A teaser for the third in the series suggests that the script may leave Bruce Wayne incapacitated, a fitting ending to a story about human frailty
There’s a curiously definitive tone to the first teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, the final movie in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, slated for a July 2012 release. “Every hero has a journey,” warns the title cards. “Every journey has an end.” What little we see of the movie itself puts the continuing viability of Bruce Wayne’s Batman project in question. “We were in this together,” Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) laments from his hospital bed, speaking between hits on an oxygen mask. “And then you’re gone. Now, this evil rises. The Batman has to come back.” Rather than reassuring him, Wayne asks, “What if he doesn’t exist anymore?” And if the point needed underscoring, the trailer promises that this movie is “The epic conclusion to the Dark Knight legend.”
There’s certainly value to reminding viewers that this is the last time Nolan, who has helmed one of the most profitable and artistically distinctive superhero movie franchises ever, will put Christian Bale in his black mask. But the trailer’s emphatic tone also suggests that Nolan’s going to tackle a uniquely dark story, even in comparison to his previous work: He may be gearing up to put Batman out of action.
The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is Bane. He’s hardly the most famous of DC Comic’s supervillains, and in 1997’s campy Batman and Robin, he was reduced to a grunting heavy. But in the original comics, Bane’s not just a worthy adversary for Batman—he's his inverse. A political prisoner, educated by a Jesuit, pumped up by chemical stimulants, and a veteran of prison fights, Bane loathes Wayne, a privileged heir who adopts violence as a way of meeting his emotional needs instead of as a way to survive. And Bane, in the comics, does something shocking—he puts Wayne in a wheelchair by breaking his back.
Most superhero stories chronicle the rise of heroes above their humanity. But were Nolan to import the back-breaking narrative from the comics, his Batman story arc would raise Bruce Wayne up only to bring him crashing down. It would be a sharp divergence from recent superhero movies, but one that’s completely in line with Nolan’s pessimism about what superheroes can actually accomplish.
Superhero-movie precedent doesn’t require Nolan to end—or maim—Batman in order to end the series. Both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the last crop of X-Men movies ran for three neat films before they were rebooted. There’s a third Iron Man movie on the way for 2013, but after that, the character’s getting diverted into Marvel’s larger Avengers storyline. When the recent Spider-Man and X-Men trilogies came to a close, the main characters had suffered but were left standing. Peter Parker may have lost his childhood best friend, Harry Osbourn, but his relationship with Mary Jane Watson was repaired, and he ended the movies with a new sense of how to use his powers. Jean Grey died at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, but Wolverine remained around to flash his claws, Storm kept the Xavier Institute running, and Magneto seemed on the brink of regaining his powers. The superhero project goes on.
Nolan, though, very well may opt to close his franchise on a more chilling note. The Dark Knight is the most definitive artistic statement of the current crop of superhero films—and the most financially lucrative, grossing more than $1 billion internationally. Nolan’s distinguished himself from his contemporaries by taking a relentlessly dark view of classic comic characters and of humanity. Where Spider-Man 2 made Doctor Octopus a soulful scientist to tell a cautionary tale about becoming too enamored of the power of technology, and Spider-Man 3 redeemed the man who killed Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, Nolan’s villains have been less forgivable: Batman Begins made the Scarecrow not just a straw man but a grave-worm ridden ghost, and The Dark Knight turned the Joker from a badly made-up clown into a uniquely horrifying sociopath who sews bombs into convicts and blows up hospitals.
If Batman Begins was about the virulence of criminality, and The Dark Knight was about the limits of government institutions in the face of unspeakable evil, it would make sense for The Dark Knight Rises to be about the fragility of the superhero enterprise as a whole. Batman may be able to stop a small number of very dangerous criminals and terrorists. And society may be able to accommodate his violations of rules—such as bans on electronic surveillance—because he’s one man, and because he isn’t broadly challenging norms. But if Gotham can’t or won’t change its institutions in the name of building a safer, less corrupt city, and instead relies on one man with a limited license to break the rules, then the city is awfully vulnerable to that man’s destruction.
Christopher Nolan’s always been less optimistic than Bryan Singer, who used the X-Men into a major metaphor for social liberation, or Sam Raimi, who had Spider-Man grow up into his powers and into manhood simultaneously. His Batman has been a fragile, limited bulwark against chaos, occasionally surprised by a flash of human goodness. If Nolan breaks Batman, he’ll provide a sharp rebuke to his fellow superhero storytellers. And he’d be the first among them to tell a truly complete story, to make a cohesive argument about superheroism, in the three movies allotted to him. The Dark Knight may rise over its artistic contemporaries precisely by making Batman fall.