Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight continued in that tradition but also took the Batman universe into new territory. Gone were the Gothic cityscapes and pulp fiction costumes, no dark symphonies from Danny Elfman to creep into the dark alleys of Gotham City or soar over the city’s spires. Nolan started from scratch in Batman Begins, telling the origin story of Bruce Wayne’s journey as the Batman in a realistic, post-911 world where terrorists and modern crime bosses, not supervillains, threatened the wellbeing of Gotham’s denizens.
Nolan’s critically-acclaimed follow-up, The Dark Knight, was an even more realistic story of crime and terrorism with fewer science fiction elements than its predecessor. As is the case with many middle-chapter entries in trilogies, The Dark Knight was darker and colder than its predecessor. The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy by tying together the stories of the previous two films, but this film’s stakes and struggles are more epic.
The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after the events in The Dark Knight. Gotham’s fallen angel Harvey Dent is Gotham City’s perceived hero in her war on crime, but Batman still carries the blame for the murders Harvey “Two-Face” committed. The rampant crime in Gotham seems to have all but disappeared under the applied force of the city’s law enforcement backed by the cult of Dent’s false legacy. Bruce Wayne is a crippled recluse, having withdrawn from the outside world after retiring his cowl and losing the one lover he had planned to spend the rest of his life with after the Batman’s work was done.
Politicians whisper that the mayor will replace Commissioner Gordon, the warrior who propagated the Dent lie despite having nearly lost his son to the murdering idol he erected. “He’s a war hero,” one official says of the Commissioner, “this is peacetime.” And like the war veteran he is, Gordon still stands by the demolished Bat Signal, ready for battle even though the Batman has long disappeared from the scene. “Pretty soon we’ll be chasing down overdue library books,” one cop says. But beneath the city the forces of evil mobilize to plunge Gotham into her darkest hour yet.
Like the previous two installments of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises tells a moral story that explores the humanity of good and evil. Bane establishes a reign of terror reminiscent of the French Revolution. Just as the prisoners of the Bastille were set loose by the revolutionaries, Bane releases the inmates of Gotham’s Blackgate Prison; like France’s Third Estate tried the aristocracy and condemned them to death, Bane establishes a farcical court judged by Dr. Jonathan Crane—Scarecrow himself—in which the Gotham elites are condemned to death by “exile” on an iced-over river that can’t support their weight.
Bane releases Gotham to “the people,” letting them do as they please short of leaving the city or opposing him. Bane understands that the people would prove their wickedness when given over to their lusts. Property is now in the hands of “the people” and yet stronger men steal food from a child, ironically affirming that ownership of something is inevitable.
The corruption of the Gotham's people echoes Romans 1: 21-32: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.”
Gone is the assumption that the superhero is saving “good” people. Suddenly, Batman has to face the fact that most of the people of Gotham are no better than the villains he fights against.
The ultimate goal of Bane and his commander, Talia al Gul—daughter to Batman’s previous enemy Ra’s al Gul—is to wipe the city off the map with an atomic bomb, thus fulfilling Ra’s vision to destroy the corrupt city. Batman, however, sought to save what little good remained in Gotham, and even saved those that had so shamefully indulged in their selfish wickedness. The fundamental difference between Batman and the al Guls is that while Ra’s and Talia sought to restore the world to balance by destroying evil at its roots, Batman seeks the justice of the wicked and the protection of the innocent (and even the not-so-innocent, as is the case with his efforts to save the vice-ridden masses).
Caught between the two sides is Selina Kyle, the jewel thief better known under the alias of “Catwoman.” She is a side of her own, shifting allegiances whenever she feels it will ensure her survival. She is contemptuous of the Gotham elite, and snidely tells Bruce Wayne that “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” She is later regretful as she watches the masses of Gotham loot and pillage a wealthy apartment. “It’s the people’s home,” says her companion, to which Kyle replies, “It was somebody’s home.”
Disdainful of everyone in Gotham at that point but with a romantic attachment to Bruce Wayne, she begs him to abandon his crusade that is almost sure to fail. “You don’t owe these people any more, Bruce. You’ve given everything.” “Not everything,” Batman says, “Not yet.” Both knew what that one thing was that Batman hadn’t given—his life. At the very crossroads of whether to flee the city or aid Batman in saving the city, Catwoman sacrifices her own desires for a clean slate beyond Gotham to risk her own life to aid the man she loves.
The Dark Knight Rises is a thought-provoking moral story of the fallen nature of mankind and the choices of a few to forsake their selfishness and risk everything to save a people that, by and large, deserved the annihilation that awaited them—certainly a different message than is commonly seen in today’s humanistic society. Yet there remains a gap in the truths contained in the film—without the saving grace of Jesus Christ, no man can truly rise from the ashes.
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