Review of The Dark Knight Rises, Directed by Christopher Nolan
By PAUL D. MILLER
What do you get when someone rewrites A Tale of Two Cities, sets it in modern-day New York with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis underneath, turns Robespierre into a drug-addled terrorist warlord modeled on Darth Vader, and ends it with an apotheosis copied straight from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus?
You get The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale is one of the most ambitious, sophisticated, and complex big-budget blockbusters ever made. It has flaws—choppy editing, obnoxiously loud music—but they are more than overshadowed by the raw grandeur of a film that dares to aim for greatness.
[Warning: major spoilers throughout this essay.]
Like its predecessor, the film exploits socially resonant themes. In 2008 it was terrorism and government surveillance; in 2012, it is still terrorism, matched this time with class warfare, identity theft, and energy security. Bane impersonates a populist Revolutionary in a speech on the courthouse steps delivered with Shakespearean zest; mobs of the proletariat take over the city, sack the mansions of the rich, and try them in kangaroo courts. Like its French predecessor, the Gothamite Revolution devolves into mere terror; Bane holds the city hostage with a nuclear bomb derived from a clean-energy project. In the midst of the chaos, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle try to steal their identities back from the system that has captured them, to redeem themselves from past choices.
These themes make for some interesting subtext, and partisans will enjoy debating them. Is the movie fundamentally conservative for making the populist Revolutionaries the bad guys while the uniformed police are the armies of righteousness? (Hint: it’s a trick question. If liberals take offense at the depiction of populist progressivism, they’re simply admitting that their ideology is indistinguishable from Bane’s and embracing the ideology of the French Revolution and its terror). Is it libertarian for endorsing the “clean slate” option for people who want to drop off the grid? (Yes.) Is it liberal, for its bleeding-heart take on orphaned, troubled young boys? On the last question, the contrast between Bane and Wayne, orphans haunted by rage who assume masks in society for diametrically opposed purposes, is especially interesting.
But I am interested in the ending. [Warning: I am about to talk about how the film ends, including several final revelations.] In a previous essay about Christopher Nolan’s filmography, I wrote “The Dark Knight was the story of Batman as suffering servant. The Dark Knight Rises must be about Batman as conquering king.” I wondered if Nolan was up to the task. “Nolan is clearly drawn to stories of darkness and disappointment. Marshaling his considerable filmmaking skills to tell a profoundly different story, one that ends with hope and light, will show if there is any greater breadth or depth to Nolan’s vision of human life and meaning.”
Going into the film, I expected that a satisfying ending would have to kill Batman, or appear to kill him, and give him some kind of “resurrection” in such a way that made him a martyr-hero and thus inspire Gotham to rediscover its finest self again. That’s the whole purpose of Batman—and, in fact, any Messiah-hero story. Through the hero’s sacrificial death, the people are redeemed. That’s the predestined story-arc for this character-type. The Messiah-hero is a cliché; or, to put a positive spin on “cliché,” it is an archetype of story-telling. Call these tropes Jungian archetypes, a deep pattern embedded in human consciousness, or one face of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. I think they come from an even deeper source.
Alexis wrote in her brilliant essay on Die Hard that “people, whether they realize it or not, long for the gospel. There is something in the story that resonates with us, even if we are resistant to the message on a conscious level. We’re wired for it. Maybe it’s Pascal’s God-shaped hole working its way into literature and film.” In other words, we are drawn to what I call “real stories.” As I wrote in my previous essay on Nolan, “Real stories are ones that reflect true things about life, human nature, and the world we live in.”
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is a retelling of the real Messiah-hero story. Re-read Isaiah 53 and see how well it describes the story arc of Nolan’s Batman. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…he was despised, and we esteemed him not…he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed…Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong…”
It is the hardest story to pull off in secular fiction. Handling the hero’s death, and giving him some kind of resurrection, in a way that strikes the right chords of sorrow, honor, and nobility without becoming trite or silly is nearly impossible. It can be manipulative and lazy (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), overwrought (The Matrix Revolutions), out of place (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and only occasionally touching (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Nolan, I think, largely pulls it off. Both Batman and Bruce Wayne are given a “resurrection:” Batman has inspired a successor, while Wayne can retire in peace, his fight finished and his city and legacy safe.
I’m not arguing that The Dark Knight trilogy is secretly Christian propaganda, only that it uses storytelling tropes with deep Christian roots. We should also acknowledge that the same trope has faint pagan echoes as well as Christian ones. Nolan’s sensibility has always been more pagan than Christian, more tragic than heroic, which may explain his ability to tell this story without sentimentalism, in a way that connects with our pagan culture. The Dark Knight trilogy, despite its finally uplifting ending, is neither triumphalist nor happy. It may use a trope derived from Christian iconography, but it has the dark, brooding, doomed feel of Greek tragedy—which, in fact, it is.
The Dark Knight ended with a great reversal, Batman on the run as a hunted outlaw, just as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex ends with King Oedipus suddenly revealed as a cursed horror who blinds himself as punishment for his heinous crimes. In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus, a blind old man, waits for death and the final end of his suffering. As the end comes, Oedipus vanishes in a blaze of awful light, the only witness shielding his eyes against the “terrible wonder” of Oedipus’ apotheosis as he joins the gods. Batman vanishes in the bright nuclear fire, and lives as a legend forever. This is the only immortality to which the pagans can aspire, and Batman achieves it–and nothing more.