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Gotham's Reckoning: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises by Donald McCarthy

Fair warning: this will have extensive spoilers up to and including the very end of the film. This is not a review so much as it is a discussion on the nature of the film.

Before I begin talking about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, I have to address the tragedy that happened in Colorado. I went to see the film here in New York at a midnight showing, came home at 3:30 AM, posted on Facebook that the film was great, and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning I signed on, ready to see what people were saying about the film. I immediately saw the breaking news about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado at The Dark Knight Rise’s premiere. As I write this the death count is at 12 with many, many more injured.

I put in for this column earlier this week and had been looking forward to writing about the film but after seeing the news I wondered if it was appropriate to spend a column writing about a movie. However, my doubts vanished when I saw that talking heads on television were discussing if the film should be taken out of theaters in certain areas. Such an action would be absurd as there is nothing in The Dark Knight Rises nor any of Christopher Nolan’s other films to in any way influence someone to pick up a gun and execute citizens. Therefore, I thought it was important to not only wipe away any notion that something in the film could inspire this, but also to address what the film is actually about. In addition, to not discuss the movie because of the shootings seems to be letting the shooter win, letting him disrupt what we want to do which is why I also want to implore you not to stay home because of the tragedy. Go out and see the film, don’t let one man’s actions upend your life.

And now to business.

Previous to this morning’s horrific news, discussion concerning the movie revolved around two questions: one, does the film address Occupy Wall Street and take a political stance on it; two, this one thanks to everyone’s favorite drug addict Rush Limbaugh, is Christopher Nolan a secret socialist who used the character of Bane as a way to attack Mitt Romney?

No and no. I’m not even going to explain why the second question is a no.

The film does address income inequality, but it is merely part of a larger whole. Nolan clearly wants to see what would happen if someone, in this case the villains Bane and Talia, were to pull at all the loose threads in society. Would society crumble? Would we be beyond hope? Most interestingly, though, Nolan asks if Batman is one of those loose threads. Similar to his The Dark Knight from 2008, Nolan wants to examine whether Batman is a force for good or if he, too, is part of the problem, albeit unknowingly. The film’s ending, with Robin (ha!) Blake becoming the new Batman seems to point to Nolan saying that a Batman is necessary. Yet the film also shows that Bruce Wayne’s tenure as Batman did not help his state of mind. Until he left Gotham to live in Europe with Selina Kyle, Bruce was a remarkably unhappy person constantly tormented by the deaths of his parents and of his unrequited love, Rachel Dawes. This suggests that while a protector is needed, perhaps Bruce Wayne, so driven by anger, is not the one best suited for the position.


Tom Hardy as Bane (Image © Warner Brothers)

One need only look to the primary villain, Bane, to see Nolan raising questions about Batman. Like Batman, Bane wears a mask. Bane’s mask covers his mouth and chin while Batman’s mask covers everything on his head except for his mouth and chin. Similar to Batman, Bane does think he’s doing good deeds by attempting to start society over again. Unlike the Joker from The Dark Knight who “just wants to watch the world burn,” Bane has, in his mind, a very legitimate reason for what he does: saving society from what it has become.

Is Batman any different? His goal is to save society from what it has become, too. Batman goes by the name of “the Dark Knight” or “the Caped Crusader,” while Bane refers to himself as “Gotham’s Reckoning.” All of these titles imply a certain moral authority for the holder. Both of these men believe that their causes are righteous enough that they can break the law when they please. It seems that only the two men’s methods are different.  Batman refuses to kill while Bane believes society can only be saved by killing. If you are looking for a political point in the film then it can be found here, where the film asks how different we are from those we oppose and how easily we can become like them.

From this we begin to see that Nolan is uncertain of Bruce Wayne’s Batman being a hero. He is clearly the protagonist of the film and we are supposed to side with him, root him on, but there is always the feeling that he’s also slightly insane (if this were real life he’d obviously be completely insane but we have to grant some suspension of disbelief here). At the film’s end Gotham City worships Batman because of his self-sacrifice but that’s a hoax; Bruce Wayne is still alive and a new Batman is just around the corner. Will the new Batman, a man picked out and subtly guided by Bruce Wayne, be a better Batman? Or will the position eventual ensure that he ends up like Bruce was at the beginning of the movie, hobbled and alone?

The film does not give us a simple answer but it does supply one clue. In the middle of the film, before he has even an inkling that he will replace Batman, Blake shoots a man. He looks down at the body, drops his gun, and makes a face of pure disgust, horrified at the sight before him, disturbed about what it means for himself. Blake might be an angry man, he admits to harboring anger in one of his early scenes, but he is not consumed by that anger as Bruce Wayne has been. Blake may well be, to paraphrase Commissioner Jim Gordon, the Dark Knight that Gotham deserves. We’ll never know and that’s the way Nolan wants it.

Donald McCarthy has written news articles, op-eds, books reviews and short fiction. He lives in New York and attends Adelphi University. He is one of the few people on the planet who does not like cheese.

© 2012 Donald McCarthy