In fact, Alfred raises the basic question of the film, a question basic also to A Tale of Two Cities: whether redemption, a hopeful future, is possible given the weight of one’s own past and the present demise of civilization.
The film benefits from a number of fine performances. The regulars (Bale, Caine, Oldman, and Morgan Freeman as genius inventor Lucius Fox) are all terrific. They are joined by newcomers Tom Hardy as the villain Bane, who does reasonably well in a role that doesn’t call for much in the way of motivational complexity; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, in a solid performance as an orphan, now a young cop, who continues to believe in Batman; and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, known as Catwoman.
An early scene introduces Catwoman, a sleek and elusive thief, who has made her way into Wayne Manor and absconded not just with Bruce’s mother’s necklace but also with his fingerprints. It turns out that Catwoman is indebted to the new underground crime lord, Bane, a rather nondescript, malevolent force with some sort of connection to the League of Shadows — a group that figured prominently in the first film in the trilogy. Catwoman is in search of a device that will allow her to wipe out her previous identity and thus any record of her criminal past. She wants a “clean slate.”
What is interesting about her desire for a clean slate is not just how foolish and futile that seems in the world of Gotham, but also how it plays off an equally vain, though much more ominous, desire, that of Bane, who wishes to destroy Gotham and thus make way for a new civilization. In the contest over Gotham, Bane revives the thesis of Ra’s al Ghul, the former leader of the League of Shadows, that Gotham is not susceptible of redemption or at least not worthy of it. A clean slate, he supposes, is the only possibility for a new beginning.
Nolan’s film puts that radical thesis in doubt in two ways. First, Gotham has become a better place, and not just because Gordon now has the support of the enthusiastic John Blake. In the battle against evil, Batman has a lot more help in this film than in the previous films; especially noteworthy is the basic fidelity and courage of the police force. Second, as Hathaway’s Catwoman learns, the real question about the possibility of a new beginning is not whether one can wipe out the past, but whether one can make amends for the past by living well in the present, by making good use of whatever time is left in one’s life.
The question of how much time is left, for individuals or for Gotham, remains an unsettling mystery for nearly the entirety of The Dark Knight Rises. By constructing a world of unpredictable violence and tenuous human commitment, Nolan sustains a high level of tension in the plot, which includes a number of surprises and reversals. Viewers simply don’t know how it will end, but Nolan makes this much clear well before the finale: For things to turn out well this time, noble lies will not suffice. Only noble sacrifice will do.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press. To read more, go to http://www.thomashibbs.org/.