True tragedy and false hope in The Dark Knight Rises

In The Dark Knight Rises, the final Batman film from director Christopher Nolan, I was less interested in Bane vs. Batman than in the battle between two other entities: hope and tragedy.

Tragedy has been the hallmark of this landmark superhero series. The psychic damage caused by the death of parents at a young age – specifically those of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) - permeated the stirring Batman Begins. The stakes were raised in The Dark Knight, in which the psychological scars of a whole host of characters, including Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, gave the proceedings an epic sense of doom that was nothing less than Shakespearean. The Dark Knight was, simply, a masterpiece of the superhero genre.

The Dark Knight Rises is something less, primarily because – and I’ll be as vague as I can from here on out – it ultimately turns the series away from tragedy. What has, for the most part, been an epic tale of power and folly becomes, in the end, endearing. The saga concludes in comfort, which strikes me as an odd place for this particular Batman to be.

Oh, things are gloomy at the start. The movie opens eight years after the events in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is so hobbled from the struggles of that film that he walks with a cane and has barricaded himself in his mansion. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary bent on Gotham’s destruction and Batman’s death. Given his devious intellect and brute strength – Hardy gives him the bulk of a tank and the quickness of a tiger – both seem like a distinct possibility.

So far, so good, at least in my mind. There’s just something in me that appreciates a good tragedy. In their bitterness and despair, tragedies can have the sort of honesty that few feel-good flicks are able to muster. Writing about misfortune in The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps I need continual rousing.

The Dark Knight is rousing until its final 30 minutes, when tragedy is set aside for a far more conventional narrative arc, not to mention an alarming amount of franchise care. This is Nolan, so it’s mostly elegantly handled, yet the great tragedy I had come to love for two and three quarter films suddenly disappeared.

I suppose I should take encouragement from a hope that’s so persistent, especially as it reflects that of the Gospel. When our culture’s biggest films express hope – and when audiences embrace them for doing so - it’s evidence that we collectively yearn for something better, that even those without faith ache for a world as God intended it to be.

And yet there is something false about the hope offered by The Dark Knight Rises. It’s false to the series in particular and false, in a wider reading, to the sort of hope that Christians hold dear. The last-minute assurance the movie gives us reminded me of certain portions of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. Discussing contemporary, feel-good ideas about heaven, he writes, “What we have at the moment isn't as the old liturgies used to say, 'the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead,' but a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end. ”

As Christians, we need to carefully discern between vague hope and resurrection hope in our popular stories. It does Scripture a disservice to mix one with the other. Christian hope isn’t simply a happy ending. It isn’t a villain’s death. It’s belief in the prospect of a new creation, one borne of sacrifice, forgiveness and even, at times, earthly defeat.

Resurrection hope can be found in our movies: Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, the Lord of the Rings films and the recent Moonrise Kingdom all come to mind. But this sort of hope isn’t what Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise has done best. In these films, it’s the tragedy that’s true.

What Do You Think?

  • What did you make of The Dark Knight Rises?
  • Do you consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman series a tragedy?
  • What movies offer resurrection hope, as opposed to vague uplift?

 

Comments (14)

Leave a Comment
I think the clearest display of "Gospel Hope" in the film was when Bale's character had to climb out of the prison; particularly, the leap.

This post reminded me of the following quote:

"Think about faith, hope, and charity singled out by St. Paul. When is faith really faith? Not when it is looking more and more like we are right, but when the situation is beginning to look impossible, in the darkest night of the soul. The more credible things are, the less faith is required, but the more incredible things seem, the more faith is required, the faith that is said to move mountains.

So, too, hope is hope not when we have every reason to expect a favorable outcome, which is nothing more than a reasonable expectation (the virtue of a stockbroker), but when it is beginning to look hopeless, when we are called on to "hope against hope," as St. Paul says (Rom. 4:18), which is a magnificently deconstructive turnof phrase."

- John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
The "franchise care" comment is irrelevant, since the continuity of these three Nolan films is now closed. The ending, from my perspective, reflected not as much a bowing to conventionality (there is some of that) as a wish on the part of the filmmakers to bring a self-contained trilogy to some kind of satisfying conclusion. It wraps things up too neatly for me, but the note of renewal and purification--the way light floods the screen and suggests a clear, definite end--rang true to me where I suppose you found it a concession to Hollywood tradition. I think after the oppressive and pounding suffering inflicted by this movie (especially the interminable and awful score) and its predecessors, I yearned for light and I thought the movie, to my surprise, gave it to me in a way that was, as you say, elegant.
**SPOILERS IN MY COMMENTS**

I'm planning to post on this myself, but if you take the whole trilogy as a Three Act arc, then TDKR ends where it needs to - with Batman overcoming his apathy towards life, embracing a hope that's beyond "life w Rachel" (which is all we got in TDK).

I'll grant that some aspects of the ending were forced/cheesy (I'm looking at you, Autopilot), but the overall tone of the ending was perfect.

The whole question was "Can Gotham be redeemed?" The League of Shadows has said No from the beginning. Bruce has said, Yes.

TDK established that Gotham could be good, if only they had the right inspiration (what up Moral-Influence Atonement theory!), but Harvey wasn't it. Watching Bruce/Batman become that symbol in TDKR was awesome, IMO.
I like this reading, JR. Yet even if I were to buy it (agree that it's of a piece with the series thematically), I still have the nagging problem that Nolan just plain does tragedy better. In other words, the oppressive darkness of TDK (and similar elements in Batman Begins) is a better match for his filmmaking style (weighty scores, intimidating use of architecture, doom-laden camerawork). And so that still leaves TDKR as the lesser movie for me.
If we're arguing which is superior, I agree that the second film is the better-constructed and executed work. And upon further reflection, I do believe that there is a lot of mere competence to the way he handles the ending. I don't have as many conceptual problems with the film's emergence into the light, but it is the inferior part of the film, albeit a necessary part.
Great article Josh.
**SPOILERS IN MY COMMENTS**

IMHO, the last 30 minutes of the film resolves the most intense and emotional point of the movie.

The scene between Bruce Wayne and Alfred were he reveals about the letter from Rachel and talks about his dream of seeing Bruce alive, well and retired at the cafe. It's the point where Alfred says he's had enough and leaves Bruce. To me it was the most emotional and one of the best scenes in the film.

The scene presents two schools of thoughts: (Alfred's) you've given Gotham enough don't give them your life, move on and start living your live and (Bruce's) the city needs at hero and I/Batman cannot abandon Gotham. I feel this is the main conversation that occurs throughout the trilogy and I think it was brilliant to have the conversation occur at it's most intense between Alfred and Bruce.

Nolan's choice to go the traditional arc route may not play to his strengths but I really not sure how can "end" a trilogy in another way. In the end both viewpoints won, Bruce and Alfred both got their wish, and a great trilogy ends with a sense of closure.

The need for a traditional conclusion to the BB, TDK, TDKR trilogy served the greater good to the audience.

Sounds like something Batman would do.

*SPOILERS AHOY*

I certainly agree with you that in Nolan's Batman films, and in Nolan's films in general, tragedy certainly rings very true. However, hasn't Nolan and Bruce Wayne/Batman earned their happy ending considering the real tragedy he experienced in the previous installments? Doesn't the real tragedy make the hope presented all the more shining?

I frequently lament that the hope offered in so many stories rings false precisely because the brokenness present beforehand is scant if present at all. Here we have a film series that considered brokenness thoughtfully and thoroughly and did so in an arrestingly entertaining way. Therefore, I am able to believe the hope presented because I know the films truly considered the hurt Bruce encountered in his life. Furthermore, "the prospect of a new creation (Gotham), one borne of sacrifice (Batman's), forgiveness (for the citizens of Gotham) and even, at times, earthly defeat (of Batman)," is exactly what Nolan gives us in The Dark Knight Rises, isn't it?
I like your use of my formula, Elijah. It almost convinces me.

I guess what is still missing in the movie's closing moments, in my mind, is any hint of the earlier tragedy. A little bit of lingering sadness - a touch of bittersweet weariness - would have gone a long way. Instead we get - SPOILER - Bruce basking in the sun, with Catwoman on his arm no less! I found the swing from earlier tragedy to this pretty jarring.

Now, this does raise an interesting question, to return to that formula: when the new creation comes, will we have any recollection of the strife of this life, or will it be forgotten in bliss?
SPOILER

I agree that Catwoman's presence at the end was a little strange. I don't think the preceding narrative really sold the romance to that degree, but I do like the idea that Selina, just like all our heroes, got what she was after - a clean slate and a new life. It *is* a jarring swing from the darkness (pun intended) of the rest of the story. (Isn't "resurrective hope" always pretty jarring though? I mean, everyone who encountered the risen Christ either didn't believe it was him or thought he was a ghost at first.)

I'm running the risk here of over-Christianizing Nolan's trilogy, and I don't want to do that. I don't like reading Jesus into movies, but I do like recognizing the ways in which my hope harmonizes with the hope I see in movies. Batman isn't Jesus. He's just a man trying to reconcile the hurts in his life.

I also take real issue with a lot of what I see presented in this movie. The scene of the army of police officers battling the disenfranchised orphans abandoned by the system is particularly troubling upon further reflection. And the way the movie puts a sparkle on the extravagant lifestyles of the rich while vilifying the pursuit of economic justice by the poor is also problematic. This is a movie that likes economic class structure, and in that its politics seem very British and foreign to American audiences in a way that, I think, makes us Americans misunderstand what's really being said politically by these films. The Dark Knight trilogy isn't The Kingdom of God. It's pro-class structure, Western Capitalism, and at times, it seems, deliberately so.

Concerning your final question about the memory of strife in the new creation - that's a huge question with a lot of different, very faithful answers given throughout Christian history. Personally, I think we'll remember our strife in the Kingdom, but I don't think it will hurt us anymore. I think the pain and the circumstances that caused it will be redeemed. I think we'll be able to understand how God was able to "work for good" everything in our lives, even, and maybe even especially, the broken things. Christ bore his scars after the resurrection, but he didn't seem to feel the pain anymore. I believe God is big enough to take our brokenness and rework it for good. I don't think God has to simply wipe it all away.

(As always, Josh, I very much appreciate your work.)

 

Leave a comment

A login account is required to leave a comment

See the latest in:

Promotion

promo 1 promo 2
promo 3 promo 4

Donate Now

{/exp:mx_jumper:out_global}