Warning: This article contains major spoilers about The Dark Knight Rises. If you haven’t seen it, bookmark this and return later. You’ll thank me.
If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, then you really want to stop reading now. Seriously.
But if you’ve already taken the plunge, you know that the final act of Christopher Nolan’s purported final Batman film (with these kinds of profits, you never know) unfolds in a head-spinning flurry of revelations. There’s a bomb ticking down to zero, a tearful butler, a heartbroken police commissioner — and of course, one furious detective. It’s an onslaught of character twists and plot turns that I’ve only begun to fully process.
Besides the is-Batman-dead mystery — which ends in something of a cop-out, if you ask me — the most intriguing aspect of the finale involves Blake (played by a headstrong Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In a bid to save a few of Gotham’s kids from certain nuclear annihilation, the detective guides a school bus onto a city bridge, where he is confronted by armed men in uniforms who have been charged with shutting down the roadway to comply with Bane’s threats.
It’s a showdown reminiscent of what happens at the end of The Dark Knight. In that earlier story, the Joker rigged three boats with bombs and gave the passengers something of a prisoner’s dilemma, incentivizing each captain to blow the other boats out of the water. Batman was well aware of this setup and of the dangers facing the crews and passengers, and yet he turned his attention to chasing down the Joker, expressing faith that the citizens would do the right thing. I found it to be an intriguing apex for a superhero blockbuster, that Gotham effectively has to save itself from the demons being whipped up by a madman. And when the passengers effectively put down the detonators, they proved one of the movie’s biggest points: that while Batman is there to chase down bad guys in the middle of the night, he is most interested in using his power to help Gotham build its own institutions. He’s a hero with an expiration date.
Flash forward to the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Here’s another situation in which our hero confronts the fear of his fellow citizens. Instead of Batman having to put his faith in boat passengers, it’s Blake who has to put his faith in the officials at the end of the bridge. They’ve been ordered to blow it up should anyone try to escape the city, but as Blake screams to them, the situation has changed. The bomb is in play, its explosion assured, and they need to help him get the kids to safety. Unlike Batman’s faith in the passengers, Blake’s confidence in the officers is misguided. They blow up the bridge, dooming the kids to certain death. He throws his badge into the water, disgusted that his counterparts would blindly follow their orders.
For Blake, it is a definitive betrayal. Shortly after the bridge blows up, Batman single-handedly saves the city by sacrificing himself. Unlike in The Dark Knight, the task to stop the bloodshed this time fell squarely on Batman’s shoulders. Without him, the city would have fallen. Or at the very least, the kids trapped on the bridge would have died. And that is what fuels Blake’s next moves: tracking down the Batcave (looking at what appears to be a map, which could suggest the crown has been passed down) and locating all the brilliant gadgets inside.
It seems like a hopeful ending — one that suggests a future for the franchise and the rise of a new hero. But the more I thought about those last few minutes, the more I became convinced that Nolan has opened the door to an even bleaker continuation of his pitch-black vision. For all the dark elements in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, there was still a ray of hope in Batman’s optimism about his citizens and city. He believed in them — so much so that he was willing to play the villain to preserve Harvey Dent’s image.
But if Blake, or should I say Robin, steps up as the next superhero, he won’t have that blind faith in Gotham. He witnessed the city at its worst moment — at the crossroads where it took a caped crusader, not a city leader, to stave off extinction. And if he were to dress up and make use of the gadgets, he wouldn’t be a new Batman but a new breed of hero who believes that he, and not others, is ultimately responsible.
I could be making too much out of the ending, but I see a clear line from here to there — that a hopeful Batman franchise could transition into a darkly cynical Robin franchise, helmed by a superhero who doesn’t see a city’s brighter days ahead but instead considers himself the last line of defense. There is considerable debate in The Dark Knight Rises about the hero a city deserves and the one it needs. But a Robin franchise could advance that argument even further, pondering what it means for a city to not just deserve a hero but also rely on a masked vigilante. It’s a descent into dependency I’d be intrigued to consider.