Batman: The Dark Knight Rises part 4
With Jim Gordon hospitalized, John Blake emerges as a significant secondary protagonist in The Dark Knight Rises a kind of “young Gordon.” What does Blake want? Blake wants Bruce Wayne to stop sitting around feeling sorry for himself and become Batman again.
Now then. Some have expressed discomfort with the idea that John Blake, Rookie Cop, knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman while neither Jim Gordon nor any other citizen of Gotham City has apparently even given the matter a moment’s thought. This, for me, goes hand in hand with other narrative contrivances that occasionally poke through the cloth of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The presentation and production design of these movies is so grounded, so realistic, it’s easy to forget Batman’s pulp roots, nay his operatic roots, and moments like “Blake knows Bruce Wayne is Batman,” in my experience, are endemic to the genre. I’ll say it again, the moment you decide to make a movie about a man who dresses up like a bat to fight crime, you enter the realm of the fantastic. The reader may remember my analysis of Batman and Robin, where I discovered that the psychedelic outrages of that screenplay all stem from the choice of making the flamboyantly fantastical character Mr. Freeze the chief antagonist of the piece — once that decision was made, everything else had to be made that much more crazy to fit that character. A similar thing happens here: as much as director Nolan wants to ground his Batman movies, the fact remains that they are about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Thousands of creative and narrative choices flow from that single plot point. Since that single plot point is flat-out absurd, it greatly affects everything that flows from it. In this case, wait, why hasn’t anyone, anywhere, even tried to figure out who Batman is? If a movie tried to address that question in any realistic way we’d be here all day, and the narrative would quickly spiral out of control as the thousands of questions raised by a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime would echo down and down and down until the very thing we get out of a Batman story — that is, the metaphor — would be lost. That’s why narratives like The Dark Knight Rises needs occasional contrivances like “Rookie Cop Figures Out Bruce Wayne is Batman” (or “SEC Approves Trades Made By Terrorists at Stock Exchange”). Anyone whose disbelief crashes down at this juncture would fall down dead if the same everyday logic was pressed onto any other aspect of the narrative.
So yes, John Blake comes to Wayne Manor, for he has figured out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and he confronts him about that. Blake is in some ways the anti-Bruce — also an orphan, but with none of the ameliorating comforts of, for instance, billions of dollars. Blake’s parents, unlike Bruce’s, were not killed as a direct result of Gotham City’s lawlessness, but he has suffered the same feelings of injustice and rage, and experienced the same inability to move past his childhood trauma. His monologue to Bruce grounds the narrative, again, in the vocabulary of realistic drama by equating the mask Bruce wears as Batman with the mask Blake wears as a well-adjusted grownup. A billionare, he notes, doesn’t have to dress up like a bat to garner legends to himself — the money alone takes care of that (as we’ve seen earlier in the party sequence, with everyone buzzing about “what’s really going on with Bruce”). It also serves as a reminder, as hinted at above, that the smallest decisions of the wealthy have massive impact on the poor. Finally, it reminds us that the central message of Nolan’s Batman movies is that Batman isn’t a man, he’s a symbol, a symbol of darkness against the darkness, that Bruce Wayne, in the end, isn’t Batman, Batman is an idea that asks each of us to use our anger at injustice to force positive societal change.
(Batman’s mask is, of course, the primary psychological metaphor of the character concept — at least nowadays. And it’s often been said that Batman is the real guy and Bruce Wayne is the mask, but did Bob Kane think of it that way when he created the character in 1939 or is that something that has been slowly layered on over the decades? In any case, in the movies, Bruce-as-mask dates back to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and has remained central to the concept ever since.)
Narratively, Blake’s visit to Bruce propels Act I into Act II. Bruce’s goal in Act I is “to hide,” but Selina tickles his interest and now Blake has rekindled it. A minute-long conference with Alfred confirms that Bane and his mercenaries are working for yet-another-anti-Bruce John Daggett (a businessman with money but no morals) and launches Bruce into Dark Knight mode — to the extent that he can. If Bruce’s Act I want is “to hide,” his Act II want is “to prepare.”
Bruce goes to the doctor, who tells him his health is shot, then puts on the worst-ever Temp Batman outfit to go visit Gordon, who, like Blake, presses upon Bruce the need for the Batman to return (or rise, if you must) against the “evil” that Bane is preparing to foist upon the city.
Step two in Bruce’s comeback campaign is to attend a charity ball, intent on tracking down his mother’s pearls (which Selina is wearing). But before he can get to Selina he runs into Miranda Tate (“Miranda” — after the most well-known accused-rights act?) and reveals a shocking anti-charity opinion. Charity, he says, exists to help the charitable feel better about themselves, to raise their profile among the wealthy, not to help the needy. Bruce, of course, is a prominent philanthropist (until recenty anyway), but his stance nevertheless points to his notions of societal change, which he makes with his fists and with total physical commitment. Miranda drops a line about “our clean-energy project,” for expository purposes, but she also becomes the third person to provoke Bruce to action. She accuses him of apathy and immaturity in the face of failure, talking about this mysterious plot-point “save the world” project but also underlining, of course, his commitment to society as Batman. One of the questions Rises asks is “When has Bruce given enough?” but another is “What is enough?” What do we owe to society, and what does society owe to the individual?
Selina, an anti-Miranda (and also another anti-Bruce) dances with Bruce, literally and wit-wise, and takes the opportunity to justify herself to him. Miranda is a philanthropist and Selina is a thief, but they’re both interested in the transference of wealth to effect societal change. (Bruce is also interested in the transfer of wealth to effect societal change, but in his case the wealth is mostly transferred to whoever manufactures the cool gadgets Lucius Fox designs to help him beat up criminals.) Selina’s beef is that (shades of Fantine!) one can never be free of one’s past, and in her case that means stealing (and working with dangerous people) in order to escape her chosen-by-society identity. Like Blake mentions earlier, identity is always a mask, Bruce and Selina just make that mask literal. Bruce wants to escape not just his Batman identity but also his Bruce identity, Blake wants to escape his angry-orphan identity, Selina wants to escape her bad-girl identity, Bane — like the Joker — has managed to escape his literal identity, much in the same way the Ra’s Al-Ghul of Begins escaped his identity through transference into legend, bringing us back to Bruce and his decision to turn himself into a symbol. Selina also seems to have a beef against the wealthy of Gotham City, as she hisses threats into Bruce’s ear about an incoming class war, then kisses him and, while he’s thinking about that, steals his car keys. Batman uses his fists to effect change, but Selina uses what comes naturally to her — her wiles.