Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

Warning: Major spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What then of The Dark Knight Rises, to which I have already alluded so many times?  Although it is not my main interest here, I should not, given our consideration of the “Atonement” at the end of The Dark Knight, omit to mention the Christological resonances which echo throughout the film.  As mentioned above, although The Dark Knight appears to end on the decision to buy peace at the cost of a lie, there remains the possibility that the deception is only temporary, that Batman will rise from his self-imposed “death” to receive public vindication and become the true savior of Gotham.  The very title, The Dark Knight Rises, suggests just such a resurrection motif, and as the film unfolds, this motif is reinforced by so many gestures that it could not be mere coincidence.  Before such resurrection, though, the symbolic death of exile accepted at the end of The Dark Knight must be consummated with a true defeat.  This comes at the hands of a mysterious and inhuman denizen of the underworld who lives in eternal torment, serving only himself after being cast out of the order to which he belonged (in case we didn’t get it, he identifies himself early on in the film as “the Devil.”).  Batman is betrayed into the hands of this enemy by a Judas of sorts.  His back is broken and he is left for dead in a deep pit that is repeatedly referred to as “Hell,” from which he will watch Bane terrorize and destroy his now-unprotected people.  After being told to “Rise,” Batman succeeds in escaping this prison on his third attempt, and returns to Gotham, where he reveals himself in secret to his followers, and then defeats Bane and his cohorts, liberating Gotham from their clutches and receiving his vindication as the city’s savior, not its enemy.  At the end, he disappears into the air, presumed dead by many, though he is not in fact, and he lives on as the city’s symbol, having returned to them hope and the possibility of justice.  Indeed, he leaves behind him a dedicated disciple, who, it is hinted in a Pentecost-like scene (when John/Robin is surrounded by the bats in the cave), will take up his mantle and carry on his legacy. The correspondences are far from perfect—for instance, the first Judas turns out to be an ally in the end, and it is an earlier ally who is revealed as the true Judas after Batman’s return to Gotham; and the “Ascension” at the end functions more like another “Atonement,” since it appears that Batman is in fact giving up his life, rather than merely disappearing to another place.  And there are any number of ways in which Batman is not very Christ-like (though it is notable that all the way to the end, he keeps his “one rule”—even Bane is killed by another, not by him).  Nolan, it seems clear to me, is playing around with the Christological symbolism* to a greater extent than we find in other superhero films, capitalizing on its mythic potential and ability to highlight other themes he wishes to emphasize, but it is not meant to serve as the fundamental locus of meaning even for The Dark Knight Rises.


In many ways, The Dark Knight Rises hearkens back more to Batman Begins than to its immediate predecessor.  Bane comes seeking again the eschatological justice that the League of Shadows had sought, to destroy a city that is corrupt beyond saving.  In doing so, he represents himself as one ready to tell the truth about Gotham, as the city’s authorities have not been willing to.  He reads aloud to the people the speech that Gordon has written, but could not bring himself to deliver, telling the people of Gotham the truth about Harvey Dent.  In so doing, he demonstrates the folly of thinking that Gotham’s peace could be secured by a lie, for the truth will always come out in the end, and rarely at the time or in the way of our choosing.  But as we have seen, this eschatological judgment is not judgment according to truth, because it is “summary justice,” undiscriminating, unmerciful justice that denies the possibility of redemption.  Perhaps it is here that the Christological themes of film become key, for one could argue that it is by taking this eschatological judgment upon himself—going through the death and descent into Hell that Bane has in store for Gotham, and returning from it—that Batman averts such judgment from Gotham and re-establishes the possibility of provisional political justice.

So how can such justice become even a possibility, much less a reality?  The problem that we have been left with at the beginning of the film is that Gotham is unable to enact judgment according to truth, and to have a true and legitimate agent of justice, because the city has not become a true political community.  The film then explores (among many other questions, of course), how Gotham can achieve this self-transcendence necessary to be a polis.  

The first step, ironically, is provided by Bane, whose judgment visited upon Gotham comes with the awful twist that before destroying the city, he will pretend to give it new life.  In mockery of the sham commonwealth that Gotham had been, he forges the city into a parody of a polis.  First he formalizes Gotham’s isolation from the wider world (which we remarked upon previously), forcing it to become an autonomous political unit, which cannot hope for any outside help.  He declares to them the truth that has been hidden from them, decrying as “oppression” the so-called “justice” founded on falsehood, and promising to liberate the city.  He frees all the prisoners and announces their re-entry into the broader society, thus tearing down one of the barriers that Gotham had erected between groups of citizens.  He offers to the city the opportunity to cleanse itself from its injustices by erecting a mock court of justice that deals out summary execution to the wealthy and powerful oppressors.  Of course, none of this can create a true commonwealth, since none of the schisms that formerly divided Gotham have been truly healed; the balance of power has just been reversed.  The poor, the convicts, the citizenry have been turned against the rich, the judges, and the police.  No genuine unity is achieved, and certainly no concept of the common good stands at the center of the new regime.

However, in a way, Bane’s revolution does provide the catalyst that will help Gotham become a people.  The moment of crisis, the absence of any outside help, forces Gotham to realize that they will need to band together and depend on one another.  But significantly, they are unable to do so on their own; they need a symbol, a representative—they need the Batman.


Again, let us turn to O’Donovan for the categories that will elucidate what is going on:

“When we recognize a political authority summoning us to act together in defense of the common good, we recognize ourselves.  We conceive ourselves as a ‘people,’ a community constituted by participation in the common good.  On the relation between the ‘people’ and the authority that summons it, hangs the delicate question of political representation.” (149)

There is a paradox here, which Nolan’s films explore.  To become a people, Gotham must recognize a political authority, a representative.  But to have a legitimate representative, she must first be a people.  This is one of the fundamental ambiguities in political theory: how can authority arise except as delegated from a political community?  But how can a political community exist except as a body under authority?  

Some traditions of political theory, to be sure, have insisted that the political authority logically precedes the political unit, that the sovereign summons his people into being as a polis.  O’Donovan critiques this tradition, saying,

“Political authority does not ‘make’ a people; it ‘finds’ it.  The governing state-structure serves the defense of something other than itself.  The point of the state is not to defend the state but the people.  The people, the subject of the common good, must be imagined apart from its political and juridical arrangements if either people or state is to be imagined properly at all.  Otherwise the juridical unity of the state is simply imposition, not protection.” (154)

However, he critiques equally the liberal understanding that authority is simply a creation of the people, that we come together and make a covenant to be a people, and only then appoint for ourselves authorities to act on our behalf.  In a way, Bane’s parody of a politically-united Gotham is a form of both errors.  Bane is clearly a dictator, a warlord who controls Gotham with a private army and the threat of mass destruction.  He is the sovereign, who makes Gotham a city as his city, summoning into being a political unit merely as a product of his own sovereignty.  On the other hand, Bane pretends at any rate merely to announce a revolution, to empower the people to come together and form their own government, and to stand back in the shadows while they do so.  His sovereignty is largely invisible, lurking behind the facade of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  

O’Donovan describes the relation between the people and the representative in far more mysterious terms, saying,

“The people is imaginatively envisaged when and as its common good is in need of defense.  The idea of the people and the idea of the authority that summons it to defend its common good arise together. . . . In awakening our sense of ourselves as a people, political authority simultaneously awakens us to itself.  We become aware of an authority that commands us, not abstractly but in a concrete form, as ‘our’ government. . . . The representative bears the people’s image, makes the people visible and tangible, to itself and to others.  Yet the representative does not bring the people into existence, but simply makes it appear.” (154, 157)

So clearly does this correlate to the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises that I am tempted to leave it without comment.  Batman summons Gotham to rise to defend the common good, but not on the basis of a prior authority by which he can command their obedience; rather, to be effective, his summons must coincide with Gotham’s awakening to see itself as a people called to take action, and its awakening to see itself in the Batman.  Central to this awakening is the reconciliation that must occur if Gotham is to transcend its earlier divisions and achieve unity.  Accordingly, we find that on Batman’s return, he receives the recognition and support of those who had earlier opposed him, so that united behind him, they abandon their earlier differences.  The police, jealous and suspicious of the powers of a mere citizen, and tempted to use their power against him rather than against injustice, rally behind him, and show their willingness to fight and die on behalf of the city; thus they remove from themselves the stigma of all their earlier corruption, inaction, and distorted priorities, which have dogged them all throughout the trilogy.  The poor, jealous of the privilege of people like Bruce Wayne, recognize that it is possible to use wealth and power for good—this is signified perhaps through the disadvantaged orphans who show their loyalty to the Batman, but also through Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman; though she is never called that in the film), who spends the first half of the film openly despising the fat cat upper class of Gotham, only to gradually come to respect Bruce/Batman (she is one of the few who learns his true identity) and eventually to fight alongside him.  Her role, however, is doubly significant, for she serves as a representative of the criminal underclass that has been divided against the rest of Gotham, a situation only exacerbated, as we have seen, by the Dent Act.  Her regret about the cycle of crime she has become trapped in, and her quest for a “clean start,” serves as a reminder that not all convicts are in jail because they are hopelessly evil.  Many are desperate for a chance to start afresh, to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the world, to be reconciled to the rest of society; it is precisely this, of course, that the Dent Act has categorically denied to Gotham’s criminals, generating the pent-up resentment that Bane exploits.  Kyle’s climactic decision to throw in her lot in with Batman, and with him, with the Gotham that has never had any use for her, the Gotham with which she has no reason to feel solidarity, tells us that the Dent Act and Bane’s revolution are not the only paths; reconciliation is possible, new life is possible.


But let us return to O’Donovan.  He describes as a “false turn” the early modern idea

“that representation is founded in the will.  It is founded in the imagination.  That the representative may act for us, and we in him, it is necessary that we see ourselves in him.  Representation is a case of symbolization; the representative ‘stands for’ our consciousness of our common association. . . . through this particular actor we recognize ourselves as summoned to a collective action.  It is an affective as well as a cognitive movement.  Political recognition is like the recognition we accord to a face or form, the recognition of Gestalt, grasped at once in a moment of acknowledgement and welcome.  Underlying many ancient political conceptions, there is a visual aesthetic.  The language of light, radiance, and display permeates classical political symbolism, in notions such as ‘splendor,’ ‘magnificence,’ ‘glory.’  These elicit something akin to erotic fascination.”** (161) 

Batman’s “theatricality,” then, his visual aesthetic, is not merely incidental.  It is part of his projection of Batman as a symbol.   He must be more than a mere man, for a man is mortal.  He must become “a symbol, a legend,” immortal.  But not for himself, for personal glory—as Alfred frequently worries that he is being tempted by—but for Gotham. Gotham cannot see herself in a mere man, for a political representative must be more than a mere man; the symbol of representation must be immortal as the body politic is to be immortal.  This is why Batman refuses recognition at the end, why he must remain hidden, although Gordon insists that the people must know who their savior is.  No, that would defeat the point, for that would distract Gotham’s attention from what the Batman is meant to be—everyman.  Batman replies to Gordon, “The Batman could be anyone, even a man who gives his coat to a young boy to let him know the world hasn’t ended,” (paraphrase; I don’t have the script) alluding to the scene at the beginning of Batman Begins when the junior police officer Gordon comforts the young Bruce after his parents’ murder.  The point is for the people of Gotham to awaken to the possibility of acting for one another, working together for the common good; the Batman is not a savior from outside, but merely they themselves writ large, and his vocation—the enactment of justice with mercy—is their vocation.  By his self-offering on behalf of the people, Batman becomes a genuine representative, and by their recognition of him, and of themselves, they become a genuine polis, capable of enacting the limited, provisional justice that political authority is to serve.  So we are to hope, at any rate, in that crucial final scene in which the statue of the Batman—not a man but a symbol—is unveiled in City Hall, symbolizing the city’s fresh start.

The film, to be sure, does not end without ambiguity.  Are public structures of judgment really capable of sustaining truth and justice?  John Blake seems not to think so, at any rate, resigning the police force in disillusionment about the inauthenticity of Gotham’s power structures, and the injustice in the fact that they do not know their liberator.  It is hinted at the end that he will take up the Batman’s role, that an agent of justice outside its public structures will still be called for.  Although the police force has redeemed itself by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, we are still shown at the end how unreliable and unjust the appointed guardians of public safety can be, when American troops fire upon Blake to keep him from bringing the orphan boys out of the city to safety—significantly, it is at this moment that Blake throws away his badge.  No one could accuse Christopher Nolan of being a Pollyanna optimist.  Batman may have redeemed Gotham, but even renewed, it remains fallible, imperfect, and often unjust.

More seriously, it is not immediately obvious that Batman’s faked death and hidden identity does not constitute another lie on which justice is to be built. It is possible to see in Gordon’s speech to the people of Gotham and in the unveiling of the statue a disturbing echo of his speech at the end of The Dark Knight telling the lie about Harvey Dent as Gotham’s hero, surrounded by iconography of Dent; though I think not.  The similarity between the scenes, I think, is intended to display the second as the reversal of the first, a truth-telling that establishes a genuine possibility for justice, for hiddenness is not the same as a lie.  Gordon is telling the truth, for Batman was the true liberator of Gotham, and he did give himself up even to the point of death for the sake of the city,  even though it turned out that death was not the end.  The fact that Bruce lives on at the end, achieves at last the rest for which he has striven all his life, detracts not at all from the magnitude of the sacrifice he has freely taken it upon himself to make for his people.  


I will close with the hauntingly powerful lines from The Tale of Two Cities from which Gordon reads above Bruce’s grave: 

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. . . .

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”


* We can find other instances of this symbolism going all the way back to Batman Begins, though many of these ideas are fairly standard for the superhero genre.  Batman gives up a position of great wealth and privilege to take up his vocation, but he bears throughout a dual identity—two utterly different natures in one person.  His early encounter with Ducard and the League of Shadows could easily be seen as a “temptation in the desert” scene, in which he rejects their kind of power as his weapon against injustice and embraces a harder road.  Examples could no doubt be multiplied.

** O’Donovan adds, in words well worth pondering: “The affective dimension is entirely absent from official theories of representation in the modern West.  The understanding of ceremonial recognition was lost to Western political philosophy at the point where God was lost to it; for it is essentially an acknowledgment of providence.  The representative is recognized because he is there; God ‘raises up’ leaders of the peoples.  That God does so with patient regularity is no reason to suppress our wonder at it, let alone imagine that we ourselves arranged for it to happen. . . . [Contractarianism] dispensed with the moment of recognition, conceiving the representative relation as achieved by a once-for-all act of the human will.  The point was to establish lawful and binding authority for all existing political orders, deriving them from a supposed contractual agreement in the past, just as the divine-right theory, of which it was a mirror-image, sought to derive them from a past act of God.  Once conceived as a purely contractual status, representation lost touch with the moment of collective self-discovery, reflected in the person of its representative, dawns on its recognition.” (163)



4 thoughts on “Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

  1. Steven Opp

    Hi Brad, my name's Steven. I graduated from NSA. Haven't met you, but I know your sisters. Saw a link to your blog here on FB.Fascinating articles, which I think get to the heart of the matter! I learned a lot reading them, thank you!Here's where I disagree. I think you let TDKR off the hook there at the end. The fact is, this movie simply does not blow the audience away in the way TDK did, that's the raw surface of it. The question is "why?", which I think you found. It ends in ambiguity and mystery. It ends in the dark, in other words. The finale to a trilogy can't do that. The problem, like you describe, is the lack of complete social/political reconciliation. People are happy that Bruce still lives and that he got the girl, and that she is restored, and that Alfred can stop crying. But the truth is, all three of them have made huge unnecessary compromises in settling for a private new life.One of the themes in Batman Begins was how can Bruce be a secret warrior and still maintain the public "face" necessary to uphold the Wayne legacy and reputation. He stumbles big at his birthday party as he is a fool to the world. The Wayne legacy is destroyed in the symbol of the house burning down. In the second movie he is a doofus again, playing the idiot card as he crashes his Lamborghini. In TDKR he is a crippled recluse who later loses all his money. Then he supposedly dies and has a poorly attended funeral. Nolan obviously gave up on the idea of Bruce Wayne's public face needing to be vindicated. Bruce Wayne is scapegoated so that Nolan can have yet one more head-scratcher ending, but it was not the time or place.The fact is, the ending was not surprising enough because what was really necessary is beyond nihilistic Nolan's imagination. Here's what should have happened, in my opinion, which I think fits into what you're aiming at with public justice:Resurrected Batman returns to Gotham after escaping the pit and frees the cops and leads the battle in the streets, all WITHOUT THE MASK. Then everyone knows he is Batman, but he is also Bruce Wayne. As Bruce Wayne, he still embodies the spirit of the city because he is no longer a rich aristocrat. His privileged nature he sacrificed in the hole. He has no money, and is a citizen now just like everyone else, but on the side of the police. So the Batman/Bruce Wayne divide has been removed. The mask, or veil, was literally torn in his "death" from Bane, and when he returns, everyone sees him as he is (1 John 3:2) as Jesus (private/masked) has risen and become the Christ (public/unmasked). He then defeats Bane. After he deals with the bomb and survives (however he does this…the Bat is bomb-proof I guess) he returns to the city and is unanimously elected mayor. He marries Catwoman/Selina publicly, thus vindicating her as well, and they spend the remainder of their days governing and rebuilding Gotham and living at Wayne Manor training the orphans in their martial arts, building an army of legally ratified public defenders.That's the full Gospel allegory, not a half-gospel where the hero and the forgiven girl go on a date and this is called victory. The strongest feature of this film was certainly the redemption of Catwoman, but that does not need to happen without the truth of who Bruce Wayne really is and his loyalty to continuing to serve the city. That's like replacing a Kingly warrior psalm with a private "Jesus is my boyfriend" praise chorus. It would not work if at the end of the Lord of the Rings Aragorn faked a death in the final battle and ran off with Arwen to the woods, and the underground Rangers still protect the people, rather than a vindicated King. Lame sauce.The movie lacked the amount of pomp and celebration necessary to truly overcome the shock and horror of The Dark Knight. The Joker still wins because Nolan is uncomfortable with real smiles, real victory, real change in the political world as a result of personal resurrection. But can we blame him? This is what the dualism within the church generally teaches anyway. If Nolan really wanted to be shocking and break his box-office records once again, he would have left the mask off Batman and surprised everyone with how ridiculously joyful, public, and political the happy ending really could be.That's my take on how the public/private issue within Batman could be resolved, though perhaps it is beyond what DC comics would allow.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the very thoughtful interaction, Steven. I won't engage as fully as I should because, I'll confess, I'm a sucker for the Olympics, and there's some sweet gymnastics and swimming on tonight.A few points, however: 1) "The fact is, this movie simply does not blow the audience away in the way TDK did, that's the raw surface of it." That's a rather presumptuous statement, making a major generalization from your own experience. Many people clearly were blown away; if you're suggesting that the box-office numbers are the evidence otherwise, the dip appears rather to be due to the 25% of movie-goers who stayed away after the Aurora shooting. Speaking for myself, I would say that on a first viewing, it didn't blow me away in the same way that TDK did, but on a second viewing, when I was able to put all the pieces together clearly, it was pretty darn close.2) I think you're wrong to say that Nolan just kinda "gave up on the idea of Bruce Wayne's public face needing to be vindicated"; rather, so insistently and repeatedly does he sabotage Bruce Wayne's public face in the trilogy that it must be intentional. Moreover, he explicitly contemplates the opportunity for vindicating him at the end of The Dark Knight Rises and explicitly rejects it. Why? "Because Batman could be anyone." Batman must not be identifiable as any one person, because he would become an idol, and as an idol, he would let them down, because he is a mere man. This was the problem with Harvey Dent—they idolized him, and were let down. Instead, Gotham needs to grow up and be able to govern herself rather than relying on a hero. But I'm getting ahead of myself. To backtrack a moment, it doesn't seem to me that the most important thing in the story is Bruce preserving/redeeming the Wayne family name, although Alfred does express that concern in the first film, but Bruce being able to live a normal life. Now, maybe you'll disagree with this emphasis, maybe you want to say it's not the most Christian emphasis; but I don't think you can criticize the films for leaving the story unresolved, because this emphasis is a big part of the story, especially as it develops in TDKR, and so the ending does provide that resolution. The Batman is supposed to be a temporary identity for a temporary purpose; that purpose accomplished, Bruce can resume being Bruce Wayne—in your alternate ending, he would always be "The Guy Who Was Batman." 3) This is the important bit, it seems to me. I do agree with you that your ending would be much more Christological, and that Nolan simply isn't Christian enough for that sort of ending. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; I actually think it makes the whole thing potentially *more* Christian, better theology than would some full-blown Christ typology, because I think that would actually be bad theology. For the theological narrative you're supplying is one that conflates the already and the not yet, the Resurrection and the Second Coming. Jesus didn't receive his public vindication only to take up his authority visibly in our midst, ruling a redeemed city by unanimous consent. No, he went away, and what we have here on earth now is not yet his kingdom. What we have here on earth is provisional, imperfect, limited, finite. We are stuck building political communities that will not always do justice, that will not always tell the truth, that will still let us down. But that is fine. Because we know they're not the end of the story. What Nolan's Batman leaves us at the end is the possibility, as I've emphasized here, of a limited, provisional justice within the bounds of human frailty; he does not leave us The New Gotham, white, shining, and redeemed. And if he did, that would be bad theology. Let me actually tie this in with the second point I was making above. Why is it fine that the Wayne family name is never vindicated, that Bruce Wayne is never shown to be who he really is? Well, I think it's actually a helpful reminder that some vindication remains eschatological; some heroes—indeed, often the greatest heroes—die unsung. There might seem to be some beautiful symmetry and justice in the story ending with all the good guys getting their full honorific due, but that wouldn't be the world we live in. Since you alluded to Aragorn, I think it's notable that even Tolkien, who ties up the ending of LotR pretty thoroughly, has this emphasis. Frodo goes away largely an unsung hero in the Shire; the people there never realize what he has done for them, and this irks Sam a great deal. But he receives his reward from those who matter.


  3. Steven Opp

    Thanks for the response Brad! I’m excited for the Olympics too, really enjoyed the opening ceremony.This got a little long, sorry. I just really enjoy thinking about these movies because there’s so much going on in them and so many different ways to interpret them, and it's fun hearing everyone's take on it. Right or wrong, Nolan sure is good at getting everyone talking!I’ve still only seen TDKR once. Maybe after the second time it’ll grow on me as well, but for now, here’s where I’m still not on board:You say:“‘Because Batman could be anyone.’ Batman must not be identifiable as any one person, because he would become an idol, and as an idol, he would let them down, because he is a mere man. This was the problem with Harvey Dent—they idolized him, and were let down.”That’s the Joker’s logic, that men can’t be trusted. Batman must be a citizen with a face and a name for the very purpose that HE CAN be imitated. The problem with the Harvey Dent situation was not that people put their trust in him, it was that he was two-faced and not trustworthy. They put their trust in the wrong man, and he failed. The Joker said everyone will crack if you just give them a little push. Dent cracked, like an idol might. But the Joker’s lie was that everyone cracks. The problem was in the man they chose, not in the office itself. Dent was a “Fool” in the biblical sense, as James Jordan would say. A fool is one who has not been through death and resurrection, like King Saul or President Obama. But by the end of the trilogy, Wayne had been through death and resurrection, he had already been cracked and put back together, so he was wise and trustworthy and fit to rule. By saying there can never be a public leader because he will fail no matter what is just proving what the cynical Joker was trying to say, which was a big lie. As I said before, at the end of the trilogy, the Joker wins.Batman can’t be anyone, as the beginning of TDK proved with it’s wannabes as you mentioned. It requires a special set of skills and a very specific calling to do that, to die for the world. And it’s dangerous to be relying on a private administer of justice who is beyond the rules anyway, as your articles state. The goal is to have a city that doesn’t need a masked hero in the dark because the citizens are heros in the light. Making Robin the new Batman makes the whole story cyclical instead of linear, and therefore pretty pagan. Batman never ultimately rises because in the end, there is a new batman in the cave. The final scene, a man entering a cave (tomb) is one of death. That’s tragic and not the way to end a trilogy.Batman is Death, Bruce Wayne is Resurrection. So a better statement, a more evangelical one, would be: “Bruce Wayne could be anyone, or anyone can imitate Bruce Wayne” The envious mob of citizens which Gotham turned into needed a hero to imitate, a citizen with a face, just as Bruce’s father had been. Anyone can do what Bruce does, that is, be a good citizen who loves his city, takes care of orphans, works for clean energy, builds transportation, invests, etc. etc. Alfred suggested that as Bruce Wayne, Batman could influence the city for good, advice which Batman foolishly ignored right before his compulsive fight with Bane. As the wiser, resurrected Batman, he still ignored the advice, which is what disappoints and doesn’t make sense to me.You again:“Instead, Gotham needs to grow up and be able to govern herself rather than relying on a hero.”The idea that a city is mature when it no longer needs a hero doesn’t work because that’s not how humans are designed. Even the most democratic, self-governed states with very dispersed executive powers still need a face to look up to, a white knight. The U.S. still needs presidents with plans and strategies and catch-phrases and hobbies and families and big jets, however ineffectual their office is. This is why Ron Paul is not electable, however right he may be. If you spend too much time pointing to the idea of freedom and not enough discussing your own positive offensive package and vision, along with what dog you will buy as your family’s pet, your appeal evaporates. Libertarianism simply isn’t palatable to the human psyche because we are wired to have a human face, a hero, before us, however phony he is. With or without Bruce Wayne or Harvey Dent, Gotham will always have someone who represents them and who they look up to, no matter how self-governed they become. The closest Israel ever was to libertarianism in the Bible was in Judges when everyone did what was right in his own eyes, and interestingly this is also the book of superheroes; self-governance and having a hero go hand in hand. And the next phase was to have a king. “I actually think it makes the whole thing potentially *more* Christian, better theology than would some full-blown Christ typology, because I think that would actually be bad theology. For the theological narrative you're supplying is one that conflates the already and the not yet, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.”I get what you’re saying. Often Christians want too many rainbows and trumpets in their movies to make it more like Heaven, which does more harm than good, making it less real and recognizable. But the nature of this movie requires more of that than most because of it’s eschatological/apocalyptic themes. Anyway, I am not suggesting Nolan needed to clean up every mess left by the bad guys, or sanctify every character. He just needed to clean up the ones he hinted at that he would, such as Bruce Wayne’s name, the government, and the general soul of Gotham which Batman is always saying isn’t completely bad. There will still be an envious remnant that hates any sort of authority, along with the convicts, and the Scarecrow who never leaves. But the whole crisis of the trilogy is that Gotham is ripe for judgement, on it’s last thread. It is an eschatological, apocalyptic story. If it were a typical action movie where the hero finds himself at the right place at the right time and saves the day, then at the end he can shake the dust off his feet and sneak off with the girl, no problem, we’re happy for him. But in Batman, the hero’s future is intricately tied to the fate of the city from the start, and his deliberate station is to ensure her survival and blossoming forever.Also, the villains in these movies were not normal villains that the average joe can relate to, at least not very easily. They were devil incarnate types. With this level of evil, it requires a more than equal measure of heroics to overcome them. This did not happen, so the Joker remains the most interesting character in the trilogy, hands down. Batman did nothing interesting or surprising beyond the call of duty at the end of TDKR except take a girl with a sketchy past out on a date. Don’t get me wrong, that is a wonderful gesture, and a fitting ending for a movie where that is the central crisis, such as 10 Things I Hate About You. But the central crisis in Batman is not the personal relationships, it is the city. Taking a girl out does not provide answers to all of the Joker’s philosophical and social arguments, or to Ra’s Alguhl and Bane’s theories on corruption and blind justice.What needed to happen was for Nolan to demonstrate Batman’s counter theories by showing that there can be a sustainable level of trust within the city, that an incorrupt government can still be formed, and that it is no longer necessary for a private dark knight to protect the people. The apocalyptic situation in TDKR where all government is stripped and it is basically anarchy requires a new order to be established when the dust settles. This is why Bruce needed to go public/political for the story to make sense, to fill in every missing structure, to lead by example and to give the people someone that they could imitate who would not fail them like Dent did. No, not to say there is a white city where everything is perfect now, but simply to clean up the mess that was made and improve on it, not to skip town with the girl and leave things basically the way they were, just with a different Batman in the cave running things instead of the cops, which was the whole dilemma in the first place.If the story needs an unsung hero, that’s fine. I agree, that was an important feature in LOTR. But not at the expense of the sung hero. If there had been no Aragorn, just Frodo, that would have been bad. If Batman needed some unsung heroes, maybe Robin or Fox or someone could have done that. But to have no sung heroes and only unsung heroes, when a main theme of the story is Who is trustworthy? is very imbalanced. Gotham needs someone with authority to step up and show them what a decent citizen looks like. To say having a sung hero isn’t as relatable, and isn’t the world we live in, would be fine if the whole setting of the Batman movies was the world we live in, but it’s not. It’s apocalyptic, it has characters who are basically pure evil, it has people with skill sets and technology beyond our best Navy Seals, and it has a ghost coming back to talk. Gotham is not the world we live in. The world of Gotham needs a hero. Tolkien’s Shire is much more like the world we live in, as Hobbits represented modern Englishmen, so Frodo is much more relatable than Aragorn (though Tolkien says Aragorn’s morality is not beyond what a man could do) who occupied the much more unrelatable world of greater Middle Earth. Gotham in these movies is more like Gondor and Mordor than like the Shire. More Shire-like movies, such as Dan in Real Life or The Legend of Bagger Vance can afford to have unsung heros because they don't involve the end of the world.“Bruce can resume being Bruce Wayne—in your alternate ending, he would always be "The Guy Who Was Batman."He can’t resume being Bruce Wayne, though. Bruce Wayne is dead, grave and all. He and Catwoman probably both changed their names and started all over, new friends, new city, new everything. He’s not being Bruce Wayne anymore, he’s someone different altogether.Nolan had two options, the same two options anyone has after death. Redeem what’s lost or start over. The Bible usually takes the first option, Nolan took the second, which involves Bruce sacrificing his relationship with the city, his family legacy, and above all, the Truth, which Alfred suggested should be allowed to have it’s way for a change. The film ends like the first one starts, with him traveling the world, estranged from Gotham. The difference is that he’s overcome his greatest adversary: all fear…except for the fear of being Bruce Wayne and the responsibility that entails.I’m just saying a grey ending doesn’t fit the genre. The trilogy is black and white from the start. It is a battle of ultimate things, of worldviews and ideas, angels and demons. For Batman at the end to just say “Good enough, I’m happy with the girl, not the city and Wayne Manor and Wayne Enterprises or with answering all these philosophical dilemmas raised in the story” just doesn’t sit well, at least for me.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Steven,My apologies for the very delayed response. Your very lengthy comment came just as I was heading off on a trip, and I've just now gotten through the pile-up of emails and things enough to reply to it. These are very sound observations you make in response, and I don't want to overstate my interpretation as if it were the only one possible. As you say, one of the great things about Nolan's films is how complex they are and how much room they allow for multiple interpretations. A lot of it is about what one decides to take away—I agree that the ending is quite ambiguous, and one could go in a couple different directions with that. I decided for purposes of this essay (partly to give my essay a good sense of closure, which is what you say is lacking in the films) to take a very positive interpretation, but if I were in a more cynical mood, I could easily put more emphasis on some of the points you're raising. In particular, although I got a kick out of the whole Robin going into the cave thing at the end, I quite agree that it has the potential to undermine the positive message of the film quite decisively and leaves us with a cyclical rather than linear narrative. I don't think Nolan is a Christian, and I agree with you that that affects his ability to tie things up properly at the end.To respond to your particular points, though:I think your first point is fairly persuasive. I would still deny that the Joker wins in the end, because the disappearance of Batman at the end is not a rejection of truth in the same way that we saw at the end of the second film, and the third film does demonstrate the possibility of trustworthy public leaders—like Gordon. And plotwise, I have trouble seeing your ending actually work as a piece of good cinema. Also, I would want to continue to emphasize that just because the Joker is wrong because he thinks that deep down, everyone's just like him, doesn't mean that he's wrong to suggest that any human authority is ultimately fallible and will let us down to some extent. It is possible for a leader who has been through death and resurrection, as you put it, to be relatively wise and trustworthy, yes, but there's still an inescapable fragility and imperfection in a human political order, which Nolan highlights strongly. Your ideal ending with Bruce Wayne as Aragorn is too mythic and eschatological, it seems to me. On your second point, you have quite misunderstood me if you thought I was arguing for anything like libertarianism. Quite the contrary! I recognize that I phrased myself somewhat poorly at that point. The problem is not having someone to look up to—that's what political representation is all about, as the O'Donovan quotes suggest. The problem is if the people see that representative as a substitute for themselves, rather than seeing themselves in him, if you know what I mean. The German people so venerated Hitler that rather than him being the representative focal point of their agency, they became entirely passive and ceded their agency entirely to him. I was simply trying to explain that it seemed to me that in your ideal ending, Bruce Wayne, revealed as the Batman, would not be able to avoid that kind of idol status, and that the people of Gotham would therefore simply look to him to continue solving all their problems, rather than becoming grown up, fully mature, and capable of becoming fully engaged citizens.To your third point:I get you here, and you have a point about the eschatological/mythic flavour of the films, but I guess I don't quite see them that way. They are larger than life, as superhero films must be, and yet Nolan's great accomplishment is to make Gotham frightfully like the real world that we live in. The League of Justice wants to elevate everything to the level of a cosmic, eschatological struggle, but Batman's task is not to replace their bad eschatology with a good eschatology (although with the Christological imagery, there are plenty of hints of this), but ultimately to reframe it in terms of a provisional, this-worldly justice. I think that Gotham is a lot more like the Shire than Gondor and Mordor. It's for this reason that I think the lack of perfect resolution is important. Yes, Nolan does need to clean up the messes he hinted he would, as you said, but I guess I'm just being a little more optimistic in my reading. In particular, the role of the final Robin scene. I took that very much as I took the spinning top at the end of Inception, as a little taunt saying—"Heh, this whole neat ending I gave you might just be completely undone…or not. You decide." If one decides that the top never fell in Inception, then it does mess everything up. And if one decides that Robin actually decides to take up Batman's mantle, then it does prove that vigilante-ism can never be transcended, public justice can never be achieved. But it's not necessary to reach that conclusion. I guess I want to lay a lot more stress on those lines from A Tale of Two Cities: "I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy." So I think it's possible to read the ending as justice having genuinely been re-established. And I don't think that has to involve Bruce Wayne taking his place as leader of Gotham, because political authority doesn't have to be permanent in that way. Batman has played his part, he has delivered Gotham, now he can step aside and live a normal life and let others play their part.To your fourth set of remarks, then, I would say that yes, you have a point about him not having resumed being Bruce Wayne, though I do think you overstate things when you say that the film ends with him "estranged from Gotham" and having again "sacrificed the Truth." Nor do I think there's a basis for saying that he has a fear of responsibility. Maybe it's just that he's earned a break. Yes, of course, if he's a Christ figure, that doesn't really work. Jesus didn't just retire from duty when he ascended, but took up a throne from which he currently works and reigns. And if the trilogy "is a battle of ultimate things, of worldviews and ideas, angels and demons" then maybe we need Wayne to be that Christ figure. I guess I just think that although there are those eschatological elements and symbols, there is also the much more prosaic and practical question—how is political justice possible?—and read in light of that question, I think it's possible to find in the film a fairly satisfying (though yes, still ambiguous) conclusion.


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