Presenting the last part of Jeremiah Lawson AKA Wenatchee the Hatchet’s incisive series on Christopher Nolan’s recently completed Batman trilogy! Be warned: this one contains considerable spoilers for those who haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises. For part one, go here. Part two, here.
THE THIRD PRISON: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
When the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Bat trilogy opens, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne has been physically and emotionally battered by his campaign against crime as Batman, and has gone into seclusion and self-imposed exile. He pines for his lost Rachel, believing that she was going to wait for him, not realizing she had in fact chosen Harvey Dent. Bruce has upheld his end of the plan to exonerate Dent by allowing Batman to shoulder responsibility for Two-Face’s crimes. As a result, the Dent Act is given the public momentum it needs to pass, and Gordon receives the power he needs to dismantle organized crime for good. But as an increasingly frustrated Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, “Maybe it’s time to stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.”
That day turns out to be a terrible one. From the sewers of Gotham a terrorist calling himself Bane emerges, claiming to be the new leader of the League of Shadows. Where Batman forged an alliance with Jim Gordon, Bane recruits John Daggett, a wealthy socialite who has been working for years to take over Wayne Enterprises. As if that’s not enough, we find out that Bruce has sunk half his fortune into a cold fusion reactor, only to mothball it when he realizes how dangerous it could be. The project has cost his company so much money that it can no longer afford to support the orphanages in which a young cop named John Blake lived after his parents died. When Bruce halfheartedly tries to blame Lucius Fox for running Wayne Enterprises into the ground, Fox tells Wayne the awkward truth, “Actually, Mr. Wayne, you did.” Lucius asks Wayne to humor him so that he can show Wayne an arsenal of tools Batman would have at his disposal. Bruce is impressed but says with a smile, “I’m retired.”
Soon, John Blake appears at Wayne’s door, begging him to come out of retirement as Batman. It turns out that Blake, a fellow orphan, had seen through Wayne’s facade even as a child. Blake’s mother died when he was young and unable to remember it, “But a few years later when my dad was killed over gambling debt, I remember that just fine.” Few people know what it’s like to be angry inside your bones, Blake tells Wayne. But he, like Wayne, understands that you can’t just move on.
Bruce Wayne takes up the mantle of Batman but this time it is hardly a matter of choice. The police are simply no match for Bane–the city needs its champion again. Alfred fears that Bruce has a death wish and refuses to play along, leaving his employ. Then, an attack on Gotham’s stock market allows Bane to use identity fraud to take every cent of Wayne’s and ruin Wayne Enterprises. In a desperate move to keep John Daggett from taking over his company Bruce entrusts it to philanthropist Miranda Tate.
The people Bruce has trusted most are telling him nothing but things he doesn’t want to hear. Alfred confesses the truth about Rachel Dawes, that she chose Harvey Dent over him. Lucius Fox tells Bruce that his decisions alone have put the company in jeopardy. His plans and intentions have all backfired. Worse, at a ball Selina Kyle mocks Bruce as she dances with him. In her rebuke are echoes of Carmine Falcone words decades earlier, “You don’t know desperate. You’re Bruce Wayne, prince of Gotham. You’d have to go a thousand miles before you met someone who didn’t know your name.” The illusion of peace and happiness can’t last. Bruce has been trying to hold on to the life he thinks he has and does not know that he is about to lose it. Selina stealing Bruce’s car is just a foretaste of the failure to come.
When the battle finally arrives, Bane reveals that he too knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, flaunting Bruce’s use of theatricality and deception. “You merely use the darkness,” Bane taunts, “I was born in it. I did not see the light until I became a man and I saw that it was blindness.” We watch as Bane savagely beats Bruce and breaks his back. Bane then seizes the hidden Wayne Enterprises’ armory, launching a reign of terror within Gotham and using the fusion reactor to simultaneously isolate and then destroy the city. The tools that Bruce Wayne sacrificed his fortune and company to prevent from being turned into weapons get turned into weapons anyway. Sold out by his friends, unmasked and beaten nearly to death by his enemies, Bruce awakens in a third and final prison.
As Bane dumps Bruce in the prison he once languished in, he tells him that there can be no true despair without hope. Since a man who does not fear death cannot be punished by death, Bane resolves to crush Bruce’s soul by destroying his beloved city and selling them the false hope that he is there to liberate them from corruption and injustice. Only after Gotham has been reduced to ashes will Bane let Bruce Wayne die.
This is, of course, the classic sadistic weakness of super-villains in virtually every movie (that contains super-villains). It should tip us off to the possibility that Bane is not who he claims to be, i.e. the League of Shadows in the flesh, come to fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny. In a delirium of pain as his back is being reset, Bruce Wayne has a vision of Ducard explaining that he obtained immortality through his offspring. Indeed, the prisoners paid to keep Bruce Wayne alive have begun to furtively share stories of a mercenary who secretly married the daughter of a warlord. The warlord was angry and decided to throw the mercenary in prison but his daughter insisted on taking her husband’s place. There she was pregnant with the mercenary’s child. She died in childbirth but the child grew up in the prison and eventually escaped. Bruce deduces that Bane is the child, who has now taken up control of the League of Shadows to complete what Ducard could not.
As Bruce slowly recuperates, he is told by a fellow inmate, “You think that because you don’t fear death this makes you strong. It makes you weak.” In the earlier prisons Bruce Wayne was forced to recognize he was lost and powerless. In this prison he is told that what he thought made him powerful actually did the opposite. We’ve seen that those who do not know the fear of death themselves took no compassion toward others, whether Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, or Two-Face. Bruce answers the doctor, “I’m not afraid. I’m angry. I don’t want to die here while my city burns with no one to save it.” Bruce must rediscover his fear of death, which he does not by fearing his own, but the deaths of those he loves.
Up until this point, Bruce Wayne had relied on what he was taught by Ducard. Only in this third prison does he learn/confront the truth. Ducard’s tragic tale about his wife was only true from a certain point of view. Instead, we find out that Ducard willingly let his wife take his place in a prison so that he could continue his mercenary work. He essentially sacrificed his wife and child on the altar of the “legend” that was Ra’s al Ghul. Ducard had told Bruce that Ra’s al Ghul saved him from the darkest corners of his own heart but the truth revealed in the third prison is different–Ducard used the path of Ra’s al Ghul and his fabricated legend as a self-deluding rationale for defending his own thirst for murder. He chose to blame his father-in-law rather than himself for her death. The truth has its day not only for Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon but even Ducard, years after his death. Bruce must discover, at length, that his ultimate prison is not a physical one, but a psychological one: the prison of the Batman persona, forged under the fraudulent tutelage of Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul. If Bruce is going to save Gotham it will not be following the teaching or example of Ducard but of Thomas Wayne, his real father, who chose to believe in a city that deserved anything but.
Of course, Bruce eventually manages to escape the prison and return to Gotham to defeat Bane–but his discoveries have not ended. The true child of Ra’s al Ghul is not Bane but Miranda Tate, named Talia by her mother. Talia and Bane were cast aside by Ra’s al Ghul years ago in favor of Bruce Wayne. Bruce was Ducard’s greatest student, the tool he hoped to use to destroy Gotham. Whereas Batman’s fight is ultimately motivated by love of his parents and his city, Talia is motivated by anger at her father, to get revenge by succeeding where he failed.
Through his remarkable journey of pain and deconstruction, Bruce Wayne has discovered that however ugly the truth may be, it is still the only thing that can set you free. Though Bane and Talia presumed to have broken Bruce, the real truth is that if Bruce is broken by anything, it is the monster he created to fight crime it has broken him. When terrible truths come to light about the lies about Dent, Bruce is effectively liberated. He joins forces with Gordon, John Blake, and Selina Kyle, all of whom had told him things he didn’t want to hear, and together they are able to prevent Gotham’s destruction. Despite the fact that Selina sold Batman out to Bane, Bruce chooses to trust in the goodness of a woman who has conned and betrayed him, much like his father Thomas Wayne chose to trust a city whose residents gunned him down. Selina responds to this trust–this grace–by saving Bruce’s life.
Where Ducard made disciples to bring death, Batman discovers a disciple he didn’t know he had, John Blake. In almost prophet-like fashion, John Blake draws both aging men back to who they are/were, even if they themselves have forgotten. The path through three prisons that Bruce Wayne takes, then, is a path from one legacy to another. Ducard represents a legacy of deceit, self-delusion, and murder; Thomas Wayne a legacy of sacrifice, giving, and generosity to those who would seem unworthy of it. Only when Bruce Wayne, out of desperation, is able to forsake everything about Ra’s al Ghul’s legacy and embrace the way of his true father does the Dark Knight rise. Only then can Bruce cast off the prison of the Batman persona and build a quiet life with Selina, having become the legend Ra’s al Ghul never became. Despite his state of mind when he originally took up the mantle of the Dark Knight, Bruce’s quest was ultimately not about punishing criminals or channeling his murderous rage into retribution. His true quest was to find his father’s path: a life of sacrificial love to save a broken city, give them hope, and, yes, new life.