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Why the Ending of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Fails the Trilogy

Written by on July 23, 2012 

It goes without saying that the following piece contains full, total spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises. If you, for whatever reason, want to see the movie but still have yet to, turn back now. Please come back later, though.

The ending of The Dark Knight Rises is beautiful, moving, shockingly emotional and a perfect cap to Christopher Nolan‘s ambitious trilogy, putting its characters in the right place and seeing them all fulfill their proper destinies — right until it’s revealed, in a (weirdly) semi-comedic moment, that Bruce Wayne is alive and well. I hate to sound like the bloodthirsty sort who instantly cries “Batman should have died!,” and so on, but… well, yes, Batman should have died.

It’s far too James Bond-y on a logical level — it raises questions of how he got out of that plane five seconds before it blew up, avoided the blast radius, swam back, set up a trip to Florence, had Alfred find him, and so on — so long as you take it literally. You could say the cafe scene is a figment of Alfred’s imagination, but there’s too much evidence tipping the scales. (The previous Morgan Freeman autopilot scene exemplifies this best.) You could say “he’s Batman,” and that is true. Yet, the more you weigh it, the more it becomes a complete betrayal of what Nolan had, up until (oy) the last twenty seconds, made an entire thematic trajectory.

Don’t agree? Go about 20 seconds into this clip from Batman Begins:

Powerful, foreshadowing-filled stuff on its own, while also serving as the foundation for Batman’s whole character in Nolan‘s trilogy. Here’s the thing: It’s not that Batman’s “literal” identity was ever all that important, but that his public “shape” is known, no matter what shape Batman himself will take. This is delivered in, I think, a rather strong way by leaving responsibilities to Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s Robin during the final montage; Batman — or some variation on it — will always be around to inspire and combat.

Up until the end, a fine balance had been struck between the actions of Bruce Wayne, the actions of Batman and an emotional relay established with both of these. In Begins, he’s a mysterious headache for authorities and criminals that the former begrudgingly accept; in The Dark Knight, he’s a hero whose best intentions*, because of higher powers (e.g., Harvey Dent), are corrupted and sullied, forcing him to sacrifice a public standing to create an illusion of order; and The Dark Knight Rises is not just about a return in both the physical and metaphorical sense, but also a redemption.

One of the main themes behind Rises, after all, is resurrection. Not all that hard to determine — it’s more or less the movie’s damn title — but the manner in which Nolan handles it beautifully complimented the typical “back to the grind” set-up. While Bruce Wayne has to become Batman again, his “return” to the suit is short-lived, unprepared, and generally naive; while he may look and act like the real thing, Batman’s return is a facile version of what had been established almost a decade before. (Look toward his first fight with Bane for any and all necessary physical evidence.)

When you go back to the opening scenes of Begins, it becomes blindingly clear — in a narrative, thematic, and even visual sense — that this titular rising was, in fact, the true resurrection. Bruce could only “begin” (ahem) to be Batman when his father rappelled down and carried him out in his weakest moment; at his “lowest” point, then, he can only return to this alter-ego by repeating the same act — without the assistance of others or, even, any fibered material.

Thanks to some wide compositions and Hans Zimmer‘s incredibly score, it becomes one of the finest moments of the trilogy. Yet Rises bungles this idea of redemption and resurrection in its very final moments; the problem being that, in order to come full circle in a satisfying manner, the aforementioned arc can really only end with his death. Should you mash these three films together into one seven-and-a-half-hour story, the three main ideas themselves almost converge into a three-act story of inception (no pun intended), corruption, and absolution.

But after, again, seven-and-a-half hours, such absolution rings a little hollow if he didn’t take that final step for these people. Bruce Wayne was always innocent, and did an incredibly noble thing by letting Batman take the fall for Dent’s crimes — but Gotham still saw him as the perpetrator. That’s what needed to be amended, and, to those who have lived under a lie for eight years, Bruce Wayne could only show “his true self” by making the ultimate sacrifice for them.

Remember that these are people who, by this point, mostly — though not exclusively, as evidenced throughout — still see him as a murdering psychotic who left the city in a state of emotional wreckage and with a pile of bodies to his name. (“Five dead, two of them cops.”) If Nolan took this extra, bold step in the Rises finale, the symbol would be absolved, the man behind it would still have his own legacy, and the people of Gotham would finally have the hero that was created back on the plane. Heck, that’s practically the whole point in handing the reigns to Robin; it doesn’t truly matter who takes up the cowl, only that said cowl fights the corrupt and, at the same time, inspires others into doing good.

The true journey is not necessarily about Bruce Wayne’s innocence, conscious, emotional state, any of that — it’s always been about how people see his true self. (Think of it as “The man does not matter at this time.”) Sure, everybody thinks he’s dead — though a Bruce Wayne sighting at a Florence cafe would get Jim Gordon’s attention at some point — but such a heroic send-off is the kind of happy turn most of us had praised the series for avoiding in the first place. He saves the city, he gets the girl, and they can visit that store where I once bought a David Bowie shirt.

It’s nice to see him get away unscathed, but when the hell did Nolan ever give him an easy break? And why start at the end?

What do you think? Should Wayne have bit the dust at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, or was that final moment deserved?

*Watching The Dark Knight again, I was surprised to notice that Nolan symbolized the character’s relationship with civilians, criminals, and violence in his first onscreen appearance with a single visual cue: The bending a well-intentioned (albeit wrongheaded and stupid) civilian’s gun into total dysfunction. Not to quote myself, but “it doesn’t truly matter who takes up the cowl, only that said cowl fights the corrupt and, at the same time, inspires others into doing good.”

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