THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. DO NOT READ IT UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE OR DON’T CARE.
Expectation and investment are the twin-forked tail of disappointment. Even with this in mind it doesn’t quite explain what’s going on right now with regards to The Dark Knight Rises, the final Christopher Nolan written and directed Batman movie. To describe it as a backlash isn’t quite right, as people often first open with “It’s an excellent film…but”. That isn’t to say that it’s devoid of backlash, especially in a post-Avengers world. However, that criticism is usually pretty easy to pick out. It usually centers around phrases such as “Super Hero movies should be fun!” or “I’m looking forward to a Batman that doesn’t take itself so seriously”. So taken holistically, what’s the deal? Why is there so much general unhappiness that seems to be popping up around the Dark Knight Rises? What’s with the negative reviews that seem to be so vitriolic and stinging? I suggest it’s because people had a huge emotional investment in the Dark Knight and were unable to experience what was once again a major shift by Nolan. In short, people were unwilling to experience the movie for the movie it was. This is acutely different than expectation management, in that even with low expectations you can bring a certain unwillingness to experience the film. The people who liked the Dark Knight, but didn’t like Batman Begins were fairly numerous. The Dark Knight gave these people a change to experience a nuanced look into class warfare where the majority of viewers were actually aligned with the goals of the antagonist, but were appalled by his methodology. It was a layered film that allowed for a variety of interpretation and analysis. It also featured a powerhouse performance by Heath Ledger, a defining role that helped propel the movie into the stratosphere of acclaim and enjoyment. However, four years is a very long time, and that crust of nostalgia and layer of accolades have covered the myriad problems and somewhat uneven nature of the film. The entire cellphone segment, Harvey Dent in general, and so forth. People became unwilling to experience something again entirely different, and that’s a damn shame. The Dark Knight Rises actually has a lot to say, and it’s very surprising that people haven’t been listening.
Before I jump in, let’s get a few things out of the way. The Dark Knight Rises is my favorite film in the franchise. That might make me a heretic or an outcast, but there it is, in black and white. It’s something to keep in mind for the rest of the article. That does not mean I am blind to the issues of the film. Not by a long shot. The opening act, really the first two opening acts, are a bit disconnected and serve as shorthand character establishment. The first act where we meet Bane serves only to really establish the credentials of the scientist, the personality and genius of Bane, and the zealotry of his organization. The second act repeats this, introducing Miranda Tate as an activist, Selina Kyle as a cat burglar, and introduces us to a Bruce Wayne that has withdrawn from the world. This second act is weak only in that it’s a trotting out of tropes, and while it does give us some solid moments, such as the heel scene, it could have been handled with a more firm hand. This is a minor complaint as the humor and pacing of the scene is grand. This actually checks in as the fourth weakest scene, and that’s only because I’m a little jaded on the whole trope. The second weakest scene is easily the John Blake confrontation of Bruce Wayne. While it is established through context that Blake has been investigating Harvey Dent, Batman and Bruce Wayne, it could have been a little more overt. The acting in the scene was great, but it was still just a little light in story exposition. I would have liked another establishing scene or two in order to really get this across without feeling like it was a little rushed. I get it though, it’s a beefy film at two hours and forty-five minutes, but it really doesn’t feel like it’s that long. The other weak scene in the film is Alfred’s speech which amounts to the “You know what’s the best part of my day?” speech from Good Will Hunting. Now, it’s not a BAD scene, but it’s just a little weak compared to the staggering excellence of the rest of the film. Beyond that? I think while some segments were weaker than others, I wouldn’t call any of them a weak scene. Ok, we have that all out of the way now? Can we agree that while I like the film very much I am not blind to the flaws of the film and would not call it perfect? Cool.
Now that all of that is out of the way, I want to address the primary concern I have heard voiced. It’s been said, in various ways, that the Dark Knight Rises is a movie without much to say, or that it has no takeaway. This is simply not true. The film has an awful lot to say, it’s just not hidden in the subtext, it’s right there, in your face, and it’s so obvious that people are simply looking past it. I don’t blame them. After all, the Dark Knight’s politics were beneath the surface and digging for that nuance was something people enjoyed. However, you have to keep in mind what Nolan’s all about. The man doesn’t repeat tricks. He’s also moving forward to the next thing, and no two movies are alike for him. This is incredible from a directorial standpoint, but it means fans have to have a flexibility in order to truly understand his work. Does that sound douchey? It might be a little douchey, but it’s really the truth. Let’s take Memento and Inception. These are both stories told in a somewhat non-linear fashion, though Inception does it with a wraparound. They are very different films, but they share some commonalities. The Dark Knight Rises is no different. It shares much with the Dark Knight, and some with Batman Begins, but it’s its own beast entirely. The politics of the film are easy enough to discern:
It’s an in-depth look at the nature of terrorists and terrorism.
What? That’s it? Yes, that’s really it. It’s not a larger condemnation of the wealthy, and it’s not a condemnation of the poor, and it’s not even a large message on the socio-economic class struggles that were represented in the previous film. Instead, it’s a look at how a terrorist organization thrives and behaves. While it’s true that socio-economic struggle plays into the this, it’s only one element of the larger concoction here, rather than being the final product. If you believe that this is truly the political situation being examined, then what’s the message? To me, Dark Knight Rises is a movie of pairings and contrast, as is the intent of the Tale of Two Cities basis, but it’s also about making choices and stripping away the other self. It’s not quite the destruction of illusions, or the nature and consequence of lies, or really even about second chances, though all of these things play to the greater message. Nothing exists in a void. Each choice made is shown to have extensive consequences in this film, every action has several reactions even if they are not first apparent. This results in the primary question of the film. If you are faced with the consequences of your own choices, do you have the strength to change them? If that’s the question, then what’s the answer or the take away? When you have the strength to face your failures and accept them, only then can you make them right. In short, can you rise to the challenge? This might be splitting hairs, but it’s about more than second chances, because more than one extra chance comes along for many characters. Again, this is something that sits right there for all to see. That’s the problem. It’s right out in the open, and people are looking for the nuance and subtext that was exhibited before, and are missing the incredibly well-crafted political and moral messages.
So let’s look at the political aspect first, that of an examination of terrorism. The message is really that terrorist and terrorism exploits what’s already going on in a city, and that terrorist organizations are adept at playing both sides. They make promises to the wealthy in exchange for their money, and prey on the poor and downtrodden in order to fill their ranks and provide forces to enact their plans. All the while, the members of the organization are true believers and are willing to die for their cause, usually except the very upper crust. The movie pulls this off extremely well. Bane, to me, is fucking terrifying. He is the figurehead for the terrorist organization in the film and is presented with clarity of vision, incredible martial skill and strength, a genius intellect, and a true belief in the actions that he has set into motion. Once in Gotham, the characters mention that the homeless are being recruited, as well as orphans and young kids. They are seen performing work underneath the streets of Gotham, and are shown with an almost unflinching devotion to Bane, partly out of fear and partly out of loyalty. Bane attacks the stock market, a symbol of rich elitism, and makes speeches to the citizen of Gotham telling them to rise up, throw off their oppressors and take back what is rightfully their’s. He invokes a reenactment of the Reign of Terror, with the oppressed citizens and criminals gleefully committing atrocities against the rich and formerly powerful. He isolates the city, giving the people trapped within a sense that they are the ones who are in charge now, that the outside world has done and will do nothing for them, and that their only salvation lies within the acts of Bane and his organization. Some take it it quite willingly. Courts are convened where all are found guilty and are sentenced to a death disguised as a possible hope for escape. The resistance is increasingly meaningful and base desires seem to flourish, as moral decay runs rife within Gotham. However, all is not as it seems. How did it even get to that point? Well, a powerful billionaire who wanted to be even more rich hired a group of mercenaries in order to get him controlling shares of Wayne Enterprises. The billionaire, Taggart, paid vast sums of money and gave Bane aid and access that he would not have otherwise had. Taggart’s construction permits and crews were how Bane was able to operate in the first place, and his money allowed Bane the resources to propel his plan forward at all. Without these resources, the plan simply doesn’t come together. Bane’s response to Taggart is a telling one for this thesis, stating “Do you think that gives you power over me?” when Taggart mentions that he gave Bane a lot of money. This is the very nature of a terrorist organization. The wealthy often donate or support organizations that fund terrorism, making the very attacks upon their class and lifestyle possible. The poor and downtrodden are not dupes, but are instead looking for a chance for respect, meaning and to lash out at those they feel have oppressed them. The League of Shadows deftly plays each group against each other for their own ends.
This is the very nature of terrorism and terrorists.
The League of Shadows has their own agenda and it has nothing to do with the socio-economic class struggles that were previously addressed, other than to state that when these conditions exist, it lays the groundwork for terrorism to succeed. The League’s plan is to not only destroy Gotham, but to first create a situation where it’s fully putrefying on the inside, before the bomb they created wipes away the infection. They want to crush the spirit of anyone who loves the city, to break them, and then watch as the struggle and suffering was for nothing. This is purely psychological warfare meant to impact those who are outside of Gotham. It’s terrorism at its more extreme. Imagine what must be going on in the rest of the country at that point. If it could happen to Gotham, why not anywhere else? Why couldn’t the government stop it? Why are they just allowing it to happen? The economy must be in the shitter as well, given the Stock Market incident. This is what the League of Shadows wants, to strike fear into the rest of the world and show them the consequences of sin, corruption and behaving like Gotham City. That’s their stated goal after all, right? Boy howdy does it mostly work for them, too. Let’s face it, the world is probably forever changed after this incident. The League of Shadows in part succeeds in their goals. Gotham has undergone a culling of epic proportions, and the rest of the world is probably paralyzed with fear for a long time afterwards. Is Gotham fully purged? No, but that hardly matters in the scheme of things. The world is now a more fearful place for a very, very long time. This is purely extrapolation, that’s true, but it plays directly into the message and theme presented in the film. Every action taken by Bane and the League of Shadows is representative of a terrorist organization and how it works.
Many have argued that the reveal of Bane as the second in command is a twist that lessens the impact of the character, but I firmly believe just the opposite. It is revealed that Bane has executed this plan with the full knowledge that he would die at the end of it, and he just doesn’t care. He is still one of the architects, but he’s revealed as a true believer and his statement of “I am the League of Shadows” rings true. He is devoted to Talia, who plans to make a getaway and survive to carry on, much as the leader of most terrorist organizations behave. However, both Bane and Talia are faced with an opportunity to abandon their plans and correct their course, but they both do not. In both cases, it results in their death. While I am getting ahead of myself here, this plays into the moral message of the film. Bane remains all the more terrifying for his beliefs throughout the entire film. He is a man without doubt and without empathy. He creates chaos, fear, anger and confusion in order to completely destroy a society, so that his ideology can prevail. That’s the very nature of terrorism guys, and the film presents this boldly and in an unflinching manner. It’s about more than the rich and the poor. It’s about the climate that allows terrorism to thrive and the manner in which they so. This message is right there on the surface of the film, hell it IS the film. It’s a harrowing and well told message, and we would be doing the film a deep disservice to ignore it or not talk about it in order to attempt to look for the subtext and nuance that was in other works of Nolan. The Dark Knight Rises eschews that to embrace the idea that the story is the conceit. Let’s do that same when viewing it.
To the moral message, let’s examine it in context of the film. Again, this is the very nature of duality being presented. The film presents a series of lies told by the characters, and examines what happens when those lies are revealed for their false nature.The characters have an opportunity to correct the destruction caused by some of the lies, maybe not even just once or twice, but allows the continual pursuit of perseverance and will. I don’t think the message here is that all lies are destructive, but that’s not necessarily the case as presented. The Dent Act, built upon a joint lie by Batman and Gordon, has done much to clean up much of the corruption of Gotham and overall made it a better place. It weighs on Gordon that this is a lie, and he feels guilty about what happened to Batman as a result. However, the problem starts with the resignation letter that he carries on his person. He is prepare to reveal the lie and resign, despite the ramifications that might have as a result. This choice actually spurs events later in the movie, and the initial lie doesn’t have that much of a negative impact, other than to serve as a counterpoint to the later reveal. Alfred’s arc is interesting, in that he reveals his lie to Bruce, and that results in a temporary rift, but it doesn’t actually serve as a destructive force. Instead, it serves as propulsion for Bruce’s arc of eventual acceptance and perseverance. Alfred accepts the consequences of his actions immediately and avoids almost all of the movie’s unpleasantness all together. Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne face more dire consequences from their actions. The off-books armory is converted to a war chest by the League of Shadows, and the shelved but not destroyed reactor is converted to a powerful weapon of terror. Both of these were revealed as lies rather than confronted as directed. They were secrets that were found out by the other side. Bane and Talia have their fair share of choices they confront as well, as does Selina Kyle.
The Batman presented early in the film is not one that is built up, but one that is without conviction and half-asses his way through things. He doesn’t dig deeply on Bane, he doesn’t pursue the correct individual during the chase sequence, and he is unable to defeat Bane, a man of thorough convictions. He loses his entire fortune (remember that he does NOT rebuild it and it is not a billionaire’s actions later in the film), and he turns over his business to a woman he hardly knows. Lucius Fox not only goes along with his plans, but continues to rely on the woman, despite the fact that he has no idea who she really is. Selina Kyle suffers this same fate in a way. She knows what she did possibly leads to the death of Bruce Wayne, but just wants an opportunity to start over and make her life right. Her actions early on consistently lead her in the wrong direction. Gordon’s actions cause the same fate within the police force. Bane reading his letter publicly earns him the disdain of John Blake and his fellow police officers. When push comes to shove, his resistance force is minimal. The other police officer, Officer Smarmy, refuses to go after the actual terrorists to instead focus on Batman and what it could do for his career. This results in the terrorists enacting the plan to seize control of Wayne Enterprises. However, all of the characters have chances to persevere and opt to change course. In the case of Bruce Wayne and Gordon, it really is multiple opportunities rather than a single instance of redemption that comes their way. The same with Selina Kyle. She continually looks out for herself but ends up in an increasingly worse position. Bane and Talia keep making decisions that move things in their favor, but when offered outs from a plan that is going south, they opt to follow through, and the consequences ripple out from there.
Bruce Wayne does not give up during the entire film, and neither does Gordon, or Kyle. I would go so far as to say that Alfred doesn’t either, as the ending of the film shows. Blake actually DOES give up at the end of the film, and you see the cycle starting all over again. I do not see this as a happy ending for Blake, despite whatever geeky fervor might have been associated with it. Instead, it’s a man who has become disillusioned and given up fighting his way through the odds. Gordon, however, comes out the other side and his conviction and faith is restored. Bruce struggles to finally rebuild himself and come to terms with who and what he is. He is no longer a man who doesn’t care and embraces death. He’s a man who wants to correct his mistakes, fight of the things he loves, and he puts his faith in others, not just himself. Is this Batman? I really don’t care if it’s a version I have seen before or not, but this Batman is not a goddamn quitter. He perseveres and he leads the way for others to do the same. Even Officer Smarmy comes around and decides that he needs to take action, and his presence and deeds allow for the plan to succeed, correcting his previous mistake. Kyle makes good on her turn as well, deciding that she can’t reconcile her deeds with what is now occurring and she can’t deny the way that having someone believe in her makes her feel. Her actions make things worse throughout the film, but eventually she makes good when it counts. Is it a second chance for her? No, not any more than it is a second chance for Wayne, Gordon and Fox. Lucius helps with the plane and the device, despite his weapons and hoarding making everything possible. Batman has fucked up continuously in this film, been lazy and slapdash but even in his final moments, after he has come to know the entire plan and felt the weight of that upon him, he keeps fucking going. Batman is redeemed in the eyes of the city and Bruce Wayne is finally a man at peace. This all just illustrates the moral message of the film. Despite what has come before, if you persevere, you can make things better and right.
Are there other messages you could read into the film? Undoubtedly, and that’s what people are certainly doing. However, the general consensus seems to be that these other messages are less cohesive or narrative than they could otherwise be. To me, these moral and political messages are the ones that are the most supported, and all of the other issues in the film either support or serve to contrast them. It’s certainly not the only way to look at the film, but I think it’s a way that hasn’t yet been examined, and that’s a shame. It’s right there for us to see.