In Which The Dark Knight Rises.
Christopher Nolan loves puzzle boxes. Each of his movies, from Following (an early, somewhat clunky effort, but a gem nonetheless) to Memento to the Batman trilogy and, most famously, his puzzle box to end all other puzzle boxes, Inception. It’s no wonder that with his latest film, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan pays off subtle cues set up from the very first film in the series, Batman Begins. Each of the three films, while blockbuster adventure rides in their own rights, stand alone as separate tales in a shared universe. When I first saw The Dark Knight, I was struck at how different it was from Batman Begins, being more grounded in reality than the first film, whereas Begins was mired in the more fantastic elements of Batman’s origin story, from fear-inducing magical flowers to ninjas to shadowy leagues that want nothing more than to rule the world with an iron fist. The sequel was just about some crazy guy with a surplus of TNT and bullets; honestly, The Dark Knight, while being an engaging film with fan-favorite villain The Joker heading it up, was much shallower than Batman Begins.
Now, with The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of the series, Nolan has led the viewer so much deeper into his labyrinth, but manages to bring us safely through to the other side, with an astoundingly beautiful emotional payoff to the trilogy.
First of all, let me point out that Bane is seriously changed from his comic-book counterpart in this film. Gone is the brilliant tactician and ruthless, relentless slow burn of his character arc from the Knightfall comic book series. In its place is a puppet who makes us believe he’s a brilliant tactician and who still manages to burn us and all of Gotham city pretty slowly and relentlessly. If anything, I’d say that this Bane is more akin to how someone like Bane would be like in the real world; ruthless, charismatic, scheming, but only the public face of the power behind the throne.
(More on that in a minute.)
While Bane is ever-so slightly changed from his comic-book self to this new screen version, most of the rest of the cast seem solidly rooted in their four-color origins. Selina Kyle (wisely never directly called Catwoman on-screen,) is sarcastic, caustic, sensual and treacherous. “Miranda Tate” aka Talia Al Ghul (Hey, you were warned.) is a femme fatale so brilliantly played we honestly never see her big reveal until it’s already happened. Alfred is a shattered wreck of a man, so overcome with guilt in the ways he’s allowed his charge to damage himself that he cracks the second Bruce goes near the cowl again and calls it quits with him. Honestly, even though this directly contradicts the Alfred of the comics, in Nolan’s and Michael Caine’s capable hands, he is perfectly portrayed.
Bruce himself is a broken, shattered husk of a man, and that’s before Ban ever gets his mitts on him… and that brings me to the title of the film. “The Dark Knight Rises.” See, this film isn’t about Batman overcoming adversity and blah blah blah blah blah honestly no one cares at this point anyway; this film is about Bruce Wayne figuratively passing through death and being reborn stronger and wiser on the other side. …And this is where the comic-book comes into play.
See, Ra’s al Ghul told Bruce in the first film that there would always be a Ra’s al Ghul, heavily implying that the name was a title more than anything, passed around as need be for leadership of the League of Shadows. In the comics, this is literal; Ra’s al Ghul possesses a pit, The Lazarus Pit, filled with uniquely magical chemicals that actually resurrects whoever bathes in it, no matter how damaged they are, but at the heavy cost of their sanity.
In the film, Bruce is thrown into one such pit after Bane breaks him. The viewer is never told this, and there are no fanciful green pools for Bruce to bathe in, but it’s still a Lazarus Pit. In this Pit, Bruce heals from not only his physical trauma but his emotional trauma as well, finally coming to grips with his entire tortured existence to rise from his own ashes and once again become the creature of shadows and legend: The Dark Knight. Indeed, Bane’s shocked response to seeing him again, “I broke you… you were broken,” is enough to show the audience that Batman now possesses a strength that is beyond even the mighty titan Bane.
In Nolan’s stripped-down, no-nonsense world, there are no magical powers; there are no mystical cure-alls or fantastic coincidences. There is realism and darkness and people struggling with demons so dark they’d cripple a mortal. This is what makes the figures in these films mythical; they clearly are beyond the ken of mortal man. Bruce Wayne possesses a depth of character and strength beyond what any man could possibly endure. Jim Gordon (who also gets an emotional payoff in the film’s final moments, discovering Batman’s identity and receiving affirmation that kindness is its own reward,) is a paragon of justice, willing to dirty his own soul to save his city from tearing itself apart. Alfred is a loyal, heartbroken version of Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog, who only wants his master to return whole and unharmed. The heartbreaking aspect comes from the foreknowledge that this agonizing wish will never come true, at least not in a way that either of the broken men can ever fully appreciate.
…And yet, amazingly, it does. Alfred has possibly one of the most poignant moments of the entire film, where his wildest hopes finally materialize.
Bane himself, the ruthless villain, is explained in a way that makes the viewer pity him. Misshapen, broken in ways even more fundamental than Batman, and hopelessly bound to Talia, Bane is a puppet without real power. For all of his immense strength and toughness, he is a fragile soul, so grateful to his friend for the kindness she showed him after he saved her life that he is bound to do whatever she asks, no matter how horrific, until his final dying breath. Bane is as much a victim as the city he’s just torn apart for six months, a pawn of Talia al Ghul.
Bruce himself is a curiosity in this equation; we know that the Lazarus Pit exacts a heavy toll for its use. What toll did Bruce pay to be healed? Through abandoning himself to the healing process, Bruce signed over who he was. There was nothing left but the Batman. Even in the end, when the day is saved and Alfred sees Bruce again, we can’t believe that he could ever have a normal life again. The long night may be over for Bruce Wayne, but the fire always rises again.