While writing my review of The Dark Knight Rises, I found myself doing a lot of self-reflection in regards to why I felt less enthused by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy finale than I did about the previous installment, The Dark Knight. The performances in The Dark Knight Rises were excellent; it was a more visually sophisticated film, and the action set pieces were bigger and more frequent than ever before. The epic conclusion to the film left a lump in many throats, and by all accounts the movie should’ve been the most rousing and exciting chapter in the trilogy (no doubt some will say that it is).
My issue with TDKR has since come into focus as I’ve had further time to reflect: It’s the story that screenwriters Chris Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer chose to tell. While the story of The Dark Knight Rises is interesting and engaging in its own right, the issue is: it contradicts the thematic points of The Dark Knight.
[WARNING - TDK & TDKR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!]
I have always been a fan of the Nolan Bat-films, but what truly blew me away about TDK was the boldness of the climax (that last half-hour of the film some (mistakenly) believe to be irrelevant), which posits the theory that sometimes, a noble lie (that inspires hope) is more important than the truth in its ugly detail: “Sometimes truth isn’t good enough – sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
Batman stops the Joker’s rampage, sure, but the real battle – establishing Harvey Dent as the “proper” symbol of hope and justice in Gotham City – is ultimately won by The Joker, who pushes the maimed and scarred lawman to forsake his morals in a murderous quest of vengeance. With all the good they’ve done about to slip through their fingers, Batman and Gordon decide on a lie – that Batman committed the Two-Face murders – in order to protect the fragile hope that Gotham is holding onto. On a personal level, Alfred burns the break-up letter the deceased Rachel Dawes left for Bruce Wayne, so that Bruce has the hope he needs to continue on as Batman.
That theme is quite profound; it’s something that can be applied to real-world politics, our notion of history (the “facts” vs. the established mythology), and even notions of faith and religious belief (if you’re so inclined to open that can of worms). As a (quasi-)comic book movie, TDK is even more profound: the heroes don’t “win,” per se, so they craft victory out of a lie. Whether you agree with the theory or not, it’s undeniable that The Dark Knight serves up food for thought that can be mulled over and debated in a way that few other films in the genre can.
But along comes The Dark Knight Rises, which totally contradicts that deep and unorthodox idea that Nolan and Co. previously put forth.
In TDKR, we find Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon eight years later, being crushed under the weight of the lie they created. That so-called “noble sacrifice” on their part provides the illusion of prosperity and progress for Gotham, until (in a development that is both wonderfully literal and figurative) the ugliness that Gordon and Batman tried to bury literally explodes out of the bowels of Gotham’s sewers up to the surface, as Bane appears on the scene and forces the Commissioner and Bats to reconcile with the fact that their lie was only a superficial accomplishment. In the case of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Bane’s reign of terror forces our hero to suffer through a painful and perilous journey to truly become the symbol of hope and justice he wanted to be in the first place (i.e., what he sought to become in Batman Begins).
While this arc works well in making The Dark Knight Rises an epic and resonant tale, it also leaves The Dark Knight diminished in terms of its aforementioned uniqueness and profundity. Looking back from the ending of TDKR, TDK is transformed into a story about all the ways in which Batman and Gordon screw up – from who they trusted (bad cops), to how they dealt with The Joker (ignored him at first) and how they resolved the issue of Two-Face (a lie that cost them their spirits). The Dark Knight basically said “Sometimes a lie that inspires is better than a truth that defeats,” while The Dark Knight Rises basically says, “Hope and inspiration cannot be falsely earned, they have to be fought for through blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice.” It’s not every day that a movie uses a sequel to contradict the thematic conclusions of its predecessor.
[Of course, it's only fair that I act as my own Devil's advocate: there is a scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane is sitting with Bruce Wayne in the cell where he's imprisoned him. As Bane explains Bruce's situation, he makes the point that the prison's greatest weapon is the false hope it continuously inspires, via the sun-lit opening at the top of the pit. The message is that hope - in the right context - can become the most deadly poison of all. Interesting point, but one that TDKR doesn't fully and firmly connect to the events of TDK, in my opinion.]
Do you agree that The Dark Knight Rises contradicts The Dark Knight? Or do the chapters of Nolan’s Batman Trilogy all fit together perfectly (narratively, thematically) in your view? Let us know in the comments.