The Dark Knight Dies and Rises: Sacrifice and Freedom in Gotham

[Spoiler Alert – those who haven’t seen it, run don’t walk…it’s fantastic!] “All their days […]

Will McDavid / 7.23.12

[Spoiler Alert – those who haven’t seen it, run don’t walk…it’s fantastic!]

“All their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.”   -Ecclesiastes 2:23

“Put your sword back in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”   -Matthew 26.52

Nolan has now traced the Dark Knight’s journey from streetfighter to hero, from hero to villain, and from villain to…recluse. Wayne has died to the world and only holds on to the shadow-life of mourning for Rachel, and Alfred drops more than a few hints that he wants to die bodily as well. In The Dark Knight Rises, we see different forms of death that look like life and different forms of life that appear as death. “A Death blow is a Life blow to Some…” as Dickinson had it.

Life, Death, and the Failure of Force

While Bruce laments Rachel’s death, Alfred shatters him with the revelation that Rachel had preferred Harvey Dent anyway. This severs their friendship, but Alfred reminds him that the only thing worse than being hated by and estranged from Bruce would be the thought of Bruce’s reckless death. Alfred offers his vision of Bruce learning how to live as a civilian with a wife and kids, his bat-days behind him. And yet a potent mixture of personal anger and the hero’s call to deal with Bane persuade  Bruce to again live through his persona as the Caped Crusader, now a reckless vigilante with no fear of death or, as Alfred would say, with an eerie attraction towards it. Alfred’s (2nd!) use of the Law to kill Bruce disabuses him of his obsession with what could have been, but it doesn’t make him fully alive. For that, he needs the true death of brutality and failure, the kind that only lived experience and the failure of self-reliance preach effectively.

Enter Bane, a vicious mercenary and agent of the genocidal League of Shadows, which our hero spent most of Batman Begins destroying. As Alfred reminds Wayne, Bane is younger than him, far stronger, tougher, faster, and trained in Batman’s same fighting style. While Ledger’s Joker questioned all of the hero’s values – parodying, complicating, and negating them – Bane is devoted to his own ideals: a young woman, savagery, mastery by force. If the Joker was the perfect counterpoint to The Dark Knight’s Batman, Bane fits perfectly with a vengeful and disaffected Bruce, intent on using sheer force, as he did when he was younger, to fight crime. The end of sin is death, and the end of Wayne’s devotion to self-reliance and force is literally being broken, his back in two. He has tried sheer force…and it didn’t work. His self-destructive orientation has, as Alfred predicted, killed him – he lies on the floor of a dark pit, “where the worm never dies and the fire is not quenched.” Sounding familiar? It becomes even more so with the Rising.

Fear and Humility

The first movie started with Bruce Wayne overcoming all of his fears – especially of bats and death – and Rises comes full-circle when a wise man in the Pit tells Bruce he must relearn the fear of death and use it. But first Bruce must have something real to live for. Bane ends up giving Batman exactly what he needs: death to victory by sheer individual force, and then the will to live. Only by entering a living hell of death does Bruce realize that he wants to live for something outside of the Pit and outside himself, looking at the TV and realizing his calling is to help Gotham. Thus Wayne again transcends himself for the city he loves; his humiliating death to self opens the space in his heart for renewed devotion to Gotham. And so he rises out of the prison, making the final leap without the customary safety rope. Now that his fall has renewed his desire to live, he becomes afraid of death again; this fear, in turn, propels him. Wayne has moved from reliance on his own power to humility, and he’s concomitantly shed the fearlessness of nihilism for the bravery of one who feeds off of fear because there is so much to lose. The character development is astounding.

A few critics were concerned that Rises didn’t have enough Batman; that is, Bruce’s character wasn’t as prominent. Indeed, the side-characters take up a massive amount of screentime, and yet this is appropriate for an aging Batman who has, at last, met someone too powerful for him to deal with. Paradoxically, Bane’s very use of force to break Batman teaches Bruce that force doesn’t always work. To this end, he relies on Fox, a brilliantly-acted Detective Blake, Miranda Tate, Gordon, and Catwoman.

 Catwoman is a smart, resourceful and beautiful thief (played by Anne Hathaway) who only desires to clear her record and get a fresh start. Batman’s knowledge of his inadequacy against Bane, as well as Catwoman’s inability to escape her involvement with Bane’s thugs, force the two into a beautiful relationship. Catwoman grudgingly gives up her independence and Bruce, in turn, must trust someone who betrayed him into his first death at Bane’s hands. Batman’s honest reckoning with a world in which the good-evil fault line runs through every human heart finds its highest expression in Catwoman. He trusts that  there’s “more to [her] than that”, meaning deceit and self-preservation. The ending will prove his judgment correct and/or his imputation effective: if Batman does have a superpower, it’s anthropological insight into a crippled yet redeemable human nature.

No New Wine in Old Skins – Alfred’s Vision and the Ending

Now that Bruce has experienced the same death as Bane in the Pit, he’s prepared to face him again. Batman doesn’t defeat Bane because he’s been working out more; instead his secret weapon is humility. Knowing that he cannot defeat Bane in some idealized contest of physical prowess, he  more humbly targets Bane’s mask, taking slashes (aka ‘cheapshots’) at its valves. With Bane finally defeated, however, Batman finds again that he cannot attain victory on his own: he is still the quintessentially human superhero, and this time his wits and judgment have failed him. Miranda shockingly stabs him, reveals her leading role in the League of Shadows, and stabs the Caped Crusader. Again, however, Batman’s humility (you could even say ‘desperation’) saves him: his dependence upon Catwoman pays off, and she promptly destroys Bane with the Bat-bike’s cannons.

Some may complain that Batman never quite ‘gets the best of’ his enemy, and yet none of us ever do – that would be more appropriate to more super-human heroes. Nolan’s Batman must open himself to the world to find victory and redemption, and it’s a victory which happens despite his prior arrogant and self-destructive attempts to take on Bane’s entire army by himself. The side-characters are so prominent because that’s their natural role in any remotely honest story of human heroism. And so Batman’s victory finally costs him his life as he fails to account for all the contingencies (i.e. Miranda’s treachery and flooding the reactor), so he must give up his last resource to stop the bomb.

–Or so we think. He survives through the banal, down-to-earth magic of autopilot, so again his humanity is affirmed. He doesn’t survive through heroics, but rather through a painfully obvious software patch. He can now begin to live Alfred’s vision for him as a normal human being; both his victory over Bane and its attendant humility allow him to do this. Evil is not, of course, naively eradicated; instead, Nolan gently reminds us that others are capable of taking up this mantle for Gotham. His death hidden in Batman’s, Bruce has now been freed to be…drum roll…a mere human! He died to bodily self-preservation in the form of fear in Begins, he died to self-justifying moral high ground in The Dark Knight, and now in Rises he dies to being any kind of hero at all. And this is why Nolan concludes the trilogy perfectly: evil isn’t vanquished permanently, Gotham’s era of heroes isn’t over (as we see from Robin’s spelunking scene), but age and humility have finally freed Bruce. As befits Batman, the closing scenes are not epic rebuilding of Gotham or the punishment of evil. Instead, we see one man’s delight in simple human life (after dying to the hero’s burden) and a woman’s freedom now that her record has been cleared. To paraphrase Gerhard Forde, life isn’t about being a Godlike hero; it’s about learning how to live as a creature. And so Bruce Wayne does. Nolan’s final frame, however, resonates even more than Bruce’s and Catwoman’s ‘normal lives.’ If there’s any symbol for God in the movie, it’s Alfred: the one who adopts Bruce, who bears Bruce’s hatred to save his life when telling him about Rachel’s letter. And it’s Alfred we see in the final scene, a benevolent smile on his face, reveling in Bruce’s and Selina’s liberty and rest.

Check back on the site soon for Batman guru Wenatchee the Hatchet’s review of The Dark Knight Rises!


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22 responses to “The Dark Knight Dies and Rises: Sacrifice and Freedom in Gotham”

  1. Mike W says:

    This might just be the best movie that I have ever seen.

  2. Superb review of what must be one of the most significant on-screen stories for our times. I was simply stunned by the number of times these films have taken my thoughts back to the vital reality of the Gospel for our world – a wonderful re-working of those comic books I used enjoy so much in my childhood.

  3. Todd Brewer says:

    great post, will – I think I like the movie even more now (which I didn’t think possible)!

  4. Great review and I think the best of the Batman films

  5. MargaretE says:

    I love that Bruce Wayne gives Selena the “clean slate” she so desperately longs for… even though she doesn’t deserve it. And look what happens! Hmmmm….

  6. One of Nolan’s inspiration is Blade Runner, my longstanding favorite film since 1982. It’s only fitting that Nolan in particular may have finally made the movie that will surpass it.

  7. Josh Larsen says:

    I wish I could get behind the ending to this trilogy as much as you, WB, because overall I do like The Dark Knight Rises. But in the conventionality and franchise-care of its final moments, I sense less of the restorative, Gospel hope you allude to and more of a last-minute personality switch. This series has, above all, been a Shakespearean-style tragedy, and for it to suddenly embrace the light at the end was jarring. I didn’t need Bruce Wayne to die, but sitting on a sunny veranda with Catwoman on his arm? That’s a big swing in the other direction.

  8. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I see Bruce Wayne not as a figure in a Shakespearian tragedy but as the flawed protagonist in a Dostoevsky novel. It’s possible for the protagonist to emerge from darkness into light but that path will involve a mountain of suffering and more than a few failed schemes and ideas about the human condition.

  9. John Zahl says:

    The inability of the law (re: gotham’s police force) to restrain evil is another major theme in the film. The solution to the problem of evil, the film seems to imply, is in large a soteriological one, meaning rescue. Also in the particular case of catwoman’s plight, the need for a way to be cleansed of her past transgressions by having the record wiped clean is very pronounced. When she finds the one who can do this for her, loyalty, devotion and gratitude emerge (almost seemingly against her will).

    • Todd Brewer says:

      The Police/Batman – Law/Gospel parallel is brilliant, very Romans 8:3 “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do”

    • Noah Jacobus says:

      “There’s a point far out there, when the structures fail you. When the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead. Maybe one day you’ll have such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did. Someone willing to plunge their hands into the filth, so that you can keep yours clean.” – Commissioner Gordon

  10. Well done who ever wrote this analysis….Amazing “Imputation” from Batman to Cat Woman…seventy times seven does really melt a person to be useful….the emotional catharsis is real and down to earth…does anybody know what Nolan “ground note” is in his approach to at least this movie?
    I would love to know an “Alfred”….since the “Institutional Church” does not allow you to “be human”
    If you become a Christian, watch out….you will be denied to reality of being “human”…simul iustus et peccator is true, but not real in the church…be sure they don’t find out anything about you

  11. . says:

    Batman is presumed dead at the end of the film, but why is Bruce Wayne presumed dead if not all of Gotham was aware he was Batman?

  12. Jason says:

    best film I’ve ever seen

    and probably the best write-up on the film I’ve ever read, great job

  13. Jason says:

    also, the ending of this movie is truly powerful enough to make grown men and women break down in tears

    public tears

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