If you haven’t done so, please read Part 1 of this review here. If you have, then thank you. And onto the second half of this review. Once again, I reiterate that SPOILERS WARNING! from Part 1. So, without further ado…
How do you overcome tragedy?
Tragedy is a fact of life. It’s something we all experience at least once or twice in our lifetimes. Even if you live the luckiest of lives and are cautious and avoid the stings of crime or poverty or natural disaster towards you or your loved ones, at some point, tragedy will knock at your door. The loss of a loved one due to natural causes or the pain of heartbreak are still out there. And most of us are not so lucky. Consider how many setbacks you can experience. Earthquakes and hurricanes. Muggings and rape and murder. Bankruptcy and homelessness. Any one of those possibilities are out there. So how do you get over it?
Let me ask it another way: why do we fall?
Nolan spends the three movies of his “Dark Knight” trilogy examining this question and the answer he provides (“So we can learn to pick ourselves up”) is one that comes early in the trilogy. Then he sets out to examine this hypothesis of his as he puts Bruce Wayne through a world of physical, mental, emotional, psychological and existential pain. Can Bruce Wayne continue to get up from life’s blows?
If you examine the three Nolan movies, they follow a specific path: Batman Begins is about choice – the choice to be The Batman, the choice to stand up to the corrupt system of Gotham, the choice to follow a path that no one else can walk. The Dark Knight is about consequence – the choice has been made and the world reacts to it by unleashing something darker and more dangerous than anything that’s ever been seen (The Joker); something that will claim a high price from Bruce Wayne and turn every choice he has made into a question. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises is about resolve – knowing what will happen if Bruce continues to choose to be The Batman, does he continue along his path or does he step back? Does he surrender? Or does he find a new reason for continuing to fight?
Unlike Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, who saw BruceWayne/Batman as just one of the many costumed characters they needed to touch upon, Christopher Nolan’s whole interest is in examining the character of the billionaire heir who chooses to dress in a black suit made to appear as a bat and who leaps from skyscrapers to mete out justice to criminals. Notice that I put Bruce Wayne first. While most directors may have rushed to put Christian Bale in cape and cowl, Nolan gave us far more of Bruce Wayne in his trilogy than anyone before. Batman Begins focused on his quest towards becoming The Batman, who didn’t appear until past the hour mark. The Dark Knight Rises also waits to give us The Batman until over an hour of the movie.
And I make the connection between the first and third movies in this trilogy for a reason. They feel far more interconnected to one another than they do to The Dark Knight. They both deal with attempts by the League of Shadows to destroy Gotham City. They both touch upon schemes to depose Bruce Wayne from ownership of his family’s mega-corporation. Both focus on a police force that has become passive and dormant: in Begins, that’s because of corruption while, in Rises, it’s because of success.
It may be this disconnect from The Dark Knight – which remains the best movie in this trilogy – that has caused so many disappointed feelings towards The Dark Knight Rises. To be fair, there was no way that Rises was going to equal the manic energy of its predecessor. By setting the movie eight years past the events of The Dark Knight, Nolan allows for a resetting of the world. It allows him a chance to tell a fresh story but it also seems to rob the movie of some of that energy that The Dark Knight had in abundance. Knight appeared to have a purpose driving it while Rises meanders more while it waits for the pieces to fall into place.
All of that goes back to Nolan’s interest in Bruce’s personality and how he is the focus of the story. Nolan is not interested in analyzing how Gotham City responds to The Batman (so, no Riddler or Harley Quinn). He’s not interested in documenting how the power vacuum in Gotham’s underworld is filled (so, no Penguin, Black Mask or Hush). Ironically enough, he doesn’t bring in Dr. Hugo Strange – which might have been an intriguing side-villain to unite with Bane and Talia, given the Doctor’s interest in the psychological make-up of Gotham’s Caped Crusader.
Instead, by bringing Bane, Talia and the League of Shadows back, The Dark Knight Rises becomes a study in legacy. Bruce has lived all his life with the legacy of his parents’ murder and the guilt of their death hanging over his life. His quest to escape that legacy led him to another father figure, Ra’s al Ghul, and the League of Shadows, which he was forced to destroy twice – once in Asia and once in Gotham during Batman Begins. The Batman, in a sense, is the heir to the twin legacies of the Waynes and Ra’s al Ghul. The Dark Knight Rises is a direct response to the legacy of Bruce Wayne’s actions, with Bane and Talia becoming manifestations of Bruce’s mistakes – Bane a darker twist on The Batman and Talia a more nefarious version of the Bruce Wayne people know.
It is these mistakes, born out of his good intentions, that plague Bruce throughout the movie: the loss of his parents, the inability to see Ra’s al Ghul for who he was, the loss of Rachel Dawes, his failure with The Joker, the loss of Harvey Dent, even the loss of The Batman as his mechanism for dealing with all his losses. Bruce Wayne is a shade in his own home, haunting the empty halls and unable to connect with anyone else – even with Alfred. It takes the impromptu arrival of Selina Kyle into his home and the burst out of nowhere of Bane to wake Bruce up. But Bruce is still simply acting out as The Batman to hide his guilt and his anger. The Batman is nothing more than a vehicle for his vengeance. It takes Bane’s defeat of him to force Bruce to reassess who he is and who he wants to be – a man driven by rage and guilt with no care for the world or a man driven by justice and life who cares for the world he leaves behind.
Heady stuff to be sure. And it clashes strongly with our expectations of what a “superhero/comic book movie” is supposed to look and sound and feel. I compared Rises earlier to The Avengers – a more traditional comic book movie – when I spoke about the humor content. The fact is that Rises does not give you that sense of fun, adventure-filled excitement that The Avengers did. There’s none of the “Wham! Bam!” of the 60s Adam West TV show here or the “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” wonder of Tim Burton’s Batman. This Batman is one that is grounded in a pseudo-reality but a reality that is akin to ours. And in our reality, pain and failure and despair are as much a factor as laser rays and giant bombs and thunder gods. But again, that’s not what Christopher Nolan is interested in giving us.
The Dark Knight Rises – the whole “Dark Knight Trilogy” – is examining a man in pain. A man brought down by constant tragedy, who is seeking for a way to rebalance the world around him. The only way Bruce Wayne can make sense of his life is by becoming something greater than Bruce Wayne, something that cannot be touched by tragedy; something that can live forever. Or at least, that’s what he believed when he first donned the cape and cowl. The Dark Knight Rises proves that even The Batman can be felled by tragedy. And it’s not until he accepts the fact that he cannot escape all the pain of his life and chooses to accept the responsibility and the consequences of his actions that he is able to rise, metaphorically as well as literally, to oppose the evildoers of the world.
It’s a really good movie. It’s not a fun movie. It’s not an easy movie. But it’s a good one. And I think that, the more it gets examined, the more its themes will resonate. After all, evil and tragedy are always closing in around us. We cannot always prevent tragedy, but we can choose to rise up to its challenge every day of our lives.
(For those wondering, the title comes from the first line of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Cloak, The Boat, and the Shoes”: