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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