Christopher Nolan is a genius filmmaker; one of the best of our time. There can be no arguing that. Yet there are two camps forming around his latest release – The Dark Knight Rises – and they couldn’t be more split in their decision. While the apologists will tell you that the naysayers are merely being whiny fanboys, picking the film apart for the sake of bitching, there are simply some serious storytelling flaws and movie-making missteps that shouldn’t be ignored when heaping on the praise. I’d argue, however, that it all stems from a single, systemic flaw; Nolan wanted a happy ending.
It should go without saying, but… SPOILER WARNING!
Let’s examine the over-arcing story of the trilogy, of course emphasizing TDKR as that’s where it all began to crumble. We all know how Batman’s story starts, in tragedy, as Martha and Thomas Wayne are gunned down in an alley for the change in their pockets. This senseless and violent act introduces a young Bruce Wayne to police officer Jim Gordon and sets him on the path to becoming Batman. You know, Batman – the lifelong obsession that led him around the world to train his mind and body, to which he dedicated nigh-endless resources developing costumes and gadgets, and which he was only finally willing to give up for the love of his life… until she was killed by one of the psychopaths Gotham seems so adept at breeding and nurturing.
In this, then, the final act, Bruce has surrendered the identity of Batman to honor his fallen love. Then Jim Gordon is nearly killed, and Bruce finds himself prepared to pick up the mantle once more. Butler and father-figure Alfred tries to dissuade him, suggesting he let it all go and seek out a real life. Bruce scoffs, saying his chance at a real life – at true happiness – died with Rachel. It’s here that things start to fall apart.
Alfred tells Bruce that Rachel had chosen Harvey Dent over him, ostensibly to make him snap out of his funk and realize that the lost love he’s put his life on hold for wasn’t truly his to begin with. Bruce, instead, sees this not as freedom to find a real love and a real life, but rather as the freedom to embrace the part of him he’d left behind for Rachel – Batman. Because losing the love of his life had been the only shock to his system sufficient to hold his obsession at bay. That’ll be important, later. Bruce meets new “allies” in the form of John Blake, Miranda Tate, and Selina Kyle. He’s broken by Bane and thrown into a prison half-a-world away, where he relearns what it’s like to truly fear death – because death means failing to save his city. He returns to Gotham, reunites with his new allies, is betrayed by the first woman in eight years who he’s gotten close to (and the second woman in six months, I might add). Finally, of course, he makes the ultimate sacrifice – sort of. Bruce fakes his own death so that he can give up being Batman and he and Selina can go live happily ever after; leaving Gotham in the capable hands of Detective John Blake.
Even at a glance, that all seems a bit suspect, but let’s dig a bit deeper. Simply put, a happy ending seems disingenuous. Writing a Bruce Wayne who would have given up his crusade to live out his days with the love of his life? That brings a noble optimism to Bruce, suggesting that Batman isn’t everything to him. Having him give it all up to go globe trotting with Selina? That undermines the credibility of the character entirely. Bruce Wayne was so damaged – so altered – by the murder of his parents that he dedicated his life to fighting crime in Gotham. Not by funding the police force. Not even by BECOMING a cop. No; Bruce Wayne trained with ninjas so he could put on a mask and cape and throw bat-shaped throwing knives at criminals while growling. That is a level of devotion bordering on (if not completely immersed in) insanity.Could his love for Rachel have allowed him to overcome it? Sure, maybe. But it’s not something he should be able to turn his back on for a woman he barely knows.
Speaking of Selina, you DO realize they only ever met five times, right? First, she steals his mother’s pearls and knocks his crippled ass to the ground. Second, they’re at a charity ball and she whispers ominous warnings of how all the rich in Gotham are about to get their comeuppance. Third, he shows up at her apartment to ask her to meet with Batman; she, in turn, mocks his loss. Fourth, as Batman, he and Selina meet up (though god only knows how the one knew where to meet the other) and track down Bane, to whom she promptly betrays Wayne. Finally, after having his back broken and spending five months in Hell – all direct results of her betrayal – Bruce comes to her and says “Hey, I think deep down you’re a good person, so I’m going to put my fate pretty-much-entirely in your hands yet again” which basically translates to “You’re hot so I’m totally okay with you screwing me over.” She doesn’t, this time, and so I suppose that’s reason enough to leave your entire life behind and go globe trotting with the girl. Rachel who?
But what about Gotham? Don’t worry, Bruce is going to entrust it – and his entire arsenal as Batman – to John Blake, the only character Bruce has spent less time with than Selina. Seriously, think about it… they meet when Blake shows up at Wayne Manor and says “Hey, you’re Batman. I could tell because this one time I saw you, I could see by the look on your face that you were hurting.” This scene proves that Blake has what it takes to be Batman; that keen analytical mind that takes a memory from childhood of a man’s perceived pain over the loss of his parents and extrapolates his unquestionable role as Batman. I wonder how many different orphans Blake visited first and tried the same routine on. With Blake’s razor sharp wits established, our second encounter proves he’s a good guy, as he offers to give Bruce Wayne a ride home after the man loses his car. Why Blake was there in the first place is never quite clear, but what is apparent is that even though he’s a decent enough guy to drive you home, he’s also enough of a tortured soul to drop you off in the rain and leave before he’s seen you safely inside. He’s going to make a great Batman someday. After Bruce’s return, he and Blake share a few sparse moments together, but the timing would imply that Bruce’s will would already have been drafted at this point, so those two run-ins would almost have to be what Bruce based his decision on. But hey… he’s Batman; he’s an excellent judge of character.
Like when he entrusted his entire company to Miranda Tate, then hooked up with her (after she’d been creeping outside his house in the rain), only for her to stab him in the rib cage after her big reveal as Talia. Now, look… I have some notoriously questionable judgment when it comes to women, but none of them has stabbed me (yet). So we see a fight scene where Bane is unquestionably Batman’s better in battle, then Bruce comes back and – through sheer determination? – overpowers the brute, only to be blindsided by one of closest allies.
Do these sound like the actions of Batman to you? These are the careless mistakes of a man with no direction; no focus. Batman doesn’t give up. Batman doesn’t walk away. And he certainly doesn’t hand the keys to the cave over to someone he barely knows.
Argue, if you’d like, that this is Nolan’s Batman – not the Batman of the comics or the cartoons or the other movies. That’s fine, I suppose, except that there are numerous moments throughout the film that (barring exposition from deleted scenes) rely entirely on the argument “Well, he can because he’s Batman.” If you’re altering what it means to be Batman, however, then you can’t expect the audience to have any such preconceived notions. Sure, the Batman of the comics would have had a way to get back from the pit and find a way into Gotham past the authorities. Sure, Kevin Conroy’s Batman would have known exactly how to find Selina Kyle for their raid on Bane’s hideout. But you’ve taken away so much of THOSE Batmen to make your own that nothing can be taken for granted.
There’s a deeper question, though. Without the psychotic devotion to the dance; without the paranoia; without the shrewd judge of character and keen eye for details – is this new character really even Batman? Or has he been so neutered to fit this story arc so as to become something else entirely? The character Nolan gives us over his three films is dedicated… within reason. He gives himself up, all-too-willingly, to whatever beautiful woman looks his way. And he relies more on gadgets and fisticuffs than his wits, which he at times barely even seems to be in possession of. If anything, this is the Adam West Batman, all grown up. He’s just traded in his Bat-Shark Repellant for a Bat-Sonar-Cell phone.
Is THIS the hero Gotham deserves?