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.
Read ‘Part Three: Born In Darkness’ by continuing onto the next page…