Christopher Nolan’s final entry in his trilogy of Batman movies, The Dark Knight Rises, contains less humor, fewer moments of awe-inspiring action, and a much less captivating villain than either of the previous entries. It’s also longer than even the lengthy second film, and it has its share of preposterous plot elements. Yet, it works. Despite the length, it doesn’t drag. It seems unaffected by the weight of the trilogy, the danger of inordinate self-consciousness of its place in a series of hugely popular films. In fact, The Dark Knight Rises has the feel of a fresh start even as it manages to loop back to earlier themes in ways that prepare for a very satisfying ending, an ending that affirms the nobility of the deepest desires of the human heart.
From Rush Limbaugh to full-time movie critics, commentators seem keen on pointing out the presence in the film of topics ripped from the headlines of our time: the haves vs. the have-nots, nuclear power, energy, and the environment. But these themes pale by comparison to the theme of terrorism, to the threat of a (nearly) faceless enemy bent on destruction. In the second of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, Nolan portrayed the city of Gotham as a gloomy, dark, self-enclosed, claustrophobic place. “Gotham cubed,” he called it. In this film, Gotham is still gloomy, but more of the action occurs in daylight, and there are many panoramic shots of the city. In the earlier film, the tight focus increased the tension between Batman and the Joker. Here, the more encompassing view of the city, especially as explosions collapse bridges and open gaping holes in the infrastructure, underscores the threat of terrorism to an entire populace. The chilling images of Gotham going up in flames dredge up the fears we have had for New York and other major American cities during and after the heinous attacks of September 11.
The film focuses less on Batman and his singular battle with the villain than on Gotham, on whether or not Gotham is “beyond redemption.” It turns out that the inspiration for the quest for redemption in the midst of a civilization in crisis was nothing contemporary but rather a piece of classic literature. Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Chris, notes that he looks to “good literature for inspiration.” In this case, the source is Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a famous line from which makes its way into the film. Nolan explains, “What I always felt like we needed to do in a third film was, for lack of a better term, go there. All of these films have threatened to turn Gotham inside out and to collapse it on itself. None of them have actually achieved that until this film. A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces . . . It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.”
The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after Batman’s confrontation with the Joker, whose name is never mentioned in this film. At the end of The Dark Knight, the Joker, captured, incarcerated, and no longer a threat to the citizens of Gotham, has nonetheless inflicted great harm. He killed Rachel, the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, and he succeeded in turning the popular crime-fighter Harvey Dent into a criminal. With Dent dead but the public desperately in need of continued belief in a hero, Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman construct a lie: that it was not Dent but Batman who turned criminal.
As The Dark Knight Rises opens, the neutralization of the Joker and the lie about Dent seem to have reinvigorated the city. Gotham has experienced relatively little in the way of serious crime. But the lie, as the notes for the new film put it, “works only for a time.” And the lie has exacted a cost, particularly on Gordon (Gary Oldman), who carries with him a written text containing the truth about Dent.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a purposeless recluse, about whom weird, Howard Hughes–like rumors circulate. Alfred (Michael Caine), the longtime Wayne family butler and confidant, chastises Bruce, “You’re not alive; you’re just waiting for something bad to happen.” Alfred pleads with him to move on, to reclaim his public role as Bruce Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises and Gotham philanthropist. He weeps at the prospect that Bruce’s life will be characterized by nothing more than “pain and tragedy.”
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/.