In many ways I’m still trying to process how I feel about The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR, for the purposes of saving time). I’m not normally the type of person that gets sentimental or overly emotional about movies (unless anger counts – righteous, righteous anger!), but after leaving the theater, even upon a second viewing of the film, I couldn’t quite peg my emotional state, which seems to fluctuate between elation and abject depression. The odd thing is both sides of the spectrum are tied to the fact that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Triology has come to an end.

I don’t think I’m entirely alone in this either. Reading some of the reviews on the web and listening to a few podcasts, the movie’s reception is split right down the middle. There’s as much praise as there is criticism (and not in the “I’m a critic, so that’s my job” type of way). There’s a prevailing attitude of disappointment following in the wake of TDKR, as if people were let down. It’s understandable, I suppose, given that The Dark Knight was an amazing movie, so expectations were running high. How does one top a movie that is almost universally loved by moviegoers? The answer: You don’t. You can’t, it’s not possible. The best you could hope for is a satisfying conclusion, and that, I think, is where TDKR succeeds.

So, here’s the deal: My intention is not to rag on this movie. Are there problems? Yeah, there are. The plot’s a hot mess, there are time jumps that aren’t made clear enough, and some characters make huge leaps in logic or don’t act logically enough. I might also point out that similar criticisms have been made towards the previous two films as well, so it’s not like this is anything new. But I can forgive all of those things because, at it’s core, TDKR delivers and succeeds with the themes and characters set up in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It’s the ending the comic books can never give us and it’s an ending I think all Batman fans want for our beloved Dark Knight.

Though The Dark Knight feeds into the ongoing narrative behind TDKR, the best thing you can do before seeing this movie is watch Batman Begins. The plots are roughly the same as Bane (Tom Hardy) is out to complete the work of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson, in a small cameo) by destroying Gotham City, the glaring example of societal decadence where the gap between the rich and the poor widen further and further. He’s also out to destroy Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who’ve both been out of the public eye in the eight years since Harvey Dent’s death and the coverup of his misdeeds that made Batman a villain in the eyes of Gotham.

The two goals are explicitly tied together just as Bruce’s soul and the soul of his city are one and the same. Batman Begins set in motion Bruce’s desire to save Gotham in honor of his parents’ legacy and the movie goes to great lengths to set up the idea of Batman as an incorruptible symbol needed to strike fear in the hearts of criminals while simultaneously inspiring those who could rise up and fight. The Dark Knight expands on the symbol as something that can be corrupted through the fall of Harvey Dent and the supposed fall of Batman in the eyes of Gotham. Not only has their hero killed, but he’s killed a public figure set on cleaning up Gotham’s criminal underbelly. When TDKR begins, a relative peace has set over Gotham, but it’s based on a lie, a lie that is slowly eating away at Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne. And though the city believes itself to be renewed, it is, in fact, slowly erroding from the inside. The purpose of TDKR, as the trilogy’s conclusion, is to show that Batman, as a symbol, can endure and live on indefinitely as will Gotham City.

Now, I admit, I could be reading too much into this, but Nolan is nothing if not a craftsman. There’s a reason why Gotham City, as it’s own entity, is so important not only to Batman, but to the overall plot. Cities endow us with a form of identity and we idolize cities as monuments to our own progress as a civilization, taking personal pride in being from this city or that city. That Gotham is seen by Ra’s al Ghul as a symbol of corruption that must be stopped is, quite possibly, the closest Nolan gets to commenting on the events of 9/11. Gotham is the metaphorical America and the League of Shadows, the group of ninjas led by Ra’s that train Bruce, represent terrorist groups that hate Western decadence.

The reason I’m going so political with this is that TDKR is the movie most concerned with issues of class and power. And though Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) warns Bruce that “a storm is coming,” we’re not meant to sympathize with this revolt. It’s not the allegory for the Occupy Movement that people were purporting it to be. It’s The French Revolution played out with horrifying accuracy with Bane as Robespierre giving Gotham back to the people. Scenes of the rich being pulled from their hotel rooms, their possessions ripped from them, bullets firing, and the criminals partying as the wealth is “shared” are heart-wrenching and disturbing. There’s even a kangaroo court set up with The Scarecrow (another cameo by Cillian Murphy) presiding as judge and jury. But, like the teachings of The League of Shadows, it’s all theatricality and deception as Gotham takes it’s final bow towards destruction via a travelling neutron bomb slowly ticking down to the inevitable end. If anything, Nolan is commenting on the propaganda and the illusion of power.

But, hey, this is still a Batman movie, right? So why all the dourness? Surely Batman will triumph in the end. Yes, he does, but like all journey’s, the hero must be broken down before he can rise. Bane, as he does in the comics, breaks Batman, but instead of killing him he chooses to torture him with images of Gotham’s fall. It’s obvious from the start that Bane doesn’t consider Batman a threat. He’s just as smart, already knowing it’s Bruce Wayne under the mask, and he’s his physical better. But, like most villains, he underestimates Bruce’s resolve. By “breaking” him, Bane inadvertantly fixes him. Driven, angry, filled with purpose, Bruce overcomes his prison – metaphorically and figuratively – and rises yet again. I do want to take a moment to say what a fantastic job Tom Hardy did as Bane. Yes, his origin story was changed, but, like The Joker, it fits in the Nolan universe. Hardy embodies the physicality of Bane, but it’s really his voice that ensnares you. His pomposity, his bombast, it’s all a show, but you can’t help but listen. He has some of the best dialogue in the movie, which is saying something considering just about everyone in the film gets a few solid lines.

I would say that Hardy almost steals the film, but truth be told, he’s about tied with Anne Hathaway. Embodying just about every iteration of Catwoman, Hathaway manages to transform before our very eyes within the span of a microsecond. Selina is a woman who will play whatever part she has to in order to survive and many of the twists and turns in the plot revolve around her choices. Her ease and playfulness as well as her desire for something beyond the life she lives make it easy to see why Bruce Wayne would find her intriguing, discovering his own desire for a “clean slate.” They have a fantastic dynamic that’s truly evocative of the comics and their shared ending is one that I’ve always imagined, but never dreamed I’d see. Though Bruce envisioned a life with Rachel Dawes long ago, it’s Selina that brings him into the world…ya know, after a few betrayals, misdirections, and misunderstandings. Every relationship has problems, is all I’m saying.

But what I love most about the film is the idea that Bruce can’t carry on as Batman because he is, in the end, just a man. Nolan plays with the idea that Bruce actually wants to die, showing that the events of The Dark Knight have taken their toll on him in mind, spirit, and body. When we see Bruce for the first time in TDKR, he’s limping, using a cane for support. In a hilarious scene, Bruce is informed by a doctor (Reno 911′s Thomas Lennon) that he has a laundry list of issues wrong with his body. Comic book heroes are, to some extent, immortal. Bruce Wayne has been Batman since 1939, yet he’s always drawn like he’s in his mid-thirties. The movies have also followed suit, making Bruce forever at a certain age that leaves him in his prime and ready for battle. Christian Bale has played Bruce and Batman the longest in terms of the films and Nolan’s decision to jump ahead eight years after The Dark Knight is his way of telling us that his Bruce Wayne is not immortal. He cannot remain Batman simply because he will eventually be too old or too fragile to continue.  But, Nolan, being the clever fox that he is, doesn’t make the same distinction for Batman. He’s already set it up for you. Batman is not a man, he’s a symbol and the personification of that symbol could be anyone. For now, it’s Bruce, but after Bruce, then who?

Enter John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who could be considered the main character of half the movie. As much as we’re rooting for Bruce to overcome all of his obstacles and become Batman again, we’re equally rooting for Blake and his rise as a hero. Blake starts as a beat cop who’s still a true believer in The Batman, so much so that he doesn’t really buy the story sold to him by Gordon about Harvey Dent’s death. You’ll recall I mentioned there are moments when characters make leaps in logic? Well, Blake has the biggest of those moments, but it’s saved, for the most part, because Gordon-Levitt sells it. For most of the second act, during Gotham’s “liberation,” we’re with Blake, following him as he loses his belief in the system, finally understanding what Gordon meant by rules and limits becoming “shackles.” Though Bruce is being tortured from afar, Blake is in the thick of it. It’s his evolution that we witness right alongside Bruce, which earns him the mantle. In the end, we want Bruce to have the happy ending so Blake can carry on his legacy.

I could seriously keep going on and on about The Dark Knight Rises and the trilogy as a whole. The visceral reaction I had to these movies honestly caught me off guard. Either I’m getting sentimental in my old age or I’m just a sucker for a good Batman film. Whatever the case may be, I can only look ahead and wonder what DC and Warner Brothers can possibly do to reboot this franchise because reboot it they shall. But until then, I can be happy in the thought that my generation got their Batman.

 

But what did you think? Let me know, start a conversation about The Dark Knight Rises or The Dark Knight trilogy.

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The Ending We Deserved: The Dark Knight Rises Review (Spoilers!)
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