In the context of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises has almost no reason to exist. The final chapter in the trilogy is a coda, an addendum, an epilogue. The story is over: Batman fought the Joker for the soul of Gotham and won. Peace settles over Gotham under the Dent act.
It’s little coincidence the film doesn’t really have its own title, it just appends Rises to its predecessor: an open admission this coda is more of a thought experiment, a what-happens-next-if-you’re-interested, than a creation of its own world. And in the end, that’s what the story is about: warriors who do not know how to leave the war behind.
Both Bruce and Gordon are war-time heroes. And though their glory has carried them far, it’s clear neither quite know how to exist during peacetime. Bruce becomes a recluse, trying and failing to save the world from behind the facade of the Wayne foundation. And it’s curious that we don’t get to see this effort. Bruce’s attempt to use his family name and fortune to help Gotham with the mask of Billionaire philanthropist fails. And yet the noble lie succeeds, keeping the streets of Gotham clean. Gordon meets a similar fate, his time as Commissioner rapidly approaching its end as the Mayor no longer needs a war hero, but a leader in peace. Bruce and Gordon are the gunslinger in the saloon, at ease but forever waiting for something to go wrong. Not for wrong’s sake, of course, but because they know something we do not. The gunslinger knows that violence is always mere moments away.
The film, and indeed Gordon himself, suggest that these gunslingers are necessary. He insists that Batman must return. Not that he should or that he owes the city, but that the Dark Knight is a necessity. Bane lays out this theme as he beats Batman into submission, explaining that peace has defeated Bruce Wayne. And he’s right.
Letting the war go and putting the guns away has atrophied Batman, and Gotham. The police have become complacent. They’ve grown fat and covetous, gluttons that rest on their laurels knowing they will go unchallenged. They relish the opportunity to catch Batman more than armed thieves attacking the stock exchange. The unbidden greed driving the police is repulsive to us and Blake. There’s rot at the heart of the GCPD, and it's festering, spreading a bitterness where it goes. Almost every new character we meet in the police is harsh and dismissive to Blake and Gordon: they view the gunslingers as foolish, redundant. Their readiness to violence is derided as being a hot-head, chasing shadows and glory.
Fitting then, that Gordon and Blake are not trapped with the other police when Bane executes his plan. Instead, both wield the tools of the individualist, the war-hero, to affect change in Batman’s absence. The story doesn’t draw this parallel through any individual action by Gordon or Blake, but their pursuit of leads just so happens to mean they are not trapped. The text implies that taking action is what separates the individual from the collective.
The film's aesthetics imply that Bane is drawing on class warfare: between the oppressive police and the people of Gotham. But this couldn't be further from the thematic conflict: the friction between the power of the individual to enact change and the responsibility of being part of a collective.
And this is Bane’s lie, too: that the people of Gotham have agency. Bruce knows the ugly truth: Bane would never cede control. Gordon knows it too, because both men share Bane’s tendency to action. There’s a line from Batman Begins from Ra’s al Ghul that circles back here: “The will is everything, the will to act.”
The difference between Batman and the rest of Gotham is not hockey pants or military equipment. But the will to act. In the prison, this is what allows Bruce to escape. This is what allows him to beat Bane. Indeed, what allows him to save the city and himself. This is what distinguishes the gunslinger, the individualist. Not the guns themselves, but what the gunslinger is willing to do.
Like Tenent or Inception, Rises is far more of a thought experiment than a meaningful narrative at times. The meandering progressive complication lasts for an hour and change, leaving only thirty minutes of actual no-man’s land. A few plotlines kind of go nowhere, and not updating the Bat suit is a missed opportunity.
But it’s a worthy entry. A pivot, sure, but Ledger’s passing complicated things. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan took the pieces in front of them, and took an unusual turn, choosing to reinvent a classic Batman story through the lens of the western individualist. The film is a confident, rich and earnest exploration of these gunslingers returning from war, and dealing with the resurgence of the enemy. It may feel like a coda, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fantastic conclusion to the The Dark Knight trilogy.