The Dark Knight Rises and Truth Has its Day

Editor’s Note:***SPOILER ALERT*** We’ve had Nick write a commentary which is intended for those who have seen the film. Fair warning!

Over at Christianity Today, Nick’s commentary on Christopher Nolan’s filmography, “Deception’s Darkness,” may be of interest as a complementary piece to his  take on The Dark Knight Rises.

***

Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises does not begin by dumping the viewer in the middle of a villain-reveal. Instead, Rises opens with Commissioner Jim Gordon addressing a crowd in celebration of “Harvey Dent Day.” Gotham has enjoyed eight years of peace following Dent’s death. Yet Gordon’s conscience is uneasy with guilt stemming from his decision to cover-up Dent’s fall at the hands of the Joker. The man on the verge of murdering Gordon’s family is propped up as Gotham’s White Knight; they still “believe in Harvey Dent.” But the good commissioner isn’t feeling so noble about his lie. In fact, he’s on the verge of revealing the truth, but he still feels Gotham cannot handle it.

When we last saw the Dark Knight, he was in a bleak situation. The Joker couldn’t get Batman to reveal himself, but he did force enough of a quandary that the bat-signal is memorably destroyed, and Gothamites have put their hope in a false civic hero. I still cringe when I hear Gordon’s voice-over at the end of the film: “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes the people deserve more.” And then he concludes with what seems like a false dichotomy: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Seemingly, the Joker was proven right: The best we can do in the face of evil is lie. Is deception the nature of darkness or the name of the “game?” Can Batman succeed at leveraging darkness to pursue the light?

Rises is compelling for me because it feels like a culminating answer to the question which haunts Nolan’s work: is the truth good enough? It would have been par for the course to end on a tragic note—to continue his serious tone and his commitment to illusion as comfort. But Alfred delivers what feels like an essential line—one that, for Nolan, felt brave: “Maybe it’s time we stop trying to outsmart the truth, and let it have its day.” Though much of the film delivers Nolan’s characteristic noir, the prevailing tone is the light at the top of a dark well—rest from paranoia’s fear.

Yet the Dark Knight’s rise is not without pain. We first see this in Alfred, who is deeply concerned for his friend. Taking blame for Dent’s actions necessitated Batman’s “retirement,” and Bruce Wayne has fallen into depressive paralysis ever since. This initial melancholy reveals something important: Bruce Wayne doesn’t know what to do with himself as Bruce Wayne. In fact when Bane forces Wayne to suit up again, Alfred is concerned that Wayne has more of a suicidal (or at least careless about dying) rush to fight than a heroic concern for justice.

Believing Wayne’s perpetual place in Gotham represents his marriage with tragedy, Alfred pleads with him to consider pursuing a life beyond the cowl. He knows Rachel Dawes’ death is partly responsible for Wayne’s emotionally crippled state, so he confesses to burning Rachel’s letter, and describes its contents. Initially, Alfred’s truth-telling has significant consequences; their friendship is strained and Wayne dismisses his trusted ally from service. Can Wayne move beyond his role as Batman to have a life beyond the burdens of his tragic existence? And if so, can he do it without abandoning the people of Gotham?

Part of what makes the tonal transition in Rises effective is the introduction of two new characters: John Blake and Selina Kyle. Blake functions as a ray of light, an effective cross between Batman and Gordon’s best traits; he is angry for justice and frustrated by the legal system, yet he is earnest, persistent, and never quite cynical. As an orphan, Blake has a special connection with Wayne—even to the point of recognizing that Wayne is Batman. And unlike others in Gotham law enforcement, Blake recognizes Batman’s essential character; he knows Gotham needs the Dark Knight. When Bane exposes the lie about Harvey Dent and Gordon defends himself, it is the rookie who calls out the grizzled veteran, letting him know his hands are dirty.

Meanwhile, Selina Kyle functions as an important reference point for the film’s political undertones. She struggles to decide which uprising she believes in. A Robin Hood-style thief, she initially revels in Bane’s coming storm, providing voice to an underclass trampled by greed. There’s something credible about the accusation when she chides Wayne’s billionaire kin for “living so large and leaving so little for the rest of us.” Yet on the other hand she is repulsed by the brutality of the Bane regime, and unwillingly attracted to the nobility and sacrifice inherent to Batman’s creed. Her evolution suggests that the up-close view of the great and powerful may also be the truest.

What’s compelling about Batman’s encounter with Bane is that it’s a tale of two rises. Bane makes the contrast clear when he tells Wayne he has not merely “adopted darkness,” but he was “born in it—shaped by it.” The implied contrast, recalled from Batman Begins, is that Batman’s compassion—his adopting darkness in a way that is subservient to his pursuit of justice’s light—is his weakness and his downfall. What also works about Wayne’s rise from Bane’s hell-hole is that it recalls his childhood rise from the dark well. It’s an image that effectively captures the nature of Batman’s plight. His faithful fight to protect and serve Gotham has been dark from the beginning—rooted in tragedy, waged outside the bounds of the legal system, and taking a disintegrative toll on him personally. Yet, the light of day is what fuel’s the Dark Knight’s righteous pursuit of justice. He persistently believes people are worth saving. Thus, Wayne’s triumphant rise out of Bane’s underground hell has a pivotal significance. And upon his return, there are some interesting changes.

In one climactic scene, a resistance clan of freed cops, once-cowardly cops, and a few citizens band together to take on Bane’s army (I agree here with Steven Greydanus: the scene could have been bolstered by depictions of Gotham’s citizens being virtuous during Batman’s absence). The resistance looks somber until Batman makes a triumphant appearance, galvanizing the people to give a battle cry full of hope and righteous anger. Two aspects of the battle scene are noteworthy as they relate to Batman’s rise from Bane’s hell. First, Batman is fighting in broad daylight, for all to see; and, second, he’s fighting with the people and not merely for the people. It seems Batman’s rise has inspired Gotham’s virtue in a new, significant way.

Part of what fuels the Dark Knight is his deep desire to protect the helpless. And so another way he inspires in the film’s third act is his effect on Selina Kyle and John Blake. Though aware of her thievery and betrayal of trust, Batman still believes Kyle is capable of “better” than what her behavior indicates. Ultimately, she is faced with a decision between the uprising she initially welcomed from Bane and the one that Batman has wrought. Beneath Bane’s supposed freeing of the people is a callous, enslaving darkness. But beneath Batman’s billionaire-funded, fear-inducing gadgetry and theatrics lies enlightened protection of the weak.

If Selina Kyle’s arc reflects Batman’s vanquishing of Bane’s darkness, then Blake acts as the inheritor of a tradition passed down from Gordon and Wayne. His character suggests the lasting and effective nature of Batman’s legacy. From the beginning, Batman has inspired the people, and it’s an inspiration that Blake will uniquely ensure is protected. What becomes of Wayne Manor—and what is evidenced in John Blake during the film—coalesces into a satisfying conclusion for a Gotham without Wayne.

The beginning of the film centered on upholding the noble lie: Harvey Dent Day. But in the end, the central figure of praise is a statue of the Dark Knight. Though the film’s politics and celebratory conclusion are complicated by Batman’s tendency to work outside the law, the truth of his underlying virtue nonetheless has its day in Gotham.

But what of Bruce Wayne? Given a final café scene in the film, some have questioned Batman’s heroic removal of a nuclear bomb as less of a sacrifice and more of an escape—one that may trivialize the memorial nature of the final scenes. But based on Alfred’s desperate pleas with Wayne early in the film, it’s notable that if Batman had sacrificed himself it would have been an escape in the form of a death-wish—an especially dark shade of tragedy. No, the Dark Knight’s “escape” was really Bruce Wayne’s rise to a new life. If Alfred is to be believed, Wayne’s triumphant protection of—and escape from—Gotham is his reaching the light at the top of the well. Perhaps his rest is one from fear. And, in some sense, Wayne’s rise may justify the rise of a new Dark Knight. Making war against evil by shining light on the darkness and pursuing justice righteously, the knight whose task is to take faithful charge is true.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/Bruce.McCluggage Bruce McCluggage

    Insightful and cogent review.

    Couldn’t help notice this line from Olson’s mind: “Though the film’s politics and celebratory conclusion are complicated by Batman’s tendency to work outside the law, the truth of his underlying virtue nonetheless has its day in Gotham.”

    Substitute a character and time/place and we have the recipe of many a redemptive and heroic story of EPIC proportions. From MLK, Jr. to “Horton Hears a Who”; from Hypatia (movie: “AGORA”) to Jesus of Nazareth, culture/history is replete with those who heard ‘another voice’ of Truth way more compelling than the shallow notion of just ‘following the law.’

  • Steve Bell

    Awesome, well-thought out commentary, Nick! Gave me a lot to consider and caused me to appreciate the film even more–particularly loved these lines: “First, Batman is fighting in broad daylight, for all to see; and, second, he’s fighting with the people and not merely for the people. It seems Batman’s rise has inspired Gotham’s virtue in a new, significant way.” True, true!

  • Jose

    I wonder if the final scene where Alfred sees Bruce and Selina at the cafe was just a figment of Alfred’s imagination. The film does not say definitevely. I sincerely hope that it was real, otherwise The Dark Knight Rises will be reduced to nothing more than the “dark tragedy” you just mentioned.

  • Steve Bell

    @Jose–I had actually considered that possibility. Any thoughts on the final scene, Nick?

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    I don’t think the film’s narrative gives us any legitimate suggestion that it’s an Inception totem situation. It does suggest, however, that the autopilot was fixed on the Batwing…

    …but I could be wrong. I’ll be watching closely when I see it a second time tonight.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Further, I read one critic point out that we don’t really have good reason to believe that Alfred would imagine Selina Kyle in another daydream.

  • Jose

    Good point about Selina Kyle! Other than the scene in the Wayne manor kitchen at the beginning, I can’t recall any other scenes where Alfred is aware of who she really is.

  • Nick

    After seeing the film a second time, I am convinced it’s not a figment of his imagination. We get two hints in the lead-up: the autopilot was fixed by Bruce Wayne, *and* the pearls are said to be missing as if to hint to Kyle’s being with Wayne. And, yeah, I just don’t see any good reason for Alfred to imagine Kyle with him.

    And the emotional scene between Alfred and Wayne before their fallout prefigures the cafe scene. If there’s no cafe scene, then it’s ultimately a very tragic film.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Nice write up, Nick, but I don’t buy it.

    Here’s the problem: Nolan has decided that the only overtly spiritual impulse in this world is Ra’s al Goul’s eastern-influenced manta of “balance.” We don’t get prayer. There’s no mention of God. It’s the end of the world, and the populace’s concern is wholly material/physical.

    What is the exigency for ANY of this universe’s moral handwringing? Good. Evil. The words get tossed around quite liberally. But where do their definitions come from? Only RAG has a truly spiritual vision, and he gets revealed as a megalomaniacal crackpot. TDK strips away this mask and substitutes for it his own symbol, one that is admittedly man-made but powerful nonetheless. Isn’t this a victory for (a kind of) atheism?

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    No, I don’t think so.

    Within the Batman mythos, I don’t expect what you’re asking for.

    A few quick things off the top of my head, though I’ll have to think through this a bit more.

    1. I might say this is true of several of Nolan’s other films, but not this one. The Harvey Dent lie would have remained more noble than a lie, and the cafe scene either wouldn’t have happened or would have been questionable as to whether it happened.

    In this film, goodness,redemption, justice, righteousness–all terms that suppose a moral horizon, or hierarchy of value–are not illusory at best. The Joker isn’t shown to be right ultimately. If it’s ultimately atheistic, then the contrast between the Dent Day/noble lie and Batman/statue don’t really matter. But in the film they do.

    2. Nolan has said two things in interviews–he believes in the goodness of Batman’s fight and he believes in an ultimately “benevolent universe.” Oh, and he’s a big fan of Malick’s! (Ok that last thing is a joke, even though it’s true).

    3. And, really, the films aren’t TOTALLY devoid of the things you wish there were more of. In TDK there’s a brief shot of the prisoners on the ferry praying after throwing the detonator off the ferry. And in TDKR Blake checks in with a Father who is taking care of orphan children during Bane’s occupation.

    4. In talking about “spirituality,” I think you underestimate the significance of “symbols” in the Dark Knight universe–even if it’s one he “gives himself.” This is what I was alluding to in the article. This is what the Joker wants to deconstruct about Batman, because his symbol is about *significance.* The symbols/ideals ultimately have meaning here that is not merely illusory. It’s representative of an exterior reality. Even Christianity is something that is subjectively appropriated. It is something that we “clothe” ourselves with.

    5. All of the stuff with goodness/evil is constructed on a simple presupposition: that life itself is a good, and that people are *worth* saving. Again, we don’t get a direct reference as to why, but I don’t expect the Batman mythos to provide that. Bruce Wayne’s decision to pursue a life in the end of the film is an ultimate turn for Nolan in his filmography away from tragic, illusory comfort.

    6. I also don’t underestimate the orphan/downtrodden/helpless stuff. It–along with sacrifice, descending into “hell,” and rising–is deeply rooted the good. Not to mention the presence of moral conscience in the three films.

    7. The film is atheistic in the way that you mean it if you presume a dualism in which none of the above has a “spiritual” resonance to it.

    Perhaps this is a question of intention for you. But I don’t see much “intention” to use Batman to suggest a Godless universe. Quite the opposite, actually. And, either way, my approach has been to describe, not to guess at what Nolan’s intent was. I’m not opposed to that kind of thing if it seems evident in the film. For instance, I did that with THE GREY because it was quite evident that a kind of cynical indifference and despair was being projected onto “the way things are” in a cosmic sense. Ultimately, I just don’t see that within this mythos.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    In other words, in a movie like this the presupposition and use of binaries–like dark/light, day/night, truth/deception, and then distinctions between idols of false hope, and true objects of belief–is in itself in opposition to an atheistic cosmos. And these binaries and their outcomes *matter.* This is more than enough for me in a movie like this.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    It’s not as though this is Panem, some dystopian future universe (though Gotham is geographically a bit like The Simpsons’s Springfield). This is hyper-realism. We have a priest (natch) and we have two moments of prayer. It’s not like those things simply don’t exist in the world of the film. Yet we have no church. No one explicitly mentions God. Not even in The Dark Knight. The two moments you mention highlight how largely free these films are of Christianity.

    This isn’t a reason to immediately censure the film. It simply means that the film/Nolan doesn’t think that Christianity is a good explanation for what’s 1) real (see below) or 2) important.

    I’m not insisting we judge the film for what it doesn’t have, but that means we have to be careful in force-fitting a Christian reading into this universe too. It clearly exists. Nolan just doesn’t want much to do with it. What we *do* get is the Eastern mysticism of The League of Shadows. Aren’t the “binaries” you discuss conformable to either a) a more “pure” version of RAG’s shtick (that is, without all the fundamentalist demagoguery) or b) a substitution of man-made but pragmatic symbols in lieu of a “real” spiritual origin for good and evil?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Bruce.McCluggage Bruce McCluggage

    Does the story of the Prodigal Son include a reference to God? Does it show the characters saying a prayer before that controversial banquet the father threw for his long lost son? Away with fundamentalist literalism.

  • Nick

    Well then I think it boils down to this question, Jonathan. What, specifically, from my commentary is “force-fitted” Christianity?

    I’ve intentionally stayed within the film’s own terms. Just because I’m assuming a presuppositional ground that implicitly affirms those terms and how the moral/metaphysical vocabulary is executed in the film, doesn’t mean that I’ve changed the meaning of the film here–at least I hope that I haven’t.

    In other words, I don’t think any of my descriptions are counter to what happens in the film.

    The film may not directly reference Christianity, but I don’t think it’s in any sense “anti-Chrisitanity.” Do you? And I’ll take it a step further, I don’t think there’s any “answer” in place of Christianity either. It’s just not really within the film’s purview.

    And, yeah, it’s a “hyper realist” take…*on the Batman mythos.”

  • Jill

    Nick – I really loved your article. I love how redemptive the story is. I see Christian elements throughout the whole story, as always with Batman or other superhero stories. I love the theme of self sacrifice and “man hath no greater love than this,” which is throughout the whole film.

  • Chris Pascarella

    Although there is some debate about how much “Christianity” is in The Dark Knight trilogy, I am still struck by the display of grace within the movie. Steven Greydanus believes the unasked question behind the movie is “Is Gotham worth it?” And, I think, that No, Gotham really isn’t worth it. In all three movies, the city does really seem to be a crummy place inhabited by crummy people. Yet Batman still defends and sacrifices himself for the city. Even while Gotham was yet filled with crummy people, Batman sacrified himself. That is, to me, the epitome of grace which is found in the gospel. We are sinners, not “worth” anything, yet Christ still dies for us in order to redeem us. How much redemption is ultimately found in Batman? I don’t know. But the same paradigm of grace still seems to be found in the movie.

  • Rais

    I love your review, a Humble one. Something I’d ask you to add for Blake’s traits. He identifies Batman as Bruce Wayne, not the other way. Bruce Wayne is the mask, His true self is the Caped one. Thats why he’s the lone man in th masked ball without the mask, “Pretending to be eccentric billionaire playboy.” This tone was persistent in Nolan’s trilogy, Rachel says that in Batman Begins, repeats in The Dark Knight. Most might not understand the significance but a true Batman fan knows this to heart.
    As for the conclusion, the people fighting with him proves his mission if “Inspiring People” to the fullest level. The GCPD cops corrupt, none to rat anyway stands for the good of the citizens. Batman beats the sadistic idea of Ra’s and later adopted by Bane-Talia to destroy Gotham because it is not worth living is proved wrong. The city is re-born from the ashes to a new life full of hope & a valiant hero to be inspired for the ages to come. The man who became more than just a man to become the Legend! Thats a punch in the face for Ra’s-Scarecrow-Two-Face-Bane-Talia in one single hit. Hats off to Nolan, hats off to Batman.
    As for the final scene, this is the visual hope of Batman Begins [Jim Gordon: I never said thank you. Batman: And you'd never have to.] & The Dark Knight, [He's a Silent Guardian, a Watchful Protector... a Dark Knight.] We see Bruce Wayne to live the life as the way the old man wanted, but he still lives to keep his sight upon Gotham just in case bad days comes again…… a hope that he’d be there to save the day again as their gallant Knight. (I’m not asking for a sequel, but a prolonged sense to the infinity that Nolan leaves us with)