THIS CONTAINS MASSIVE, MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT RISES! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
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I loved The Dark Knight Rises. I loved it. I thought it was a near-perfect ending to the trilogy that brought things full circle in an ingenious and satisfying way. It made me appreciate Batman Begins all the more and actually marginalised The Dark Knight as almost extraneous to the overall journey of Batman (although it remains arguably the best standalone film of the trilogy). But I had one big problem. A REALLY big one. One that I feel almost ruins not only the entire film but Nolan’s entire trilogy. And it comes two hours and thirty-nine minutes into the two hour forty minute film. That ending. That goddamn infuriating, terrible, sappy, cop-out, crowd-pleasing, logic-defying, sugar-coated, character-destroying, bullshit ending. Now, I know you’re thinking “Jeez, it wasn’t that bad, even if it was a bit ‘safe’ or ‘Hollywood’ for the normally fearless and uncompromising Nolan” but bear with me.
I went to see The Dark Knight in Glasgow’s IMAX when I lived in Edinburgh during the summer of 2008. It was my first IMAX experience and it blew my mind. It is such an immersive, incredible format and the best possible way to see that film (especially given large chunks of it are filmed specifically for the medium). IMAX involves you so much that it truly is an ‘experience’ to the point where I believe you actually engage more with the narrative because your senses are so bombarded that your mind becomes more invested in the story on screen than with regular cinema. That was my experience anyway. I came out a changed man, swearing that whenever Nolan released the conclusion to his trilogy I would go back to that IMAX and see it in the way the director intended. And that I did, after an opening weekend spent walking around with my fingers in my ears shouting “LALALALALALA” in order to avoid spoilers. So I went in and was blown away by it.
All those familiar feelings came back, the feeling of actually flying unfettered above the plane Bane hijacks, of zooming at top speed alongside the Batpod as he pursues the stock exchange gang, of standing on a Gotham rooftop looking down as the police rise up against Bane’s army. I was completely immersed and overwhelmed. And then Batman cabled up that bomb, flew out to sea and blew himself up in a majestic and truly heroic act of self-sacrifice. I was in tears, both of sorrow for the loss of the hero I have held so dear to me since childhood, but also tears of joy and pride that he had become what he always intended; more than a man, an inspirational symbol, Gotham’s saviour, now and forever. When Bruce’s grave was revealed and Alfred turned to the headstones of Martha and Thomas Wayne and sobbingly apologised for his ultimate failure I was absolutely in bits (Michael Caine gave, for my money, and despite its brevity, the best performance in the film). I felt like I would need to be scraped up off the floor of the IMAX after I fell apart, heart wrenched to the point of bursting.
And then. AND THEN. Those two guys told Fox about the autopilot. And I thought “no.” And then Alfred walked into the café foreshadowed earlier and I thought “NO!” And then Bruce Wayne appeared, alive and well. And I was furious. I felt so cheated, so insulted, so robbed of the emotion I had allowed myself to invest in this film, in this character, in this series. I understand what Nolan was going for. It was the pledge, when Nolan showed us something ordinary in Bruce Wayne/Batman. It was the turn, when he made that thing do something extraordinary in sacrificing himself for the sake of the city he loved so much. And then, Nolan thinks that making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. The prestige.
But that’s another movie. This is not a magic trick. I don’t want to be fooled. This is the story of a hero’s journey, and it needs to come to the most fitting end for that hero. This was not that ending.
What made this so hard to believe for me was that Nolan himself has described the key moment in the whole trilogy as being when Bruce Wayne is laying out his plan for Alfred in Batman Begins. “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.” I agree. This is the key idea in the whole series. So, the natural end for the series is for Bruce Wayne - the man - to be destroyed, but Batman - the symbol - to last forever; in this case through John ‘Robin’ Blake. But Nolan somehow, incredibly, messed it up. He killed the symbol and let the man live. Sure, you can say the symbol will live on through Robin, but Gotham believes Batman to be dead. They erected a statue in his honour for goodness’ sake! When Robin returns as Batman there will be nothing for Gothamites to use to differentiate him from any of the copycat Batmen seen at the start of The Dark Knight. The power of the symbol is diminished and the man who swore to give everything for the city he loved is living it up in Italy not giving a shit about what happens to it in the wake of Bane’s assault. This defeats the ideals that Bruce has held throughout his whole journey in this trilogy. That, my friends, is bullshit.
A lot of these points were already covered by Eric Eisenberg at Cinema Blend in his article released before the film even came out. But I feel like I have something to add to the points he made. The whole theme of The Dark Knight Rises, for me, was the unconquerable value of truth. Alfred states this explicitly when he tells Bruce about Rachel’s letter, saying that it’s time to “let truth have its day”. The theme’s there when Bane reads the Commissioner’s speech and Gordon has to face up to the lie he created with Batman about Harvey Dent. In The Dark Knight it was suggested that sometimes “the truth isn’t good enough” and that “people deserve to have their faith rewarded”. In adopting this philosophy, Batman and Gordon proved the Joker – who sought to show that even the greatest of heroes can fall – right. The Joker won. The bad guy winning was both the cause and the effect of the lies that were allowed to be perpetuated. The Dark Knight Rises strove to show that a hope for the future that is predicated on lies in unsustainable. That the truth, however ugly, is the most important thing in creating the possibility of a positive future. And that’s good.
However. When he’s attaching The Bat’s cable to that bomb he says it can’t be flown automatically because the autopilot’s broken. Then we’re told that Bruce himself fixed it six months previously. He lied. He lied to Commissioner Gordon about his impending sacrifice for the greater good. He created a hope for the future predicated on a lie. He made THE EXACT SAME MISTAKE he made at the end of the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne learned approximately NOTHING about the value of truth through this whole experience, even after enduring on a personal, intimate level – through Alfred’s revelation about burning Rachel’s letter – how a lie to protect the people closest to you can be so incredibly damaging in the long run. He just said “Fuck it!” and swanned off to Europe with his fancy lady and let the rest of the lads sort everything out thinking he was dead. How selfish can you get?! What a complete betrayal of not only the theme of the whole film, but of everything that character stood for and of the moral through-line of the entire series. Bruce Wayne was, is and always has been a man prepared to give EVERYTHING for Gotham. Here, he Meat Loafs it and suggests that there actually is one thing he’s not prepared to do. And I don’t buy it.
There were obviously other little things in the movie that bothered me (How did Bruce get back to Gotham? How did Alfred, of all people, find out Bane’s whole backstory? When Batman took off his cowl, how come he didn’t have black eye makeup on?!) but these are small steps compared to the giant leap of that disastrous ending. When the movie is released at home, I’m going to download it, I’m going to edit out the scenes with the autopilot reveal and the café discovery, and I’m going to enjoy the best series of superhero films ever made.
P.S. The ending that Donavan proposed is definitely one I could’ve lived with.