THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: A Fitting Conclusion?
Is the final movie of Nolan's Batman trilogy really a satisfying ending, or is it just the only ending we have? Here's my take.
This editorial is meant as a follow-up to my review of The Dark Knight Rises. If you have not read that, please check it out by clicking the picture below. Also, be aware that this editorial is spoiler heavy.
With a movie like The Dark Knight Rises, many people debate the quality with which the story is executed, but few really question if the story being told really is the right story for the movie. The Dark Knight Rises follows the established continuity and there's no alternative presented so most people will never really question what other direction it could have taken. However, I believe it's an important thing to consider with a movie that not only serves as a continuation of a story told by 2 other movies, but is also the final chapter of that story. An ending has the power to taint or elevate a series based on whether or not it is able to really complement the earlier parts of the story. Take Toy Story 3 for example. The final scene of that movie is beautiful, emotional, and feels like exactly the right way for the story to end because it once again touches on the theme of change that is central to the entire trilogy. The Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, did not feel like as fitting an ending to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy for multiple reasons.
If you watch the first two movies, there is a very natural flow to the way the story progresses from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. The final scene of Batman Begins features a conversation between Batman and Jim Gordon about their mission to bring Gotham out of its current state. They discuss the work that still needs to be done and the progress they have made so far. Then Gordon brings up the probable issue of escalation, something Batman does not seem to have considered. If the police begin to improve their game in the war on crime, the mob will make the necessary advancements in order to hold on to their power. The city even seems to have its answer to Batman. Gordon presents to Batman a joker card, the calling card of a new criminal that shares Batman's taste for the theatrical. As we all know, this criminal is the Joker, the main villain of The Dark Knight. However, The Dark Knight does more than just use the villain hinted at by this scene. It is a complete realization of the theme of escalation presented by this conversation.
Bruce: "I knew the mob wouldn't go down without a fight, but this is different. They've crossed the line."
Alfred: "You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand."
With this exchange, The Dark Knight subtly revisits the final scene of Batman Begins. At that point, Batman was confident that he understood the war he was waging and the challenges that faced him. With the Joker, the rules of the game have been thrown out the window. Alfred's words drive home the fact that the Joker represents the escalation that has resulted from the mission Bruce began in the first movie. From there, The Dark Knight takes us through a story of Bruce being pushed to his limits in his struggle to deal with the Joker, who is the equal and opposite of Batman in a way that he never could have imagined.
The final scene of The Dark Knight is crucial to feeling out the direction and momentum of the story, but there are a few other key scenes throughout the movie that can't be ignored.
Before the press conference that Bruce was going to use to reveal his identity as Batman and turn himself in, he has a conversation with Rachel that brings up some points that are very important to his story over the course of the movie.
Bruce: " You once told me that if the day came when I was finished, we'd be together." (direct reference to their final scene together in Batman Begins)
Rachel: "Bruce, don't make me your one hope for a normal life."
That's exactly what he does though. Rachel was his light at the end of the tunnel and the happy ending he imagined once his work as Batman was done. With this in mind, when the Joker forces Batman to choose between saving Rachel or saving Harvey, it's not just that he's choosing between the lives of two people. He's making a decision about what is most important to him. Rachel represents his hope for happiness and a normal life beyond Batman. Harvey represents his best chance of winning the war on crime and completing Batman's mission. He chose to hold onto his hope for a normal life, but that was taken away from him, leaving only the mission. In the final scene, Two-Face asks Batman "Why was it me who was the only one who lost everything?!"" to which Batman responds "It wasn't." With this line, Bruce painfully reflects on how significant the loss of Rachel was for him. He no longer has anything to hope for in his personal life. However, he still has Batman. In fact, that's pretty much the only thing he has now.
Now we come to the conclusion, and we hear Jim Gordon explain to his son the role that Batman has to play.
"Because 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."
This final speech was just perfection. When you hear the final words, it's a revelation that the title of the movie isn't just Batman's nickname. It's a reflection on who the character is, and role that Batman is selfless enough to play. Note that this is all talking about what Batman is willing to do. They WILL hunt Batman because he CAN take being hunted. I've taken quite a while to come to this point, but I've done so in order to clearly map out Bruce's journey over the first two movies. Batman Begins shows Bruce channeling his anger into something positive to become Batman. The Dark Knight shows Bruce pushed to the limits as he fully comes into the role of being Batman. In no way does The Dark Knight feel like the story of Bruce being forced to give up being Batman. There was a point in the movie when this almost happened, but Alfred encouraged him to endure the hatred of the people to do what was necessary for Gotham. This is the decision he made when the Joker demanded that he turn himself in and this is the decision he continues to act out in the end. He knows that the people will completely turn against him now, but he chooses to take on that burden and press on.
The Dark Knight Rises disrupts the flow of the trilogy by not following the sensible trajectory of Bruce Wayne's story arc. His retirement from being Batman did not feel like a natural progression from where The Dark Knight left off. These first two movies showed a Bruce Wayne who was driven both by his love for Rachel and his dedication to the war on crime. With his hope for a life beyond Batman taken from him, it would seem much more natural for Bruce to completely throw himself into being Batman than to give it up. Batman was created partially as an outlet for Bruce's pain and anger. Thus, suffering such a major loss would probably drive him further into this part of his identity.
Aside from his depression, the only other justification given for why Bruce gave up being Batman was the Harvey Dent act. This particular plot element frustrated me for multiple reasons (one of which I detailed in my review of the movie).
The Harvey Dent act basically rid Gotham City of organized crime. Some of you may be thinking that this was the reason for Batman and Jim Gordon covering up Harvey Dent's crimes, but it really wasn't. At no point did The Dark Knight imply that they had completely gotten rid of organized crime. Here's the dialogue from the scene explaining the victory won by Harvey Dent that they were trying to protect.
Mayor Garcia: "549 criminals at once. How did you convince Surrillo to hear this farce?"
Harvey Dent: "She shares my conviction for justice. After all, she is a judge."
Mayor Garcia: "Well even if you blow enough smoke to get convictions out of Surrillo, you're gonna set a new record at appeals for quickest kick in the ass."
Harvey Dent: "It won't matter. The head guys make bail, sure, but the mid-level guys, they can't. They can't afford to be off the streets long enough for trial and appeal. They'll cut deals that include some jail time. Think of all you could do with 18 months of clean streets."
Along with the image of the hero Gotham needed to believe in, this is what Batman was looking to preserve when he took the blame for Dent's crimes. The powerful crime lords were still going to be around and the mid-level men of these organizations would be back on the streets in 18 months. To put it in Star Wars terms, in Batman Begins, Batman and Gordon started the Rebel Alliance. Then, in The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent helped them to blow up the Death Star. This was definitely a major victory for them, but they still had not defeated the Galactic Empire. Obviously, the fact that the Harvey Dent act was not a part of The Dark Knight's ending does not make it a continuity error. It's believable that this could have happened after The Dark Knight and I can overlook the fact that the ease of putting together a piece of legislature that completely got rid of organized crime begs the question of why the Gotham City government didn't do something like that a long time ago. My problem is the effect the Harvey Dent act has on the larger story.
One of the things that separates the first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies from other interpretations of Batman and other superhero movies is the fact that these movies give Batman a concrete mission. While most superhero movie franchises have random, unconnected threats when moving from one movie to the next, Batman's mission in this series enabled the conflict to really flow and expand throughout the first two parts. Rachel explains to Bruce that the man who killed his parents was the product of the environment created by men like Carmine Falcone. Once he understands this, Bruce doesn't set out to run around stopping purse snatchers. He wants to save Gotham by waging war on men like Falcone. "I'm gonna show the people of Gotham their city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt," Bruce said. This war on organized crime is the reason Bruce becomes Batman and the force that drives the story of the first two movies. Everything is connected to it. Ra's al Ghul wants to destroy Gotham because he believes it is so crime-ridden and corrupt that it is beyond saving. The Joker comes into play as a result of the escalation that Batman triggered by starting this war. Just about every element of the story branches off from it in some form. Until the Harvey Dent act. With the Harvey Dent act, the war on crime that the entire story was built upon comes to an anticlimactic conclusion that we only get to hear about in the Mayor's speech. That's almost as if The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King began with Frodo and Sam sitting in the Shire reflecting on how Gollum did them a favor and just took the ring the rest of the way for them. I admit that the comparison is extreme, but if you watch the first two movies of Nolan's trilogy and think about this point, I think you'll realize that it holds some ground. Just like in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the characters of this story struggle to accomplish something over the course of two movies and this struggle is set up to continue in the third. Their mission isn't as tangible as that of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings, but it is definitely there and for The Dark Knight Rises to dispense with it so nonchalantly really held it back from feeling like a proper continuation of the story for me.
Another thing that really doesn't sit right with me is the way that The Dark Knight Rises undermines one of the main themes of The Dark Knight, the idea of the noble lie. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman decides to take the blame for Two Face's crimes because he knew Gotham needed to believe in Harvey Dent. When Bruce set out to be Batman, it wasn't just about scaring the criminals. It was also about giving the people a symbol they could believe in. Something that was incorruptible and everlasting. However, being Batman has its inherent limitations. Because Batman works outside of the system, hides in the shadows, and breaks the law, he can't be an undeniable symbol of justice. The movie shows that after Bruce has spent a year serving Gotham as Batman, there are both those who are inspired by his example and those who question if he is really doing something positive. Then when Bruce meets Harvey Dent, he sees a person who understands his fight for justice and may be able to be the symbol Batman can't quite be. Harvey is a hero with a face who shows the people of Gotham what their city can be. His image is that of untainted, uncompromised good. Bruce believes Harvey Dent is a symbol that can be more powerful than Batman, so his decision to take the blame is a sacrifice for the greater good. Bruce isn't the only one who believes in this concept. When the Joker demanded that Batman turn himself in, Harvey Dent claims to be Batman and takes the fall because he believes in the battle Batman fights. Near the middle of the movie, Jim Gordon fakes his own death, even keeping his family in the dark about it to ensure their safety. Finally we have Alfred's deception. Alfred had every intention of giving Bruce the letter from Rachel revealing her intent to marry Harvey Dent. The moment when he reconsiders is when Bruce says "She was going to wait for me, Alfred. Dent can never know." The second sentence is the part that's crucial. Bruce wants to save Harvey from the pain of knowing that Rachel was going to leave him. He's trying to treat Harvey as he would want to be treated. Alfred understands this and ultimately handles the situation according to Bruce's own sense of kindness and decency.
"Sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."
With these noble lies, The Dark Knight challenges conventional, black and white morality. The lie that Batman is willing to be a part of is a noble sacrifice and you can hear the admiration in Gordon's voice as he speaks about Batman to his son in the movie's final moments. Given the placement of this theme at the very end of the movie and the fact that it is spoken directly, it's not unreasonable to argue that it is the movie's primary take away message. So why on Earth would the sequel practically spit on it?
The Dark Knight Rises treats Batman and Gordon's cover-up as a dirty, immoral lie that was indisputably wrong. For Gordon, it's a source of shame that has weighed heavily on his conscience. The movie further debases Batman's sacrifice through John Blake who is clearly disgusted with Gordon's actions when he finds out the truth. If I had never seen The Dark Knight before I watched The Dark Knight Rises, I would have gotten the impression that it ended with a very shameful, I Know What You Did Last Summer-type pact, but it's the complete opposite. Movies in a series are supposed to work together, not against each other. The way The Dark Knight Rises opposes a core theme of its superior predecessor hurts its functionality as a sequel.
My final criticism of The Dark Knight Rises is the most difficult to argue, but I'll try to explain it as clearly as possible. I don't like how the movie changes the overall story of Batman that the franchise seemed to be telling. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are set in the early years of Bruce's time as Batman, just like their comic book counterparts Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween. The Dark Knight shows Bruce as he continues to come into the role of Batman by learning his limitations. Meanwhile, the theme of escalation shows the Gotham of the movies becoming more like the Gotham of the comics through the emergence of the Joker. "You've changed things. Forever. There's no going back." The first two movies almost feel like part of the telling of an extended origin story, not just of Batman, but of the Gotham City fans know. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is nearly at that point of being the legendary Batman of the comics. As a crime fighter, he has pretty much developed his abilities to the highest level. Yet, the character has not quite become the kind of legend that Ra's al Ghul described because he sacrificed the symbol of what Batman stood for to protect the image of Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight Rises ends with Bruce giving up crime fighting and the image of Batman becoming the everlasting symbol that Bruce always wanted it to be. However, the Batman of the comics is both the legend and the crime fighter at the same time. Given the story that the first two movies work together to tell, I believe it would have been more sensible to end this trilogy with Bruce at the peak of his abilities, having reclaimed the honor of Batman to fully become the ultimate hero and the everlasting legend.
Look at the flow of Bruce's development as Batman over the course of the trilogy.
Batman Begins: The Beginning
The Dark Knight: 1 Year Later, A continuation of the Early Years
The Dark Knight Rises: 8 Years Later, The Later Years and the End.
If there was maybe about a four year gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the 8 year gap would have given the series the feeling of showing the beginning, middle, and end. However, because The Dark Knight takes place so soon after Batman Begins and the story has this great momentum moving into the third movie, I really believe that showing the ending of the beginning would have felt like a more natural way to conclude this trilogy.
Together, the 8 year gap and the decision to show the ending of Bruce's time as Batman cause some notable issues with the series as an adaptation of the Batman legend. First, they kind of hurt the legacy of the Joker as a character and his conflict with Batman. Think about The Dark Knight's final scene between Batman and the Joker.
"You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness and I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever."
This statement was a perfect way to suggest that this was not the end of the Batman-Joker conflict, but the beginning of a never-ending battle between these two characters similar to the one found in the comics. Obviously, Heath Ledger's death meant that the character wasn't going to be making an appearance in The Dark Knight Rises, but that didn't necessarily mean that the character's role within the Nolan world had to end. If the story of The Dark Knight Rises took place about a year after The Dark Knight and ended with Bruce still being Batman, we would be able to imagine that Batman might come up against the Joker again at some point even if the movie did not reference the character directly. However, since The Dark Knight Rises makes it so that the Joker has not done anything in 8 years and that Bruce is no longer protecting Gotham by the end of the story, the character's role within the Christopher Nolan Batman world is definitively confined to The Dark Knight. By nullifying the eternal nature of Batman's conflict with the Joker, The Dark Knight Rises once again undermines The Dark Knight.
Also, think about the amount of time that Bruce was Batman within the span of his life. The time span of the series' present day events is difficult to estimate, but let's be generous and say that Batman Begins shows Bruce as Batman for about 3 months. Then we have an entire year with him as Batman between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight shows him as Batman for maybe another 3 months. Then, according to The Dark Knight Rises, he quits for 8 years. He returns from retirement and is Batman for maybe about a month and later recovers from his back injury to be Batman again for less than a week. This brings the grand total for the amount of time that Bruce Wayne was Batman to... less than 2 years. To put that into perspective for you, Peter Parker had been Spider-man for longer than that at the beginning of Spider-man 2. This really just doesn't seem right to me. Now don't any of you come at me talking about the realism of Christopher Nolan's world and how that's a realistic amount of time that a man's body could hold up while being Batman. Nolan bends the rules of realism where he sees fit, so if he decided to end his trilogy with Bruce continuing to be Batman after about 3 years, no one really would have questioned if it was realistic. Batman isn't just something Bruce does. It's a part of who he is. The brevity of Bruce's time as Batman makes it feel like a less significant part of his life than it should be.
My problems with the duration of time aside, I also feel that depicting the end of Bruce being Batman just doesn't feel right for the character. There are characters like Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter whose stories benefit from a conclusive end, but superheroes belong to another type. When watching characters like Batman, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Jack Sparrow, it just feels good to see the end and know that the character's adventures will continue. This kind of ending is actually quite common in various forms of storytelling. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight manage to use it well while providing satisfying conclusions to their stories. Many feel that the finality of The Dark Knight Rises makes it a satisfying ending to the trilogy, but I disagree. Sometimes, the happiest ending that is really suitable for a character is a continued life of purpose or adventure. I believe that kind of ending is much more true to the spirit of Bruce Wayne's story than running away to live happily ever after with some chick who stole from him and betrayed him.
The Batman trilogy did need an ending that tied everything together and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. Would it have been possible to do this while leaving Bruce Wayne's story more open-ended? I believe so. I plan on posting an article detailing what I would have done for the third movie, but for now, thank you very much for reading. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell me why you were or were not satisfied with the way the story ended.
Didn't feel like reading all that? Check out the video version of this article here! Mostly the same content, but with more pretty pictures.
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