THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: Hope & Despair
The Dark Knight Rises is my favourite movie, a designation that I’m going to explore later on in this piece, but I also know how divisive an opinion like that can be around here. I find that quite fascinating. The internet is awash with opinions, but by-and-large, the communities that I tend to associate myself with online seem to have a particular disdain for it, which is strange to me. Not because people here feel the way they do about it, or because the negative sentiment toward it is so noticeable when I bring it up, but because the reactions I’m surrounded by in my daily life are so disparate. Here, it’s used as something to dissuade people from taking my opinions seriously. Outside of the internet, an overwhelming majority of the people I know and interact with feel the same way I do. They don’t just like the film, but hold it up on a pedestal, and some even cite it as a transformative experience like I do. My goal, however, isn’t to reconcile these two extremes, nor is it necessarily to convince one side of the other’s perspective, though fostering a mutual understanding is never a bad thing.
It’s the tail end of Thankful Month here at BMD, and being given carte blanche to write about another Chris Nolan movie is something I hope to take full advantage of. While my writing is often filtered through a personal lens, the point and purpose of it is never to be personal, per se. In this case, since I have the opportunity for the most personal of explorations, I do hope you’ll excuse the numerous prefaces and extended introductions, because neither brevity nor ease come with the territory. This is as much about The Dark Knight Rises as it is about my own personal experiences, both prior and since, because the film was both a destination as well as a crossroads in many ways, part of a journey that I’d like to think has come to end by writing what you’re reading now. Or maybe this is just another pit-stop? Either way, it’s going to be long-winded, but I like to think there’s a purpose to the things I write, at least one beyond ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’, and it’s defining that purpose that’s also going to end up forming a major part of what you’re reading here today. And since Thankful Month has been all about getting personal, I’d like to thank you for taking the time. That being said, for this to make any sense whatsoever, I’m going to have to start at the beginning.
I’ve been a fan of the caped crusader for as long as I can remember, and I mean that quite literally. I don’t have memories of a time when this ridiculous yet heroic character wasn’t a constant presence for me. I spent the first five years of my life in Saudi Arabia, where access to western media was limited, but there were a handful of things that I managed to watch ad nauseam. A small selection of Disney movies, the original Star Wars films on VHS, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and two different incarnations of the same character: Batman, the 1960s show, and Batman: The Animated Series.
From an early age, I was exposed to this strange paradox of a character who could simultaneously be several different things, visually, tonally and thematically. Everything from his city to his supporting cast was malleable, and while his costume retained the same basic features – a cape, a cowl, and a symbol – that too had the potential for wildly different interpretations. As I recall, it was the first costume I ever expressed the desire to wear, one that ended up being a collaboration between my mother and her mother on one of our trips to New Delhi, but all this is merely a backdrop for another backdrop.
Fast-forward fifteen years and dozens of Batman comics, to my final year of college in New York City. It was the first time I’d been given carte blanche on a term paper, and my chosen thesis was the evolving relationship of Batman and The Joker over the last seven decades. It gave me an opportunity to explore my favourite characters in a literary and academic context, as what would’ve ordinarily been casual reading (and watching) suddenly became research, and I tapped in to not only other people’s understanding of Batman during his existence, but my own, as I come to various realizations regarding his appeal to me. This was in the spring of 2012, just a few months before the release of The Dark Knight Rises, and it also coincided with another notable period in my life. It’s one that may not be entirely surprising given that it’s about a 20-year-old me, but one that has the misfortune of making this meandering tale as personal as it is.
There are personal elements that you hope to explore as a writer, but there are also elements that you dread having to delve into. This is a bit of both.
Was it love? Was it infatuation? Who knows. What I do know is that it felt real at the time. It was the first time I’d ever experienced it, and the first time I’d ever had such strong feelings reciprocated in any way. Did we use labels? Yes, and no. Was I happy? Yes. And no. It was another paradox, one where my every waking moment was soaked in a rush of adrenaline and insecurity. A constant high matched only by a constant fear of coming down. Truth be told, I felt alive for the first time when I was around her. Truth be told, I felt dead inside when I wasn’t.
There was this sense of relief, to finally have someone care about you and believe in you in a way that you only thought was possible in your dreams or in the movies, but it brought with it the constant fear of its absence. I felt motivated for the first time in years, but part of me knew that I wouldn’t feel the same without her. Part of me knew that whatever this was – love, lust, or infatuation – it was like an addiction. Something in me was deeply broken, and feeling like it wasn’t, even for minutes at a time, was more appealing to me than having to face the reality that I was ignoring my own slowly rotting sense of self-worth. She made me feel alive, but she was also the only thing that made me feel alive, and that’s when the rot turned to cracks and the cracks grew large enough to be noticeable.
And it all came crashing down.
Being cut off mid-relationship for no real reason is a devastating thing. It’s taken me years to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t really at fault, but at the time, I turned all this hurt inwards. I blamed myself for everything that wasn’t in my control, and I felt worthless, more than I ever had before. While inevitable in retrospect, it came as a shock to my system, and sent me spiraling into a depression. I suddenly had no way of feeling alive, or like I meant anything to anyone. This all happened about eight weeks prior to The Dark Knight Rises, a movie we had decided to watch together, and while there wasn’t a direct connection, it was notable to me that I’d now have to find someone else to give that second ticket to. We had also made plans to move to LA together, and suddenly, there were all these holes in my future that I couldn’t even picture filling. And it wouldn’t have been as bad if I had let it end there, but there’s a little more to this story that I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you through before talking about the movie.
After weeks of contact that was either sporadic or non-existent, I had to force her to end things because I didn’t have the strength to. A week went by, and I was just about getting comfortable with my self-loathing spiral, using the occasional drink or drug to cope, when she got back in touch with me. She told me she regretted the way things went down, and it all came rushing back. The feeling of being needed, the feeling of importance, and a spark that reminded me that I had life left in me. It’s another paradox, the idea that my worthlessness was battling not my self-worth, but my ego, a paradox I’m still fighting today, but one I couldn’t fully recognize at the time. More than anything though, her getting back in touch with me gave me hope. It’s the most messed up thing in retrospect, but the one thing keeping me going was the one thing that was gnawing at me, the hope that I could get back to a place of feeling at ease using the same thing, or person, because of whom I needed to crawl back up from the depths to begin with. Perhaps my spiral was temporary! Perhaps my feelings of worthlessness were a necessary break from feeling an ego boost when I was a around her! Perhaps the conventional wisdom of pride coming before the fall was wrong!
It wasn’t, obviously. And it all happened again. Six months of the same relationship over the course of ten days, only to be cast aside a second time. Only to be made to feel worthless once more. Only to have to force her to end things because I was even weaker than before, but this time it was worse. This time the fall hit harder, and no amount of drinking and smoking illicit substances could numb the pain. This time, what kept me going before stabbing me in the heart wasn’t her. It was hope. And if the one thing that I was always taught to hold on to was now causing my slow demise, making it all the more painful, then what did I have left? That’s where the movie comes in.
3. THE LAZARUS PIT
During the buildup to The Dark Knight Rises, I went back and studied as much Batman media as I could for my paper, and it gave me the opportunity to delve a little deeper into two of my favourite superhero films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. During an exercise in one of our screenwriting classes, we practiced breaking down films into their themes, either one sentence or one word at a time. It’s a reductive of way of actually analyzing a film, but it was helpful in understanding what we’d be up against when actually constructing our own stories, thematically speaking. Breaking down Chris Nolan’s first two Bat-films was actually fairly easy for me owing to my familiarity with them, and there were two words that stood out above the rest as descriptors for what the films were about that their core: fear, and chaos. These through-lines existed for Batman, and for the people of Gotham city, thematically, narratively, and otherwise.
Since the third and final film was on its way, trailer and interview-based speculation was running rampant about its plot and about which character(s) would kick the bucket. For whatever reason, I found myself much more concerned with what single word I could boil the film down to. If Batman Begins was about fear and The Dark Knight was about chaos, what was the one thing this movie would look at in a concise way above all else? The conclusion I came to at the time was pain. Pain as a literal inhibitor, and pain as motivator. Batman and Bane seemed like dark reflections of each other, one fueled by survivor’s guilt and one by physical agony. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, especially since the plot elements concerning the giant well we’d seen in the trailers had been kept more-or-less under wraps, but I’m glad my assumption ended up being somewhat incomplete.
In Batman lore, the Lazarus Pit was a magical bath that had the power to resurrect people from the dead. It was responsible for Ra’s Al Ghul’s (quite literal) immortality, as well as bringing several others back to life. While it caused a certain amount of insanity within anyone subjected to its powers, it always represented hope. The hope that we, the readers, would get to see a beloved character again, and the hope that the characters themselves would get to spend more time with a loved one. Completely unrelated to this concept was Peña Duro, the hellish Caribbean prison where Bane was Born and raised – a place devoid of any hope whatsoever. In The Dark Knight Rises, these places were one and the same.
Upon trapping Batman in the underground prison, Bane tells the fallen hero about what he learned in his former home: the nature of despair. What happens when the light at the end of the tunnel is out of reach? As Tom Hardy himself would go on to put it in Mad Max: Fury Road several years later, “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” In The Dark Knight Rises, he likens it to sailors turning to seawater from uncontrollable thirst, their desperation to survive contributing to their own demise. By allowing Bruce Wayne to watch his city’s slow crawl towards destruction on TV, Bane gave him enough impetus to want to escape, but he knew this escape to be impossible. Instead of allowing him to wallow in his failure, he kept dangling the keys to his freedom in front of him, close enough that it seemed like an achievable goal, yet far enough that it would keep him in constant agony.
‘Hope’ was the one word I was looking for going in, the distillation of what this movie could be said to be about at its core. Many films have dealt with hope in the past, but this was the first I’d seen that used hope as a weapon, the same kind of weapon it had been for me in months prior. This was the first time I’d seen hope articulated this way, and it was also the first time I’d seen my hero of twenty years broken in a way that felt familiar. That, to me, was terrifying. But it was also cathartic. It gave my pain and my cynical outlook a name, and it felt like I had a way to understand this thing festering inside of me, and the reasons I couldn’t allow myself to feel hopeful anymore.
4. CALLBACKS & SYMBOLS
Batman’s escape doesn’t make practical sense, but little in the film does. A flaming bat-symbol atop a bridge is as silly a concept as Batman himself, but it’s a symbol that inspires the people and the police to fight. It’s one that kids at Blake’s old orphanage draw in chalk, in the hopes that the Dark Knight will one day return, because even though crime’s been swept under the rug, their lives are a ticking clock. Once they’re old enough, they’re going to be cast out into a world that they aren’t ready for because it isn’t ready for them, and in the case of the orphan that Blake visits, Batman is seen as a mythic saviour, regardless of practicality or politics.
From the very beginning of the series, Chris Nolan has treated Batman as a concept. Bruce Wayne is most certainly a character, but like the director, he approaches the mask as a symbol. A symbol with which to strike fear, but a symbol with which to inspire. At the end of The Dark Knight, he willingly twists people’s perception of this symbol into something evil if it means getting the city to rally behind Harvey Dent, and once that lie is undone and the city has torn itself apart, he kills Batman (in the eyes of the people) so they can rally behind his sacrifice. Bruce Wayne ends up on an extended holiday, and his actions could very well be perceived as selfish – this is a Bruce Wayne who hopes to leave the cowl behind once there’s no longer a need for him – but as for the people, the symbol has not only regained its rightful place, but rescued them through his sacrifice. But what went in to creating this symbol?
There are four specific scenes in Batman Begins that I carried with me long after I’d seen it, and it just so happens that those four scenes are alluded to in The Dark Knight Rises. The first was James Gordon comforting a young Bruce Wayne after his parents had been killed. What do you say to a kid who’s just witnessed a horror like that? There’s nothing Gordon can say, but he tries, repeating “It’s okay. It’s okay” as he puts a coat around young Bruce’s shoulders. The death of his parents should’ve been the end for Bruce, a permanent push off the cliff of sanity, or at least belief in good, but this tender moment is something that rescued him from that fate, making him believe in the best in people even after he’d seen the worst. It’s why he chooses Jim Gordon as his ally during these films, and he finally reveals this to him just as he’s about to fly off to what might be his death.
“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended.”
The next three callbacks go hand in hand, and harken back to the flashbacks in Batman Begins. In a re-writing of the character’s lore, Nolan has young Bruce fall down a well, where he’s surrounded by a swarm of bats – the root of his fear. His father descends to rescue him, as if from the heavens itself, and this scene crops back up after Bruce’s penultimate attempt to escape from the pit, scored only his father’s words of wisdom.
“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
That’s the sort of lesson 13-year-old me took with him when watched that first film in theatres, and to see it crop up again seven years later in a new context was like an echo from the past, but what made it all the more potent was the callback it was accompanied by. In the first film, Bruce’s fear stems from being swarmed by bats, a fear he overcomes by standing among them in the Batcave, flashlight in hand. Towards the end of the film, John Blake (aka ‘Robin’, Batman’s successor) has a similar experience, as if it’s necessary for him to understand what went in to the construction of the Batman symbol, but the more important version of this callback takes place as Bruce is nearing the end of what will be his final climb out of the pit no matter how it ends.
The film’s approach to fear feels like the antithesis of what it was in Batman Begins, as the doctor in the pit advises him to ignore everything he’d learned. Instead of fighting his fears and deflecting them onto others, he needs to embrace them in order to push himself further. Later on, we see this man who we know as someone fighting from the shadows confront the villain in broad daylight – the first time this has happened in a Batman movie – and this embracing of his fears is personified by the perfectly timed emergence of a swarm of bats from the well. It’s exactly how his fears were born, it’s exactly how he blocked them out, and now, it’s exactly how he’s going to let them in once more.
Once again, there should be no practical reason for Bruce Wayne to have made that jump without the rope, but the anticipation leading up to that moment and the thunderous applause from the audience that night (myself included) defied any desire for practicality in such a moment. This pit was a living embodiment of hope being turned against those who had nothing else, and our fallen hero had climbed out of it not by burying his fears, but by letting them carry him. By channeling them into something greater when even hope wouldn’t do the trick. And somewhere, deep down, I began to find the strength to climb out of my own pit.
5. ON THE BANKS OF THE ARNO
In Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?, Neil Gaiman writes what is perhaps one of the most hauntingly poetic in-world explanation for the varying interpretations of Batman. Seemingly taking place after his death in Final Crisis, the Dark Knight dreams about his funeral, where every version of him is in the casket at one point or another, and the story ends with him being reborn as a new version of Batman, something he’s destined to do forever.
In the movies, Batman Forever gets Bruce Wayne to a point where he no longer needs to be Batman, but he continues because he wants to. Mask of the Phantasm gets him to a point where he no longer wants to because he finally has a shot at happiness, but he’s compelled to by survivor’s guilt. The Dark Knight Trilogy takes a third kind of approach, wherein Batman – the symbol – while fueled by Bruce Wayne’s broken psyche, is tied directly to crime and criminality in Gotham. So long as there is crime in Gotham, Batman will always exist, which is why he’s never going to go away in the comic books, but in a ‘realistic’ world that’s reflective of ours? Where crime is something systemic that can be eliminated? A world where Batman was brought into existence by corruption as opposed to seemingly widespread psychosis manifesting as supervillainy? That’s a world in which Bruce Wayne knows full well that Batman is a temporary solution, but he can’t move on from it without good reason.
What separates The Dark Knight Rises from the comics, as well as the other films, is the sense of finality it has to it. Every movie, TV show and comic has had the possibility of a continuation, and no other Batman media has definitively been a final Batman story the way this one has. I knew this going in to the film, and I saw one of two possibilities before me. One, that Batman would die. Two, that the film would end on a note that implied Batman’s continuing his never-ending fight against crime. I was so set on one of these two endings that a third option never really occurred to me, because it didn’t seem like a possibility, but that third ending turned out to be both a combination of the two I’d considered, as well as something else entirely.
In the eyes of the people, Batman dies, but his legacy lives on through other people who willingly take up the mantle. That’s far from the truth of what actually happens, but it’s made potent by showing us exactly the kind of relationship the people have with Batman, a relationship reflective of ours. While there are those that believe he’s a murderer, there are moments we’re allowed to share with certain characters who seem to have an almost real-world reverence for him. There’s the orphan I mentioned earlier, the one who sees him as a myth capable of tackling any problem, but there’s also the older cop and his rookie partner, right before Batman shows up for the first time in eight years. It’s a line ripped right from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, one that exemplifies what kind of spectacle Batman is capable of putting on, even for older fans passing down his stories to their kids’ generation.
“Oh boy, you are in for a show tonight, son.”
More importantly, it puts John Blake in our shoes, making him privy to Batman’s identity and allowing him to revere this heroic figure the same way we do, as a man beneath the mask. There is a moment towards the end of the film, right before all hell breaks loose, when Blake has a gun to his head, and he closes his eyes and accepts his fate. Right there and then, the caped crusader swoops in and saves him from certain death, and while he’s fighting off the mercenaries, the camera lingers on Blake, his eyes transfixed on his childhood hero in a gaze of sheer wonder along with the hint of a smile, as if to say “My God…. That’s Batman.”
The film has an understanding of the relationship between the audience and its hero, and the reason I bring this up is the nature of the ending. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in any Batman story, and it’s unlike anything we’re likely to see. Not just because it has a definite ending to Bruce Wayne’s story, but because of what exactly that ending is. We get to see this ending through the eyes of Alfred, whom at the beginning of the movie expresses his desire to finally see Bruce move on and live a life away from Gotham, a place that only holds painful memories. At the end, on the banks of the Arno, we finally get to see what an actual conclusion might look like for Batman’s story. Not just this Batman, but Batman as he’s existed in our collective consciousness since 1939. Bruce Wayne is dead to the world, but Batman will live on without him as he finally manages to move forward, and for the first time in over 70 years, Batman gets to have a happy ending. As someone who’d been invested in the character for as long as I had, it’s something I never thought I’d get to see.
It was a sight to behold, and as the credits rolled, everything that I’ve mentioned thus far came rushing back to me at once – the childhood hero, the heartbreak, my inability to hope, the burial of my fears and insecurities under alcohol and other things, and the floodgates just opened. It was like the weight of the world finally being lifted off my shoulders, and the reason it felt that way was because a movie – pictures projected on a blank screen at 24 frames per second – had reached out to me and told me that the things I was feeling weren’t insurmountable. That I could still come back from them. It did so by showing my childhood hero going through the same emotions, and for the first time ever, he came out of it okay. For the first time, he got to have a happy ending. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could, too.
6. THE AMYGDALA
Barring my immediate feelings, none of these are conclusions I came to immediately. In fact, I’m not even sure I was looking to delve into my reaction until about two years ago. One reason was because I’d learned just how many people disliked the film, but that’s not something that bothered me. It never has, although it did make me curious. The other reason however, stems from one very specific class in graduate school. I was an editing session with a guest speaker who showed us a clip from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film I most definitely didn’t enjoy watching in theatres, and one that many had accused of being overly reliant on the events of 9/11. The clip was hastily edited, and featured that really annoying child character whom I definitely didn’t want to be looking at or listening to that early in the morning, as he recounted (in excruciating detail) all the houses he’d visited that day. I assumed the speaker would talk to us about montage or something of the sort. After all we’d just seen a clip that featured many, many cuts, but I’m glad to have been mistaken.
The first thing he told us was about the differing reactions to the film, reading them from a single piece of paper he’d carried with him. Many critics had talked about how they found the young boy annoying, one even saying he wanted to take a shovel to his face. I chuckled. That’s how I felt about the kid. But then he talked about reactions from a different group of people, reading them out from that same piece of paper. It was a couple of reactions from people who’d lost family members in the World Trade Center, just like the film’s protagonist had, and one in particular stood out to me:
“This movie healed me.”
Things just sort of clicked into place. I still didn’t like this movie, but it made perfect sense that a story about a boy trying to give his father’s death meaning by mathematically solving an over the top, city-wide puzzle in the wake of 9/11 would’ve resonated, in some strange way, with people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. The guest speaker went on to explain the processes behind how we interpret cinema, I shan’t bore you with the details, but it’s all connected to the part of our brain known as the amygdala, which is responsible for decision making and emotional reactions. Another key function of the amygdala? Processing memories.
To be more concise, the way we interpret stories and images is through the lens of our own experiences, and while this is something I knew instinctively, it wasn’t until the process was broken down for me and I was shown just how different interpretations of the same thing could be (and more importantly, WHY) that I started to think about it in more detail. Specifically, my overwhelmingly emotional response to a movie I had just learned that many people around here hated.
7. MY FAVOURITE MOVIE
When talking about favourites, something that seems to come up more often than not is the difference between ‘favourite’ and ‘best’. A friend of mine once phrased this same concept another way, citing his favourite ‘movies’ versus his favourite ‘films’, a banal distinction to be sure, but one that felt like it was divided along similar lines. We do certainly have objective notions of what good storytelling is, or what good filmmaking constitutes, and I’m the last person who’d want to dispute that regardless of whether or not I think they’re absolutes. By those same so-called objective standards, The Dark Knight Rises is not the ‘best’ movie. It has glaring flaws in its construction, and several dangling social, economic and political through lines it fails to execute at all, let alone as execute as smartly as its predecessor. And yet, it’s a film that I hold in higher regard than all others.
We all have movies like this, and ever since learning the physiological breakdown of our cinematic experiences, I’ve been much more invested in exploring the hows and whys of what we love. It’s why I continue to write about certain films, comics and TV shows, because that exploration is one of the most fascinating things to me, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand why if it weren’t for a film like The Dark Knight Rises, one that spoke to me in ways that I didn’t know were possible, and one that I so desperately needed, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I’m thankful for the movie, but I’m also thankful for an outlet like Birth.Movies.Death., one I’d visit every day even if I wasn’t a part of it. It allows me to explore all of these fascinating stories and the equally fascinating reasons we have for connecting with them. I’ve been lucky enough to explore several other Nolan films (personal favourites like Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception) and I’ve also been lucky enough to see other people’s detailed reasonings for loving specific works of cinema so dearly.
Be it connecting with the recent Bond movies after the death of a parent, or seeing your identity reflected back to you through Ghost World, or finding comfort in Rocky Balboa for reasons beyond your understanding, these are all fascinating journeys, and I’m thankful that my own involves wanting to explore and understand these journeys even further. While our jobs as people who write about films will always involve formal breakdowns and structural analyses in order to gauge what is ‘best’, does it really matter in the face of something that’s ‘favourite’? I don’t know. I’m not sure I have an answer. All I know is that the things we love matter to us a great deal, and understanding why they matter is going to make us better storytellers. That’s important, because stories have the power to heal, and that’s something I’m thankful for above all else.