Was The Dark Knight Rises Really Necessary?
Weren't the endless plot holes proof that it wasn't? Shouldn't Nolan have just quit while he was ahead? Was the movie really needed? Hit the jump to find out...
Batman Begins in 2005. The Dark Knight in 2008.
Many Batman fans wish Christopher Nolan had just stopped there. We got the origin. We got Batman's toughest challenge yet in the Joker. We got a pretty cool ending as our hero somehow turned into the villain as his Bat-pod vanished into the night.
Cut. Wrap. Done.
No TDKR vs Avengers. No 'Nolanites' vs 'Marvelites' (or at least, not as much). No fans getting into a rage because of plot holes, changes to the character, character designs, or any other complaints about the finale. Sure, there's still many things not to love about Nolan's Batman, even if he'd never made The Dark Knight Rises. But without it, things would've been much less...messy.
So couldn't things have ended with The Dark Knight? What more could Bruce Wayne have grown as a character? We saw him at his pinnacle, the very height of his transformation into Batman. He made an incredible sacrifice for the good of the people of Gotham. He gave the people a symbol, and with it, he defeated Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and the Joker. By taking the blame for Harvey's descent into madness, maybe Bruce had come full circle as a character. The story could have ended. Right?
Wrong. We really did need The Dark Knight Rises.
On that little cliffhanger, I want to take a second and state that this is by no means a defense of The Dark Knight Rises. Not an explanation of which plot holes were legitimate and which ones weren't. No justification of the changes made from the comic books. No movie should need something like that. If it's good, then it's good. And vice versa. Could Nolan have made it a much tighter, more logical movie? Undoubtedly yes. And I also have a lot that I could say about these complaints (maybe in a future editorial). But for now, I'm attempting to explain why even a mediocre finale was better than none at all. From a story-telling point of view, this is an explanation of why a third movie was necessary to complete the duel stories of both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
With that said, let's take a look at the first two installments of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. To understand why this needed to be a trilogy, it's important to look at the individual themes of each film.
Batman Begins was mostly centered on Fear, which is actually a pretty interesting thing to tackle in a super serious, gritty comic book movie. The first fear we experience is, of course, the fear young Bruce has of bats. No rhyme, no reason to it. Primal. Irrational. But it plays such an important part throughout Bruce's life. Despite having absolutely no mention in The Dark Knight, his phobia comes into play again, however briefly, in The Dark Knight Rises. And the inclusion of such a tiny detail (which I'll get to a little later on), after being mysteriously absent in The Dark Knight, is just one example of why we needed a follow-up to close out the Bruce Wayne/Batman story.
As a child, Bruce must also deal with the horror of seeing his parents gunned down right in front of him. We fast-forward 14 years, during which time Bruce has become much more cynical, bitter, and vengeful to the point where he almost shoots his parents' murderer in cold blood, but is thwarted when crime boss Carmine Falcone sends someone else to do the deed. This leads to an intense confrontation between Bruce and Falcone, where Bruce tries to prove that he, and everyone else in Gotham, isn't afraid of him. Falcone goes on to lecture him about what the power of fear can achieve, and in one of his more memorable quotes, he explains that "This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear...what you don't understand."
As we all know, Bruce then decides to travel the world in order to fully understand the criminal mind and "seek the means to fight injustice," before ironically becoming a criminal himself. Henri Ducard finds Bruce completely lost in prison and offers him a chance to train and use his passion for justice, stealth, and fear against criminals as a member of the League of Shadows.
The ideas and "rules" that will eventually drive Bruce when he dons the mask are all developed and honed during his training. This includes his firm anti-killing stance, his sense of justice (as opposed to, say, revenge. He learns that they are two different things), and his ability to use his own fear and turn it on his enemies, which is emphasized when Bruce is under the effects of the fear-inducing blue flower while training with Ducard: "To conquer fear, you must become fear."
Fear proves to be one of the biggest reasons why Bruce becomes Batman. Perfectly summed up when Alfred asks why the obsession with bats, Bruce explains, "Bats frighten me. It's time my enemies shared my dread." Through the use of stealth and theatricality, Bruce literally turns his fear onto his enemies in Gotham.
The theme for Batman Begins then becomes quite tangible in the form of Jonathan Crane and his fear toxin. Even at this point in his journey, we're reminded that Bruce still has that constant phobia of both bats and the death of his parents, evidenced when he receives a dose of the toxin and is temporarily put out of commission by the hallucinations of his past, some gasoline, and that creepy "You need to...lighten up!" line by Scarecrow.
Although somewhat obvious, it was quite inspired to embody the theme of the movie as the actual physical weapon that the villain Ra's Al Ghul used. Bruce is forced to confront his own fears in more ways than one, and Batman rises to the occasion and defeats his enemy, saving the rest of the city from a gruesome fate.
Great origin story. Great action and tone. Great way to establish the character and make him relevant again. On to the sequel!
I'll try not to spend too much time on The Dark Knight, but its main themes are undoubtedly Chaos and Escalation, embodied brilliantly in Heath Ledger's Joker. Compared to Batman Begins, the sequel basically takes it one step further. In terms of consequences and effects on the rest of the trilogy, it can be argued that the action and story told in The Dark Knight matters more than the themes (although that's not to say that the role chaos and escalation play are pointless or unnecessary. Quite the opposite, in fact). It's much more character driven, as evidenced by the introduction of Harvey Dent, his relationship with Rachel Dawes, and most importantly, the inevitable consequences that every choice has for the characters and the entire story.
At the beginning of the movie, roughly a year after the events of the first film, we see newly appointed District Attorney Harvey Dent team up with Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Batman to battle the organized crime of Gotham City, while also dealing with the lingering corruption present in both Dent's Office and Gordon's police force. We all know what happens next: Harvey Dent's status as one of the only "White Knight" public figures in Gotham is established, The Joker comes onto the scene, and chaos soon reigns as everyone scrambles to put away the serial killer and terrorist before too much damage is done.
It's also established throughout the movie Bruce still has feelings for Rachel, spurred on by her promise that when the world no longer has a need for Batman, they can be together. This makes it even more devastating when she keeps that hope alive, chooses Harvey over Bruce and gives her heartfelt rejection letter to Alfred for safekeeping, and then is killed at the hands of the Joker in the warehouse explosion scene. The same scene that horribly transforms Harvey Dent into Two-Face.
Throughout all of this, Bruce Wayne is at a crossroads. We begin to see him yearning for a life after Batman, buying into the hopes that he can live happily ever after with his childhood love Rachel and that Harvey, even without wearing a mask or becoming a symbol, can be more effective at fighting crime and inspiring people than Batman ever was.
This is why it is so tragic when the duel explosions kill Rachel and disfigure Harvey. Everyone's hopes, including Bruce's, had been riding on Harvey living up to these massive expectations as the only White Knight in Gotham. Instead, the pain of having his love killed, the pain of his physical disfigurement, and his consuming need for revenge put Harvey Two-Face on a path that allows the Joker to win, regardless of what happens to him.
After a hospital visit from the Joker, Harvey fully transforms into Two-Face. Harvey is manipulated into deflecting blame for Rachel's death away from the Joker and onto people more responsible, namely mobster Sal Maroni, Gordon's corrupted cops Ramirez and Weurtz, Batman, and Commissioner Gordon. Obsessed with using his father's lucky two-sided coin to decide whether his victims live or die, Two-Face goes on a bit of a rampage while everybody's efforts are still concentrated on capturing the Joker.
In the intense climactic scene, Two-Face, driven by his own need for revenge and his obsession with fairness and chance, threatens the lives of Gordon's wife and children in the same warehouse where Rachel died. Batman attempts to get Two-Face to punish the people actually responsible for Rachel's death, rather than Gordon's innocent son. Meaning, the triumvirate who initially set out to rid Gotham of organized crime. Deferring to chance in the form of his defaced coin, Dent shoots Batman, spares himself, and flips his coin one more time to decide whether or not to kill Gordon's son. At the last second, Batman tackles Harvey and all three go over the side of the building. Harvey is instantly killed in the fall, but Batman manages to save Gordon's son before falling too.
Gordon and Batman despair over Harvey's rapid fall from grace. Every prosecution, every good thing Harvey did will become undone once news of his actions become public. The Joker won.
Here, Bruce decides that the good of Gotham City is more important than Batman's reputation. "I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be." He truly becomes a selfless hero, even though he paradoxically becomes the villain as well. Gordon and Batman must lie, pinning the murders on Batman himself and condemning himself as a criminal while Harvey Dent will continue to be seen as the White Knight, even in his death. He dies a martyr, although at a huge cost.
Just as Batman claims that sometimes the truth just isn't good enough, we see Alfred burning Rachel's letter. The lies that each character agrees to tell in this crucial scene go on to play major roles in the 3rd installment, and rightfully so.
There's no proper way to end a summary of this film and the state that Batman is in at this point except with Gordon's own classic lines, "...he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight."
Now onto the most recent film. Possibly the most anticipated one. The most controversial one as well. That's right, The Dark Knight Rises.
As divisive as it is, The Dark Knight Rises accomplished many of the things that a third film in a trilogy should. Had The Dark Knight been the last movie, there would have been no closure for any of these topics. This includes referencing and incorporating important plot points from the first movie, resolving themes that have been running throughout the trilogy, and concluding major character arcs.
Any good trilogy takes elements from the first movie and incorporates them into the last one (The Bourne Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars, just to name a few) in a way that doesn't seem forced or contrived. A big part of this in The Dark Knight Rises has to do with bringing back the threat of The League of Shadows in the form of Bane, now the leader of the fanatical group. Bane tells Batman during their first knock-down, drag-out fight that he is fulfilling the plan that their mentor Ra's Al Ghul set out to do in the first movie.
"Theatricality and deception. Powerful agents to the uninitiated." We heard Ra's Al Ghul say almost the same thing to Bruce during his training in Batman Begins, further reinforcing the notion that the events of Batman Begins had a huge impact on this movie.
And of course, one of the biggest shout-outs to the first movie is Ra's Al Ghul himself appearing to Bruce in the prison in the form of a hallucination, taunting Bruce that all he could accomplish as Batman was a poorly thought out lie.
Even the giant hole that provides the illusion one can escape from Bane's prison can be seen as paying homage to the old well that young Bruce Wayne fell into at the beginning of Batman Begins. When Bruce has yet another failed attempt at escape, the flashback to his father rescuing him along with the words "Why do we fall, Bruce?" is incredibly fitting.
Another thing a trilogy should do is wrap up the themes inherent in each movie, as well as dealing with the theme of the final film itself. The main theme of The Dark Knight Rises is Consequences. The actions of the characters, from Alfred to Bruce to Gordon, all end up having serious, far-reaching effects.
The first lie that gets uncovered that has direct consequences to the rest of the story is Alfred burning Rachel's letter telling Bruce she'd chosen Harvey Dent over him. In a heart-wrenching confrontation, Alfred tries using the truth to dissuade him from donning the suit again, to get Bruce to finally move on from Rachel, and actually have a life beyond Wayne Manor and the Batcave. But Bruce sees it as being manipulative. In his words, his world is destroyed. And it leads to Alfred leaving Bruce on awful terms.
Later on we finally see the pivotal lie, which was thought up at the end of The Dark Knight, come back to haunt them. At Blackgate Prison, where a thousand inmates are detained as a direct result of the Dent Act, Bane exposes the lie. Having found Gordon's planned speech admitting his guilt, Bane takes the opportunity to undo the actions of the Dent Act by freeing the Blackgate prisoners.
He uses Gordon and Batman's lie as an example of the rich, powerful, and corrupt trying to manipulate and control the masses. With an impressive speech about taking control away from the powerful liars and giving it to the people (a sort of French Revolution on steroids), chaos reigns. We see a montage of mobs forcibly taking away the decadence of the rich to keep for themselves as most of the city's army of cops are still trapped underground in the city's subway tunnels and sewers. Bane finishes his speech with a lie of his own: "This great city...it will endure. Gotham will survive!"
This brings us to the resolution of the major theme of the three movies: Fear. It's hinted at early on that Bruce coming out of retirement and becoming Batman again isn't such a good idea, that he is doing so because of the wrong reasons. Alfred tells him that he never actually moved on from what happened with Rachel. By remaining a recluse in Wayne Manor, he's simply waiting for things to go bad again.
Despite all the fan criticism of Bruce 'magically' getting into fighting shape again because of a leg brace, Alfred sums it up perfectly: "You can strap up your leg and put your mask back on, but that doesn't make you what you were." Implying that it takes something else for Bruce to properly become Batman again. Rather than being afraid that Bruce will fail if he gets back in the game, Alfred is afraid that he wants to. Just a few more hints that maybe Bruce is suiting up again for the wrong reasons.
This point seems to be confirmed when Batman receives a thorough beat-down by Bane in the sewer fight. "You don't fear death. You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe." Here, Bane explains why he didn't just kill Bruce. This severe punishment takes the form of false hope, embodied in Bane's prison.
Sure, from a pure logic standpoint, it's ridiculous to put Wayne in a prison with no guards and with one extremely obvious escape route that he could use to get out. But that's missing the point. To fully destroy Bruce, he has to poison him with the false sense that he can escape. Nothing is worse than false hope. As Bane himself points out, "I learned here there can be no true despair without hope."
This is the same tactic Bane uses on the people of Gotham with the slowly decaying bomb. While they are preoccupied with Bane's notion of a social uprising, they are oblivious to the fact that they are living on borrowed time, no matter what happens.
But getting back to Fear, both Bane and the blind doctor from the prison recognize that Bruce doesn't fear death. Rather than being a strength, it has proven to be a glaring weakness. Bruce can do as many push-ups as he wants, but without the most basic instinct of fearing death, he has no chance at escaping the prison. This weakness is why Bruce couldn't defeat Bane before, and it's why he can't escape to save his city.
After several failed attempts, Bruce becomes convinced of making the impossible climb out of the prison without the benefit of the safety rope. As he steadily climbs up, he soon discovers that fear has found him again. Then, right before he makes the fateful leap that only one extremely determined and motivated child has ever made before, a bunch of bats fly out of a hole, startling him. A relatively minor detail, but this serves to remind Bruce, at a most critical juncture, of why he started on the journey he is on now in the first place. It brings so many parts of his story full circle.
Spurred on by these duel fears that he has learned to respect again, Bruce leaps...
...and makes it. In one of the most pivotal scenes of the trilogy, Bruce gains freedom from Bane's prison and can now slowly make his way back to Gotham in order to save his city.
The action subtly moves a few months ahead, in which time Bruce has made it back to the city and has already enlisted Lucious Fox's help to "get back in the game." We also see our old buddy Dr. Jonathan Crane serving as judge and jury of Bane's courts. Condemned to death by exile, Commissioner Gordon is forced to walk out on the fragile ice. Batman takes down the armed guards, saves Gordon, and in a truly epic and symbolic sequence, lights up a flare that burns across the ice, up the ruined bridge, and forms a fiery Bat signal for the whole city to see.
After blasting a hole through the debris to allow the cops to escape, Batman tasks Catwoman with using his Batpod to make another escape route through the midtown tunnels while he goes around and prepares for an all out war on Bane and his army. Amid all the frantic action of the cops and mercenaries going at it, Batman and Bane fighting for a second and final time, Miranda Tate revealing herself as Talia al Ghul, and the attempt to stabilize the reactor core, it all culminates in Batman selflessly flying the bomb out of the city and far enough away where it would detonate safely, albeit at the apparent expense of his own life.
The last thing a 3rd movie should accomplish is concluding the character arcs of the main players in the story. Aside from the obvious Bruce Wayne/Batman arc, we see the journeys of Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley, John Blake, and Catwoman come to significant resolutions as well. For the purposes of this article, I'll just stick with the all-important Wayne/Batman arc.
We've seen Bruce come a long way from the angry, revenge-seeking young man in Batman Begins. It's safe to say that his crusade to rid Gotham of injustice and crime has been mostly a success. Although there have been casualties on the way, he defeated several major villains while also combating the organized crime and corruption in the city.
The Bruce we encounter at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises has been through so many highs and lows in his life. During his time as a recluse in Wayne Manor for eight years, he experiences one of the deepest lows. This makes it so much more satisfying when we see that Bruce survived the bomb detonation. Many people have complained about the typical Hollywood ending, but it's arguable that Bruce's arc wouldn't have been complete had he died. He almost had to survive and fake his death in order to properly complete his story and retire to enjoy a true, meaningful life after Batman.
As for Batman, he has gone from a helpful vigilante to a wanted criminal to the city's savior throughout the course of the story. It is suggested that John Blake may become the next Dark Knight. An overarching theme throughout the trilogy is that Batman is a symbol and that anyone can become him. Several hints are dropped throughout the final movie that this theme is about to be put into action.
After losing all of his money, Bruce tells Blake that the mask is to protect those closest to him as well as to show that anyone can become Batman. Much later on, when Blake fails at freeing the trapped cops and faces almost certain death, Batman comes to his rescue and then reiterates this point again. He suggests that Blake should wear a mask when working alone. Not to hide behind it, but to protect the people close to him.
After Batman sacrifices himself and saves the city, it's shown that Bruce has left behind evidence to select people in his life to show that he is actually alive. Armed with the coordinates of Bruce's Batcave, Blake stumbles through the waterfall and wanders the expanse of his new hideout. In somewhat of a literal interpretation of the movie's title, a hidden platform beneath Blake's feet ascends, raising him and solidifying the idea that Batman is everlasting, a symbol, a legend.
In conclusion, by no means is The Dark Knight Rises a perfect movie. Far from it. But then again, no movie is flawless. Not even The Dark Knight. Despite how perfect an ending the second movie had, it would've left too many things unresolved. Through this article, I hope I've shown how The Dark Knight Rises was extremely crucial to the telling of the story, despite all the criticisms.
But by looking past the popular internet nit-pickings of the movie and trilogy as a whole, one just might learn to appreciate the story for what it was: the journey of Bruce Wayne, the mistakes and falls he had along the way, and his eventual redemption and rise that enabled him to save his entire city and have a satisfying happy ending.
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