In an interview with a film blog two weeks before The Dark Knight Rises released on July 20, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan commented, "What I always felt like we needed to do in a third film was, for lack of a better term, go there."
He meant, he explained, that though the previous two films threatened the collapse of all social structure on the streets of Gotham, the threat was always averted (thanks to a certain caped billionaire). But while watching the final film of director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, where law and order do indeed collapse, you can't help thinking that he may have meant something else as well. He may have meant that he and his brother decided to demonstrate the logical conclusion of ideas held up as virtuous by almost everyone else in their industry.
One such idea is the currently in-vogue income equality. There's no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises (rated PG-13 for action violence and language) presents a vigorous defense of the free market and private enterprise (those mainstream reviewers who claim the film's political themes are muddy are dishonest, blind, or still struggling to come to terms with their disappointment in Nolan). The most persuasive piece of evidence on this point is the character arc of "cat" burglar Selina Kyle.
Delightfully played with old-fashioned wit and verve by Anne Hathaway, Selina begins as a fervent parroter of the villain Bane's socialist banalities. "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," she purrs, "and when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Later, however, when Bane has rounded up the wealthy and their spoils have been divided, equality looks nothing like the utopia she imagined. Standing in a burned-out house where squatters abound, she stares at the shattered portrait of a happy family and murmurs, "This was someone's home." "Yeah, well, now it's everyone's home," her recalcitrant accomplice replies. Comfort and luxury haven't been redistributed, but chaos and filth certainly have.
Other, smaller moments reinforce Selina's conversion, such as the scene where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has become a shut-in since the events of the last film, demands to know why his corporation has stopped funding a private Catholic orphanage. His colleague explains that those expenditures are financed by Wayne Industries' profits-no profits means no charity. When Bruce Wayne, the great Atlas holding his city together, decides he no longer cares about his business, people far down the ladder from him suffer as a result of his shrug.
This alone would mark an unusual amount of "going there" for a super hero movie, even a super hero movie directed by Christopher Nolan. But The Dark Knight Rises goes further still to take on ideological sacred cows that were first introduced in Batman Begins and at last find their culmination.
It turns out the hulking, masked Bane (Tom Hardy) is, like so many revolutionaries before him, merely striking a populist pose for his own ends. He has no interest in bringing social justice to the masses, but instead wants to carry out Ra's al Ghul's (Liam Neeson) plan from the first film to punish a decadent Western culture. To this end, he recruits young men so devoted to his cause, they willingly, reverently even, give up their lives so as to take the lives of others.
Part of what allows them to do this is the fiction, created by Batman and covered up by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), that the homicidal politician Harvey Dent was a virtuous crusader murdered by Batman. This brings me to a small moment, but one I believe worthy of comment when placed within the context of Nolan's entire body of work.
Throughout the film, young detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) maintains, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Batman is innocent and will save the city. Yet, at a pivotal moment, when someone asks him, "Do you really believe he's coming back?" Blake doesn't give the answer we expect. He doesn't say, "I have to believe," or "I choose to believe," or any of the other lines we've heard in movies like this hundreds of times before. Instead he says, "It doesn't matter what I believe." Of course we know from his previous dialogue that he does believe, so why not say that?
He doesn't say it because whether Batman will or won't return isn't decided by what he feels. He cannot create his own truth simply by believing it. There is a terrible sort of irony-given the events in Aurora, Colo. (see "Nightmare and narrow escape")-that how darkness, disease, and mutations fester when human beings try to define reality for themselves is a theme that has informed all of Nolan's films. We know little about James Holmes at this point, but we do know he did not see himself or those whose lives he took in the light of truth.
As we see from Batman's generous deception regarding Harvey Dent, attempting to live in anything other than objective truth creates sickness of the soul and sickness of society. The good commissioner moves like a haunted man, knowing what a weak foundation the city's newfound peace is built on. Bruce Wayne cannot find life worth living in the confines his lie has created, leaving his butler Alfred to beg him to "stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day."
There is other weighty symbolism in The Dark Knight Rises that there isn't the space to treat here. The lengths Selina goes to in her attempt to possess a device that will wipe out all records of her criminal life is particularly worthy of attention. (I hope it isn't a spoiler to say that none of her efforts secure her the clean slate she seeks, and she only obtains it when she accepts it as a gift.) Likewise, much could be said of how Bruce Wayne must become like a child to escape Bane's prison. But taken together they bring Nolan's trilogy to a satisfying conclusion-one with a hero who has at last turned his back on moral relativism and rises indeed.
See also "Out of darkness: In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman must move beyond politics and ideology to battle evil," by Emily Whitten, July 20.