“It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” - Batman
“You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city.”
I’m relieved I saw The Dark Knight Rises before news broke about the Aurora, Colorado massacre. No wacko with guns was gonna waste money I spent on a good time at the movies! Besides, gun violence in America, what’s new? So jaded. Of course, I wasn’t alone, there were thousands coast-to-coast, and around the world, also eagerly awaiting Nolan’s final installment of his epic Dark Knight trilogy. As I walked into the giant multiplex on Broadway at 1a.m. (the same theatre that hosted the world-premier a week before), I heard hoots, howls, and shouts from other over-excited bat-fans high above the 8 story lobby - “bats in the belfry.” Meanwhile, a time zone away, James Eagon Holmes would carryout a senseless rampage, that left 12 dead, 58 injured, and a morbid cloud hovering over an otherwise profitable opening weekend.
As my friend Aman and I settled into our seats, a fan dressed in a Bane costume stood-up and pumped his fists into the air, others flashed mini “bat-signals” onto the giant IMAX screen. The mood, positive, playful, happy - nothing could spoil this moment. The theatre darkened and the movie began, applause and cheers rolled through the crowd. Yes!
Unfortunately, in a Colorado theatre, miles away from New York, some fans wouldn’t make it through the end of this great film and that is heartbreaking. Christopher Nolan’s comments about the tragedy were apt, “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”
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The first line of The Dark Knight Rises is from Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) - “I believe in Harvey Dent.” Of course, Gordon “believes” in what we know is a lie he and Batman agreed to tell about former activist district attorney, Harvey Dent. Who, as Bat-fans well know, was turned into the deranged killer, Two Face, by another sociopath, the Joker, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This last installment concluded with Two Face trying to kill Gordon’s son. Predictably, Batman saves the day and agrees to take the fall for his friend Harvey Dent.
Better Gotham believe in the lie Batman (a vigilante) tried to kill Gordon’s son instead of the truth; accordingly, the legacy of Harvey Dent is protected and mythologized as the hero Gotham deserves. Ultimately, this lie further reaffirms the larger message: vigilantes are bad, law is good. Justice is only achieved through due process, never senseless violence. It is best to work within the system, not outside of it.
Several years into this lie, Bruce Wayne has retired the Batman. But instead of living-it-up in the lavish high society that surrounds him (“phonies are still drinking all [his]free booze”), Wayne is a recluse who watches the city from a distance. All the while, the myth that he and Gordon share works, they’ve managed to somehow keep Gotham’s streets safe. Sure, there’s still petty crime, such as from sleek and sultry cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but any real danger, like the total annihilation of the city by a maniacal super villain (a popular plot through previous bat-films), appears -at least on the surface- curbed.
Of course, this is Gotham City and once we start to peal back the layers and look beneath, we see dualism and brooding characters weighted with heavy contradictions. For instance, Batman/Bruce Wayne isn’t that much of a hero at all. As Batman he has allowed his absolute goal of bringing justice to Gotham to be reduced to a lie. (Ra’s al Ghul reminds Wayne of this in the film’s bleakest moment, “You used all the tools I taught you... for a city that was corrupt, and a victory based on a lie. Now your failure will be seen...”)
As Wayne the businessman, he has also ignored his company. Wayne’s philanthropy no longer focuses on noble causes, such as the boarding school Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, John Blake (who represents the idealism once held by both Wayne and Gordon), grew-up in. In fact, Wayne Enterprises is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. The governing board, eventually chaired by the wealthy heiress, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), invests all of the company’s resources into its special projects division, which has been busy building a machine that can harness fusion power to produce unlimited clean energy for the city; unfortunately, this machine has not been turned on, because it can just as equally destroy the city. The core of the machine is explosive and could be used as a nuclear bomb. Thus, that which can save the city can just as easily end it. And as if this theme wasn’t already evident enough, Bruce Wayne later expresses to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) in the Bat-cave that “tools can either be used for good or bad.” A point, that remains the tragic irony of our postmodern existence.
Eventually, we see how the tools in Batman’s arsenal (presumably always used for good) can just as interchangeably be used for bad. While the weak and injured Bruce Wayne hobbles around his mansion, mourning the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes, the sinister plan of the League of Shadows festers below Gotham’s streets. Yes, Batman may have defeated Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, but that plan never vanished. The plan of the League must be fulfilled. This fulfillment is the sole intent of -arguably, the trilogy’s most frightening villain - Bane. Who says himself, “It doesn’t matter who we are, what matters is that we have a plan.”
Bane’s purpose is to, literally, smash through the pillars of civil society. Whether it be the sanitation department, which he uses to spread the explosive cement under the city, or greedy business tycoons who he manipulates to gain access to the stock exchange and then bankrupt Wayne Enterprises for a literal takeover of the company. The police department is in fear. Even American football is used by Bane to fulfill the League of Shadow’s goal. The plan itself is for the total destruction of Gotham; however, Bane uses revolutionary rhetoric that sounds like Robespierre. He attempts to convince the citizen’s of Gotham that this is all for the best. That this is liberation, “do as you please!” Thus, Bane is not here to disrupt the structures of society but to “unleash the people’s true potential!”
I recently had a discussion with my friend, Mark Grueter, in which I compared Bane’s revolution to that of Lenin’s; after all, both Lenin and Bane co-opted revolutionary rhetoric to then unleash a more aggressive form of social suppression. You’re either with Bane, or you’re dead! Bane’s Gotham is Arkham Asylum in the streets. It is a city isolated and afraid.
One of the more interesting conflicts appearing throughout The Dark Knight Rises is whether to believe in the Batman, or not. Alfred Pennyworth explains to Bruce, that the reason Batman cannot beat Bane is because Bane has youth, strength, and most importantly real belief on his side. Bane’s soldiers, as well as many of Gotham’s citizens (as conveyed in the Robin Hood-esque character of Selina Kyle), want liberation. The people of Gotham believe they can be more; however, once they are granted this liberation, it is not exactly the utopia they had in mind. Invariably, Gothamites are tired of all the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the corrupt capitalists, see 1%. The city itself suffers while the rich reap the reward. Accordingly, the city doesn’t believe in the Batman, so now this need to believe is replaced by a more aggressive and ruthless figure, Bane. "Gotham's reckoning."
Although revolution seems to be an integral part of the story line, redemption is the outcome. I agree with Manhola Dargis’s review that “Mr Nolan doesn’t advocate burning down the world, but fixing it.” Perhaps Batman represents a return to order, which is more mutually beneficial, optimistic, and constructive than Bane’s “next chapter of Western civilization”? I suppose, in order for Gotham to “rise,” it needs a hero and for the longest time, Batman was that lone hero; however, as we see in the the climax of Nolan’s film, in which “Gotham rages and all seems lost, the action shifts from a lone figure to a group, and hope springs not from one but many.”
Nolan has been most successful at translating the Batman mythos, because his stories are sensible. His antagonists are just as sympathetic, emotionally complex, and psychologically torn as the hero. Nolan makes the unbelievable, believable. The villains Batman is against, reveal and reflect the hypocrisy and corruption of the protagonists, himself. Nothing is ever absolute, a true superhero story for the postmodern era. The responsibility for the next director of any Batman franchise will be great. Nolan has left his story satisfyingly "closed," but not enough so that it cannot be opened again by future storytellers.
Despite the subtle nuances between the Joker and Batman as both “freaks,” and of Bane and Batman being trained by the same League of Shadows - Batman still remains different from these villains in that he remains steadfastly attached to one moral imperative, to never kill. Batman may use the same tools as the League of Shadows (and those greedy asshole capitalists that control Wayne Enterprises); however, it is how he uses these tools and for what outcomes that make him the true hero Gotham deserves.