(This review includes spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.)
“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely—a legend.”
That was when we knew. Seven years ago, 10 minutes into Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film, Liam Neeson’s character made a promise to audiences. This week, we saw that promise kept. And a director who’s made himself something of a legend in the industry left us with more to digest than just another comic book flick. He left us with an artist’s reply to the problem of evil—something now more appropriate than ever.
Narrating the latter film’s most iconic scene, actor Michael Caine (who also plays Batman’s plucky butler, Alfred), explains the three parts of a magic trick while the chapters of the Batman saga unfold before our eyes. It was a sharp connection for this YouTuber to make (one almost dares to wonder if Nolan intended it). The effect, whatever the case, is stunning:
“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts,” explains Caine as Cutter (though we inevitably hear him as Alfred). “The first part is called ‘the pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary—a deck of cards, a bird—or a man.”
[We see clips from Bruce Wayne’s childhood and troubled early years after his parents were murdered.]
“He shows you this object,” continues Caine. “Perhaps he asks you to inspect it—to see that it is indeed real and unaltered—normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.”
[We see a montage of Wayne’s training under the ninja lord, Ra’s al Ghul, and the moment when he first dons the mask and cape of Batman to save Gotham City from his former teacher’s “justice.”]
“The second act is called ‘the turn,”’ says Caine. “The magician takes the ordinary something, and makes it do something extraordinary.”
[We watch scenes from “The Dark Knight” of Wayne’s deadly chess game with Heath Ledger’s Joker, and witness as Batman accepts the sentence for crimes he didn’t commit.]
“Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back.
That’s why every magic trick has a third act—the hardest part. The part we call ‘the prestige.’”
[We see snatches of the final film: Gotham herself at war, skyscrapers crumbling, Wayne climbing from an abyss, surging from the darkness to meet an opponent more frightening than any we’ve seen before.]
The analogy of a magic trick speaks loudly, especially coming from a film (“The Prestige”) in which the “tricks” turn out to be anything but illusions. Actually, a Christian may find himself tempted to use the word “miracle.” And I believe that may be exactly what Nolan intends for those snooping after the message of his Batman trilogy.
A Legend Ends
In “The Dark Knight Rises,” a dizzying spectacle of events collide. It is eight years after the defeat of Joker. Batman has absorbed Gotham’s full wrath for the sins of the city’s “white knight”-turned-psychotic-killer (former District Attorney Harvey Dent). Bruce Wayne is crushed beneath the weight of condemnation upon his alter ego, and unable to overcome the grief of his beloved Rachel’s death in order to start a new life. He hangs in limbo while his father’s business empire crumbles, and the chances that the Dark Knight will ever rise again grow cold.
Into this calm brokenness steps Gotham’s reckoning—someone against whom the city’s finest, its citizens, and even Batman himself prove no match.
When Bruce Wayne tests his strength against the godlike Bane (Tom Hardy), he finds himself facing a superior—one trained by the same master but honed in ways Batman couldn’t imagine. The Dark Knight is shattered.
Not content to simply destroy his victim, Bane deposits Wayne in “hell,” the prison pit in which he, himself, transformed from a man into a drug-engorged monster.
“Why didn’t you just kill me?” asks Wayne.
“Your punishment must be more severe,” answers Bane. Aglow in the light of an impossible climb to freedom, Wayne’s captor offers his conviction that a glimmer of false hope is what makes suffering truly agonizing.
Leaving the broken Batman to languish in the pit, Bane returns to shepherd Gotham toward slow suicide, all the while planning to cremate its people in nuclear fire.
But he misjudges Bruce Wayne, who will not allow even a damaged body or a climb out of “hell” to stand between him and the city he has vowed to redeem.
Having died all but literally for standing between Gotham and its judgment day, the Dark Knight rises from his entombment after three months, and returns to win life for a city counting down to death.
Even for a superhero movie, this one hits the Christ archetypes hard. But for the subject matter Nolan addresses, nothing else will do. When a director chooses to take a story into the depths of evil that the “Dark Knight” story has plumbed, he crosses the border from mere entertainment into real-world questions—questions that most people go to the movies to forget.
Why do good people suffer while the wicked reign? What is the right response to evil—unbending justice or mercy? Is there anyone who is truly good, or is everyone destined to fall? Is it possible to forgive even those wrongs that shatter our lives and leave our very souls bitter?
If a film raises such questions but fails to offer answers, it inevitably kills a little piece of what makes us human. As C. S. Lewis might say, it moves our thoughts away from reality and toward unreality—“into the cold and dark of utmost space.”
But when a film does offer answers, they must be real enough to confront the hardest questions. When two gunshots leave young Bruce Wayne orphaned and alone with his fears—when a madman flouts right and wrong and laughs while the world burns—when the weight of evil begins to crush Gotham and even the good characters become villains—and yes, even when a 24-year-old man walks into a crowded movie theater and opens fire—only answers bigger than sorrow will satisfy. When the darkest realities of this fallen, tear-and-blood-soaked world stare us in the face, only a cross and an empty tomb will do.
And whatever he intended, that’s exactly what Christopher Nolan gives us in his newly completed trilogy. He offers no Superman, no bulletproof hero strong enough to throw aside our problems and flash a dashing smile as he flies by. He offers us a man—one we see fall down, bleed, and weep. This man doesn’t have the luxury of simply soaring away from evil or “sockin’ it in the jaw.” The distinguishing feature of Nolan’s Batman is his status as an atonement figure.
For Nolan, it isn’t enough for his hero to merely defeat evil. That’s too easy. So throughout this tale, Batman’s primary focus isn’t on besting bad guys. It’s on deflecting justice from people like you and me. His real opponents are not the scum of Gotham’s underbelly, but the angels of moral perfection who seek to bring judgment on the city.
Other superheroes save their towns from genetically enhanced, extraterrestrial evil geniuses. Bruce Wayne saves his town from the “good guys.” He climbs up on his cross and suffers the wrath of the Law rightly due to the people of Gotham. He betrays his training by the League of Shadows to save millions from condemnation. He bears the full blast of Joker’s wickedness and becomes hated for it. He descends into the pit of “hell” rather than abandon those he intends to redeem.
His story makes our hearts “burn within us,” not because DC Comics’ Batman deserves our worship, but because he reminds us of Someone who does. Nolan’s Dark Knight gives us a rare glimpse into what it must have been like for Jesus Christ—a man—to suffer Hell and utter rejection by His Father and those he loved, and to drink the cup brimful of death for us all.
And of course, he also reminds us that it wasn’t enough for Christ to simply die. As Michael Caine said, “Making something disappear isn’t good enough. You have to bring it back.” And Batman, like Christ, had to come out of that tomb and live again. The Dark Knight, like Christ, had to rise.
Image copyright Warner Brothers.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.
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