How To Enjoy “The Dark Knight Rises”

Photo: marvelousRoland, Creative Commons
Photo: marvelousRoland, Creative Commons

When I mention The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s 2012 conclusion to his “Dark Knight Trilogy”, my best friend curls his lip and shakes his head.

“Don’t get me started,” he says.

I get it. The Dark Knight Rises can disappoint. Not because it didn’t top the previous two films (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) in special effects or spectacle but because TDKR couldn’t overcome major glaring problems:

  1. R.I.P. Heath Ledger
  2. The 3rd movie in any trilogy is relative garbage (see  Star Wars, The Godfather, The Matrix)

Yet upon re-watching The Dark Knight Rises over these past two years, I’ve come to appreciate what Nolan may have been doing, or at least the archetypal arc that his film actually has. And while this doesn’t necessarily rectify every one of the film’s problems, Nolan’s deeper purpose gives the film a sustainable heart that makes me want to view it again and again. I just had to know how to watch it.

The Dark Knight Rises is an allegory. 

I’ll look that one up for you. Go, Google, go!

Allegory: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

To be fair, Nolan didn’t really use this literary trick in the prior Bat-films, so his audiences hadn’t been properly trained. But practically every character and event has a moral or spiritual equivalent that can give the film significant weight upon additional viewings. Here’s what I mean.

Bane is Satan

One of the very first lines out of Banes mouth…err, mask… is spoken to a brother who sacrifices himself: “Yes! The fire rises!” Fire is used thematically throughout the film to primarily represent the destruction of Gotham via nuclear bomb, but it is also symbolic. “The fire,” it seems, burns long before the ignition of any bomb – it is the predetermined death that we will consume us all.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi, Creative Commons
Photo: Eva Rinaldi, Creative Commons

The character of Bane is incredibly consistent with a Judeo-Christian interpretation of Satan. He lurks underground, employs the labor of lost, forgotten souls, cleverly manipulates those who hunger for his power, and attempts to dish out the ultimate apocalypse that awaits all fallen mortals.

Caught in Bane’s clutches, corporate weasel John Daggett asks: “What are you?”

Bane hisses back: “I’m Gotham’s reckoning. Here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.”

Daggett: “You’re pure evil!”

Bane: “I’m necessary evil.”

The obvious connection to Bane’s devil-role is his acknowledgement that he is evil, specifically “necessary” evil. But before that is a line many of us couldn’t hear in with Hans Zimmer’s score crushing our eardrums: “[I’m] here to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on.” This is Bane at his most plainspoken. He is Time. He is the bringer of Death. Any member of the living, rich or poor, is under his dominion.

In fact, the entire Occupy Wall Street parallel is the film’s grandest red herring, and most of us fell for it. Admittedly, TDKR doesn’t do itself any favors during the Benefit Ball scene where the rich crack king crab shells and giggle stupidly behind their silly masks. But this is merely Bane’s weapon against all of Gotham. By playing rich vs. poor politics in his takeover, Bane uses the brokenness of the poor to assault the brokenness of the rich. In the end, everyone is broken and faces the same fiery fate.

Similar to most viewers of a comic-book movie, the Daggett character believes Bane is merely there to take over the city. But Bane has come to Gotham to judge it and burn it to ashes. Every single person in Gotham City is living on “borrowed time” before Bane strikes, just as every mortal man and woman must face the ticking clock of life.

At some point, every one of us is going to die. The fire is indeed rising.

Talia Al Ghul is Satan, Too

Photo: "Paradise Lost," Gustave Dore, Creative Commons
Photo: “Paradise Lost,” Gustave Dore, Creative Commons

For some, the twist at the film’s end undermined Bane’s badass status. It seemed that he was merely a pawn, rather than the king of destruction he had seemed to be.

But this is a flawed interpretation, especially if one fails to look at Bane and Talia Al Ghul as co-antagonists, and therefore, allegorically, twin Satans.

If Bane represents a more archetypal view of the devil, one where Satan resembles a Minotaur or beast, then Talia represents the more familiar side of the Evil One: seduction and deception. Talia says all the right things and reveals no apparent flaws. She seduces Bruce and sleeps with him in order to wait for the opportune time to slay him. She lies her way onto the Board of Wayne Enterprises with talk of “clean, renewable energy”, the buzz-word of the week.

Talia Al Ghul and Bane are, essentially, the same person. They have the same goal – to deceive and destroy the people of Gotham. Combine the two and you have a well-rounded concept of the devil and his origin as Lucifer, the angel of light. Either way, there is narratively little that distinguishes Talia Al Ghul from Bane. They have the same goal, the same motivation, and an almost identical journey.

Bruce Wayne is Jesus Christ

In the midst of Bane and Talia Al Ghul’s reign of terror and deception, the film spends decidedly profuse time chronicling the suffering of Bruce Wayne. Batman is practically an after-thought until the film’s last act. How can this possibly be enjoyable when I paid $18 to see Batman kick heads in at my local IMAX?

fight
Photo: Warner Brothers

The allegorical journey of Bruce Wayne is truly thrilling and re-watchable because of its resonance on the deepest level of the human experience. The man wants to save his people. The enemy hurls him into the pit. He rises from the pit and saves them. Classic.

The use of Christ-archetypes is an ironic practice in a Hollywood culture that shuns “religious movies” and, for many, religion itself. Yet TDKR is one of many films that depends on a Christ-like journey with Christ-like character traits. Bruce Wayne, not Batman, is the Christ figure in this story, and he is willing – even eager – to die for his people.

Before the final battle, Selina Kyle urges Bruce to leave Gotham and let its people fend for itself: “You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.”

Bruce, clad in his dark persona, responds: “Not everything. Not yet.”

And to give them everything, Bruce must quench the rising fire that would otherwise consume Gotham.

Bane’s Prison is Hell-Eternal

“And when it is done,” Bane growls to Wayne, “when Gotham is… ashes… then you have my permission to die.”

Photo: Warner Brothers
Photo: Warner Brothers

Lying broken at the bottom of the Pit, Wayne must improbably fight back and find a way to rise from the Pit. This prison belongs to Bane and, like Satan managing Hell-Eternal, Bane has decided that his prisoners may stare up at the light and hope for freedom, but shall never rise from the depths. Luke 16: 19-31 tells a parable that illustrates this exact kind of torment.

In perhaps the film’s true climax, long before the final fist-fights, Bruce Wayne heals from his wounds, climbs the stone wall of Bane’s prison sans rope, and heroically rises toward freedom. The men below chant in Sanskrit, He rises! He rises! and Zimmer’s score roars like thunder. Bats swarm over Wayne, just as when he was a boy, giving him that inner fear that will help him survive. He mounts. He leaps.

He rises.

Wayne’s recovery and escape is frustratingly impractical and difficult to believe; similarly unbelievable is the likelihood that a man could die a graphic death of crucifixion and rise from the dead on the third day. Yet these kinds of stories, those of heroes rising against all odds, hold the power to give mere mortals hope. Death can be conquered.

Notice that Wayne, when finally free, performs a small act with tremendous symbolic power: he throws the rope down to the prisoners. Every one of those men in Bane’s prison is probably there for a reason – for a heinous crime. Yet Wayne, having suffered with them and empathized with their plight, rescues them from Hell-Eternal.

Gotham City is Hell-On-Earth

While images of an eternal bath of sulfur are popular in media and medieval literature, the reality of Hell can exist on Earth as fires burning in the hearts of men.

Photo: Warner Brothers
Photo: Warner Brothers

Playing on the latent envy and anger of poor Gothamites, Bane unleashes Hell by telling the people, quite simply, to do what they please. The result is a haunting picture of what happens when mankind is free of boundaries and consequences: when we get what we want, without order or prudent wisdom, misery awaits.

Many of us claim to dislike the law or at least laws we don’t enjoy, like speed limits or the legal drinking age. Yet we demand laws when we feel we’ve been wronged. All of us know injustice when we see it. The rapist should not go free. The thief should be disciplined and taught to live without stealing. And yes, even bad drivers deserve a ticket here and there to prevent tragic accidents.

So what happens when all of those boundaries are wiped away? How fun would it be if everyone was free to do as he pleased?

When Bane “liberates the oppressed” of Blackgate Prison and announces a new social order of justice, Gotham descends into madness. People are dragged into the streets, beaten, robbed, and welcomed to the cold winter of Bane’s rule. Meanwhile, the police languish in the sewers, demonized by Bane’s revolutionary homily.

This section of the film is probably the most difficult for me to connect with. As an American, I’m not used to fending for myself in the lawless wilderness, nor am I forced to bribe my way through corrupt officials to survive. America has its flaws, but we are not one of the many chaotic states in this world like the Congo (DRC) or even parts of Mexico.

The Dark Knight Rises paints a picture of what could happen if we, as people, push our individual sovereignty too far and deflect all moral standards. The concept of relative truth, or “what’s true for you is not necessarily true for me”, takes a hefty slap to the face during these scenes. The only absolute truth is that the bomb is going to go off.

Perhaps Nolan could have made this allegorical reality clearer by not telling the audience about it. Let the audience hope with the people of Gotham. After all, it’s what we do everyday by taking anti-aging drugs and clinging to youthful trends. We deny that the bomb of our lives is going to go off.

The fire is rising. Denial will not stop it.

The Bomb is Death

So if Bane’s plan is to destroy Gotham with a thermonuclear bomb, why not detonate it during the stadium scene? Why drag it on for another theatrical hour?

Think allegorically. Bane’s plan seems to have more to do with the death of the soul than of the body, so he takes his time to let the poison spread.

“I learned…that there can be no true despair without hope,” Bane says to Wayne in the bottom of the Pit. “So as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so you can watch them clamber over each other to stay in the sun. You will watch as I torture an entire city. Then…you [will] truly understood the depths of your failure….”

Photo: Warner Brothers
Photo: Warner Brothers

Bane’s goal is bleakly satanic. He doesn’t just want to destroy a city or its people; he wants to corrupt every man and woman of Gotham by telling them that this life is all there is to hope for. Life is about getting to the top of the pile, Bane seems to say, no matter what.

This is a very controversial idea. Is the film implying that one must believe in God or an after-life to be free from the rat-race of life or the pain of death? Not necessarily, but by drawing clear allegorical parallels between Bruce Wayne and Jesus, such an implication isn’t a stretch.

Bane cries, “We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich, the oppressors of generations who kept you down with myths of opportunity! And we give it back to you – the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere, do as you please.”

Yet Bane’s lie is apparent when he concludes this grand speech. As he speaks his final words, the filmmaker’s show the bomb, the coming apocalypse, ticking inexorably towards zero: “This great city,” Bane proclaims, “it will endure. Gotham will survive.”

Death is marching towards every citizen of Gotham City. It will not stop until the fire has risen and consumed all the life it can. Yet Bane prefaces this doom by spoiling whatever life may be lived in the meantime. All the good of humanity will be washed away, proving once-and-for-all the thesis of Ra’s Al Ghul: “Gotham is beyond saving, and must be allowed to die.”

Bane promises spoils and freedom in an enduring paradise of justice and pleasure, yet he is the mastermind behind the all-consuming fire that will engulf the wriggling masses that do nothing but clamber over each other to grab a piece of Gotham’s pie. Part of why TDKR can be tough to swallow is that is not a comic-book movie, despite the presence of costumes and capes. It is a medieval Morality Play in the tradition of Everyman and Faustus. 

The fate of humanity lies in the balance.

Bruce is Dead, because Jesus is Dead

After torturing audiences with his cliff-hanger ending to Inception, Nolan decided to serve up another plate of confusion with the end of TDKR. When viewed literally, this ending is terribly frustrating and a directorial cheat, as I argued in this piece.

But I’ve come to view it differently. Nolan did not cheat. He just changed tones from the first two Bat-films so dramatically that his audience didn’t know how to understand what it was seeing.

So let’s be clear. Bruce Wayne died. He had to. Otherwise the entire heart of the previous 135 minutes is destroyed.

The bomb is going to go off. That much is clear. The consuming fire must be quenched and Gotham’s sins be paid for – especially since the lie at the end of The Dark Knighti (2008) thematically delayed the atonement even further. The fire cannot be stopped, even by Batman. So Bruce Wayne does exactly what Jesus does – he lets Death consume him, so he can prevent the death of his people.

Photo: Warner Brothers
Photo: Warner Brothers

While it is Batman who flies off into the sun, towing Death with him, the camera doesn’t treat Batman like he’s a superhero. Rather, we see the exhausted, lonely, wounded Bruce Wayne behind his mask, at peace with his fateful success. Then, seconds later, the bomb blows and the people of Gotham are saved from Death’s ultimate sting.

Bruce Wayne must die. After all, Nolan edited the film to show Batman sitting in the cockpit moments before the bomb detonates. He has to be there.

It is actually easier to explain the film’s denouement with a dead Bruce Wayne than a living one.

Bruce fixed the Bat’s autopilot prior to facing Bane the first time. He also prepared that convenient Robin-bag for Detective John Blake before that confrontation as well. Both explanations make sense within the film’s logic. Wayne was openly talking to Blake about being Batman at that point, plus he was using the Bat regularly in his hunt for Bane.

It’s symbolically perfect. Only those closest to Bruce Wayne mourn him: Alfred, Gordon, and Blake. Yet the City as a whole mourns “The Batman,” unveiling a sculpture not unlike so many carvings of Jesus and other sacrificial heroes. The man himself is gone, but his legacy of sacrifice will live on forever.

What about that final ‘twist’, where Alfred sees Wayne at the Florence café? This is the one visual cue that suggests Wayne is actually still alive. Yet it is filtered through Alfred’s point of view, a point of view that originates from a fantasy. Alfred even suggests, early in the film, that Wayne pursue a romantic future with Selina Kyle. How appropriate then that what he sees in the café matches his dream in baffling detail? This scene tells us infinitely more about Alfred’s coping than about Wayne’s demise.

So is The Dark Knight Rises a good movie, or even a great one?

I would classify it as a terrific film tucked inside a weak Batman movie. It’s a morality play hidden in the mythology of Gotham City, a sermon with capes and explosions. There’s little wonder why my friend doesn’t want me to get him started. TDKR poses a world of problems, but many of these problems can transform into unique story-telling choices when viewed through the lens of allegory.

The Dark Knight Rises tells the familiar story of a sacrificial savior who dies in the people’s place. It is about a deceitful super-villain and his great weapon, Death. This story has polarized the world for two-thousand years and will continue to do so for a long time.

Even if Batman is the savior.

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