Welcome to Different Perspectives, an essay series designed to offer a new, more positive perspective on a piece of entertainment that viewers may not have considered.
Warning: Spoilers for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises ahead.
“I started out trying to make the greatest film in the world. I’m now halfway through and all I want to do is get the thing finished.”
I’m going to put this bluntly. Despite how much you might have wanted it, Christopher Nolan didn’t want to make The Dark Knight Rises.
Now, before you all light up your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, or take to the internet to fire off dozens of articles, quotes and interviews my way that may speak contrary to my words. Hear … me … out. That’s not to say Nolan and crew didn’t eventually get enthusiastic about the project. They did.
However, the death of Heath Ledger left a dark spot on the franchise, one that Nolan couldn’t quite overcome. Evidence of this is in the finished product. “Out of respect” for Ledger, Nolan doesn’t mention The Joker. Which is odd when you consider he was likely rotting away in Gotham prison when Bane lets everyone loose. You’d think someone would, at the very least, say something like “What about The Joker? Did he get loose?” and someone else would say “No, the inmates killed him.” or “No. Even Bane knew not to mess with a mad dog” or something to that effect.
Naturally, one could slough this off by saying The Joker was in federal prison. But without one single line of dialogue to indicate such a thing, it remains a mystery. One might also not consider this a plot hole. Technically, it’s not. It’s an omission, one that feels directly tied to Harvey Dent and the Dent Act. It seems only logical, within the film’s universe, that a character might bring up The Joker. I mean, we refer to our tragedies by name. It’s hard to talk about 9/11 without discussing Bin Laden.
Even more potent would have been a line toward the beginning of the film – something to punch home the idea that Gotham law enforcement had established its own form of vigilante justice. The exchange between Matthew Modine’s Foley and Brett Cullen’s congressman could have easily contained a line like this:
“Our first step toward the Dent Act happened the night Dent died, when we took justice into our own hands and did what The Batman failed to do. We killed The Joker.”
Audiences could read that the SWAT team who found The Joker dangling on a wire simply shot the maniac in the head, thus ending his legacy and beginning a new, tainted era for Gotham. Hell, they could have even pinned the murder on The Batman if they wanted to. Why not? He’s a wanted masked murderer after all. This probably would have made Gordon even more distraught over lying about Dent’s death.
Instead, The Dark Knight Rises contains not a single Joker reference, thus leaving an enormous plot hole for fans to munch on. Is The Joker free to roam the streets of Gotham? Will the new Batman have to face off against The Joker for his first assignment? Talk about a tall order! Wayne was emotionally destroyed by The Joker, and Batman nearly died trying to stop him … and he had almost a decade of hardened training and skills behind him. That won’t be the case for poor little John Blake.
At times it also feels like Ben Mendelsohn’s Daggett was meant to be The Joker, albeit heavily altered to fit the financial/economic subtext of the plot. I imagine a different version could exist where Daggett is the assistant (who’s on the board at Wayne) and the Joker is the real enemy behind the curtain – the man who brought (not hired) Bane to crush The Batman (and the city). As it stands, it’s Daggett and a useless assistant.
Daggett even slithers his tongue in a few scenes, just like Ledger’s Joker. It’s hard to imagine how much more intimidating Bane would have been if The Joker was the man responsible for bringing him to Gotham. The exchange shared before Daggett’s death would have been far more terrifying.
Daggett: “You’re pure evil!”
Bane: “I’m necessary evil.”
What a potent end to The Joker’s reign. The mad dog brings in what he thinks is another mad dog, and he loses at his own game. It’s not a hero that defeats The Joker, but an enemy of pure, unadulterated “necessary” evil.
I could go on and on about other issues, plot holes and mistakes The Dark Knight Rises brings to the table, but you’ve read all the little reports. You’ve probably watched the tremendously funny “Everything that’s wrong with TDKR” video (seen below). It’s all been done. But of all the essays, interviews, videos, reviews and blogs about The Dark Knight Rises, I’ve never actually seen one that dissects the deeper commentary that the film might be metaphorically suggesting.
The Dark Knight Rises is about Christopher Nolan’s reluctance to return to Batman.
Some context. Shortly after The Dark Knight took audiences by storm, Nolan expressed interest in shooting an epic but intimate romance completely in the IMAX format. He also pressed forward with a Howard Hughes biopic. Not much has been spoken about the IMAX romance since the release of The Dark Knight, but the Howard Hughes biopic stalled.
So what is The Dark Knight Rises? It’s a couple of things. For one, it’s both the epic romance and the Howard Hughes story tucked into the Batman template. But it’s also a film about Nolan’s journey to making this third and final Batman film.
Evidence of the romance/Hughes plot should be obvious. The shoehorned romance between Miranda Tate and Bruce Wayne, followed by the brutal betrayal of that affair feels pretty damn epic, yet intimate, to me. And the Howard Hughes references in the film are even more obvious, with Wayne living in seclusion following his stint as Batman. Even Nolan himself confirmed the Hughes influences in TDKR to Empire magazine saying, “Luckily I managed to find another wealthy, quirky character who’s orphaned at a young age.”
But these two elements of The Dark Knight Rises are not simply the whimsical dreams of an acclaimed artist. Rather, they represent Nolan’s own frustration with making a third Batman film. Allow me to break the plot of The Dark Knight Rises down, explaining each element and how it relates to Nolan’s career decisions.
The film starts with Wayne in seclusion, wrecked after losing Rachel Dawes (despite death being Wayne’s catalyst for becoming Batman, but I digress). He’s bagged Batman and cut off communication with Gordon. When Bane shows up, Wayne decides to dust off Batman once again. It seems like more of an obligation (or a death wish) than anything else. His best friend and mentor Alfred, a character formally quite fine (even encouraging) of Batman, now seems to have a deep contempt for Batman, claiming he never wanted this life for Bruce.
The opening of the film is where Nolan is, mentally. He’s lost a good friend in Heath Ledger. He no longer sees a happy ending for the world of Batman, or at least the ending he had always wanted. To him, there’s no reason to return. But, Nolan is constantly bombarded with questions about a third Batman and can’t seem to escape the shadow of the franchise. He’s tied to the series. So, he returns to Batman, even in the face of relaunching Superman, a project he seemed curiously more invested in right before working on The Dark Knight Rises (hence why Wayne is hard at work on a secret energy project at the beginning of the film). Alfred likely speaks to what Nolan’s closest friends were telling him. “If you don’t want to do it, why return? You’re an artist. This isn’t the life we wanted for you.”
With this metaphor in mind, Bane represents the fans, sorry to say. Bane is a tyrannical mercenary whose plan is simply to bring about the destruction of Gotham, and Batman. He claims he wants what’s best for Gotham but his real motives are to destroy the city. And deep down he’s doing it out of blind love and affection for a character tied to Batman Begins.
Bane represents the force of nature that is fandom, which starts slow and mostly silent, but quickly the fire rises and the heat from clamoring fans is intense and occasionally brutal. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how fans are shaping the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is Coulson still dead? Nope. The fire has certainly risen.
In the case of TDKR, fans fell in love with Batman Begins and have driven the franchise to great financial heights since then. This is woven into the narrative of TDKR, hence Bane’s secret love for Talia al Ghul, a character that’s tied directly to Batman Begins. In other words, without that picture, and the fandom born from it, Bane does not exist.
Also, fans don’t just want another Batman. They want the best damn Batman film that Nolan can give them … or else. The fight sequence between a worn out Batman and Bane is evidence of Nolan’s struggle to give audiences a good sequel. And Bane literally breaks Batman, mocking him for being old and worn out … or unoriginal and derivative.
Even stranger is Bane’s goal to steal Wayne’s fortune. This seems less like a metaphor for our current financial crisis and more Nolan commenting on the sometimes negative financial influence of moviegoers, who often steal a director’s artistic desires and dictate what films and franchises survive and what art eventually gets made with their money. Wanna make that Howard Hughes biopic? Hell no! The fans want Batman 3. And Batman 3 is what they get.
The tools and tech of The Dark Knight Rises also play into this metaphor in clever ways. The Bat is an excessive and completely needless tool for most of the picture, only conveniently serving the plot in the final minutes of the climax. For the rest of the film it feels like an accessory ripped straight out of Transformers or GI Joe.
Nolan’s third Batman film arrived on the heels of yet another Transformers picture – a series that has elevated its action, tech and tools tenfold since the first chapter. And moviegoers have eaten this sloppy junk food right up, fat and all. Since Nolan already sees his audience as aggressive and hungry, like Bane, and he’s got a studio breathing down his neck (acting much like Daggett), asking for something bigger and better with this third film and trying to steal the series out right from under his nose, he ends up mocking audiences and studio heads with The Bat – an admittedly slick little tool that serves no other purpose for most of the picture other than to be cool. In fact, it’s easily the most traditionally “comic book” piece of tech in Nolan’s entire series, and feels better suited for a mindless popcorn yarn than a Nolan Batman film.
Oddly, even the narrative template of The Dark Knight Rises is borrowed from Transformers 2 and 3, with Bane controlling a city and threatening its citizens with doom. I can only hope Nolan is mocking this plot device. If not, he’s stealing from Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. And no one wants that … or do they? After all, the Transformers series has made a few billion since it was launched in 2007. The fans have spoken, sadly, and they love their junk food!
Which brings us to the middle of the picture. Wayne if left crippled by Bane and forced to live in a tomb, watching Gotham crumble at the hands of Bane (and to a lesser extent, Daggett). This is Nolan in his own mental pit of sorts, watching fans and studio heads hijack TDKR, a film he never wanted to make. The studio wanted it big. The fans wanted it bigger. And now it’s about to consume itself.
And it’s in this place that Nolan finds peace.
He finally accepts his fate. Christopher Nolan was always meant to direct The Dark Knight Rises. It was, after all, his own damn story. And he can do with it as he pleases. But he can also provide the slam-bang action bravado this generation of Transformers-loving fans crave while placating studio desires for a bigger, better picture that can sell more toys and other merch while also wowing the audience.
But he’s gonna do it his way, dammit!
Nolan opts to shoot the film almost entirely in IMAX, a slap in the face against current digital filmmaking trends. He even becomes vocal in the press about his disinterest in digital cinema, favoring classic film over the digital age. He writes in the epic romance and the Howard Hughes subplots to serve his artistic interests.
And Nolan crawls out of the tomb, free of constraints. He’s not answering Bane’s call anymore. He’s taking control of his actions while using the film to slyly mock his critics, studio heads and his fans.
When Batman returns to the city, he’s able to defeat Bane quite easily. But he’s nearly undone, though, by Miranda Tate, who’s actually the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul – the man who influenced Batman in the first place. This serves as a reminder that the franchise circle is now complete. Ra’s al Ghul begets The Joker begets Bane begets Talia al Ghul.
Reclaiming the narrative, Nolan now has control over Batman’s fate. But he has a mess of a film on his hands. The picture opens with a disjointed Hughes hybrid story that makes little sense if you break it down, a wonky love story that switches love interests halfway through the film with little coherence, and a Michael Bay-inspired narrative arch that also makes little sense in spots. It’s time for Nolan to do the right thing. It’s time to kill The Batman and end things on his own terms.
So Nolan’s film quite literally apes a scene from Batman: The Movie, with Batman carrying a bomb away from the city, saving the day. “Some Days, You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb!”
The only real difference is that, on the surface, it looks like Batman died saving the city. The fans get what they want, yet the vocal minority is defeated at the same time. Batman is no more. Nolan is free. Everyone is happy, disappointed, sad and curiously satisfied.
Then there’s the Ocean’s 11 twist.
Things were not what they seemed. Batman didn’t really die. And stranger yet, Robin has been in the picture this whole time, we just didn’t know it! Joseph Gordon Levitt plays John Blake, a cop who figures out who Bruce Wayne really is by, umm, looking at him once. This leads to some quick mentoring, a few lazy lessons about hiding your identity and then Blake receives the mantle of The Dark Knight.
Glorious ending, right? Nope!
The ending feels energetic, exciting and emotionally stirring. But Wayne has just damned Blake to a world he hated so much he had to fake his own death to escape it. He’s just damned him to a life with no ending, with no love – a world of regret. And worse, Blake doesn’t have the money or resources to take on the mantle of Batman. Hopefully Bruce gave Blake some contacts at Wayne R&D and a few bucks to hold him over.
Rather, Blake represents the next Batman director. In this case, it represents Zack Synder, who will take on Batman in his own still untitled Superman sequel, currently being billed as Batman Vs. Superman, a cheeky title I hope does not stick. When Blake rises from the water and the film fades to black, Nolan is quite literally handing the franchise off to the next director, damning them to a difficult but potentially rewarding journey.
Now, I’m not saying this was Nolan’s literal intention. I don’t know Christopher Nolan. I have no idea what his struggle was really like. There’s an old saying I like to remind myself of nearly every day: “There’s the way people think Hollywood works, and then there’s the way it really works.”
The Dark Knight Rises might actually be Nolan’s commentary on how kittens are cuter than puppies for all I know.
But I love Nolan’s films and I find him to be one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. And you can’t deny some odd correlations about the narrative and Nolan’s career. Some of the decisions feel more subconscious than anything – something that was swimming in the back of Nolan’s head when he jotted down the story and screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises with David S. Goyer and Nolan’s own brother, Jonathan Nolan. But maybe not.
I’ve long contended that TDKR is a messy movie that could have used one really good rewrite before they started shooting in order to tie up all the loose ends and terrifically wide plot holes that exist within the narrative. However, I find the film mysteriously entertaining. I like it … a lot. I have this desire to watch The Dark Knight Rises over and over again. To consume the movie bit by bit. I loathe the picture for delivering a somewhat disappointing final chapter in Nolan’s Batman saga, but I love watching the film regardless. And I think it’s because The Dark Knight Rises gives me an inside peek into who Christopher Nolan really is, and as a huge fan of his, that’s a real treat. Nolan is an artist, pure and simple, who was tossed into the Hollywood machine and has faced incredible odds to maintain his dazzling artistry.
The Dark Knight Rises is possibly messy on purpose. It’s what happens when too many people offer their hand. When fans influence a director negatively. When you don’t want to make a film that everyone wants you to make. And the ultimate conclusion is Nolan’s own. He takes back the picture, restores his artistic integrity and hands Batman off to someone else.
It’s no shock that the final image of The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most memorable. Nolan has reclaimed his art form. And he’s moving past Batman into the next, exciting stage of his career. And like Bruce Wayne, who found love in the end, perhaps Nolan will finally get to make that epic IMAX romance, or whatever film he wants … and make his friends (and hopefully fans) smile once more.
But the truth of that final image is also indicative of the contradictory message of The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan has continued to slap his name on both Man of Steel and the untitled Batman Vs. Superman project. He’s still around, lurking in the darkness like Bruce Wayne. It makes one question … could the real Batman really stay away?
Perhaps Batman isn’t just a name, but the man who embodies him.
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