MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. DO NOT READ THIS BEFORE SEEING THE MOVIE.
The Dark Knight Rises is beyond Left and Right, beyond good and evil, beyond any frame of reference that this society can understand. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy closes with a vision of weaponized Traditionalism certain to be misunderstood by movie reviewers and talking heads who think in terms of Republicans versus Democrats. It’s similarly beyond the grasp of fanboys playing compare and contrast with The Avengers or Superman.
That said, it’s a comic book movie, it’s a blockbuster, and the demands of the medium necessitate that Nolan cannot go all the way. The most interesting characters are, as always, the villains.
That said, there is something deeply unsettling at the heart of this film, a strange uneasiness that cannot be shaken even after applause fades, the credits roll, and the costumed audience tromps happily into the early morning after a midnight showing. The murder of 12 people at a premiere in Colorado throws a glare on the sickness at the heart of our own society, begs a comparison between the corruption of Gotham and the rot of our own post-America, and forces us to ask, “Is the fire rising?”
The film is utterly unintelligible without the other films in the trilogy. It begins with Gotham paying tribute to its fallen white knight Harvey Dent, who is remembered as an incorruptible crusader against injustice. The symbol also serves as the justification for Dent Act, which keeps the soldiers of organized crime behind bars without hope for parole. However, the fragile peace of Gotham is based on a lie: Batman accepted the blame for Harvey Dent/Two Face’s killing spree at the end of The Dark Knight. Gotham has stability, but it is the stability of a static and lifeless society, a soft but pervasive repression reminiscent of Brezhnev’s Russia, with an explosion just below the surface.
The lie has taken its toll on both Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne. Gordon is weary, tired, almost broken by the burden of having to live out the necessary falsehood. His victory over crime is hollow, his usefulness exhausted, and his civilian superiors already planning his replacement. In The Dark Knight, there is an agonizing moment when his wife Barbara is told that he has been killed, followed by a tearful reunion when his necessary deceit is revealed. By the beginning of this film, Barbara has embraced the noble equality offered the gentler sex in our enlightened time and abandoned him, of course taking the children with her. “Manning up” and doing what is necessary to save one’s city and loved ones is ruthlessly punished by modernity, as it always is.
Wayne, meanwhile, has become a recluse, obsessing over his lost love Rachel Dawes, whom he still believes was waiting for him. His great task of saving Gotham accomplished, Wayne is physically and emotionally crippled. Wayne’s only project is the predictable endeavor of any good Hollywood superhero/tycoon: the pursuit of clean energy. He is assisted by Miranda Tate, a (seemingly) typical liberal do-gooder philanthropist, dreaming of sustainable development, and no doubt, helping the underprivileged, uplifting the oppressed, and doing it all from her drawing room. Unfortunately, Wayne learns that the fusion reactor they were developing could be turned into a weapon, so he shuts the project down, costing Wayne Enterprises millions. As the Joker points out in The Dark Knight, Wayne and Gordon are both “schemers,” trying to “control their little worlds.” As a result, they are trapped by their lies, their fears, and their insecurities.
One of the first signs that the peace is breaking is the emergence of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman), a cat burglar seething with resentment against the privileged. Contemptuous of Bruce Wayne and other limousine liberals flattering themselves with their own altruism, Kyle seduces and steals from high society as an act of vengeance, but she is actually seeking an escape from her past. She removes a necklace from Bruce Wayne’s safe, but more importantly, steals his fingerprints for an unknown use. While she thinks she is striking back at the decadent rich, she is actually being used as a pawn by a more dangerous and dedicated group with a higher end in mind than class warfare.
Their leader is Bane, a hulking but brilliant mercenary who was supposedly “excommunicated” from the League of Shadows. Having (literally) built an underground army, Bane’s plans are disrupted when Commissioner Gordon discovers their existence, ending up hospitalized. From his bedside, Gordon pleads for Batman to return. The League of Shadows, which trained Bruce Wayne and in many ways “made” Batman, is the Traditionalist Order headed formerly headed by Ra’s al Ghul. Batman turned on the Order in spectacularly unconvincing fashion in the first film. Why Batman turned on his erstwhile creators remains unanswered in The Dark Knight Rises. Batman merely states that they were a bunch of “psychopaths,” a strange claim coming from a man dominated alternately by childhood fears and long vanished pseudo-girlfriends.
Recognizing that Bruce is trapped by the past, Alfred reveals that Rachel had chosen Harvey Dent over him and that he had concealed it to spare Bruce pain. Alfred also pleads for Bruce to leave everything behind, pointing out Bane’s obvious skill, strength, and training. Bruce refuses, seemingly hoping for death. Alfred confesses that he never wanted Bruce to come back to Gotham, as there was nothing for him there but pain, and confesses a fantasy of him living abroad, somehow having gotten beyond Gotham City. Alfred tearfully leaves Bruce Wayne’s service, leaving Batman truly alone for the first time.
After a brief liaison with Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne uses Selina Kyle to reach Bane, counting on Kyle being more than a mere criminal. He’s wrong. He is betrayed and forced into a confrontation with Bane, who calls him “Mr. Wayne” (to Kyle’s shock). Bane breaks him, defeating him in physical combat and snapping his spine, before throwing him into an open air prison below the earth. Crippled, Bruce Wayne will be forced to watch the suffering of Gotham while being taunted by the promise of freedom above.
With Batman removed, the League moves with startling swiftness to take over Gotham. A police raid into the sewers to capture Bane’s forces backfires, and the police are trapped en masse below the earth. Bane uses his more materialistic pawns to capture Wayne Enterprises and seize the nuclear device Bruce inadvertently provided, as well as Batman’s arsenal. Bane reveals the bomb’s existence after an attack at a football game. He exposes Batman and Gordon’s lies about Harvey Dent and gives Gotham to “the people,” by freeing the “oppressed” criminals imprisoned by the Dent Act. The result is that Gotham becomes a kind of Paris Commune, with the possessions of the wealthy seized outright and dissidents condemned to death by Dr. Sebastian Crane (Scarecrow), the only villain who appears in all three movies, who returns as a revolutionary hanging judge.
Commissioner Gordon, fresh from the hospital, tries to rally what resistance he can. He is assisted by John Blake, an officer who has discovered the true secret of Batman’s identity and wants him to return. The few above-ground police fail to win back the city, as an effort to smuggle in Special Forces from outside fails miserably.
Meanwhile, Batman recovers slowly underground. He learns about the origins of Bane and his connection to the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul. To escape the prison, which only one other person (Bane) has done, he must climb out of the darkness and into the light, as the other trapped prisoners chant “Deshi Basara” (he rises).After several failures, Wayne is told that he can only escape if he climbs without a safety rope – meaning that another mistake will mean certain death. Wayne climbs and escapes, reborn as Batman. After saving Gordon, his fiery emblem announces his return to Gotham. He frees the police, and together Batman and his new army assault Bane’s base of power at City Hall.
Batman manages to defeat Bane in their rematch, knocking off part of Bane’s mask which delivers a gas that eases his chronic pain. At the moment of Batman’s triumph, Miranda Tate plunges a dagger into him, revealing herself as Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia and the real escapee of the prison. Bane was merely her guardian, who was injured defending her and expelled from the League because of his love for her. Talia attempts to trigger the bomb, but the mechanism has been disabled by Gordon, buying a few moments. She flees in one of the Tumblers (Batmobiles) to guard the bomb. Kyle appears and kills Bane with firepower from the Batpod, and together Batman, Kyle, and Gordon chase down the bomb. Talia is killed, but there is no way to disable the bomb. Thus Batman heroically flies the bomb over the ocean, where it detonates, apparently killing him but saving the city.
In the aftermath, Gotham memorializes Batman as its true hero. Bruce Wayne is remembered simply as a victim of the class violence. His true identity remains a secret, and most of his assets go to help underprivileged children. John Blake (whose real first name is revealed to be Robin) is given the coordinates of the Batcave in Wayne’s will. Gordon, still Commissioner, finds a new Batsignal on the roof of the police station, suggesting Blake has taken up the mantle of the Batman. A heartbroken Alfred travels overseas. At a café, he suddenly looks up and nods, and the camera reveals Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Bruce Wayne is no longer Batman, but he is still alive.
From the perspective of Bruce Wayne, the film has to end as it did. While there were rumors that Batman would be killed off, this “darker” ending would actually have been a cop out. Bruce Wayne’s obsession with the Batman, with Rachel, and his own death wish show that he never learned to put suffering behind him. As Alfred points out, “You see only one end to your journey.” Wayne has the characteristically American attitude that bad things cannot happen to good people, and that suffering is a vast departure from the way things ought to be. As a result, when something bad does happen, he can never move beyond it and becomes brooding and obsessive. The ability of Bruce Wayne to put down the mask and move beyond that Bat is necessary for his character to show growth, in some ways, the first real growth since the death of his parents.
What Wayne never goes beyond, and the movie never explains, are his continued sacrifices on behalf of Gotham. When Selina Kyle begs him to leave the city, pointing out that he’s “given these people everything,” Batman says, “not everything. Not yet.” But who are these people? At the beginning of the film, when Bruce Wayne is brooding in his lair, he says to Alfred, “There’s nothing for me out there.” Instead of living, he is, in Alfred’s words, “waiting for something bad to happen.” Wayne is so disgusted with Gotham that he can’t even bear to experience the peace he created at such a terrible price. Even his grand victory at the end of the trilogy is moving beyond Gotham, putting down the mantle of the Bat, and abandoning his own identity or anything that could tie him to a place that only brings him tragedy and pain.
The motives of the so-called villains are more substantial but would seem incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen Batman Begins. The most important role of the League of Shadows is to bring “balance” to civilization by destroying the centers of degeneracy when the rot has become too great. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, Gotham’s time has come. While Batman managed to stop Ra’s al Ghul, Bane and Talia have come to finish the job.
The Dark Knight Rises thus gives us a portrait of an Order in action. In the first scene, when Bane and his comrades seize a nuclear scientist from a CIA flight, Bane orders one of his men to stay behind. Addressing him as “brother,” he explains that the enemy will expect to find at least one of their bodies in the wreckage. Seemingly unaffected, with a beatific smile, the League member asks, “Have we started the fire?” Bane nods and responds, “The fire rises” (0:28). Bane habitually executes members who fail and demands (and receives) complete willingness to die from his comrades. “Where do they find such people?” asks one awed observer.
The first two targets Bane attacks in Gotham are heavy with meaning.
The first is the stock exchange. As Bane takes control of the trading floor, a stockbroker pleads “There’s no money here, there’s nothing to rob!” Heavy with contempt, Bane responds, “Then why are you here?” After completing the financial takeover of Wayne Enterprises, a non-League member accuses Bane of taking his money but not doing what he wants. Bane responds, “And this means you have power over me?” Realizing for the first time that he is confronting someone who has a higher end than money, the criminal asks “What are you?” prompting the response, “I’m Gotham’s reckoning.” Bane is not in it for money, and the League of Shadows looks with contempt at the vulgar traders and materialistic grubbers that constitute the supposed elite of the city. The League of Shadows is going to pull down the Kali Yuga in Gotham, whatever it takes.
At the same time, this is no egalitarian rant against “the rich.” The Dark Knight Rises may be the most contemptuous treatment of egalitarianism ever produced on film. Needless to say, what passes for the American Right is not intellectually capable of understanding it, alternately complaining that Bane was created in order to attack Mitt Romney’s finance capital firm or thinking it is a partisan attack on Occupy Wall Street in the name of millionaires like Romney and Bruce Wayne. Instead, The Dark Knight Rises is a direct attack on the idea that people can manage themselves.
Bane’s second target is a football stadium hosting a pointless spectacle where a mostly white audience lives vicariously by watching mostly non-white players throw and chase a ball. The game begins with the singing of the national anthem, as if Nolan is telling us that pointless distractions are what America is all about today. If the stock exchange was the “bread” of this degenerate society, sports are the “circuses,” and it is significant that Bane decapitates the political leadership of the city by blowing up the mayor’s skybox at a sporting event. Bane takes away the diversions and forces the people to re-engage with History.
When Bane seizes control of Gotham, he claims that he is coming to “liberate” Gotham and tells the masses to “take control” of their city. He also frees the prisoners on the grounds that they are “oppressed,” all de rigueur left-wing talking points. The result is a complete breakdown of the city, with a criminal lunatic (Crane) serving as the focal point of power. The upper classes are destroyed, and the “people” instantly give themselves over to pointless consumption in a manner more degrading than the most spoiled trust fund baby. When one of Selina Kyle’s erstwhile comrades celebrates that Wayne Manor now belongs to “everyone,” Kyle is disgusted.
It turns out that Bane and Talia are planning on eventually destroying the entire city with a nuclear bomb anyway. While many conservative commentators claim that this is evidence that Bane (and thus Occupy Wall Street) is motivated by pure evil, the real message is far more subversive. Bane allows the city to live for a few months to show the world what Gotham’s citizens are capable of. Libertarian ideologues and socialist revolutionaries get their chance, as the boot of the state is taken off, and the police are trapped underground. The result is an ugly, starving society ruled by the insane.
Bane delays destroying Gotham because he wants the world to watch how freedom failed. He gives the city a false hope by letting the people govern themselves, knowing they are not capable of it. This isn’t the conquest of a healthy society – it’s a laboratory experiment where the League of Shadows knows the outcome. A simple killing would be too merciful. The punishment “must be more severe.” Only when the consequences are unmistakable and the corruption has been ripped out by the root will Bane give Gotham permission to die. Liberalism, classical or otherwise, is so self-evidently stupid that Bane gives it free reign knowing that it will fail spectacularly. Even more impressively, Bane and the other members of the League are willing to remain in the city when the bomb detonates, dying so that the corrupt world can be reborn. This is a creed of iron that demands the whole man in order to make him something more.
Batman is a more severe problem for the League because he is a product of the same Order as Bane, thus he is capable of withstanding his attack. Batman harnesses Traditionalism and the aristocratic (or even fascist) principle to save society from itself. Bane explicitly recognizes this. When Batman fights Bane the first time and uses his usual tricks, Bane comments, “Theatricality and deception are powerful weapons to the uninitiated . . . but we are initiated.” When Batman is broken and left in the darkness, he is symbolically “killed,” only to be reborn after he remakes himself and climbs into the light, a motif familiar to the ceremonies of many fraternal and religious orders. The use of ritualistic incantation is another indication that we are not watching a superhero with magical powers but the product of initiation.
But to what end? When Batman is recovering from his injuries in the darkness, he has a vision of Ra’s al Ghul who taunts him that after years of complete sacrifice, the most that Bruce Wayne could achieve is a lie. At the end of the movie, once again, this is all that is achieved. Bruce Wayne did not die either as a victim of class warfare or as a hero of Gotham. He fled the city to pal around with Selina Kyle in Florence, enjoying lunches at fashionable restaurants. He cannot bear to live among the people he saved.
Wayne Manor is turned into a shelter for the children of the slums, postponing the inevitable end that the League was founded to hasten. Batman lives on through Robin John Blake, but the whole point of the trilogy was that Batman was supposed to be a temporary measure until the city could be returned to health and the “normal” system could govern without recourse to masked vigilantes.
Of course, this is the essential problem with Bruce Wayne’s worldview. The return of the bat signal suggests that the extraordinary will always need to sacrifice themselves for the ordinary. Bane showed the true face of Gotham, but it was saved regardless, and it will continue to be saved by heroes that have to emerge from outside of society. Good men like Gordon are destroyed by the society that produces them, stripped of family and honor. Darker heroes like Batman find they can no longer even live in it. The best solution that can be offered is more charity from the rich, as if a Band-Aid can stanch a sucking chest wound. Batman’s plea to save the city because there are “good” people is a pointless banality reminiscent of Judge Smails from Caddyshack. The League of Shadows presents a radical critique of society, and all Batman tells us is that we have to stand for “goodness” and not “badness.”
The Batman trilogy poses deep questions about the nature of society, the importance of Radical Traditionalism, and the meaning of heroism. However, ultimately, it can only give the same answer as The Avengers: heroes are heroes precisely because they use their gifts and dedication to safeguard a world that is unworthy of them, preventing any attempts to turn it into something greater. The Kali Yuga rolls on, the corrupt look up and shout “save us!,” and heroes hasten to the call. But the sparks are there, and the conflagration is being prepared.