Welcome to part 2 of my Dark Knight Rises…er…treatise? Essay? Review? If you want to read the first part, go here – it introduces the characters and offers some context for their symbolic roles in the overarching theme of addiction present throughout the Dark Knight trilogy. To wit:
If the overarching theme of Batman Begins was addiction…and the Dark Knight was about facing the consequences of your actions, then Dark Knight Rises is where we see these issues come to a head…I think the true theme of this series is, essentially, addiction and what it does to lives.
So, more about this. Be warned, it’s long, and we have plenty of white space that represents spoilers. Just drag your mouse over the white space if you want to know more.
Bruce Wayne begins DKR physically destroyed by his years in the cowl and mentally weakened by the hollow victory achieved at the end of the Dark Knight. He is a man cut off from the things that gave him meaning: his quest for vengeance and the love of Rachel Dawes, the latter having been lost due to the former.
Bruce’s life changes when Selina Kyle, posing as a servant at Wayne Manor, steals his mother’s pearls and lifts his fingerprints off the safe containing the pearls. Intrigued by her actions and feeling the pull of Batman once again, Bruce begins down the path of relapse. Selina represents the honest addict: she knows what she is and has accepted it rather than fighting it. In the act of acceptance, she’s realized that she can rise above that side of herself rather than getting dragged back into the never-ending cycle of self-loathing. I suspect that Bruce recognizes someone like himself in that her real-world face is her “mask” and projects some of his own beliefs onto her. Spoiler: This is how Selina finds it so easy to take advantage of him on repeated occasions, leading to his ultimate mistake when she leads him to Bane.
In Bane’s vicious assault on Batman, Selina herself witnesses the logical outcome of remaining in her own lifestyle, and it terrifies her, but we’ll get to that shortly.
As Batman gets back into the game, we’re introduced to new character John Blake. John believes in doing the right thing, no matter the politics involved. Blake represents something of a hybrid between Batman’s approach (occupying something of a more traditional Batman role as the upright, admirable hero – think Silver Age Batman) and Commissioner Gordon. A particularly telling scene of Blake’s thematic role arises when Bane tells the city that Gordon and Batman conspired to lie about Harvey Dent‘s fall from grace in the second movie. When Gordon tells Blake that he hopes he one day has a friend who will get his hands dirty (Gordon is Batman’s enabler) and take the blame for him, Blake tells him “from where I’m standing your hands look plenty dirty”.
This not only reinforces the Silver Age Batman attitude, but shows us that Blake, an angry orphan himself, is not beholden to his own need for vengeance. We see that the addict can achieve Selina’s aspiration in rising above the addiction. His tale of overcoming those issues carry through to the end, when he reveals himself as Robin and, we can only assume, becomes the next Batman, albeit one has to think that he will be a far less angry, more analytic version of Batman.
An entirely personal side note: as I’ve aged, I’ve come to respect that aspect of Batman – and characters in general – a whole lot more. When I was younger the “goody-goody” character seemed corny and an easy reach, but I think seeing the grime that accumulates in your life as you age can build a respect for someone who has the strength to stick by convictions like that, fictional or not.
Getting back to Bruce, we witness him slowly sliding back into his addiction, tailing Selina and peeling back the layers of Bane’s plan for the city. The key to this whole thing comes when Alfred sees Bruce’s backslide and is absolutely devastated. Unable to appeal to Bruce’s logic, he stages what is essentially an intervention: he tells Bruce that if he continues down this path, he won’t be around to support him – he will leave the manor. In so doing, he also reveals the folly of Bruce’s delusion that Rachel would have chosen him over Harvey, showing Bruce that his addiction had already destroyed the thing most precious to him. Alfred also expresses something that is key to the destructive system that surrounds addiction – he says that it’s time for the truth to be drawn out into the light. Addiction cannot thrive without secrets, and here we see that that secrecy is tearing Bruce’s life apart. At just about the same time, it is revealed that Bane has destroyed Bruce’s personal fortune. Bruce has hit bottom.
In the midst of this, he has a brief romantic interlude with Miranda Tate. Miranda is also a junkie, though he doesn’t recognize this at the time. This moment will be important later.
As noted above, Bruce trusts Selina when he really shouldn’t (echoes of the old adage to never trust a junkie), and it ends with her leading him into a trap; Bane lies in wait and they battle, but Batman has become soft. Bane beats Batman senseless, reveals that he plans to use Batman’s weapons against the city, and then breaks Batman’s back. Thematically, this is some of the most important material in the film. We have witnessed an addict sliding back into his addiction, but his body isn’t prepared for it. In another film, this would be the scene where the junkie relapses and overdoses. All the more fitting that the instrument of Batman’s destruction is a man who can only truly survive and thrive when under the constant influence of pain-killing drugs. In that way, he is the heroin that destroys Batman’s body.
The idea of using Batman’s tumbler to terrorize the city of Gotham is thematic genius. Not only does this present the extreme logical outcome of Wayne’s vigilante approach, the ultimate expression of the escalation that Gordon mentioned in Begins, it also represents the use of a junkie’s trust and caring against those that he loves.
So we are treated to a city in chaos as Batman witnesses its torture from the outside, unable to act and help it. In a sense, Batman has entered rehab. Bane has dragged him to The Pit, a place where prisoners are kept in perpetual darkness; they can see the sun above and are given the option to attempt a climb to freedom, but the treachery of the climb has made it nearly impossible for anyone to escape. Sure sounds an awful lot like recovery from addiction. Bruce attempts the climb two times once his back has been fixed in an embarrassingly bad scene; both times he fails. At last, one of his fellow prisoners tells him that he is failing because he doesn’t fear death. The prisoner explains that the fear of death is healthy and natural, that it gives someone a drive that might not otherwise exist. This represents Bruce being forced to deal with life on life’s terms. Everyone feels fear, and his need to ruthlessly purge that emotion has led to his addictive acting out.
This prisoner urges him to rise without using the safety rope that others use to climb out. In so doing, Bruce finally casts aside the safety net of his addiction and successfully returns to the light and, soon, Gotham. This is the essence of the film’s title and its theme: finally rising out of the darkness of addiction and self-destruction to find a more whole, integrated self.
The Batman that returns to Gotham is not the same man. For once, he works with others, including Selina, Blake, and the GCPD; all are necessary to defeat Bane and take the city back. Batman has also finally figured out that to defeat Bane means to remove his one crutch: the painkillers. He focuses on Bane’s mask during the last battle, at last reducing the man to a crumpled heap in an echo of the reveal scene during Return of the Jedi. He discovers that Bane the man is an empty vessel, essentially devoid of his own history, having had his own love and emptiness used against him by the true villain of the story: Miranda Tate, or her true name, Talia Al’Ghul.
Talia slips a knife into Batman’s side and delivers a speech about how offering hope to someone is the ultimate way to betray them, in that you can cruelly snatch it away at the last moment. She also reveals that she is on her own personal quest for vengeance, driven by the murders of her own parents. Talia has reached the extreme conclusion of Batman’s own quest: the hollow victory offered by the lie of Dent’s death did not overcome humanity’s dispensation toward crime, so the whole structure must be torn down. It’s the ultimate in black-or-white thinking, and the fact that she’s willing to destroy not only herself but everything around her to get that ultimate “high” of vengeance is very telling.
I’m not going to reveal the climax, even in spoilers, but I do have a few final notes:
- Selina and Bruce both find a way out of their addictions, and Alfred knows this.
- Batman is hailed, at last, as a hero by the city.
- John Blake discovers his own personal holy grail, the Batcave, and the film closes with a shot of him rising toward the top, where Bruce’s gadgets lie.
These three combined show a victory over the desolation and destruction of addiction and offer the hope of Blake’s “Third Path” – something that lies in between strict adherence to a sometimes blind and very fallible justice system and Bruce Wayne’s flat-out quest for vengeance/anger addiction. I’d love to see a fourth movie that follows Blake as Batman, but I’m also quite satisfied that the trilogy ends on this note.
I could go on and on about the other themes, rich versus poor, the abuse of the downtrodden for someone’s hidden agenda, and the nature of vigilante justice, but this is long enough. Suffice it to say that overall, DKR is a great movie if you’re willing to ride out some bumps and bruises. Far from perfect, but well-executed. If any of this intrigues you, you should definitely give it a shot, but don’t expect a huge action movie. This is anything BUT a huge action movie, despite its convincing set pieces.