“A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol… As a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting.” – Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins
It’s already been two years since the last live-action Dark Knight appeared on our screens with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Last month, meanwhile, we saw the first preview of Ben Affleck as Batman ahead of 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. And so before the memory of Nolan’s trilogy is overrun with thoughts on the Man Of Steel sequel, now seems like a good time for a look back at what The Dark Knight Rises achieved.
Now I don’t want to seem like a pedant – I love Nolan’s Dark Knight series – but, as far as plot holes go, the final film is the weakest of the trilogy. It’s not that the plot holes are unforgivable, just that they’re awkwardly unavoidable compared to the pragmatism of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight.
Endless YouTube parodies have gleefully provided an answer to all unlikely feats of the plot: [gruff voice] “…because I’m Batman!”
Entertaining as it is, can the film’s numerous illogical plot points be explained in a way that actually reconciles it with the quality of the series as a whole?
Granted, a universe where a major city police force can’t figure out that it takes a billionaire to fund Batman’s equipment was never going to be stringently logical. But Nolan’s style is to make the most unusual, most fantastical of plots seem possible in the real world. He’s no fool. Anyone that makes Inception with a straight face is not only an ambitious auteur but must have a meticulous eye.
For any trilogy to work it must have a respect for its own premise and its own boundaries. Yet Rises disregards much of the pragmatic story reasoning that defined its predecessors.
Rises adopts an even more tragic, operatic tone, and unapologetically spends time and plot concluding the story of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Yet its (visually stunning) action sequences and narrative threads are brought together with little thought as to how they logically occur, most notably in the third act.
Is The Dark Knight Rises, therefore, best understood as an examination of the symbolism and consequences of the Batman legend? Has it been wrongly criticised for its shortcomings when it is deliberately not in the style of Nolan’s signature believability? All evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
The film, taken in sequence and as a whole, includes some shaky bridging scenes. But episodically, occasional sequences give a compelling exploration of whether Bruce Wayne is Batman, whether Batman is Bruce Wayne, and whether the two can survive without each other.
Batman’s return in the first place is for the sake of sensationally demonstrating Wayne’s triumph over his own injuries. The crime and police corruption endemic to the first two films, that made Batman’s existence necessary, are no longer present. It’s never made clear by Commissioner Gordon why it is that the police can’t handle Bane’s underground army, especially after establishing in the first third of the film that Gotham was a near crime-free city thanks to the Dent Act.
In fact, when Batman does reappear, he’s a counterproductive distraction. Not only does Wayne know that he is a wanted fugitive, but he also ends up disrupting what was otherwise a pretty standard pursuit.
For the sake of Nolan building him up to knock him down, Batman leads, as Alfred says, a bloated police force on a merry chase to a literal dead-end. Rises, more than any other film in the series, plays a great game of brinkmanship: breaking and plunging the hero into darkness so as to show off his strength at the expense of continuity and rationalism.
The problem with the shift from action to personal exposition is it doesn’t account for the missed opportunities to make as many symbolic, dramatic statements as it could. The movie has only a few outright memorable individual moments to this end, the most striking being the breaking of Batman’s back.
The choreography in the film’s cage fight between Bane and Batman is balletic, the absence of music powerful. As Bane, Tom Hardy’s strength is matched by his expression and theatricality. Christian Bale is glorious in his exhausting and will-driven fighting. Every punch hurts, and nothing deflects from the inevitable outcome facing Bale’s older and weaker character.
The importance of the fight avoids the obvious question: how did Bane know that Bruce Wayne was Batman in the first place? In fact, how did Bane know where Lucius Fox keeps Wayne’s arsenal? Intrinsic questions, ones that undercut the ferocious exchange between the film’s two leads.
When Batman is defeated, his mask is pulled away, Bane casually discards it and saunters off. It’s a powerful scene and beautifully captured, but Nolan’s choice not to focus on Bruce Wayne’s face is a lost opportunity to properly break the character before our eyes.
More than likely, the decision was made because of movie magic. Bale wears black eyeshadow, as have all recent film incarnations of the character. Across the Nolan films, there has always been an attempt to portray the suit as an appendage, with the wearer independent of the theatrics required to inhabit the in-world character.
There’s something curious about the idea of Batman – or any superhero – dressing up, because it is an uncomfortable reminder of the most far-fetched histrionics involved in the story. It would be attributable to psychosis in the real world. They become less symbolic, and eerily worldly, especially when combined with an exaggerated voice.
The unmasking scene marks a missed chance for some brutal realism, not least because the film is about Wayne obsessively fulfilling his need to be Batman. When he rises from the prison pit, it is with a self-decreed, messianic purpose to ‘save his city’, contrasted with the films before where he saw himself, in the words of Nolan, “as a catalyst for change, and therefore it was a temporary process, maybe a five-year plan that would be enforced for symbolically encouraging the good of Gotham to take back their city.”
The problem was circumvented when Wayne climbs down from the Bat vehicle holding his helmet, but you don’t see him take it off. The same was true of Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns when he begins to take off his mask only for the angle to change to show he’s not wearing the black eyeliner that was there a moment before.
The omission is compounded when Bane addresses the city from outside Blackgate prison in his iconoclastic bid to bring ‘freedom’ to the people. Why did he not hold up Batman’s broken mask, or another piece of the suit, along with the picture of Harvey Dent? There’s a duality to the masks of Batman and Bane. The former hides his face with an open mouth, whilst Bane masks his voice literally. Blind justice versus twisted truth? Another missed movie moment.
In no short time, these omissions are rectified with the highly charged prison escape sequence. The bats flying overhead as Wayne ascends to a riveting score by Hans Zimmer defines not only the film’s message but the problems associated with it. How can you ignore that Bruce Wayne, escaping a prison, sneaks into Gotham – with time for a haircut while a nuclear bomb ticks down – with no explanation?
The prelude to the third act is the weakest because it needs to take shortcuts in order to rush to the final showdown. The film’s predecessors had a natural flow that was never grandiose on this scale. Nolan subsequently tries to squeeze in as much as he can while taking us speedily to the conclusion. Having time to ascend a bridge and paint a bat signal in gasoline seems to question how imminent the crisis facing Gotham actually is.
It’s highly entertaining, but in plot terms, it’s rather sloppy, especially when compared to the intricate explanations of the previous films, such as the journey into and out of Hong Kong in The Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight Rises, more questions than answers are generated. Why did Talia al Ghul invest all of her money in Wayne’s company, why did she sleep with him, and why did Team Bane not just detonate the nuclear bomb? Indeed, if we’re being really, really picky, why did police officers stuck underground for five months emerge clean-shaven?
And yet by the closing segment, it’s impossible to deny Nolan’s success in bringing to a stunning conclusion Wayne’s want to die and Batman’s destiny to survive. Glossing over many of the mistakes owes much to the pathos of Zimmer’s score, as well as the delightfully thoughtful ending sequence in Florence.
Nolan is careful to never give in to the temptation to oblige the audience with a return to form for the hero. The Dark Knight Rises takes its time demonstrating Wayne’s slow realisation that his limits, physically and mentally, have finally been superseded by what is required of the Batman legend. By the end, the restoration of the bat signal and Bruce’s meeting with Alfred feel like a satisfactory conclusion for the character and his creation.
Ultimately, while stylistically different from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises concludes the essence of the story of Bruce Wayne. The former is set in almost complete darkness, the middle film a mix of the two, while the latter takes place almost completely in the light. It successfully bridges the three films, but in a manner, and with a conclusion, not expected of the filmmaker.
The blue-cloaked statue, reminiscent of the comics, is what this was about: the legend and the man, not the plot telling a singular Batman-centric story. Perhaps Bruce Wayne surviving a nuclear explosion and with no one recognising the missing billionaire are a small price to pay for the scope, ambition, and heart of this story.
As we await the new film, which pairs the bat logo against the most recognised symbol in the world (second only to Coca-Cola), it will be interesting to see how the Dark Knight mantle is next handled. Indeed, of Nolan’s trilogy and the future of the series, the man himself said “to me, for that mission to succeed, it has to end, so this is the ending for me, and as I say, the open-ended elements are all to do with the thematic idea that Batman was not important as a man, he’s more than that. He’s a symbol, and the symbol lives on.”