So much of what The Dark Knight Rises is about is a culmination of a story arc that started in 2005 with Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Trilogy, as it is now being called, is really one story, told over sixteen years with one central villain in his many forms. It is ultimately a battle of ideas between Bruce Wayne’s belief that Gotham is filled with decent hardworking people and the countervailing argument that Gotham is corrupt, beyond saving and must be cleansed to make way for balance.
Of the three Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises is the only one to truly capture the sense of hopelessness that engulfs a city, a society after a long period of uncertainty. If The Dark Knight ended in an uplifting note of hope for Gotham, The Dark Knight Rises descends into despair from the first scene and continues to do so until the very end-- Drawing upon the imagery and themes of the great recession of 2008 and the terrorism and recriminations in the Middle East. Of the three films, The Dark Knights Rises is the bleakest film of them all. It channels despair in a way the first two did not.
There is a scene where the films main antagonist Bane beats the living senses out of Batman, set to nothing but the sound of punches and Bruce's agony. In another scene, the ‘takeover’ of the city government by Bane is done with such deftness it starts to become a little scary, especially when civic leaders, police officers and civilians are assassinated and hunted down and the film barely stops to take note.
In a film with the visual scope and scale of The Dark Knight Rises, a few scenes stand above the rest. The most iconic to me was an all out brawl near the end of the film. It was simply spectacular-- Batman and Bane duelling in the midst of an army of police officers charging into Bane’s men, set in the dead of winter, flakes of snow falling as the music swells. The brawl can be read as a homage to Burton’s Batman Returns setpiece, also set in winter. But whereas Tim Burton used snow as dressing in his parade of the exotic -- clowns, jugglers, penguins with rockets strapped to their back -- the winter in The Dark Knight Rises is an allusion to death and despair at the height of Bane’s occupation of Gotham, the winter of Gotham’s existence, but also to the coming spring.
In an election year, politics has also managed to creep its way into the film. The script certainly doesn’t shy from using the language of the Occupy movement by Bane, leading to some left-leaning bloggers to despair about the film being a tract against the ninety-nine percenters. Not that rightists like Rush Limbaugh is smiling in agreement either. He had pre-emptively accused the film ‘s use of Bane as a plot to associate more negative things with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s Bain capital.
On analysis, the film’s key inspiration was of a tumult far older than the great recession. It was the French revolution and the reign of terror that ensued. There is Robspierre’s courts, hauling the aristocrats for trial and execution on the slightest suspicion, in Dr. Crane’s kangaroo court. The storming of Blackgate prison by Bane can be seen as an allusion to the storming of Bastille prison by the revolutionaries.
Fanboys, aspiring film critics and armchair directors will argue over details, canon, Inception-like scenarios, and quibble over how to cut the ending for ‘effect’, but in a movie about superheroes, the truly super-human thing in this film is how Bruce Wayne has managed to rise at all to become who Alfred and his parents would have wanted him to be given the losses he sustained over the span of three films. In Nolan’s Batman, Bruce’s rise from his fall so many years ago as a child into the abyss of the underground bat cavern is only completed in the final act of the third film. Set to Hans Zimmer’s epic, albeit somewhat derivative score, it is a fitting end to the Nolan’s vision of a realistic Batman. We’ve all fallen and remember how it was like to get up again.