As much as The Dark Knight Rises has problems with its plot, and pacing, and some of its character work, and it most certainly has problems with all three, that's not the real problem with this movie. No, the real problem is so much deeper than that. It took me a while to really wrap my head around it, but after talking it over with a few associates, particularly Major Armstrong and the Lovely Madame Meagan, I think I've put my finger on it. Those issues I mentioned, at the start of this paragraph? Those are simply issues with Rises on its own, irrespective of its standing in Nolan's trilogy. No, the real issue is that of the three major themes running through the Nolan trilogy, Rises completely wrecks two, and just sort of ignores the third.
Be warned; from here on out, there be spoilers.
"As a man I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol... As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting."
- Bruce Wayne
- Bruce Wayne
"Everlasting, two years, y'know, whichever comes first."
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realizes that Gotham is so far gone, so riddled with corruption, so owned by the mob, its people so terrified or coerced or co-opted, that no man could save it. Not even billionaire philanthropist industrialist Bruce Wayne. Wayne's parents had tried to save the city, and enjoyed some minor success, but by making themselves so visible they made themselves targets. A mortal man (or woman, in the case of Martha Wayne) simply couldn't redeem the city, because the city would eat them before they could succeed. What was needed instead, then, was something more than a man. A symbol. The Batman.
And it works. At the start of The Dark Knight, the symbol of Batman has clearly had an effect on Gotham. The police are still shaky, but where before Gordon was completely alone, now he has a core of mostly trustworthy cops who actually seem set on doing their jobs. The DA's office is far stronger, and even if Dent doesn't trust Batman at first, Batman's existence has certainly motivated Dent; showing he can replace Batman is just as much a reflection of the symbol as wanting to live up to him. And the people of Gotham are starting to push back against the corruption; even if the Citizen Batmen are a disaster, untrained, out of shape and wearing hockey pads, at least they're doing something. The change from the Gotham seen in Batman Begins is astounding, and shows, yes, the power of a symbol. But by the end of the film, that symbol has been tarnished. Branded a cop killer and held responsible for the death of Harvey Dent, Batman is a fugitive, an outlaw who fights outlaws, a symbol twisted around itself and ultimately sacrificed to burnish another symbol; Harvey Dent, the 'White Knight'. So, to carry through the idea of Batman as an everlasting symbol, obviously Rises would have to provide a story in which Batman can be redeemed in the eyes of Gotham City as a whole, shaking off the mantle of killer and criminal and replacing it, once again, with the idea of Batman as an incorruptible force for justice.
But none of that happens. Instead, the movie opens with Batman apparently having hung up the cowl about five minutes after the end of Dark Knight. Far from being an everlasting symbol, he's abandoned the city for about four times as long as he ever operated in it. This makes Batman's totemic significance to certain characters completely baffling, and totally unearned. Yes, he stopped the mob and the Joker, but it's been the police who've been doing all the heavy lifting for almost the last decade, and the last thing anyone saw of Batman he was running from the cops after being accused of murder. A force of terror on the side of the angels, he isn't. But what's even worse, he never earns back his place as a symbol for the people of Gotham. As far as the people of Gotham are concerned, not only has Batman completely disappeared for eight months, he never did anything to stop Bane's initial assault on the city, and has left them languishing under his tyranny for five months, straight. The only thing he does is disable Bane's big guns so the police can do most of the fighting, go toe to toe with Bane, and then die for Gotham by getting the bomb away from the city. It's a nice gesture, and if this were Adam West's Batman, or Bruce Timm's, or heck, even George Clooney or Val Kilmer's Batmans, it would really have affected Gotham. Those Batmans actually established a strong relationship with the city. Nolan's Batman has given up on it. Most of the impressive things Batman accomplishes are done where nobody can see it, and while what little he does in public is good, it's hard to buy that these guys decided to put a statue up in his honour. It's a nice moment, but it doesn't feel earned.
And of course, it's completely ruined by the knowledge that there'll be another Batman along soon enough. Sort of robs that heroic sacrifice of its value if you turn up later...
"What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?"
- Rachel Dawes
Although sometimes, nothing is exactly what good people should do.
If Batman is to serve as a symbol, though, there has to be someone to see it; Ozymandias' feet mean nothing until Keats observes them, after all. It is for the people of Gotham that Bruce Wayne creates Batman, as a symbol of justice and the power of the individual to triumph over crime. This is an important element in Nolan's Batman universe, because individually the people of Gotham have been made to feel helpless in the face of the seemingly insurmountable scale of the problem facing them. It's too easy for each of them to say that they're just one man or woman, and what can they do, and therefore atomisticly allow their society to collapse around them. It's really hard to understate the importance of Batman as a symbol for this particular Bruce Wayne; he's not Adam West, having a grand old time trading wits and fists with ultimately harmless criminals, and nor is he Frank Miller's creation, a disturbed and violent misanthrope who is acceptable because he can't not fight crime, even if he's barely a step above the Punisher. Nolan's Batman understands the seriousness of the situation far better than West's ever could have, but unlike Miller's he's not willing to devote his entire life to being Batman; as early as the end of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is trying to visualize some kind of way out for him, a goal he can aim for and that, once reached, will justify him stepping down. And for this particular Bruce Wayne, to paraphrase American officials on Iraq, when Gothamites stand up, he'll stand down.
And he starts to have that effect in Dark Knight. I mentioned the Citizen Batmen earlier, and while they're a disaster in the film, it's not for lack of heart. They just don't understand that Batman is something to aspire to symbolically, not literally. To live up to his example doesn't require you to dress in black capes and masks and fist-fight drug dealers. So yes, Bruce Wayne shuts down the Citizen Batmen as best he can, though with not nearly the finality the Joker employs later, but that's not a serious problem because that's not what Bruce Wayne wants. We see what he wants in the form of Harvey Dent, in particular, and in the reaction of the Gothamites on the ferries, in general. Dent is a man who is willing to take up Batman's challenge in his own way, to wage the war on crime from inside the system, rather than as an outsider. He needed Batman to exist to encourage that system to work, but now that it's been primed, Bruce Wayne desperately wants to believe that Harvey Dent can keep it running. But again, it's not just about one man in Gotham City; one man can be ignored, or destroyed, as Bruce Wayne himself realizes. So, Harvey Dent is important, but arguably not as important as what happens on those ferries in the harbour.
Can there be any doubt that, before Batman began operating in Gotham, any of those people would've hesitated to blow up the other ferry to protect themselves? It was a brutal, violent, amoral city, where those like Jim Gordon were few and far between, and utterly powerless. But Batman serves as an example; he doesn't kill (mostly), he doesn't steal, he doesn't oppress the powerless and he stands up to the mob on behalf of the people. Capturing the Joker is ultimately of secondary importance in Dark Knight. What really matters is that he has offered the people of Gotham another, better way, one where even convicted criminals will refuse the Joker's offers of personal safety at the expense of others. The people of Gotham don't have to put on dollar store Batman masks, they just have to be good people, who are willing to risk their own lives for their fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, the people of Gotham are almost completely ignored in Rises. Where Ra's al Ghul corrupted them from within with money and drugs, and the Joker brutalized them with exploding hospitals and murdered public officials, Bane mostly ignores them. He has his own army, after all, and despite a throw-away comment that some of Gotham's poor might have been drifting down to the sewers to find work (apparently to escape a grinding recession we never really get any evidence of) and Bane and Catwoman mooting about how this is a revolution of the people, it never looks like anything other than the conquest of a city by an outside force. The people of Gotham aren't eating themselves alive again, like before Batman came along, they're just being killed by outsiders. But nor are they standing up against Bane, either. That may sound like a strange objection given my earlier take on the Citizen Batmen, but bear with me. The Citizen Batmen were wrong, albeit with the best of intentions, because they were trying to simply ape Batman without any of his training or abilities or equipment. It was the inappropriate response to the situation. And here, it would be again, even if having the Citizen Batmen keeping that symbol alive in occupied Gotham would have gone a long way towards demonstrating the utility of that symbol in such a drastic situation. But there are other ways to fight, to resist, if you will. Such as, oh, forming a resistance.
But we never see that. Yes, Gordon and a few of his men are doing something, though not much that really amounts to anything. And eventually the police, rescued from the sewers and shockingly hale and hearty after five months trapped underground, turn up to fight Bane's army. But Gordon and the police are not the people; they're an institution of Gotham itself. And they're not really rising to the occasion, beyond what their position requires of them. If Bane had turned up before Batman, when the city was in the grip of the mob, do you really think the bought-and-paid-for police wouldn't have fought just as hard to keep Bane's men from muscling in on their territory? The police can't represent Gotham's people, because they're too busy representing Gotham as a thing, an institutional system in its own right, and like all such systems it will of course fight to defend itself. But if Gordon, deprived of his cops, had turned to the citizens of Gotham? If groups of armed civilians had established safe zones in the chaos of a lawless Gotham, fighting off the remnants of the criminal elements and Bane's forces, doing their best to show that Gotham isn't entirely beaten? Well, now that would have actually meant something. Instead, after a brief flurry of anarchic violence, the people of Gotham apparently just go inside and shut their doors for five months, emerging only once everything is over to put up a statue.
Talk about good people doing nothing.
"We start carrying semi automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds. And you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops."
- James Gordon
Escalation - Batman wears a mask, so Joker wears a dress. You'd be a fool not to see it coming.
The issue of escalation is the only one of the three that Rises doesn't completely ruin. Which makes it a success, I guess, but hardly a rousing one.
The thing is, if it's even happening, and that's always supposed to be a chicken-and-egg sort of question where Batman and his villains are concerned, escalation is supposed to be directly tied to his accomplishments. In the beginning, there's the mob, whom normal police can't handle. Then there's Batman, whom the normal criminals of the mob can't handle. But as he cleans up Gotham from the normal criminals, standing as a symbol and putting himself very squarely in the spotlight as the hero of Gotham, his presence inspires a very different kind of criminal. Super-criminals, if you will. Or supervillains, if you're feeling less fancy.
In Begins, Batman is basically fighting against ordinary crime, plus Ra's al Ghul, whose plot predated Batman's appearance and so cannot be said to be inspired by his presence. But once he's mopped the floor with those guys, along comes the Joker in Dark Knight, a supervillain to face off against a superhero. The Joker could've run rings around the GCPD, which is probably why he never bothered to; as a man who clearly craves constant entertainment, tangling with the police would've been unbearably dull. But Batman, ah, now Batman offers a worthy test of his deranged mettle! And so, you'd think, the same could be said of Bane. And, well, it sort of can be. But at the same time, it really can't.
If the presence and success of Batman is meant to be at least theoretically the cause of this escalation, then it can't really be used to explain Bane's presence in Gotham. After all, when Bane's plot begins, Bruce Wayne is a retired shut-in with a bum knee, and it's been eight years since anyone saw Batman. Batman can't be escalating the situation if he's not around. Bane represents a larger threat to Gotham than the Joker did, so it sort of works, but only in a purely superficial kind of way. Where the Joker had henchmen, Bane had an army. Where the Joker wanted to frighten people, Bane wanted to completely change them (apparently). Where the Joker had a few rigged buildings, Bane has a nuclear bomb. Where the Joker was a purely mental threat to Batman, Bane can both out-think and outfight the dark knight. But while the threat itself has grown larger, it's done so independent of Batman, who if anything has de-escalated the situation by hanging up the cape and cowl for nearly a decade.
So, yes, escalation. The situation itself is biggger and more dangerous than in previous instalments, but not through anything Bruce Wayne or Batman have actually done. If Wayne had left Gotham entirely after he decided to give up on it years before the movie starts, if he was living in seclusion in the Himalayas or in the jungles of South America or in a little domed hamlet on the North Pole, Bane's plan wouldn't really have been affected in any way. And for any Batman story to talk about the issue of escalation that surrounds Batman, that's sort of a bizarre situation to engineer.
So, three key themes that run through the trilogy, and Dark Knight Rises kind of demolishes two of them in its own stumblebum kind of way, while the third just sort of stands in the corner, out of the way. Hardly a triumphant close to one of the biggest original trilogies to hit the box office in the last, oh, decade at least.