With the release of The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan completes a trilogy of grave and gritty Batman films that began with Batman Begins in 2005 and continued with The Dark Knight in 2008. The third installment brings unity and closure to the saga – but that’s not to say Nolan and his collaborators had a master plan from the start. The filmmaker says he always knew he would never make more than three Bat-flicks, but he approached each project as if it might be the last. His strategy: Pour every Batty idea into the work at hand; remain consistent with the themes and plot of the previous chapter; keep a fuzzy option or two open for what might come next… except for Rises, which Nolan swears is his Batman swan song. “The truth is I always wanted to tell more of Bruce Wayne’s story, but in a superstitious sense, you can’t plan on that,” says the helmer, whose other credits include Memento and Inception. “You have to tell one great story, one great film. And if people demand another one, you have permission to make it.”
Nolan says the thematic lynchpin of the series can be found early in Batman Begins. Before we get to it, though, some recap. The director’s first Batman opus was, of course, an origin story. Meet Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the only son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a wealthy couple with deep roots in Gotham City, a once-mighty American metropolis on the wane. Bruce’s parents used their money to make Gotham a better place. Through Wayne Industries, Thomas fought a war on poverty and – with brilliant engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) – gave Gotham free public transportation via an innovative light rail system. Bruce’s folks not only instilled in him a social conscience, but they promoted the value of perseverance. A key line from Begins, significant to both the plot and title of Rises: “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
While Bruce was still a child, he watched a mugger named Joe Chill kill his mom and dad. Yep: That’ll leave a dark mark. It also deeply impacted Gotham, too. We are told in Batman Begins that the murders inspired other blue bloods to carry on the good work of sacrifice and investment, and that Gotham continued to “limp on” despite being handicapped by so much corruption. However, as he entered adulthood, Bruce — still fuming with anger; feeling “monstrous” in the words of Christian Bale — opted for a more fanciful and downright perverse way of purging Gotham of the criminals, greedy folk and assorted special interests that controlled it. The strategy took shape during a formative idyll spent with the League of Shadows, a secret society led by the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). Bruce initially believed that the group was a band of vigilante do-gooders committed to bringing justice to places where injustice had run amuck. The truth was more terrifying. According to al Ghul, the group’s function was to destroy cultures that had become irreparably broken. For decades, they had been attempting to eradicate Gotham through subversive means; without being specific, al Ghul told Bruce that the League tried to use “economics” to destabilize the city by engendering such poverty and inequality that the poor and oppressed would turn to crime to survive, causing Gotham to eventually collapse from ever-escalating lawlessness. When the “misguided idealism” (al Ghul’s words) of Bruce’s parents and others like them began to slow Gotham’s downward spiral, the League decided to change tactics and just burn the city to the ground.
For Bruce, the League represented the line he could not cross. Yes, his hometown had become a hellhole. But he believed Gotham should be saved, never condemned. He also believed that this redeeming labor needed to be driven by the fundamentally decent people of Gotham. They just needed a push – a cultural role model to inspire them, not a savior that did the work for them.
Enter The Batman. And finally, that lynchpin scene. It takes places on Bruce Wayne’s private jet, when the nascent dark knight explained his still-developing plan for saving Gotham to his longtime guardian, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine): “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol — as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Says Nolan: “That was a very important scene for me, not just because I knew it would play out over three films as a theme, but I had to understand why the imminently sensible Alfred Pennyworth would sit there and listen to his employer explain that he’s going to dress up as a bat and fight crime as a vigilante. That’s a huge leap to make. We had to build that correctly, and we couldn’t cheat. So in each film, we talk about the symbol of the character being the key thing. It’s not about what he can achieve beating up criminals one by one. We address this again at the beginning of The Dark Knight, where you have these copycat Batmen popping up. The idea was to ask: Is that the meaning of the symbolism? To raise an army of these guys? No. Bruce sees himself as a catalyst for change in Gotham, and to me, in that conversation with Alfred, it’s very clear to me that Bruce only ever thinks of this as, like, a five-year plan, a short-term thing. I talked to Christian about this idea a lot during the making of all the films. It was the only way we knew to understand the reality of the story of Batman.
“Now, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire. He has all these resources, and there’s all kinds of ways he could use them to help Gotham,” Nolan continues. “But he’s fixed on this extremely militaristic vigilante-ism. Whatever we may think of that, in Bruce’s mind, it’s all about pushing Gotham to a tipping point back to good, back to the days of his mother and father, who were trying to help the city economically. So I always saw it as a short-term thing. Something he could give up once he accomplished his mission. … And in my view, Alfred’s support for this has always been qualified support. He’s always been a great indicator about where Batman sits on the greatness to madness scale.”
In The Dark Knight, Nolan and his collaborators put Bruce’s symbol theory to a strange and strenuous test via the Joker (Oscar winner Heath Ledger), a psychotic agent of chaos bent on proving a point about human nature: You can make anyone betray their most idealistic values, as long as you know what button to push. In most people, it’s the threat of death. In others, it’s the threat of losing someone close to them. Despite orchestrating the explosive demise of Bruce’s one true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Joker lost the battle with the caped crusader (“You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?”). But the garish clown seemed to win the war by warping “White Knight” district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), turning a righteous man who believed in absolutes into a hideous relativist who made moral choices with a flip of a coin. For Bruce, it was a devastating personal loss. In Harvey Dent, he saw the fulfillment of his dream of Gotham’s citizenry reclaiming the city – and a more relatable, more inspiring, altogether better role model than Batman. In one of the most chilling “heroic” endings any movie has ever given us, Batman and his chief ally, good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), conspired to perpetuate the myth of Dent’s incorruptibility by agreeing that Batman should take the rap for crimes and mayhem committed by Dent during a furious spasm of “Two-Face” madness.
And so, as Rises begins, eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Batman is retired, Gotham is at peace — crime is at a historic low — and most everyone is prospering. All thanks to a new spirit of hope and can-do optimism seeded by Harvey Dent. All thanks to a lie. And Christian Bale, for one, believes this should trouble us. “Superheroes should tell the truth, right? That’s exactly what they’re meant to do,” says the actor. The Batman/Gordon conspiracy “was a decision… that the truth was too damaging or too much for people to handle,” says Bale. “It’s not a philosophy that [we] want to hear. It’s elitist. It’s a belief in the inability of the public to handle complexity — and it’s probably, really, sadly true, as well. It was very interesting because it’s not what I wanted. I don’t mean playing it — I mean as an audience member. You want this guy will tell the truth regardless of how harsh and regardless of how cruel that is. It’s a great problem for him as well. As you see, at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, it’s one that almost destroyed him.”
It’s the perspective of Rises that such choices always beg a reckoning. “He knows that it’s coming,” says Bale. “Everything seems great, but you know the s— is about to hit the fan, and nobody else seems to realize that. And it’s his fault that it does.” Says Nolan: “What I see in the film that relates to the real world is the idea of dishonesty. The film is all about that coming to a head. The truth will out. The idea that Gotham is literally crumbling from underneath. It looks like a better than place than it was in Batman Begins – but is it? I see that in the world. I worry about that in the world.”
Bruce Wayne’s bizarre if noble quest to save Gotham by becoming a cultural symbol comes to a surprising and emotional conclusion in the final moments of The Dark Knight Rises, in which ….
“I don’t think there is ANY way you can write about that without giving anything away,” says Nolan.
And so I won’t. For now. But come back to EW.com this weekend, and we’ll explore the ending of Rises and share Nolan’s thoughts on the matter.