Christopher Nolan's epic Batman trilogy ends by sinking its grappling hooks deep into matters of life and death and rebirth.
The lie is eternal.
We don't think about lies as such, not at first. Rarely do we think about them at all. We don't build them to last or construct them with care. They are ugly, utilitarian things; lingual shields we forge with frenzied fury and cower behind when danger comes close. We think we need them to save what we treasure—reputations, friendships, careers—and then, when the danger passes, we try to discard them as so much scrap.
But we can't. Lies stick to us. We carry them with us—silent reminders of that moment of fear, that threat of disgrace. They stay with us always and sometimes grow, the weight pulling us downward as we become hunched, contorted, exhausted. It's the paradox of prevarications: After we form them, they form us.
We're left with a hard choice. We can try to unforge the thing, a delicate and dangerous duty. Or we can carry it to completion, until our last strength is spent and we are swept away, leaving only the lie behind.
Gotham City is living just such a lie. And Commissioner Gordon feels its weight.
Eight years before, Harvey Dent—the city's idealistic district attorney—went crazy from grief and rage. He tore through the streets like a scythe, killing crime lords and cops alike, and nearly murdering Gordon's little boy. But Dent was an established hero, a man whose reputation deserved—no, needed—to be shielded. So Gordon and Batman forged a lie: Batman would take the fall for the murders. Dent would be buried a hero. Gotham could still believe.
For eight long years, the lie seemed to work. Harsh laws were enacted, purging Gotham of much of its crime. Batman went into hiding. Bruce Wayne—Gotham's richest resident and Batman's alter ego—did as well.
Then the lie spawned something else in the darkness: a city in the sewers, a festering army hidden by Gotham's shiny topside facade. It's led by Bane, a masked man of boundless strength and no pity, a monster determined to eat the city alive until only the husk remains.
And what of Batman? Bane has plans for him too. Plans to break his back, his spirit, his will, his life. And if Bane has his way, Batman'll survive only long enough to see his precious Gotham—lies and all—swept away forever.
"When Gotham is ashes, you have my permission to die," Bane tells our favorite bat. But we know the Dark Knight won't let Gotham be destroyed while he still has breath.
Sure, Batman may be eight years older. The wear and tear he's suffered while keeping Gotham's streets safe have taken their toll. He knows standing up to Bane and his army may be the last thing he ever does. But he does it anyway. It's part of the superhero job description, and he's not about to turn in his utility belt now. He shows a willingness to sacrifice everything for a city that still thinks he's a murderer.
Meanwhile, alter ego Bruce has initiated a foundation that funds charities, including one for orphaned boys. And he's burned through half his company's fortune to manufacture a source of clean energy. To protect it from being stolen and weaponized, he hides it away from prying eyes and (in classic Batman style) takes its public "failure" on his own shoulders—as the vanity project of an irresponsible playboy.
But Gotham has other heroes too: There's a new cop on the beat named John Blake—a young idealist who tries to do the right thing under extremely trying circumstances. And Commissioner Gordon and Wayne Enterprises president Lucius Fox still give Batman the support and grounding he needs.
On its face, The Dark Knight Rises has about as much spiritual heft as a Walmart parking lot. Just as you might see the occasional "God Is My Co-Pilot" bumper sticker outside those automated doors, Batman seems at first to contain only slight allusions to religion: A priest runs a home for orphaned boys, the prison Bane once inhabited is compared to hell, Batman asks Blake to start an "exodus" out of the city.
But just as there's more to the Batcave than it seems when you're standing outside the waterfall-obscured entrance, there's much, much more to this film's spiritual ponderings than it seems while you're watching Bane and Batman pummel each other. Herein we watch Batman morph into a Messiah-like avatar—still not a perfect person by any means, but someone whose story echoes that of Christ's own trip to the cross and out of the tomb.
[Note: To unpack the allegory, I'll have to spoil some plot points in this section.]
When Bruce Wayne takes up his cape and cowl again, it seems as though he's fatalistic about his future—as if he's dead already. For eight years, Batman's been metaphorically beaten, spit upon and crucified by the city of Gotham, so when Bane beats Batman one-on-one, it appears to be simply the final spear in the side.
"Did they kill him?" Blake asks Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman.
"I'm not sure," she answers.
He's not dead—not physically, anyway. But he might as well be. He's ripped from the city he loves and thrown into a literal pit of a prison the inmates call hell. But after exactly three months (perhaps an echo of the three days we know from Scripture) Bruce crawls out of this living tomb as his fellow captives chant, over and over, "Rise. Rise. Rise. Rise." He does, returning to life, as it were, and arrowing his way back to Gotham—the same city that turned its back on him—to save it.
Catwoman and Alfred also both fit into the spiritual narrative. Batman's butler seems to echo Peter's denial, turning his back on Batman at his most crucial hour. And Catwoman, a soul with the most checkered of pasts, longs for a computer program called "clean slate"—something that will wipe out her online history and expunge (as it were) her sins. She pursues the program through various ill-conceived means, looking for help in all the wrong places. And for a time she thinks the program must be a myth. But Batman has it. And he eventually gives it to her. He asks her to help him a bit more, but doesn't require it. So the program becomes a gift given without strings, without requirement … fitting neatly with the far more spiritual concept of God's boundless, saving grace.
Miranda and Bruce kiss and clutch before it's implied that they have sex. (We see them afterwards, mostly covered by blankets.) Batman locks lips with Catwoman (who's often seen wearing a skintight costume).
Forget the comic book smash-and-dash violence we see in, say, The Avengers. Christopher Nolan's Batman films have never pulled punches, literally or figuratively, as the onscreen body count soars.
In the breathtaking opening sequence, Bane kidnaps a nuclear physicist while onboard a plane. Actually, he uses another plane to kidnap the entire aircraft midflight, attaching grappling hooks, upending the vessel and letting the force of the wind rip off its wings and tail. In the midst of the ensuing madness, he kills several guards and then forcibly (and painfully) transfuses the scientist's blood.
Throughout the rest of the story, he and his henchmen shoot people, blow up a football field (while a game is being played) and put Gotham on notice that they control a nuclear bomb that's primed to explode. He's extremely fond of killing foes with a neck-cracking head twist. (The camera looks away before necks are broken, but we sometimes hear the snap.) He even kills his own henchmen at times.
His battles with Batman are prolonged and epic, featuring punches, kicks, throws and slices. Bane seems to snap Batman's spine at one point, and we later watch someone else ram his dislodged vertebra back into position. It takes Batman months before he can stand again.
When Batman's out of the action, Bane takes over the city, which becomes a place of anarchy. The guilty and innocent alike are assaulted and sometimes sentenced in a mockery of a court: The accused can choose either "death" or "exile," but they're really the same thing—walking across a frozen river until the ice cracks beneath them and they drown. (We see one victim so terminated.)
Batman, as we know, is not as bloodthirsty. "No guns, no killing," he tells Catwoman. "Where's the fun in that?" she quips. But both beat down their share of folks—through fists, feet and drugged batarangs to the neck. Catwoman kicks someone in the leg with her stiletto heel. She blows up a building. And while Batman may not carry a personal sidearm, his vehicles have firepower enough to blow holes through walls, incapacitate military vehicles and, on at least one occasion, neutralize a person.
Gun battles kill and wound hundreds if not thousands, including police officers. A massive fight/brawl/insurrection breaks out in the streets. Someone dies in an auto accident. A knife is thrust into someone's side, then twisted.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. We hear one or two exclamations each of "b‑‑ch" and "b‑‑tard." "H‑‑‑" pops up close to a dozen times. God's name is mixed up with "d‑‑n" once. Jesus' name is abused twice. A crude term for testicles is used.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In the comics, Bane is addicted to a substance called "venom," and while that drug isn't named here, he wears a mask that's designed to keep his long-standing pain at bay.
A congressman seems to be drunk. Others drink.
Other Negative Elements
Someone talks about the reclusive Bruce Wayne urinating in mason jars, à la Howard Hughes.
The Dark Knight Rises is full of folks pretending to be what they're not. Some wear their deception on their faces in the form of a mask. Some hide even that telltale sign.
But some—especially Alfred—have had enough of the fabrications and facades. He wants Bruce to set aside his black mask, move on and live again. "Maybe it's time we stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day," he says.
Truth: The Dark Knight Rises is not so much a superhero flick as it is a tense crime drama—grounded in a strong semblance of reality despite the flapping capes. For the most part, Christopher Nolan eschews CGI whiz-bang for gritty realism here, and the result is a compelling but not altogether "fun" piece of cinema.
Truth: This story often pushes a strict, almost old-fashioned sort of morality. "Thou shalt not kill," Batman tells us. "Thou shalt not lie," the movie warns us. The ethical ambiguity of Catwoman is put in its place. The anarchic freedom Bane offers is debunked as the horror it is. And even as Batman serves as a stand-in Messiah figure, the film's most explicitly heroic character may be John Blake—a man who adheres to his ideals when all his heroes have been shown to fudge them a bit. The message is unmistakable: There are things worth fighting for and worth dying for. And what are those things? Or, more precisely, who? The people—even the strangers—around us.
Truth: In the midst of deep artistic resonance and worldview wallop, this trilogy closer has problems. For the first time in the series, we see Bruce Wayne in bed with a woman. We hear harsh language. We can almost feel the thud of fists and boots, the impact of bullets, the destruction of innocent lives when Bane grabs someone's head and twists. The Dark Knight Rises is almost as violent and even more starkly dissonant than its predecessor, The Dark Knight—a movie that many believed should've been rated R.
In the end, the movie is a bit like Batman himself: good, instructive, flawed, dangerous.