***Spoilers abound. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, you should probably stop reading.***
Last Thursday night I watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at a friend’s house and then went to the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. A few minutes before the end, I thought to myself, “This is a masterpiece.” And then there was the final montage and the credits rolled and I felt…unsatisfied.
I was the only one in my group that didn’t absolutely love it and at three o’clock in the morning after a pretty long day, I couldn’t articulate why I felt that way. I just knew that something seemed slightly off to me; that it was good, but there was something that kept me from feeling like it was truly great.
I knew that it wasn’t the fact that Bane wasn’t as good as the Joker. The Joker became on iconic cultural touchstone, partly because of Heath Ledger’s death, but mostly because of his talent in bringing that character to life. There was no way Bane was going to top that, and I don’t think Christopher Nolan and Tom Hardy were trying to. Bane is a completely different villain; the Joker is all about chaos and anarchy, while Bane is all about order. It’s just that his version of order looks a lot more like fascism than most of us would prefer. All in all, I thought that Bane was great.
As days passed, I started being able to better understand what had bugged me, but I wanted to see the movie again, without the excitement (and exhaustion) of a midnight showing. After a second viewing, I have a much better grasp of what bothered me. I’m no expert, so feel free to point out things in the movie I may have missed; I am totally willing to change my mind.
One thing that made me uncomfortable the first time through was the scene where the police march on Bane’s people and all-out war ensues. After Catwoman’s speech to Bruce Wayne at the charity function and the looting that went on after Bane took over, I had in my head that these were civilians who had been manipulated and lied to by Bane. That made the vision of hundreds of police officers marching on them pretty disturbing. After a second viewing, I realize those “civilians” were probably mostly Bane’s men he had brought with him and the criminals he broke out of Blackgate Prison, which made it less uncomfortable for me. I wanted to see more of an exploration of the ideas of privilege and what responsibilities those with privilege have that seemed to be brought up by Catwoman and the scene at the stock exchange. I’m still not sure what exactly Christopher Nolan is trying to say (if anything) about the inequality in our country. That’s not the story he was trying to tell, though, so it didn’t bother me as much the second time around.
What did still bother me was Bruce Wayne’s character arc. I read an article one time that argued that there is a hole in the middle of every hero’s story. This hole is the thing they fall into, which causes them to abandon the beliefs and worldview of their previous life in order to live a better one (if that doesn’t make sense, you can read the article here…it has lots of good examples). In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne ends up in a literal hole, where he has to reconsider his life and everything he believes. The problem is I don’t find the Bruce Wayne who comes out of the hole to be that much different from the Bruce Wayne who went in.
At the beginning of the movie, Batman is gone and Bruce Wayne is hiding from the world, depressed. When he complains that the police are incapable of fighting someone like Bane, Alfred points out that he could give them the resources they need. Alfred argues that Gotham doesn’t need Batman, they need the knowledge and resources of Bruce Wayne. Bruce rejects that idea and goes off to fight Bane on his own and gets thoroughly trounced.
Which leads him to the hole in the desert. He sits around until he sees how bad things are in Gotham, then magically heals his broken back (that seemed to happen way too quickly) and is back to working out so he can escape and save Gotham. He apparently learns that not fearing death makes him weak, and that fearing death will give him something to fight for. He is able to escape and returns to Gotham, where he does pretty much exactly what he was doing before he left, only now he wins the fight instead of losing it, making the grand sacrifice of giving his life to save the city.
But wait, he doesn’t give his life! He actually fixed the autopilot six months ago, which means he knew he wasn’t really going to die. It was just a way to fake Batman’s death, so that he can live his life. And the movie ends with Batman gone and Bruce Wayne hiding from the world, although now instead of being depressed, he is living a happy, carefree life in Florence.
So what has Bruce Wayne learned? How has his worldview been changed? Maybe he has learned something, maybe he has changed, but I didn’t see it. If he really cares about Gotham, why fake not only Batman’s death, but Bruce Wayne’s as well? Yeah, he creates a home for children, but why not stay and rebuild the city? Surely there is still work to be done in Gotham that someone like Bruce Wayne can aid in.
And that’s why the ending bugged me so much. When I thought they had really killed Batman, I was weeping. I’m a sucker for stories where someone lays down their life for the good of others. I think it is beautiful and wonderful and that was the point when I thought this movie was a masterpiece (and if I’m being honest, I’ve also watched so much Joss Whedon stuff that at this point I expect someone to die).
But then it became clear that he was alive. And if he knew that he was going to survive, can we really call it a sacrifice? What has Bruce Wayne lost? He has a new girlfriend, he got his butler back, and he’s living the high life gallivanting around Europe. Many people have told me that you can’t kill Batman, but why not? This is the last movie in the Christopher Nolan trilogy…why can’t it end with Batman making the ultimate sacrifice? Joss Whedon couldn’t kill Tony Stark because there are already sequels planned, but at least Iron Man didn’t know he was going to survive when he made his decision at the end of The Avengers. It just made the ending seem cheap to me.
I didn’t hate the movie. I liked it, a lot. There were a lot of really great things in it, I just liked everything else that was going on a whole lot more than what was actually going on in Bruce Wayne, which is a problem considering he’s the main character.
A few other things:
- Why does Bruce Wayne care about Gotham so much? He has almost no ties to any individual in the city. Is it just the idea of Gotham that he cares about? What makes it “his” city, other than the fact that he grew up there? If you have an idea, please let me know. It’s been bugging me.
- I loved when Batman turned out the lights during his fight with Bane and Bane pointed out that Batman has merely adopted the darkness, while Bane was born in it. I would have loved more exploration into the idea that you can’t fight darkness with darkness (I think it could have tied in nicely with Alfred’s point that Gotham needed Bruce Wayne, not Batman).
- I guessed pretty early that Miranda Tate was up to no good, but since I have no knowledge of the comics, I was thoroughly surprised by the revelation that she was Ra’s al Ghul’s heir, not Bane. Loved that twist.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt was fantastic. How much do you love him? He’s just adorable. I want him to be in more things. (Also, 10 Things I Hate About You was 13 years ago…he hasn’t really aged much, has he?)
- I thought Anne Hathaway was great also. She has certainly come a long way since Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted (although I still enjoy both of those movies).