The story of Batman is the story of Gotham. Batman is born from the tragedy of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths, as young Bruce Wayne vows to save the city that killed his parents. This is an origin unique to superhero lore. Superman adopts Metropolis, and Spider-Man mostly webslings around New York, but Batman stands as a symptom and symbol of the darkness that plagues Gotham The first two films in the Dark Knight Trilogy were so good because they understood this personal relationship. “Batman Begins” introduced Gotham as a city so corrupt that it created Batman and spurred Ra’s Al Ghul’s attempt to destroy it. In “The Dark Knight,” Batman’s actions created an equal and opposite reaction in the form of the Joker, who plunged the city back into fear just as it was beginning to have hope in District Attorney Harvey Dent. However, the final film in the Dark Knight Trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises,” departs so strongly from these two films that it throws out this personal journey in favor of a misplaced war movie.
“The Dark Knight Rises” starts well. Gotham has entered a period of decadent peace built on the lie of Harvey Dent’s death. Bruce Wayne has retired Batman hoping the city needs him no more, though it’s clear Wayne is empty without Batman. Under the hollow foundations of Gotham’s prosperity, in the sewers trouble is brewing. Batman is forced out of retirement by a new cat burglar (Anne Hathaway as my favorite part of the movie) and the whispered rumors of a man called Bane. But here the story veers sharply into strange territory, as Bane exiles Batman to a far off prison (where exactly is it supposed to be? Iran?) and plunges Gotham into anarchy, holding it hostage with a nuclear bomb while “giving it back to the people.” Bane’s motivations require far too much exposition, with which the film primarily concerns itself, when it’s not busy with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s underground police resistance.
These are neither the Gotham nor the Batman of the first two films. Gotham becomes a French Revolution allegory and terrorist plot, while Batman dons the ill-fitting mantle of “exiled war hero.” The difficulty here is that these roles are thrust onto the hero and his city by outside forces. As previously mentioned, the story of Gotham is also the intensely personal story of Bruce Wayne/Batman, so the narrative works best when the terror comes from within. When Bane’s obtuse motivations are finally explained, they have little to do with either Batman or Gotham. This is a movie that could have been about any other city and any other hero. Bruce Wayne’s personal vendetta to save Gotham from itself ends without resolution. That is disappointing.
This review was difficult to write. The tragedy in Aurora has cast a terrible shadow over so many lives, and going to a theater can seem trivial or terrifying. But go to a movie, any movie. Watching movies together allows us to laugh, cry, and cheer together. Right now, more than ever, we need that. My prayers go out to the victims of the shooting and their families.