This is probably pretty obvious, but there are SPOILERS in here.
I’m a little late to be sitting here writing about Christopher Nolan’s last turn at the helm of a Batman film, and most of what there is to say about the movie has already been said. I’m not interested in reviewing the movie, because it’s not like it would do any good to do so anyway. It’s good in ways and pretty crap in others; either those crap things overwhelm the good ones for you as a viewer, or they don’t. The end. Either way, reviews don’t seem to really be adding to the discussion or making anyone rethink their viewpoint.
But there are a few interesting things about the Nolan Batverse that TDKR deals with…and doesn’t. Having thought about it for a while now, I’m struck by how Nolan and the others who worked on the story and script, namely Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, have been setting up Batman as both a solution and a problem, a hero and a potential villain. There are a number of things wrong with the traditional conception of Batman (and with superheroes) when you really sit down and start to think them out; TDKR actually gets close to dealing with those things, and with issues like justice, before it strays away in favor of big-budgetiness.
There are a few moments in the Nolan Batman series where the real discussion of What Batman Is gets pushed to the fore, and we actually start to think about this idea of a man taking justice into his own hands when there is no justice to be had otherwise. Batman sees a city in which the police are powerless to enforce law, the system backing them is corrupt, and innocent people are hurt because of those facts. So he steps forward as an incorruptible symbol, someone who can demonstrate that not everyone falls to corruption; there are still good people out there willing to fight for justice.
All well and good. Necessary in many ways — necessary in that moment. Batman the symbol-thing makes it possible for the remaining good people of Gotham to take back their city.
Until he goes off the rails.
By TDKR, Batman has become complicit in Gotham’s Big Lie. Using the false memory of Harvey “Vengeful Murder Spree” Dent, the higher-ups in Gotham have enacted magical new laws that have had a serious crackdown effect on the city’s criminal element. Lots of people are in a brand new prison. Gotham has been cleaned up. Batman takes the fall for Dent and disappears and the city is better for it, apparently.
Except what Batman and his compatriots, primarily Commissioner Gordon but also Lucius Fox, have wrought is a false justice, and there’s even something of an implication that maybe a few innocent people got swept up with all the garbage (or at least that the one-size-fits-all approach is an injustice for some of those prisoners). It’s justice built on a lie, and it’s a rare instance in which the ends have justified the means for Batman. Usually he’s so strict about that code of his, but then again, when the chips are down, Batman has demonstrated that he’ll go in for fascism and trade the rights of the people for their safety, at least temporarily.
And a brand of temporary fascism is what Gotham is running on at the start of the movie.
By the end, the pendulum has swung hard the other way, with Bane starting something of a populist revolt in Gotham. That revolt is built on the realization that the justice Gotham has been experiencing isn’t justice at all, but an elaborate scheme constructed by a few powerful individuals who have decided they, and not Gotham itself, know what Gotham needs. Batman himself is a major instigator of this, even though that’s unknown to most people, and Nolan gives us a number of moments in which Batman and Bruce Wayne talk with folks who question his vigilante mission. After a while, it starts to seem as though Wayne/Batman might be starting to see that taking justice into his own hands, and taking it out of the hands of the people, might have been necessary, but is ultimately wrong. Batman is a form of martial law — he’s a nuclear weapon, he’s the amputation a whole rotting limb. There was a time when Gotham was gangrenous, and such measures were necessary, but by the time we’re midway through TDKR, it’s starting to become apparent that hacking off the diseased limb is a rash action.
Except that Nolan doesn’t commit to that sentiment. When Batman decides to “sacrifice” himself, that should have been Wayne’s moment of admitting not only that Batman was no longer necessary, but that he had to trust in Gotham to take care of itself. The city, like the man, had gone through a substantial arc and regardless of how many costumed crusaders might be on hand to keep the peace, it ultimately falls to Gotham to bring justice to the city and its people, not some single benevolent ruler or decider. That was a hard lesson for Wayne to learn, but one which he gets through the course of the film. He’s abdicating power by the end, stepping down in favor of democracy. (Seeing Selena Kyle’s situation as being more gray than black and white is another example of Batman’s changing viewpoint.)
There was a potential for a powerful statement in TDKR — one that claimed definitively that while the world might need superheroes from time to time, it is better off without them. Superheroes teach us to be better, but they shouldn’t be, and in the end can’t be, a crutch. Bruce Wayne learns that, to a degree, in TDKR, and Nolan almost was able to leave the film with that sentiment. Such a thing would have made TDKR and the Nolan Batman series unique in their genre and admirable in their message. The Batman trilogy would have been a story about a man seeing need of being a hero and learning to let people be their own heroes. Batman’s greatest act of heroism is to give up the cowl.
The ending of TDKR more or less invalidates this reading of the movie, however, and that’s certainly unfortunate. Throwing the Bat-mantle over to Robin and making that a thing just continues to propagate the superhero mythos and the fascism of a masked man making your decisions for you about who’s good and who’s bad. There has been a lot of talk in the post-Occupy world about whether Nolan’s movie is aimed against the populist movement (since, you know, the rich dude is the hero), and it’s kind of sad that it might have been taken as supporting it, in something of a non-obvious way. What we get is the lame “Whoo, look at the cool guys in costumes!” version of the story, when the real story is that guys in costumes rob you of your ability to make your own decisions.
So anyway. That would have been a cool way to wrap up the Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe the inevitable Batman reboot will opt for the brainy interpretation.