The Dark Knight Rises Interpretation

Jonathan Chait has a nice roundup on how almost the entire blogosphere apparently views the new Batman film as fascist. And this is a real pity, partly because the anti-fascist sensibilities in Nolan's latest blockbuster are not particularly subtle, but mostly because it suggests that a lot of people are missing the point of the film's upbeat ending.

To understand the ending of the film it is necessary to return to the beginning. Opening with a shot of ice cracking in the shape of a bat symbol, Nolan's latest film starts with a metaphor it returns to time and again: that of the dangerous waters below consuming those who fall into them. The device in use here is the literary association between water and the subconscious, a common technique not insignificantly also used in Nolan's masterpiece Inception, where limbo was located "on the shores of our subconscious" and in which water imagery grew more intense and violent the further its characters travelled within themselves.

Whereas Inception used water symbolism in the service of Christian allegory, in the Batman trilogy Nolan uses it to make a political critique of the American War on Terror. This is the reason for the symbol's association with Batman, a figure who rejects democratic processes in order to fight terror with terror. As a "dark knight" who lives in a cave dominated by a waterfall ("water" + "fall"), Batman reflects the destructive aspects of Bruce Wayne's inner-psyche. The script jokes about this in many ways, such as in one scene where Batman (Wayne's "real" identity) attends a costume ball dressed up as his alter-ego. But whether made through levity, or more subtly as in the scene where John Blake intuits Bruce Wayne's real identity by virtue of their shared thematic identity (St. Swithin is the patron saint of rain), the thematic point is that Bruce Wayne is the "mask" worn by Batman just as Wayne Manor is the "mask" which covers the dark caverns below. As with the rivers which run through subterranean Gotham or the dark waters under the crust of ice, the evils in this film all lurk within and below.

This symbolism makes Batman a profoundly negative figure (the hero the corrupt city "deserves" but "not the one it needs"), and helps explain the otherwise baffling connections Nolan draws between the hero and ostensible villains of his saga. Lest we forget, Batman Begins introduced the Scarecrow character to comment on Bruce Wayne's own inner fears, giving the villain a plan to transform Gotham's water supply system into a dispersal mechanism for exactly the sort of fear-induced violence that the film associates with Batman and his water-drenched subconscious. And then we have the second film featuring a villain whose criminal theatricality echoes most closely that of Batman himself.

This mirroring between Batman and his opponents continues in The Dark Knight Rises. As a former member of the League of Shadows, Bane is like Batman a "masked man" who embraces vigilantism in response to injustices suffered in the past. From the very opening scene our new villain spouts morally suspect dialogue which applies equally to both characters ("nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask"), while the script emphasizes the connection even further by giving both characters the same love interest, the same mechanical voice, and by surrounding each with imagery of caves and water and darkness and fear. The "batcave" below Wayne Manor is even mirrored by Bane's construction of a second "batcave" below Wayne Enterprises, the parallels holding down to the shared visuals of waterfalls and digital surveillance systems.

In previous films Nolan hinted at the negative nature of Batman's vigilante crusade: note the destruction of the (heavenly) garden at the end of the first film, or the transformation of Batman into a hunted criminal at the climax of the second. Yet Nolan is never so overt in his condemnation of Wayne as in this final installment, which begins by showing us how Batman's vigilante behavior has led on a personal level to Bruce Wayne's shattered health and bankruptcy, and on a political level to Gotham's decay into a grossly iniquitous surveillance state. Thematically, the more Bruce Wayne "falls" and gives in to his subconscious desire for retribution and revenge, the more the city authorities become corrupt and Wayne Enterprises (the "heart" of the city) becomes entrapped in criminal capitalist webs and subverted into an oppressive rather than liberating social force.

And this is the point it seems to me basically every critic has missed. For while critics seem to wish to pick sides, Christopher Nolan is not telling us to cheer for the "boys in blue" any more than he wants us to side with Bane's orange revolution. Their battle is rather like the football match which figuratively kicks off the revolution ("let the games begin"), and to which Batman returns to get "back in the game."

Unfortunately for us - the audience - it is this back-and-forth game of terror and counter-terror which the script insists is responsible for Gotham's political decay, for as multiple references to A Tale of Two Cities insist, Gotham has descended through this cycle into a society much like the ancien régime which preceded the French Revolution: a place where political "structures" have become "shackles" on its citizenry, permitting the rich to gorge themselves while the poor go hungry. The stock market has become a "two-faced" game designed to "steal" from the masses, while "the rich don't even go broke like the rest of us," as Selina Kyle laments to Bruce Wayne. Corporations which formerly showed concern about the image consequences of associating with criminals now rely openly on mercenaries to secure lucrative "mining" contracts (and note the subterranean imagery suggestive of the expanding corruption within).

Far from representing any morally defensible system of law and order, the government in this society has devolved into a perversion of justice, or a metastasized embodiment of Batman's subconscious values. For what does the opening aerial sequence depict if not an act of vigilantism by the state itself? We see here two prisoners threatened with death in a process that -- in parallel to the revolutionary courts to come -- offers the defendants "no lawyers [and] no due process." The nighttime visuals of Gotham which follow further emphasize the city's status as a fallen dystopia in which a corrupt elite governs the masses using the same tools of "theatricality and deception" (read: lying on television) embraced by the villains in the saga. And Nolan's implicit critique of Batman and Commissioner Gordon's conspiracy at the close of the last film is now made explicit in a deliberate edit which superimposes the face of the "two-faced" villain over the police commissioner's as he goes on television to defend a law which is "based on a lie" and whose "teeth" are used to imprison the innocent and deny parole to thousands who deserve to be free.

In sharp contrast to the city we are told was uplifted out of economic depression by the progressive and unfearful behavior of Thomas Wayne in ages past, Gotham has devolved under the counter-example of his son into a two-tiered society run by an elite financial class in which the poor are criminalized for simply trying to support themselves. The fact that crime is a matter of survival rather than conscious choice is one of the recurring themes of the film, as evident from Selina Kyle's remark that "a girl's gotta eat" as in Bruce Wayne's suggestion that perhaps she is "saving for retirement."

Nor is there any possibility for the poor of escaping from criminality. Without support from charities, the only jobs for children who graduate out of threadbare social problems are both literally and figuratively in the water-drenched sewers of the city. Meanwhile, mass surveillance tools like fingerprint and face-recognition technologies have become ubiquitous methods of social control. Bruce Wayne tracks down Selina Kyle using nothing more than "public databases" accessible to "every twelve year old with a cellphone." And when he urges her to "start afresh" noting that the ground (read: ice) is "shrinking beneath her feet," she mocks his naiveté, telling him it is not possible to escape in a world where "everything sticks." And she is right: Selina's only attempt to flee is foiled by the police, whose dossier on her stretches back to early adolescence and who arrest her for a crime it is unclear she even committed (kidnapping).

Given this, I'm genuinely curious how any reasonable critic could possibly argue that Nolan is defending this society? Or how anyone attuned to what Nolan is doing cinematically could fail to notice that even the most perverse injustices of the revolutionary system are paralleled in the excesses of pre-revolutionary Gotham. Neither society provides due process or justice to its citizens, something emphasized by the way criminal sentencing is controlled in both societies by the same crazed madman.

The prevalence of American iconography in Gotham (particularly in the national anthem, football game, and the repeated visuals of increasingly tattered flags) suggests that the Nolan brothers are indeed commenting on contemporary America and its extrajudicial War on Terror. But their view is hardly supportive, for the Nolan brothers do not intend us to see Batman as a noble figure defending an embattered establishment so much as a symbolic agent who illustrates the cause of its decay through his misguided embrace of anger and fear, and his refusal to trust the judgment of others as is required in any democratic society.

So this is the reason we see here a reference to Fritz Lang and there a shot from Sergei Eisenstein. When Bane claims he is acting as a "necessary evil" to cleanse Gotham of an oppressive government and return it to the people, we are not meant to take his pronouncements at face value (his goal is the destruction not reform of the city). But his criticism of the status quo is meant to stick even if his own methods are as theatrical and deceptive as those he opposes. And so the populist uprising in Gotham is cinematically compared to both the workers' uprising in Metropolis as well as the 1917 revolution which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy. And then we see Dickens and the French Revolution in a montage which shows us the storming of the Bastille, the persecution of the rich, and the creation of unjust kangaroo courts, as the surface of the city cracks open like ice on a frozen lake, and Gotham's subterranean violence is unleashed upon the city with images of snow and the coming of winter.

If neither the revolution nor the former establishment is earnestly deserving of our sympathy, there is one more question left to address: how should we interpret the ending of the film? And what if anything is the moral message of the entire drama?

In traditional mythological storytelling, we see the renewal of society when the hero redeems himself, casting off his destructive inner traits or beliefs which are allegorically reflected as the evils of the outside world. This is the reason the script insists that the problems in Gotham can only be fixed from "inside the city," a reading that suggests we read Bruce Wayne's escape from the pit as a symbolic rebirth indicative that he has overcome his lack of social trust and fixation on death. At the end of the film Bruce Wayne trusts Selina in a way he never trusted Miranda, and fights in the daylight instead of at night. His casting off of the climbing rope can also be read a symbolic rejection of the negative emotions which consumed him in the past: he is no longer the terrified witness of his father's murder, and has grown to accept his parent's dying counsel to "not be afraid."

On the other hand, there is a second reading to this scene as well, in which a negative character must re-embrace fear in order to become once again an effective agent of destruction. And there is always the possibility that we are meant to read the ending in both ways at the same time.

Regardless of how we read the "rise" from the pit, whether in the positive sense of Bruce rising over his psychological issues, or in the negative sense of "the fire rising," the meaning of what follows is clear. As the villains Bane and Talia are killed in deaths which illustrate the inevitable consequence of their philosophy of violence, the film sweeps towards the thematically-inevitable death of Batman as well. The unexpected trick Nolan uses to make this a happy ending is pulled directly from A Tale of Two Cities, where the sacrificial death of the "wicked" Sydney Carton redeems his character while "recalling to life" his aristocratic double Charles Darney. As in Dickens, the death of Batman in Nolan's tale redeems the image of the caped crusader in the eyes of Gotham while "recalling to life" the benighted Bruce Wayne.

And just as the death of Batman and destruction of the wicked subconscious (note the symbolic bombing of the ocean) opens the door for the rebirth of Bruce Wayne, we see the resurrection of Gotham city in the rebirth of the "peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy" society which has moved beyond class conflict as implied in the extended quote from the final pages of A Tale of Two Cities. The corrupt elite of Gotham's past have been destroyed along with all of the revolutionary leaders, leaving the city and its citizens with a "clean slate" as winter transitions into spring. Wayne Manor is restored to our first image of it as a garden playground for children, and while the appearance of a new Batman figure emphasizes that this mythic pattern is universal and will continue -- the privileges of wealth and power from the previous society have been erased, and the new Batman rises as a man of the people rather than a billionaire coming down from above.


If you'd like to be notified when I put up new pieces of film interpretation, send me an email at david@popupchinese.com. In the meantime, you might also be interested in my reading of Skyfall.