Despite rabid fanboys trolling the editor-in-chief at Rotten Tomatoes into disabling comments on the site and issuing a “come at me bro” statement defending critics’ rights to um, think, early reviews of The Dark Knight Rises have not been nearly as positive as those for The Dark Knight. This was inevitable—too many things were too revolutionary about TDK. The film redefined the way studios think about superhero movies, earned a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score, and turned half of the Internet into Batman 3 speculation message boards. So DKR was bound to disappoint, even just a little. But that doesn’t matter. This film was necessary.
Traditional trilogies have an arc of origin-fall-redemption. The easiest example is the original Star Wars—hell, it’s right in the titles (bold mine): A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return Of The Jedi. Or take The Lord of the Rings—the fellowship is formed, then broken up, and then evil is eradicated. This is how trilogies typically function. Our protagonist does cool things, faces adversity, and then is redeemed/justified. It’s called “storytelling.”
***FROM THIS POINT ON THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT RISES***
So we needed The Dark Knight Rises to redeem Batman and restore his legacy. And that, along with a bunch of convoluted stuff, is what happens in the film. Reclusive, existential, Howard Hughes-like Bruce Wayne is introduced to a villain even more dangerous than the Joker, so he dusts off the cape and cowl and saves Gotham. He can’t do this until his company is taken over and bankrupted, his Bat-identity is stolen, and his not-utility-belted-body is thrown into an inescapable prison, but he does save the day. In the process, the truth about Harvey Dent’s crimes come out, allowing Batman to return to his role of hero. In the end, Batman flies an atom bomb outside of exploding range of the city. Hard to hate the guy after that.
The truth sort of comes out for Bruce, too. Presumed dead, his funeral is attended by Alfred, Luscious Fox, Commissioner Gordon, and John Blake, all of whom (now) know his identity and good intentions and admire exactly how much Bruce Wayne gave to the city of Gotham. So Batman’s legacy as an inspiring symbol is safe, and not everyone will think of Bruce as a philandering, party animal playboy who went bat shit after a while.
Unfortunately for the Bat-legacy, the films seem to point to the idea that Batman should have never existed. This is part of the excellence of Nolan’s franchise: it creates a world that shows how a person could be driven to take on the persona of a bat and beat up crime under the smoggy glow of moonlight, then spends all of its time showing exactly why a person shouldn’t do that.
In Batman Begins, it’s established that Thomas and Martha Wayne did a lot for the city of Gotham. The giant monorail Thomas built provides clean, cheap transportation for the city’s poor and undoubtedly created a plethora of jobs while it was built. Thomas is also a great philanthropist and a doctor. The couple is so respected that their deaths scare the rest of the city’s wealthy into hiding. A new depression arises thanks to the upper class’s fear. This leads to poverty, crime, and corruption so widespread that the city’s most well-known mob boss eats dinner in the same booth of the same restaurant every night with no fear of legal reckoning.
Bruce becomes Batman, beats the hell out of everyone, and nabs Carmine Falcone for the cops. He also destroys everything his father built—Wayne Manor, the monorail, and the good name of the Wayne family. He does the latter to protect his guests from being caught in League of Shadows crossfire, but it’s a blow to his reputation that he never recovers from.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker blames Batman for making Gotham crazy. Because Batman won’t reveal his identity, the Joker kills five people, leading Gotham to demand Batman be taken into custody by authorities. After the Joker destroys Harvey Dent (and thus Gotham’s moral compass), Batman builds an elaborate surveillance contraption that enables him to spy on every citizen of Gotham.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we see a retired Bruce Wayne devoting himself to philanthropic efforts. We also see Gotham at its most peaceful (though, to be fair, this can also be attributed to the Dent Act, a Patriot Act-esque way of getting around the Fifth and Sixth Amendments). Yes, Bruce is in full-on existential crisis mode, but that could be attributed to a realization that 1) crime will always exist, 2) nonviolence is the best and most lasting way to effect societal change, and 3) his parents’ death was a random tragedy that can often happen when you wear a tuxedo and jewelry and walk around in darkened alleys. His whole life’s philosophy is shattered.
“But what about Bane?” you ask, “Bane had to be taken care of.” Well, we know that Bane is a member of the League of Shadows and wants to complete their now decade-old goal of destroying Gotham. But why would Bane care so much about destroying a city that he’s not visited and that is repairing itself? To prove he’s better than Bruce Wayne. Can’t you see a bit of vengeance and jealousy in Bane’s motivation? Other than Bane, Bruce was Ra’s Al Ghul’s greatest pupil. Bane wants to do what R’as and the Joker couldn’t do—rip America’s biggest city and its famous heroes (Batman and Dent) to shreds. Yes, Bane cares about some ideology, but he’s also arrogant.
Let’s talk about that ideology for a moment. The movie does contain all-out class warfare. We have Selina Kyle oozing disdain for and frequently thieving from the 1%. We have the Dr. Jonathan Crane-presided, French Revolution-esque “trials” of the rich. We have Bane assaulting the Stock Exchange. The villains in this movie are fighting a system of oppression, the kind of economic oppression that leads the desperate to turn to crime. Criminals aren’t born, they’re made. Yes, psychopaths like the Joker exist. But most people turn to crime because they feel as though they don’t have any other options. Most crime in America can be explained by this country’s horrific history of handling things like immigration, integration, and the mere existence of narcotics with the flippant finality of a child who’s afraid of a beetle: “We don’t like it, so we won’t understand it, and we’ll attempt to squash it underfoot.”
Yes, Bane/Crane’s handling of class warfare shows the problem of the proletariat violently rising up. That’s not the way things work—reference the history of France, Russia, and China. Or go read A Tale of Two Cities, which Nolan clearly wants you to do (fun fact: it’s way shorter than Knightfall). But it can’t be ignored that Batman exists thanks to a fundamental misunderstanding of a criminal mentality, and his anger fuels him more than his desire to effect societal change. With news breaking that the super rich—perhaps including Presidential candidates—are hiding $32 trillion in assets in offshore accounts, it’s hard not to cheer for Catwoman. It’s hard not want to take part in Bane’s stock market attack.
Obviously violence isn’t the answer. But that statement doesn’t just apply to psychopathic assholes trying to imitate the Joker. That applies to people closing their eyes and wishing for Batman to come save us all. We don’t need a dark knight. We need Habitat for Humanity. We need homeless shelters. We need the Interrupters. We need better education. We need a lower incarceration rate. We need to end the War on Drugs. We need a lot of things, and a billionaire vigilante isn’t one of them. However, as Nolan’s films show, it’s probably more likely that we’ll get what we want before we get what we need.