The reason why the name Christopher Nolan is met with reverence and praise amongst film critics is because he manages to work on many levels. For someone looking for spectacle and excitement his films tick all the boxes. Audience members seeking something more cerebral are also satisfied, not despite the explosions and action, but because of it. That’s a neat trick. Explaining frame by frame why it is the action sequences are exciting is much too hard a task and probably involves all sorts of psycho-biological degrees. Interpreting the thematic content of a Nolan film involves less science and more imagination.
So what is The Dark Knight Rises all about? Bats? Chivalry? Rising? Nope. Not for my money. TDKR is about structures. More specifically how characters are strengthened, constrained and outside of society’s structures. Nolan sets up opposing pairs of characters for each reaction to these systems, demonstrating how each reaction can be utilised both for good and evil and all the grey areas in between.
Structures bind two characters in this film more closely than any others: Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Robin John Blake (Josephy Gordon-Levitt). Kyle expresses on several occasions her desire to be free of her past. The situation that she was born into has made her turn to crime and cannot escape, all she wants is a Clean Slate programme to wipe her history. Under Philip Zimbado’s socio-ethical theory she is not a bad apple but the product of a bad apple barrel that corrupts its contents. The structures, not just of state but of the internet and social media, allow the law to catch up with her – she clearly understands this as she uses the Congressman’s (Brett Cullen) phone to alert the police of their presence. One of the cops upsetting the party is John Blake. Throughout the course of the film he is bound by police procedure, adhering to unimaginative higher authorities such as Foley (Matthew Mondine) who forbids him to follow Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) into the sewers and who wants to chase Batman ahead of armed criminals. Eventually this reaches a head with procedure forcing military police to destroy the only remaining bridge out of Gotham as Blake attempts to ferry orphans out. Blake and Selina’s narratives both leave them free of structures. Blake realises he is bound and rejects the constraints of the police (leading him through a waterfall and into a mysterious cave) whilst Kyle is freed from them by Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his software. Not until the end of the film is either of these characters a free decision making agent.
Once in control of a structure it is possible to manipulate it for one’s own gain. This is the relationship Commissioner Gordon and the al Ghul family have with social structures. The opening scenes of the film reveal that Gordon has been supressing the truth about Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) demise, blaming Batman in order to pass the Dent Act. By using this piece of legislation he is able to wipe out organised crime – destroying another structure – and eliminating the bad barrel makers rather than the bad apples. Gordon explains to Blake that the structures begin to feel like shackles, and Blake can certainly empathise, however Gordon’s reaction is to lie and bend the shackles he wears rather than trust honesty and cast them off as Blake does. First Raz al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and then his daughter Talia/ Miranda (Marion Cotillard) utilised the structure of the League of Shadows to rise to power and subsequently influence the city of Gotham. Whereas her father was an outsider to Gotham, Miranda operates from within the Wayne Corporation and is able to influence it for her own ends by investing in a fusion reactor that will become a bomb. She even uses the inbuilt flooding mechanism to prevent it being shut down. Unlike The Dark Knight’s villain, The Joker (Heath Ledger), Miranda does not wish to see a structureless world burn: she wants a new system that she can control. Gordon twists the structures of the law for what he believes to be the good – we even see him using the structures of Bane (Tom Hardy) as he tracks the patrolling bomb trucks and uses their routine to prevent the explosion. No doubt Miranda believes what she is doing is for the good as well, it’s just fewer people see nuclear explosions than seeing criminals in jail as a positive.
That leaves our two male leads operating outside of all structures. Bruce Wayne ends the film outside of all social constructs but he does not quite start that way. He is still bound to the Wayne Corp. – a responsibility he is alleviated of by Bane’s stock exchange raid – and his responsibilities of being an ‘eccentric billionaire’ which he describes as a role to be played. Of course as Batman he operates outside of many of society’s constraints, the Law for instance. The police decide hunting him is a higher priority than hunting criminals escaping from the stock exchange. Money is another. Despite Bane bankrupting him Wayne already has kit that no police force could ever afford. Identity may be the last. Unlike Selina, he is not personally responsible for his actions, as Batman is a symbol and, as he states, could be anybody. By the climax of the film, when he defeats Bane, he is free from the responsibilities that limit what others could achieve. Being outside of the system does make him sound dangerous and insane. This may be the point. But the reason why he has to be outside the law, outside of society, is the other man in the mask: Bane. Whereas Wayne had to escape the constraints of society, Bane has never been inside the circle. An outsider at the prison, excommunicated from the League of Shadows, physically extraordinary due to his face-mask, a terrorist who lives underground, Bane is not part of the system. He does not even take responsibility for running Gotham once he has left it in anarchy, leaving that responsibility to Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). As Bane says, he is Gotham’s reckoning. Once one system has been destroyed he cannot be a part of the next. Bruce Wayne appears to have ignored the advice of Friedrich Nieztche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.” Batman is in many ways just as much of a monster as Bane by the end of the film. He has to become what he must defeat.
Of course each of these characters could be portrayed as shades of the other classifications. Batman could be seen as manipulating Wayne Corp. to build Batman and Commissioner Gordon could be seen as bound by the state. It is the grey areas that create the interest. No character is clean cut as good or bad. Is Bane a bad apple or has he simply been constrained by bad barrels? Questions like these demonstrate that Christopher Nolan has created mature action films that are full of characters we care about and who are set in a realistic world full of compromise rather than a fantastical superhero movie. He can entertain audiences on many levels all at once and can make intelligent movies that gross billions. Batman may be over, but I can’t wait to see what Nolan does next.