There are major spoilers here. Don't read this until you've seen The Dark Knight Rises. I assume that, with the number of people seeing midnight shows, there should be a healthy amount of discussion all day Friday and through the weekend.
Again, there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.
SERIOUSLY. HUGE SPOILERS RIGHT UP FRONT.
It's almost like Christopher Nolan ended his Batman trilogy on a twist. After all the marketing that promised the end of the legend, after all the talk about how he was bringing the story to a conclusion, I kind of expected a bummer of an ending. I expected Batman to be completely finished, if not Bruce Wayne dead. I expected a couple of the side characters might not make it to the end. Alfred and Lucius Fox both seemed like strong contenders to meet their maker before the credits rolled. I expected something major at the end of the movie to mark a conclusion to this story, a full stop of a sort never before seen in a superhero movie (not counting Watchmen, I guess).
What I got was a happy ending. A happily ever after ending, at that. An ending that felt, to me, kind of like fan fiction more than a real conclusion to this story.
Let's back up a bit. I was fascinated by the finale of the siege of Gotham. The bit where Batman has to take the fusion core/bomb out to sea all by himself made me think immediately of the "Some days you can't get rid of a bomb" scene in the Adam West-starring Batman: The Movie. As I watched that scene unfold I found myself incredulous: was Nolan going to end the Batman series by vaporizing Batman in a nuclear blast? Of all the ways to kill Batman, nuclear detonation would have been lowest on my list.
But no! Taking a page from Jim Gordon's playbook in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne inflicts immense emotional pain on the few people close to him by pretending the Batplane has no autopilot when he in fact fixed it months earlier. In a surprise to everyone (including, I hear, some Warner Bros execs, who were given a script that ended at the nuclear blast), Bruce Wayne escaped unharmed and has made a new life with himself. Possibly married to Catwoman.
This is the beginning of a series of fan service epilogue bits. Even though it is established that the Wayne family fortune is depleted so much that Wayne Manor's lights are immediately turned off (as a guy who has had his lights turned off I can tell you that Wayne Manor would have had power for at least 60 days after Bane stole all the money, but whatever), we discover at the end that enough money somehow remains to give Alfred a happy, well-off life. This is nice for Alfred, but because it was established there was no money left it carries as much weight as Bruce Wayne bequeathing him immortality. It comes from nowhere.
Wayne Manor is turned into a home for orphan boys (boys only), another happily ever after moment, this time for Little Orphan Andrew, John Blake's little pal at the orphanage.
Bruce and Selina are now out in the world, living on... her earnings as a thief? They're presumably married, and I only say that because we see them at the end fulfilling Alfred's dream for Bruce, which involves being married. This part sort of got on my nerves because it feels really unearned. The chemistry between actors Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway was strong, but the idea of them ending up together feels sudden. Like much of the ending of The Dark Knight Rises it feels less like payoff for this series and more like payoff for decades of fan fiction.
And then John Blake's finale. The revelation of his true name is one of the most groan-worthy moments in cinema this year. And while I don't mind him inheriting the mantle of the Bat, I find the way it happens to be deflating. After so much talk of Batman being a symbol, of him inspiring Gotham, why must Blake be handed a map to the Batcave? Wouldn't it have been so much more satisfying if, during the siege months, Blake had simply taken up the mantle? If, knowing Wayne's secret (somehow), he had found the Batcave on his own and started being the Dark Knight? Not only would we have a great bit of tension where the two Batmans meet, it would have paid off the entire concept of Batman as an inspirational symbol. Of course it would have gone against some of the points raised at the beginning of The Dark Knight, but Blake wouldn't be wearing hockey pads.
The cavalcade of happy endings strikes me as wrong. It actually reduces the gravitas of what came before. When the most prominent deaths in the film are the villains and Matthew Modine's character, the film loses weight. That's the best Bane and Talia can do? Even killing off Lucius Fox would have given the end of the movie some more heft. Hell, it seems like Fox is left unemployed - why not kill him off?
It also strikes me as not an ending. For all the talk about rebooting Batman after this film it doesn't require much imagination to see how the series can continue. With John Blake wearing the cowl, the style and feel of Nolan's movies can easily go on, with Nolan himself perhaps producing. There are still plenty of rogues left to battle, and without Nolan at the helm characters like The Penguin or The Riddler might be workable. Hell, there's always Zsasz, the self-mutilating serial killer if you really want to keep things down to earth.
What's more, there's no reason that Bruce Wayne couldn't consult. It could be a situtation like Batman Beyond, where old Bruce mentors Terry McGinnis. Maybe in Batman 5 Blake could be injured, forcing Bruce to return and once again wear the suit. By leaving Wayne off in happy endingsville, all of this is possible.
I hoped that The Dark Knight Rises would be the period at the end of Nolan's Batman mythos, but it's just another ellipsis, leaving the door open to yet more stories. On one hand that's fine, and Nolan wraps things up enough that if the series were rebooted it would feel like a complete tale. But the legend doesn't really end here. It keeps on going when I hoped it could be definitively finished.