We are living in a golden era of superhero cinema. For years, it seemed like Hollywood did not understand what made comics comics, and what made movies movies, and how one could inform the other. We got many different movies that involved characters we knew from the comics, but we never really got very many comic-book movies. That has finally changed for a bunch of different reasons: better visual effects, ample opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and perhaps most importantly, the rise of movie-makers who either grew up reading comics, or have come of age amid a popular culture more directly informed by them. The context of what makes great comic books is translating to their cinematic counterparts, and we in the audience get to benefit richly for it.
This is true of The Dark Knight Returns, the third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, a series of Batman movies that when it began, did not feel like it would be part of a continuous arc. It just felt like an especially welcome reboot of a favorite superhero who had never quite gotten the right cinematic treatment. We watched Batman Begins and got an epic re-introduction to Batman. Then we saw The Dark Knight and got a compelling meditation on Batman’s struggle with internal and external villainy. And in The Dark Knight returns, we got the notion that Nolan was building his Batman for something usually denied to the characters of decades-long, episodic storytelling: A proper ending.
And as The Dark Knight opens, we realize that the end is near for Bruce Wayne’s days as the Batman. Eight years have passed since his internecine battle with the Joker, which took the lives of Bruce’s love interest Rachel Dawes, and Gotham’s inspirational district attorney, Harvey Dent. Batman takes the blame for Dent’s death and retires as Gotham grants itself sweeping police powers that eradicates crime from the city without the help of costumed vigilantes. Wayne is physically and mentally broken from his years as a crimefighter, a recluse withdrawn from everything he used to stand for. But when the beguiling cat burglar Selina Kyle crosses his path, Bruce is drawn from the shadows once more, and soon finds far greater challenges awaiting him: a hulking, strangely well-spoken terrorist named Bane who plans to destroy Gotham with a nuclear bomb. Batman rushes into battle once more unprepared, and is severely injured by Bane, who chooses to hurl him deep into a prison from which there is no escape, except to the supremely motivated. One gets the idea that Bane is disappointed by how easily he crushed Batman, and gave him this harsh second chance for a proper confrontation. If you love pain, death and destruction as much as Bane does, then you at least want a proper death. But before Batman can return to action, Gotham falls into Bane’s hands, cut off from the world, held under nuclear ransom, and thrust into total criminal anarchy. Before long, the people who once reviled Batman so much are begging for his return. But what kind of Batman will come back to them? One rejuvenated and ready to resume his former duties as the city’s nocturnal protector? Or a broken hero living on borrowed time, and who can’t possibly save the city all by himself? Gotham has proven that it is worth saving. But is there really anybody left who is up to the challenge?
I have a bunch of problems with this movie, despite its many excellent qualities. I’m not fond of stories that suddenly advance in time by numbers of years, which always feels like a shortcut. , I wasn’t thrilled with the defeat and rebirth of Batman, which felt like it took him too far from Gotham itself, and which featured a less-than-convincing rejuvenation of the Caped Crusader. And I never quite bought the kind of threat brought to Gotham this time around; as Gotham’s bridges blow one by one and the city is stuck in an impossible hostage situation, one keeps thinking that Superman would have settled this in about three minutes. (This last one is unfair of me; by the time The Dark Knight Rises came out, we were seeing a lot of shared universe superhero movies, and Nolan’s Dark Knight remained a standalone entity. But still, one keeps thinking, Bruce, man. Just call in the Justice League. This is their kind of problem.)
But this is still a great movie filled with great scenes that plumb the depths of great themes, such as confronting one’s own end, and paying for one’s past deeds. But the movie’s moment of truth, comes in the movie’s epilogue. At the risk of spoiling the end, I’ll say that in the movie’s final confrontations, not everybody lives, good and bad. And how the movie deals with the aftermath of a battle that eventually removes Batman from Gotham is really what makes me appreciate The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne cannot be Batman forever, and by the end of the movie, we see that proven in dramatic fashion. And yet, those who are left behind are not abandoned. Jim Gordon finds a poignant gift that lets him know that Batman might be gone, but Gotham will always have its hero. The brave Gotham detective John Blake is given a chance at a different kind of crime fighting, both for himself, and perhaps for all the other young Bruce Waynes and Selina Kyles of the city. Lucius Fox is left with a financial empire finally ready to become his own instead of its namesake’s. And Alfred—fatherly, long-suffering Alfred—is given a glimpse of the one thing that lets him know that yes, indeed, everything will be alright, even if Bruce Wayne and Batman are gone from this world. It is all he needed. And as the credits roll, we realize that it’s all we needed, too.