’s brutality that, in the long run, leads to Bruce’s salvation. By breaking his body, Bane robs Bruce of Batman, the last escape he could cling to, and in the horrible pit of a jail Bane leaves him in, Bruce has nothing to rely on but himself. Not Batman; not Alfred; not even Gordon. He is truly, utterly alone, with nothing to focus on but his own fractured spirit, symbolized by a broken body. He must strengthen, heal, and come to a deeper understanding of both body and mind if he is to rise from this darkness and return triumphant.
Rise he does, and return he does, stronger, healthier, and most importantly, whole, perhaps for the first time since his parents’ murder. It is in that pit that Bruce synthesizes the many warring aspects of his personality into one strong, unified identity. His struggle is symbolized by the deadly climbing challenge, but this is merely metaphor for the deeper issues at play.
Consider the three different emotions Bruce utilizes on his separate attempts at climbing out of the pit. First is desperation. The anxiety that comes with watching Gotham fall to pieces makes Bruce act with haste. While desperation may be powerful as a momentary inspiration, it can never provide the lasting catharsis Bruce needs to overcome his emotional issues. Thus, he fails, and sheds desperation from his mind by breaking the TV Bane has provided him, coming one step closer to finding the inner calm required to achieve his task.
Next is anger. Bruce channels his rage – towards Bane, towards himself, towards the situation – into his mission, but it is not powerful enough either. Anger holds us down, clouds our vision, and makes us do horrible things. It was anger that nearly destroyed Bruce’s future in Batman Begins, when rage compelled him to consider killing Joe Chill, the thug that murdered his parents. Bruce had to shed his anger then to become better, and he has to shed it now. Anger will not allow him to rise.
No, what propels Bruce out of the cell is fear, the very first theme introduced in Nolan’s trilogy. Bruce once used fear as fuel; it was the very inspiration behind Batman. But over the course of his journey, Bruce lost hold of his greatest fear, and that fear, in turn, took hold of him.
What is that fear? This is one of the great interpretive questions of the trilogy, one where each viewer may draw separate conclusions. I personally believe Bruce’s truest terror is the concept of failure, the possibility that he may be unable to help those he cares for. This fear was born at the moment of his parents’ murder, a situation in which he was helpless. Tracing Bruce’s story, it is clear that so much of his drive comes from a subconscious desire to purge basic human inabilities, to become extraordinary so that tragic failures, like the loss of his parents, will never befall him again. Bats and darkness are merely symbols; what Bruce truly fears is the powerless emotions they embody.
Batman was born out of a need to turn that fear into power, to prove to himself and the people of Gotham that helplessness was not something to give in to, but to rise above. And for a while, Batman did just that, for Bruce and for Gotham. But the events of The Dark Knight were a turning point, as Bruce encountered obstacles even Batman could not overcome. He could not protect innocent lives from the wrath of the Joker; he could not save Harvey Dent, Gotham’s ‘white knight,’ from turning towards darkness; he couldn’t even save Rachel, the person who mattered most to him, from her deadly fate.
These are the experiences that simmered in Bruce’s heart over the eight-year gap leading to The Dark Knight Rises. Living with this guilt, day after day, robbed Bruce of his faith in himself, and in Batman. The fear returned, not as power, but as a crippling, blinding inability to see the light.
It’s only when Bruce realizes this – the role his own fear plays in his life – that he is able to make the climb. A humbled Bruce, stripped of auspices and illusions, once again accepts his fears into his heart, learning this time to live with them not as someone superhuman, but as Bruce Wayne, nothing more than a man.
This is how his soul heals, and this is how he is able to rebuild his identity from the ground-up, first as Bruce Wayne, then as Batman, then as symbol to Gotham. Each identity must be synthesized, powerful collectively rather than individually, for Bruce to rise above the darkness. Rise he does, out of the pit and back to Gotham, where Batman saves the city, rehabilitates his image, and inspires the people out of their apathy.
I now return to my starting point: That to cement Batman’s symbolic power, Bruce Wayne must die. As I said before, I failed to factor the thematic role of redemption into my speculative analysis, and this is why I got the particulars wrong. But death is still part of Nolan’s endgame, and though Bruce ultimately fakes his own demise, the effect I spoke of earlier is still the same.
The people of Gotham see Batman die for them, and those who knew the Dark Knight’s identity mourn for him as Bruce Wayne. But Batman’s actions are not forgotten, and he does indeed become the symbol of hope, unity, and progress Bruce intended him to be. Gotham erects a statue in Batman’s honor, and the Bat-signal is resorted to GCPD headquarters.
But the clearest example of Batman’s legacy is character-based, woven into the very fabric of The Dark Knight Rises through Officer John Blake and the at-risk boys’ home he protects. Blake is an essential character, for he represents what Batman’s actions have meant to a younger generation. As a boy, Blake would have grown up without the healing power of hope were it not for Batman’s presence, and he follows in the Dark Knight’s footsteps in more ways than one over the course of the film. Meanwhile, the boys at the shelter Blake himself comes from also believe in Batman, even though they are barely old enough to remember him. This shows that, even in Batman’s absence, his effect is felt by younger generations, those who will, in due time, come to inherit Gotham.
It is brilliant, then, that Nolan ends his trilogy by allowing Blake, one of these younger people inspired by Batman, to literally ascend as Batman’s successor. It proves that Batman’s legacy will never be forgotten; the torch shall be carried literally by Blake, and figuratively by the people of Gotham who owe their lives to the Dark Knight. Batman has become something bigger than Bruce Wayne, and Gotham will be better for it.
The concept isn’t just given a cursory glance at the end of the film, either. One of The Dark Knight Rises’ greatest strengths, from start to finish, is how well the John Blake character is developed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is beyond fantastic in the role, utterly compelling in every single scene, and Blake only becomes more interesting as his eyes are steadily opened to the same truths that once inspired Bruce Wayne to don the cowl. There’s also something amusing about the character’s inclusion and significance, considering how strongly Nolan once opposed the idea of Robin. Comic fans know that, when done right, Robin is a crucial part of the Batman mythos for these exact reasons, and it’s nice to see Nolan recognize this, even if Blake is more an homage to Robin than an outright adaptation.
In any case, we must end this section of our discussion by examining Bruce’s choice to fake his own death. Having symbolically risen and been accepted by Gotham once more, Bruce could easily continue his role as Batman; there is no immediate need for his departure.
It once again comes down to viewer interpretation, but consider what I wrote above about Bruce’s need to heal himself, first and foremost, before he can tend to the needs of a community. Given the experiences Bruce had over the course of this trilogy, he knows that, if he goes back to being Batman, the pattern will repeat itself. Batman will do well for a while, but things will get tough, and as a man, he will be unable to endure. As Harvey Dent once said, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
In a sense, Bruce and Batman both died as heroes, and they will be remembered as such. Batman’s legacy is safe. The symbol will continue to do good for Gotham, especially in John Blake’s hands. Batman is bigger than Bruce Wayne now, and as such, Bruce has the ability to do what he once promised Rachel: To leave Batman behind and simply live his life.
It is a promise he must keep, not just to her, but to Alfred. As Batman said at the end of The Dark Knight: “People deserve to have their faith rewarded.” And by simply getting on with life – alongside Selina Kyle, another lost soul in need of a fresh start – Bruce fulfills these promises, and maintains three films’ worth of significant character growth. It may be a radical departure from our typical concept of who Batman is, but to my mind, if Bruce didn’t leave Batman behind at the end of the film, a trilogy of development would have been for naught.
And, of course, to move on in the context of Alfred’s dream – to run into Bruce on vacation, happy and content with a family of his own – is as emotionally fulfilling a conclusion as any story could possibly ask for. Alfred is, as I said, the series’ most profound human touchstone. And after a long, arduous journey, Bruce Wayne has finally joined him. He is whole.
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Part Three: Born in Darkness
The Dark Knight Rises in a Sociopolitical Context
Christopher Nolan has always had larger social issues in mind when crafting these films, and in many ways, his Dark Knight saga is just as rooted in broad sociopolitical theory as it is in character-based psychological deconstruction.
In Batman Begins, part of what compels Bruce Wayne to don the cowl is the idea that society itself is broken. As I wrote in “Why Do We Fall?”: “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 a society so fundamentally unsound that, in Bruce’s view, the only way to affect meaningful change is to operate outside existing institutional parameters, hence the creation of Batman.
With that in mind, The Dark Knight Rises takes this essential underlying issue to the next level. If society itself has failed utterly, and cannot be repaired from the inside, is full-blown revolution justified?
The answer, of course, is no, as the film’s voice of revolution is Bane, who is not only unrepentantly evil, but also believes that Gotham is so far gone that not even a restructuring of society will save it; he only gives the people their revolution to torment them, to give the lower class a brief glimmer of hope before the nuclear device wipes them all out.
Nevertheless, the concept of revolution lies at the heart of the film. Bane’s methods are, of course, wicked and misguided on every level, and that may lead some to oversimplify their reading of the material. Bane’s rhetoric – about taking Gotham ‘back’ from the rich, power, and privileged to put it in the hands of ‘the people’ – undoubtedly echoes that of America’s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, and I am positive some conservative commentator will therefore read the film as a stern indictment of what they like to call ‘class warfare.’
They will be wrong. Nolan rejects Bane’s terrorist methods, but he does, at multiple junctures, give credence to the concept of desiring revolution. Bane is only able to manipulate the people of Gotham by preying on their primal urges, and for the masses, that involves the promise of leveling the playing field. It is not an unreasonable desire. As a stand-in for America at large, Gotham is beset by the same crippling economic problems affecting our nation’s middle and lower classes. Namely, issues of growing income inequality and a near total lack of social mobility have become too large to ignore, and while there are those would dismiss their importance, Nolan is not one of them.
Were he, Selina Kyle would not be interpreted as a sympathetic representation of the 99%, and Bruce Wayne would never have to confront the fact that he is exorbitantly wealthy in a time when many are struggling worse than ever before. Bruce is, of course, a good man who uses his wealth for largely selfless goals, while Selina is a burglar with a highly compromised moral compass. Yet both believe they do right by the contexts in which they were raised, and Nolan makes it clear that neither is entirely justified in their actions.
Selina comes from nothing, and presumably grew up in a social environment where having nothing made it harder and harder to live as time went by. Her solution – to steal her way through the world – is not ethically sound, but it is easy to imagine the right combination of desperation and outrage (not just over growing inequality, but increasing government preference towards the privileged) leading a person to see thievery as the only viable path, especially if those being thieved have more than enough to go around.
Selina’s actions are never condoned, but neither are they entirely condemned. Bruce probably could have retrieved his mother’s pearls in their first encounter if he desired, and it would be all too easy to give Selina’s location to the police right away. But even though he frowns upon her methods, Bruce does see legitimacy to the emotions that inspired such tactics. Instead of putting Selina away, Bruce tries redirecting her anger down more positive avenues.
Anger is, after all, key to Batman’s own creation. Fury over a world gone so terribly wrong is part of what compelled Bruce to become a masked vigilante, but to remain heroic, Bruce had to keep that anger in check, making sure it never consumed him. Selina is, in a sense, consumed; she is younger, and rougher around the edges, a raw force of passion capable of great deeds and significant harm. From the very beginning, she displays both a desire to give into baser instincts and ignite revolution, and a willingness to rise above her rage to find more constructive avenues of change. Bruce – and by extension, the film – nudges her down the constructive path, gradually correcting her methods while never rejecting her feelings.
This harmonious middle ground is, I imagine, where Nolan himself falls on modern social issues. The political problems Selina highlights are not to be ignored, nor should they be delegitimized, but reacting in the extreme, as Bane does, will never be the answer. Society is deeply, unequivocally flawed, but detonating modern culture and starting from scratch is not the solution.
Even then, if Nolan didn’t empathize with the outright rage that fuels Bane’s cause, Talia al Ghul would not be part of the story. If Bane continued to be the ultimate arbiter of Gotham’s destruction until the very end, we would lose perspective on the genuine fury behind Bane and the League’s actions. Bane, after all, is the way he is because that’s the role he plays in the world. What else is a man with a dark upbringing, horrible disfigurations, and a drive to destroy going to do?
But Talia is different. Talia is beautiful, smart, and charismatic; she could be anything, anything at all. That she sees destroying Gotham as the only way to do ‘good’ shows just how desperate she’s become, how desperate the world has become. That someone who should be the best of us would try doing something so horrible is deeply, profoundly disturbing. With Bane, or the Joker, or any other major series villain, the evil is expected; that’s the social, archetypical role they play. But Talia doesn’t have to be that, and this is why she’s interesting. More importantly, that’s why her betrayal is so stinging, to Bruce and the audience; her total lack of hope and destructive means to an end signals how far the world has sunk.
But again, giving into overwhelming anger is not the answer. The passion we feel over the world’s problems should be fueled into more positive, constructive outlets. If our broken institutions are to be fixed, meaningful change must be inspired on individual levels; we each have to find within ourselves the power to be better. That’s the point of a symbolic figure like Batman. He exists outside the social structure, but not to revolutionize or reconstruct that structure. As Bruce tells Gordon at the end of the film, the idea behind Batman is that he could be anybody; if someone extraordinary can rise from the ranks of the ordinary, then all shall, theoretically, be inspired to do better, and the system shall perhaps correct itself to help everybody, rather than a select few.
This is the solution The Dark Knight Rises, in its own bombastic way, posits. At the end of the film, Gotham is more broken than ever before, but Batman’s symbolic power has been restored and revitalized, the people have a police force they can believe in again, and both ordinary (John Blake) and extraordinary (Selina Kyle) citizens are starting to do their part to improve the world. Batman has proven that revolution is not the answer, and that there are viable, positive alternatives to craft a functional system.
Nolan’s message isn’t simple. It is not black-and-white, it is not politically partisan, and I wouldn’t even say it’s particularly optimistic. But it is, in its own way, inspiringly hopeful. Nolan suggests that we can stick to what our hearts tell us and rise above our worst instincts at the same time, and that in so doing, we may truly empower and improve the world around us.
Read ‘Part Four: The Fire Rises’ by continuing onto the next page…Previous Next
Part Four: The Fire Rises
Stylistic Innovations in The Dark Knight Rises
I now return to my original point: The Dark Knight Rises is a big movie.
It is such a massive, impressive production that special attention must be given to the stylistic innovations Nolan and company have made, both over the course of the trilogy, and within this third film itself.
The Dark Knight Rises is, as I said before, one of the few true epics Hollywood has produced in the modern era. We may call productions like Transformers, Avatar, or even The Avengers (which I like considerably more than those other films) ‘epic,’ but it is largely a misappropriation of that word, for filling a movie to the brim with colorful CGI, no matter how well done, does not count as ‘epic.’
An epic must have a scope spanning vast narrative, emotional, thematic, and visual canvases; an epic must feature a broad ensemble of complex, multi-dimensional characters; and an epic must innovate, pushing the cinematic medium further than it has gone before. An epic is, simply put, an extraordinary feat most modern moviegoers are unaccustomed to. In my opinion, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the last true epic Hollywood – or any industry, for the matter – has produced.
Until now, at least, for I believe The Dark Knight Rises is a truly epic feat of filmmaking. We have already discussed the emotional, thematic, and character material Nolan tackles, but it’s through the film’s incredible stylistic achievements that Rises cements itself as the first epic of the new decade.
Nolan shot the film using as many practical effects as possible, employing CGI only when there was no other possible way to execute the shot, and unprecedented numbers of extras were employed to give the biggest scenes a proper scale. Most notably, 11,000 extras filled the stands in the Football sequence, which was filmed entirely on location; Bane’s raid of the Gotham Stock Exchange was indeed shot on Wall Street in New York; and countless numbers of stuntmen, actors, and extras filled the streets of Pittsburgh for the climactic battle between Bane’s forces and Gotham’s police, with Christian Bale and Tom Hardy duking it out in the center of the mayhem while Christopher Nolan and DP Wally Pfister captured it all with sophisticated IMAX cameras. And that’s before you factor in the international shooting for the mesmerizing prologue sequence or the gargantuan staging of Batman’s big return to action in the first act.
The scale of this production is just staggering to consider, but reading about it in interviews and behind-the-scenes notes isn’t nearly as mind-blowing as actually watching the film, preferably projected in IMAX 70mm. There has simply never been anything like The Dark Knight Rises released to theatres before, and each of the scenes mentioned above is so powerful and inventive, each in different ways, that watching the film I was reminded, time and time again, of the awe-inspiring power film has to capture the imagination.
In particular, the final battle between Bane’s men and the Gotham PD, with Bane and Batman duking it out amidst the chaos, just blew me away. It’s such a massive set-piece, with every inch of the chaos, devastation, and gritty pain translating flawlessly to the audience, but it’s all captured clearly and coherently, staged to perfection and paced for maximum tension and excitement. With the possible exception of the Helm’s Deep battle in Two Towers, I’ve simply never seen movie action executed on this scale.
And the crazy part is that Nolan doesn’t stop there. Once Bane’s been taken down, Batman engages in an aerial chase across the city, a set-piece even larger and more sprawling than the one proceeding it. Endings simply don’t come any grander than this. It’s quite frankly amazing that Nolan, a director who was clearly awkward around action just seven years ago at the start of this series, has developed to the point where he can flawlessly realize some of the biggest cinematic feats ever attempted.
The key to the finale’s success – the key to much of the film’s visual power, actually – is the use of IMAX photography. One cannot possibly overstate the overwhelming impact IMAX has on this movie; it’s not just about showing the film on a really big screen. It’s about the resolution IMAX 70mm film affords. Nothing – not 35mm, 4K digital, Blu-Ray hi-def, regular 70mm film, etc. – looks as clear, detailed, and resonant as real 15/70 perforation IMAX stock. The image is even sharper and richer than what the human eye can perceive, and when blown up on one of the largest screens in the world, there is literally no other visual experience that can rival it.
Over one-third of The Dark Knight Rises was shot on 15/70 IMAX stock, though to me, it felt like at least half of the movie was presented in full IMAX. To see the spectacular clarity and power of IMAX used in service of such a massive-scale epic, especially in the film’s extended climax, does nothing less than restore the ‘wow’ factor to the art of film itself.
Words are useless in describing what the IMAX portions of Rises look like; the colors are impossibly rich, the contrast perfectly balanced, and the detail absolutely limitless. Buildings, roads, skies, and human faces take on new textures, tones, and shadings. The magnificent construction of the film’s sets – particularly the underground lair where Bane breaks Batman – become a treasure trove of visual detail, to the point where, in many sequences, I wanted nothing more than to freeze-frame and explore every inch of the image. And the gargantuan size allows us to immerse ourselves in the world of the film more completely than in any other format, to the point where several sequences become visually overwhelming.
The power of IMAX photography was no secret heading into The Dark Knight Rises; Nolan and Pfister pioneered the use of IMAX cameras in blockbuster productions with The Dark Knight, and Brad Bird advanced their work a step further in last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
But The Dark Knight Rises is another massive, revolutionary step forward. It’s not just that over seventy minutes of the finished film are presented in IMAX. That certainly helps, but it’s the way they implement the technology that truly impresses. They still can’t shoot lengthily dialogue sequences with IMAX rigs – the cameras are just too loud, and would require too much ADR – but they’ve found ways to employ the format in several smaller, more intimate moments, like Bruce’s exploration of Wayne manor after Alfred leaves; there, the use of IMAX emphasizes the sheer, vast emptiness of the house, and of Bruce’s ensuing disorientation.
When Alfred describes his dream to Bruce – of travelling to a foreign locale, and finding Bruce sitting at an adjacent table with a family – the image shifts between Alfred’s dialogue, captured in 35mm at 2.35:1, and Alfred’s fantasy, captured in IMAX 70mm at 1.44:1. It’s jarring, but intentionally so. Alfred’s dream looks so clear, so bright and glorious and big, but the reality he and Bruce inhabit is dark and narrow, constricting and confusing. Here, the IMAX lensing creates dramatic contrast that is essential to our understanding of the scene.
Even in the big action sequences, Nolan and Pfister’s IMAX framing has come a long way from where it was just four years ago. Consider how they film the underground battle between Bane and Batman, using the vertical height of the frame to accentuate Bane’s staggering physical stature. When Bane breaks Batman’s back, the entire frame is used to recreate the iconic comic panel in its full glory. It’s something that could not be done in the far narrower 2.35:1 aspect ratio, nor is the resolution of 35mm high enough to capture the incredible levels of contrast needed to light that complex set.
I am especially amazed at how IMAX is used during Bane’s takeover of Gotham; the football stadium sequence is incredible in its own right, but it’s the aerial shots of an exploding Gotham that sent massive chills down my spine. It’s another moment where the full height of the frame is used, here to illustrate the size of Gotham. To watch those detonations go off on a full-scale image of a recognizable American city is profoundly, deeply unsettling, and helps underline how seriously this story is meant to be taken.
These are only examples; every time IMAX is employed, it is done with purpose, and the framing and execution of each shot is more assured, enveloping, and immersive than ever before. It would still be ideal, in some moments, if the framing and resolution didn’t have to shift – particularly when Bane and Batman’s final battle transitions to 35mm for the Miranda Tate revelation – but that’s just where the technology is at the moment, and one cannot begrudge Nolan and Pfister for failing to overcome the impossible, especially when so many of their accomplishments would have seemed positively foolhardy just a few months ago.
One cannot survey the technical power of The Dark Knight Rises without mentioning composer Hans Zimmer’s stirring contributions. I do not believe this score quite matches the highs of his previous Dark Knight work with James Newton-Howard, but it’s the perfect music for this particular story. Huge, sweeping, chaotic, and at times downright apocalyptic, Zimmer’s work terrifies and uplifts in equal measure.
Bane’s theme – which prominently features a mysterious chant crowd-sourced from online participants – is terrifying, a relentless musical assault that serves as a perfect complement to Tom Hardy’s forceful performance. Zimmer develops the theme along the same lines that Nolan progresses the story: It gets increasingly frantic, splintered, powerful, and percussive as the film marches towards it bombastic conclusion. Zimmer’s absolutely outdoes himself on the grand action finale, combining nearly every musical trait he has ever displayed into one ruthless action score of hypnotic intensity.
At the same time, Zimmer completes or continues to develop several themes and motifs introduced in the first two films. Most notably, Bruce Wayne’s theme – a brief, two-note choral motif – has always been left unresolved. In an interview with Empire magazine, Zimmer explains that “it is never completed because Bruce Wayne never gets past the point of his parents’ murder.” But in The Dark Knight Rises, the motif is finally resolved and expanded upon at a crucial moment: When Batman flies the nuclear bomb over the water, the theme plays, and as Batman decides he would rather live a full and happy life than martyr himself, the initial two-note piece is expanded into a full choral motif. In that way, Zimmer musically signifies that Batman – or, more accurately, Bruce Wayne – has finally overcome his deepest demons and become ‘whole.’
You can hear the moment I’m talking about at the 1-minute mark on the soundtrack album’s final track, “Rise.” It is hauntingly beautiful, but while this piece is archived on the album, the soundtrack sadly contains only a fraction of the film’s score. At a measly 51 minutes, the record covers less than one-third of the film’s run time, and less than half of the music featured in the film. Several major themes are missing, including all the percussive-heavy versions of Bane’s theme. That’s a bit of a travesty, and I sincerely hope Warner releases the complete score so we may study it in greater depth.
In any case, it is my belief that the work Zimmer (and, in the previous films, Howard) did over the course of this series will remain highly influential for many years to come. Each installment in the trilogy has its own musical flavor, but they all feature the same gradually developing themes, and it is a rare treat to have the scores develop in tandem with the story. Composers so often abandon franchises mid-way through their run (John Williams and Harry Potter, Danny Elfman and Spider-Man, etc.), but in the Dark Knight series, Zimmer has proven that musical continuity is one of the key aspects of making a long-form story succeed.
The music is, in its own way, epic, as is every other element of The Dark Knight Rises. When all is said and done, I do not feel this film lives up to the masterpiece quality of its predecessor. I believe The Dark Knight is one of the greatest films of all time, and I do not, at this time, think the same about The Dark Knight Rises.
But do not take this comparison as a complaint. I am enamored with this film, and hugely grateful to Warner Bros. for allowing Christopher Nolan to complete the trilogy on his own terms. We have never seen anything quite like The Dark Knight Rises, and I doubt we will for some time to come, unless Nolan has an even greater, original idea in mind that Warner is interested in funding.
Whether you personally appreciated the film as much as I did or not, I think we should all feel invigorated that films like The Dark Knight Rises can still be produced. The film’s ambition is unparalleled, and in an industry that so often lacks the drive to do anything more but churn out cookie-cutter sequels and drive franchises into the ground, it is inspiring to see Nolan, one of cinema’s few true auteurs, execute a grand vision on a vast cinematic canvas. The Dark Knight Rises is an epic, a stirring landmark in the history of modern filmmaking.Previous