Last night I went to see The Dark Knight Rises.
It was my second attempt. My first attempt on Saturday ended in disaster when the theater sold out while I was standing in line. I could have waited for the eleven o’clock showing, but it’s a near-three-hour film, and getting home after 2 in the morning didn’t appeal.
After dinner last night, then, I went to see the third and final film of Christian Bale’s tenure as Batman.
And I loved it.
My immediate reaction, as I posted on Twitter, was this: “The Dark Knight Rises — In a word, wow. In two words, I cried. In three words, a satisfying conclusion.”
It was all of that.
Wow? I thought this was the most gripping of Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both feel occasionally interminable, but I had no such feelings with The Dark Knight Rises. It was a thoughtful and intense film, and I was captivated. Yes, the story owed as much to The Dark Knight Returns and Knightfall, thrown in a blender, of course, as Batman Begins owed to The Long Halloween, so it played some familiar beats, yet I didn’t mind. I wanted to see where the story was going. I wanted to see if Bruce Wayne could learn how to be Batman again. I wanted to figure out what Bane was hoping to achieve. And I wanted to see if the film would bring the story of Batman to a close.
I cried? The final flight of the Bat, the faces of the orphaned boys as they follow it into the distance, the explosion… Yes, I cried. Batman, once vilified, proved himself to be an inspiration — and the ultimate hero. Batman’s story had come to an end, but Batman never ends.
A satisfying conclusion? Nolan’s Batman movies have always been focused on the man under the cowl, and with this film Bruce Wayne’s story arc comes to a conclusion. Bruce Wayne, once an innocent child tormented by the murders of his parents and the death of his true love, once again finds an inner peace. This is from an e-mail I wrote at work back on March 30, 2011: “I like the idea that, in Dark Knight Rises, Nolan will give his version of Batman a definitive end. The seeds of the ending have been planted in both films, and it’s probably Bruce walking away from the cowl because he feels (or, rather, knows) that Batman is no longer needed.” I think I had it almost right a year and a half ago — Bruce finds peace not because Batman is no longer needed but because he no longer needs to be Batman; there are others who can accomplish what he set out to do.
I thought the ending of the film was brave for a super-hero film. It’s a definitive ending, yet it’s open for interpretation. No, not the epilogue with Detective John Blake; anyone with a pulse saw that coming. No, not the epilogue about the missing piece of property, nor the epilogue with the WayneTech reveal. Not even the Commissioner Gordon epilogue. The final epilogue. I admit, I’m agnostic on that ending, because there are two ways to read it.
At Bruce’s funeral, Alfred turns to talk to the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne. He failed them, he said with great emotion. He hadn’t protected Bruce.
We see Alfred in the last scene. He had returned to the café in Italy. He takes a seat, he picks up a newspaper, he looks across the piazza. And he sees Bruce Wayne, sitting with Selina Kyle. They make eye contact. Alfred smiles. Fade to black.
The thought as I left the theater? Brave and bittersweet. Brave, because Bruce Wayne died in the nuclear explosion off the coast of Gotham City. Bittersweet, because Alfred imagined for Bruce the carefree and happy life that he should have lived instead of being a costumed vigilante who gave his life to save his city.
However, that’s not the only reading of the film’s final scene. We learn, just a few minutes earlier, that the Bat — the flying vehicle created by Lucius Fox — had a functioning autopilot. Bruce Wayne could have set the Bat’s autopilot and escaped from the vehicle, letting the Bat fly out over the Atlantic Ocean unmanned and allowing the world to think that he’s dead so that he can do what Selina Kyle also wants to do — start life anew with a blank slate. In this reading of the ending, Bruce Wayne is finally free of the burden of Gotham City that he had taken upon himself, and he can now live a happy and balanced life.
Both readings of the ending are satisfying, albeit in different ways.
The “Bruce lives” ending satisfies because it means that Bruce has finally made peace with himself. The “Bruce dies” ending satisfies because it’s true to the character.
I’m not sure which interpretation I prefer to accept, and I’m glad to see that others have formulated the same interpretation. The film gives us enough evidence to make either possible, though I think the weight of the evidence is on the “Bruce dies” ending. It’s basically down to science.
There’s this awesome website called Nukemap. You can find a location and drop a nuclear bomb on it. Pick your yield, and see what the damage zones would be. For instance, this is a 340-kiloton detonation on my office building.
According to Bane, the nuclear device in The Dark Knight Rises had a 4-megaton yield. Bruce flew the Bat, with the device in tow, to a safe distance from Gotham City.
Using Nukemap, we can see that Bruce would have had to fly it about 13 miles away from land. Yes, the film says the blast radius was six miles, but a 4-megaton yield would have wider effects. The fireball from the explosion would be a half-mile in diameter, lethal doses of radiation would extend out to 2 1/2 miles, the air blast radius (high air pressure that can destroy buildings and kill) would extend out to seven miles, and the thermal blast radius (air hot enough to cause third-degree burns) would be out to almost thirteen miles.
If Gotham City were New York, he would have had to fly to a point about fifteen miles south of Long Beach, Long Island. Or if you assume that Gotham City is roughly where Atlantic City is, then the detonation was roughly fifteen miles off the coast.
Bruce had roughly a minute and a half to get the device that far from the city. (Selina kissing Bruce was nice, but it wasted precious seconds. Bruce telling Gordon who he was was a lovely moment, but again, it wasted precious seconds.) The Bat strained under the weight of the load — it seemed like it couldn’t reach a decent height — so could its engines be pushed hard enough to make the minimum safe distance? Obviously, it did, and we saw a mushroom cloud form.
The mushroom cloud is important. It means that the detonation occurred in the air close to the ground. It was not detonated below the ocean’s surface as that would not produce a mushroom cloud. Ironically, an underwater detonation would have been better — Bruce wouldn’t have had to fly as far out to sea as the water would absorb much of the energy, and Bruce could have continued in the Bat to flee the explosion after cutting the tow line. There would have been no mushroom cloud, and Gotham would have had a nice hurricane-esque storm surge.
The air burst is a point in favor of an unmanned Bat carrying the device to its final destination (since the autopilot probably wouldn’t have cut the tow line), and then that raises the question of when Bruce bailed. If Nolan played fair with his narrative, then Bruce didn’t survive — he bailed from the Bat with less than five seconds on the timer. (We see Bruce in the Bat’s cockpit having a moment of serenity, followed by the timer showing five.) He would have bailed over open water. He would have hit the water with some speed (in addition to his downward velocity, he also has the Bat’s forward velocity which was not insignificant — it had to cover at least 15 miles in about 90 seconds). He would have been weighted down by the Batsuit. He had been stabbed in side. If he survived the fall, he was in open ocean at least 13 miles from shore. He would have been very close to Ground Zero when he began his Olympic-scale swim, and if he survived the fireball he would have absorbed enough radiation to kill him.
If Nolan didn’t play fair, then Bruce bailed out much closer to Gotham — say, once the Bat cleared the bridges or the point of the main island. But that means that the shot of the serene Bruce in the Bat occurs earlier than we see it in the film — and possibly even earlier than some of the shots that come before it. This would be a moment of unreliable narration in a film series that, to that point, hadn’t relied on unreliable narration. The characters believed things that weren’t true (and there are several examples of that in this film, including a third-act reveal that I knew was coming but still surprised me), but the films themselves have played their narrative cards true.
That said, I’m still agnostic on the ending. People have pointed to other evidence, like the missing pearls, the autopilot patch, and the repaired Bat-signal, as signs that the final scene was not a fantasy of Alfred’s, and I admit that the evidence is compelling. But none of it is convincing, not even the science evidence that points to the “Bruce dies” ending.
I was satisfied with the final ending, though I think it’s ambiguous, because it marked a definitive conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story as Batman. One way or the other, Bruce Wayne sacrificed his life — either his physical life or the life he had lead — to save Gotham City. He gave the city everything he had. That, I think, was the important thing to take away from the ending.
All in all, I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises greatly. I enjoyed the arc of the film — Bruce Wayne’s arrogance leads him into an ill-considered and ill-prepared attack on Bane that leaves him broken, which forces him to learn how to be Batman once more, leading to the final confrontation where he overcomes his enemies and his own demons. I think, in years to come, we’ll look at the three Christopher Nolan Batman films as one single 8-hour film. All stories come to an end, and The Dark Knight Rises was a fine ending to Christopher Nolan’s Batman story.