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On Why The Dark Knight Rises Doesn't Work As The End of The Trilogy

Did you enjoy The Dark Knight Rises? If so then good, so did I. So did the vast majority of critics and fans who watched it as well. Despite widespread agreement on all sides that it is inferior to its predecessor in the trilogy, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film. However, regardless of that there are issues that render it an unsuitable and, to a certain degree, disappointing conclusion to what is arguably the pinnacle of all superhero franchises. In order to explore the reasons for this, we must return to the first two installments of the trilogy and analyse their themes and story elements.

 

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In Batman Begins, we are introduced to a young Bruce Wayne and witness the origin story for the Batman with all the usual beats; his fear of bats, the murder of his parents by petty criminal Joe Chill, the installation of Alfred Pennyworth as Bruce's patient and loving guardian and father figure, and how the confluence of all these factors led to his leaving Gotham and eventual return to become Batman. Another significant element is the introduction of Rachel Dawes, Bruce's childhood friend and future love interest.

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When young Bruce falls into a well while playing with Rachel early on in the first movie, his father climbs down to get him out while he lies down there trembling with fear. This scene is shot in an interesting fashion wherein Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father, descends into the well with sunlight blasting in from behind him so as to show us, the audience, how Bruce views him — as a kind of personal Jesus — which is a scene that'll become of great importance in his character arc, as I'll show later on. The death of his parents, particularly that of Thomas, starts Bruce on a life marred by hopelessness and emotional desolation.

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Later on in the movie when Bruce comes back from college to try and kill Joe Chill as retribution for his parents but fails, even going so far as to confront Gotham City crime boss Carmine Falcone after finding out Chill worked for him, the moral and economic destitution of Gotham and its people is made clear to him by Falcone. Rachel is revealed as a potential love interest with whom Bruce's redemption may lie. This is another element whose significance will become clearer later on.

Subsequent to that Bruce leaves Gotham, realising that he has no comprehension of the lives of those far less fortunate than him, and embarks on a journey of trying to learn how to survive without his family's immense wealth to cushion him and is eventually recruited to the League of Shadows by Ra's Al Ghul (still masquerading as Henri Ducard at this point in the film). Now, there are two things during this part of the movie that Ra's says to Bruce that go on to define the modus operandi of Batman for the entire trilogy:
1) "Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than a man in the eyes of your opponent" and
2) "Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of societies understanding".
These two quotes foreshadow Batman's weaponisation of fear in his battle with Gotham's criminal underworld and the crushing brutality of the methods he would use to dismantle them.

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It's also important to note that the League of Shadows is essentially a clandestine, puritanical terrorist group which, according to Ra's, "sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground" because "everytime a civilisation reaches the peak of its decadence" they "return to restore the balance". This is ultimately where Ra's and Bruce diverge in their philosophies. Bruce believes totally that the fight against crime must be restorative and cannot involve the destruction of innocents. It also cannot involve the taking of life by his hand but the breaking of bones is permissible. Batman himself becomes an allegory for Gotham. His success as a vigilante is portrayed as being inextricably intertwined with the success of Gotham as a metropolis.

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In The Dark Knight, the themes and methods adopted by Batman in the first movie are proven to have been overwhelmingly successful. The mob has been brutally crushed and forced into hiding, incapable of conducting their business without the terror of having to face the Batman. In order to counter this monstrous threat, the mob places its faith in The Joker; an anarchic criminal mastermind and self-described "agent of chaos". Having no fear of the Batman or of death, the theme of the Joker's conflict with the Batman becomes escalation. He kills randomly & without regard, he delivers on his threats and, most importantly, he exploits Batman's weaknesses so as to force him to abandon his principles. Doing this, particularly when Rachel's life is threatened, eliminates the emotional and psychological bifurcation between Bruce Wayne and Batman that the batsuit creates and formulates situations where the caped crusader behaves not as a symbol of fear and justice but as a mere man that's in love with a woman. The Joker is the antithesis of the Batman in this way. He is not a skilled hand-to-hand combatant, does not value human life and is not associated with any place or anybody. However he is, like Batman, a man of unknown identity who moves through the city like an elemental force, the only difference being that where Batman brings order, he brings chaos.

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This movie also introduces Harvey Dent, Gotham's district attorney and "white knight", and one Rachel Dawes' significant other. Rachel being romantically involved with Harvey Dent is significant because Harvey is Bruce's parallel in many ways. He's a Gotham native who was not born to a wealthy family but is as passionate about Gotham as Bruce's family was. Instead of donning a lycra bodysuit and joining Bruce on his nighttime adventures as Batman, he is a civil servant fighting crime using the avenues afforded to him by the legal system (i.e. where Bruce fights in the dark, Harvey fights in the light). Harvey has no bifurcation between himself & that which he must be in order to combat the ills of his society and the most telling parallel between them with regards to that is how Bruce chose to become a symbol for fear while Harvey chose to become a symbol for hope. He is so adorned with saviour-imagery, both verbal and visual, that Bruce even begins to see him as the true hope of a better tomorrow for Gotham and a way for him to no longer need to be Batman so that he might dedicate himself to Rachel.

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When The Joker forces Batman to choose between saving Harvey's life and saving Rachel's, having realised at the fundraiser he threw for Harvey as Bruce that he is in love with Rachel, he creates the conditions for his psychological victory over Batman by giving him the wrong address for Rachel's location. Rachel's death thrusts Bruce into a deep depression and destroys Harvey Dent as we've known him, seemingly eliminating whatever hope there was for Bruce's redemption or for Gotham. Alfred even chooses to destroy the letter in which Rachel told Bruce that she had chosen to be with Harvey instead of him, allowing him to retain the facade that he lost someone who had loved him deeply rather than someone who had rejected him.
Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman decide to create a noble lie around the manner in which Harvey Dent died so as to preserve his legacy and the hope it inspired in the people of the city.

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This brings us, finally, to The Dark Knight Rises. Possibly the greatest challenge this movie faced to begin with was how it was going to resolve and complete some of the character, thematic, narrative and philosophical arcs that are there at the end of The Dark Knight while still being a worthwhile standalone movie in its own right with its own story. Is this a challenge that I feel they met? No. The curse of the trilogy that befell previous stories of staggering brilliance falls upon Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy as well.
The Dark Knight Rises offers nothing new. The resurgence of the League of Shadows only serves to return us to the territory of the first movie, but for indecipherable reasons. Bane's revolution is seemingly predicated on the idea that the noble lie from the end of the last film upon which the Dent Act (legislation that has given law enforcement greater power in dealing with organised crime, enacted in memory of Harvey's work against organised crime) is based has given rise to some sort of disgruntlement or unhappiness among the city's poor, but why? Up to and including the point at which Bane sets the prisoners from Blackgate prison free, the Dent Act had been an overwhelming success. So much so that at the beginning of the movie, the mayor and some policemen brag about the streets being clean of organised crime ever since the law was passed. At the end of the movie, another "noble lie" is told in which Batman sacrifices himself to save Gotham and supplants Harvey as a symbol for justice and something for people to believe in, and we end up at the exact same place we were at the beginning of the movie. In 165 minutes, all that happened was the reaffirmation of the necessity of the noble lie. Had the Dent Act created the kind of excessive corruption that locked up too many of the poor at the whims of the rich and powerful and Bane had hijacked that civil unrest for his own ends, this would be a far different situation.

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Also, if crime has nearly been eradicated in Gotham, why would the League of Shadows still want to destroy it? Bane claims that it is to "fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny" but that comes across as a little half-baked. Ra's had a plan that would see Gotham destroyed overnight. Ra's' plan did not involve breaking the protagonist's back and leaving him unattended in a prison in a foreign land for the exact amount of time it would take for him to recover from his back injury and return to save Gotham. The whole story, as I've come to understand it, is actually a revenge plot against Bruce Wayne for contravening the will of the League and allowing their leader to die. And as I said earlier, since it is established early on that the fates of Gotham and Batman are inextricably linked, then "bringing Gotham to its knees and letting it destroy itself" is, by making him watch while he's in the prison, a way of destroying Bruce as well. This deeply personal aspect of the story is acutely mishandled, I believe, because instead of a lot of asinine grandstanding about being "Gotham's reckoning" and so on, it could've been made clear that Gotham is being targeted by those who were hurt/weakened/lost as a result of the Batman's success as its protector. This could've given Bane and, by extension, Talia the clarity and impetus to be far more compelling antagonists.

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Another thing that could've been done much better was the bomb. It was odd to see Nolan use doomsday device cliché of so many action and espionage films of the past. The dangers posed by the villains in this movie aren't as visceral and powerful as those of the two in the previous films.
Finally, the plot is obtuse and overcomplicated even for a Christopher Nolan film. It's essentially this:
- Bane fakes the death of a Russian scientist then
- Bane sides with Daggett who has Selina steal Bruce’s fingerprints so Bane can storm the Stock Exchange to
- put all Bruce’s money into a company that will fail, so Bruce will have to put the company in the hands of Miranda
- so she can gain access to the clean energy source and turn it into a bomb
- so Bane can take the city hostage even though he plans to blow it up anyway
- so Batman can recover in the Pit and come back and stop Bane
- before Selina kills Bane
- Bruce kills Talia
- and Bruce takes the bomb far enough away for the explosion not to damage the city
- then fucks off to Italy to live out the rest of his days apparently wearing salmon-coloured button ups and chinos.
Excuse me but what the fuck? This is the simplified version of this plan to boot. The only reason to even notice what the plan is with such great detail is because the villain isn't compelling enough to stop you.

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The one thing that I feel was done exceedingly well in this movie, apart from the action set-piecing, was the conclusion of Bruce Wayne's character arc. One of the major themes of this movie is pain, both physical and emotional. Bruce lives in physical pain at the beginning of the movie, refusing to heal the injuries of his earlier days as Batman as a result of the emotional pain he feels and is unable to overcome from the loss of Rachel. Both forms of pain are exacerbated when Bane breaks his back and when Alfred informs him that Rachel had chosen Harvey over him. When Bane leaves him in the Pit, where he is meant to languish as the will to live oozes from him, he chooses otherwise. He is "healed" by the doctor, starts training again and prepares to escape from the Pit. The Pit, at this point, is symbolic for all the trauma and pain he suffered from, as he seeks to leave it all behind him and ascend into the light. This is a parallel of the image from Batman Begins where Thomas Wayne drops in to save him from the well. Now Bruce becomes his own saviour, fully aware that only he can be his own salvation and choosing to become it, thereby completing his arc and setting up the rest of the movie's events.

It's amazing to me that a movie so deeply flawed could still be so entertaining and engrossing. It's, to me, emblematic of the brilliance of this series of films that this could be considered the disappointment of the lot. It's rumoured that The Joker was originally meant to return in the third instalment of this series, with the script by the Nolan brothers already completed by the time of the release of The Dark Knight, and escalate the battle even further and that the tragic passing of Heath Ledger put a stop to that. Though it's ultimately fruitless, I can't help but wonder what that would've been like and if it would've worked better than The Dark Knight Rises, but alas we will never know.

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