(Spoiler alert! Stop reading until you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises.)
For something as obsessed with masks and secret identities as it is, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that The Dark Knight Rises waits until its final moments to reveal the real name of one of its central characters. But, even as we discover that the birth name of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake was Robin — changed, presumably, for the purposes of dramatic effect and divorcing himself from his traumatic past — that doesn’t actually explain who he actually is.
The name Robin, of course, is a particularly loaded one in this specific context. The comic-book Batman, after all, has had one Robin or another almost continually by his side since the latter was first introduced on the cover of Detective Comics #38 as “The Sensational Character Find of 1940!” decades ago. None of them, though — and there have been six comic-book Robins in total — ever went by the name John Blake. For that matter, all six of the comic-book Robins joined the Batman’s war on crime as children, not as fully grown, if somewhat charmingly boyish, adults. So is the casual throwing out of Blake’s real name just a red herring, an Easter egg for longtime fans to cheer at as they move toward the movie’s final scenes? Is Blake actually a Robin, or one of the Robins? The answer is, somewhat fittingly considering the movie’s constant mentions of clean slates and hidden truths, somewhat more complicated than a simple yes or no.
On the face of it, Blake appears to be an original character to The Dark Knight Rises; there isn’t anyone named John Blake in any of the Batman comic books published across the Dark Knight’s seven decades–plus career of confronting evil. But that’s somewhat misleading; the same could be said of Miranda Tate. Yet any comic fan who has seen the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy knows that — as Talia al Ghul, the identity she reveals in the movie’s climactic scenes — she is a very familiar character who not only has been part of the Batman mythos since 1971, but is also the mother of the current comic-book incarnation of Robin, Damian Wayne. (Bruce Wayne is the father, adding a delicious layer of soap operatics on top of the superhero struggle.) Similarly, anyone familiar enough with the careers of Batman’s many sidekicks will find more than a few commonalities between Blake and the various Boy Wonders who have served the greater good.
Take, for example, Blake’s introduction to Wayne, when he casually reveals that he knows about Wayne’s double identity; that scene echoes the entrance of the fourth Robin, Tim Drake, into the Batman world. Drake (should we take note of the rhyme between his name and Nolan’s heroic cop, or is that too desperate?) too had worked out Wayne’s double identity before he introduced himself to the millionaire playboy turned nighttime vigilante in 1989’s A Lonely Place of Dying story line. But if Blake has the introduction of Robin No. 4, he has the attitude, charm and even career of Robin No. 1, Dick Grayson. Grayson, who served as Robin for 43 years before retiring and taking on a second costumed identity as Nightwing — with a new look to accompany the new name, complete with upturned collar and David Cassidy hair (because it was 1984, and for comics running merely a decade behind fashion counts as contemporary). If you’re looking to stretch things, Blake’s implied past as a street rat echoes the unfortunate second Robin, Jason Todd (whose lack of popularity in 1987 led to his meeting a temporary end thanks to death by 1-800 reader phone poll, of all things).
Blake, then, is a patchwork Robin, made up of bits and pieces of his comic-book namesakes. True, he seems to have taken nothing from the two female Robins — Carrie Kelly from Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns and Stephanie Brown, who served just a matter of months in the role back in 2004 before being killed by a supervillain — nor from Damian Wayne, the character who’s been working as the latest Boy Wonder since 2009. But in the grand scheme of things, all three are mere blips in the 72-year-long Robin mythology. Blake, instead, is made up of the three most “important” Robins: Grayson, the originator of the role who lasted more than four decades as a sidekick; Drake, who demonstrated his detective prowess early on and stayed for two decades; and Todd, the Robin who died in service to the Dark Knight. Just as The Dark Knight Rises offers us a Batman who repeatedly tries to make the case that the idea of a hero is as important as the reality, so too does it create a hero that distills the appeal of decades’ worth of other characters into one person, an über-Robin that’s as much the personification of an ideal as he is a person in his own right.
(This take on translating Robin from his comic-book origins to a live-action incarnation is infinitely preferable to the more literal attempts he’d suffered through earlier. Consider, for example, Burt Ward’s portrayal of the character in the 1960s Batman TV show. That particular Robin was a prudish killjoy who seemed to derive pleasure solely from socking crooks in the jaw and making terrible puns. He was merely a square stick-in-the-mud who couldn’t deal with Batman doing the Batusi or falling for the lures of Catwoman or whatever nubile mod temptress who was thrown in his path that week. As far as everyone involved with that hit show was concerned, it seemed, Robin just wasn’t as much fun as his crime-fighting mentor. Even so, Ward’s Robin was still far preferable to Chris O’Donnell’s take on the character in the two Joel Schumacher Batman movies, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. O’Donnell’s Robin wasn’t a killjoy, but the very opposite: a selfish, overconfident jerk who’d steal the Batmobile because he thought it’d be a hit with the chicks, and pout when he felt that Batman was holding him back from his true potential. Compared with those failed attempts, Blake is an even more charming alternative.)
If you start thinking of Blake as some idealized ultimate Robin, taking all the appealing parts of the various comic-book incarnations and leaving out their missteps and growing pain — no one needs to see Gordon-Levitt in the mullet that Grayson sported for a decade, trust me — then suddenly Blake makes more sense within The Dark Knight Rises. No wonder he could stand above the moral quagmire that manages to suck in every other character in the movie, and no wonder that his absolute faith in Batman never wavers. That he can shift from being Batman’s booster to the outside world to becoming his conscience when talking to Wayne (as well as being able to follow orders, take action and even get out of Dodge when necessary) all seems to fit more comfortably together when you start thinking of Blake less as a random cop that you’ve never seen before, but an important part of the puzzle that’s been missing for the entire series up until this point.
In that sense, the final scene of the movie resonates even more. Of course, Blake will take Batman’s place. Various Robins have, historically, filled in for Batman during multiple absences, with Grayson even going so far as to take over the role of Batman during 1994’s Prodigal story line and 2009–10’s Batman Reborn epic, but there’s more to it than tradition. The entire notion of Robin implies, in some way, the idea that he will one day take over as Gotham City’s protector from the Dark Knight; why else even have an apprentice, if you’re not preparing him to take over your life’s work at some point in the future? Even further, it provides closure to Nolan’s fascination with Batman as mythical figure instead of man, and fulfills what Batman himself tells Commissioner Gordon before he flies out over the water with the unstable reactor: who Batman is isn’t important. Batman could be anybody. Or, at least, anybody with the right stuff, the same haunted look, painful past and righteous anger that Blake has already shared with Wayne earlier in the movie.
And so, then, who is John Blake? He’s someone who knows the same tragedies as Bruce Wayne, but didn’t learn the same life lessons afterward. He’s someone who finds it easier to be around other people and share himself with them. (Look at the way he can communicate with the kids in the shelter as proof.) He’s someone who believes in Batman (and isn’t scared of him) but, even more so, believes in justice and realizes that it’s not always the same thing as “the law.” Although he doesn’t share one specific secret identity with any of his comic-book forebears, Blake is Robin for all intents and purposes. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he just might be the new Batman as well. Pretty impressive, considering he didn’t even have to put on bright green shorts once throughout the entire movie.