DISCLAIMER: There are “spoilers” lurking below. If you have not seen the film and do not want major plot points revealed, turn back now!
Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy, a question haunts Bruce Wayne. Occasionally flitting briefly into consciousness in his moments of greatest vulnerability and disorientation, the question — originally asked by Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, and always heard in his voice — is simply, “Why do we fall?” The obvious answer, and the one given by Thomas Wayne during a flashback scene in Batman Begins, is “so we can learn to pick ourselves up.” But with the release of the third and final film, The Dark Night Rises, the veracity of this simple childhood lesson is put to the test.
The defining moment in Bruce Wayne’s life is when his parents are murdered in front of him as a child. As the pain and injustice of this event grows over the years, the question of “why we fall” comes to take on a mantra-like quality for Bruce. He transforms himself into the Batman, a tireless vigilante superhero, predicated on the assumption that it is what his father would have wanted: a safer city, a stronger son. What does not kill us makes us stronger, and so Batman will not stop until he is dead.
Of course, Bruce is not the only orphan clinging to the fading memories of a lost father. Talia al Ghul, as revealed in the film’s third act, similarly aims to carry out the mad schemes of her father, Ra’s al Ghul, who Batman let die in Batman Begins. The megalomaniacal Bane, who for most of Rises we are led to believe was the tactical mastermind behind the plot to sack Gotham, turns out to be a lost soul himself. Bane has tried to act as a surrogate father to Talia (his eerie, booming voice comes off as a hammy attempt to mimic the authoritative articulation of Ra’s), but has succeeded only in fueling her obsession to do “what father would have wanted,” to rise up and finish what her father started. And of course, Bane, too, is spiritually fatherless, having been excommunicated by Ra’s al Ghul years earlier.
What results is the clash of larger-than-life super-humans who fight with a tenacity that is only possible from those who are willing to die for their cause — perhaps even, as Bruce’s faithful butler Alfred suggests, are hoping to die for their cause. For what is left of these individuals after they have awoken from the dreams of their fathers? They have clung to those internalized (and idealized) objects for far too long; without them, they are lost; husks of their former selves. Perhaps worst of all, surviving their fathers’ legacies might require them to ask themselves if they were truly doing “what father would have wanted” all along. Would Thomas Wayne have desired his son to regularly place himself in mortal danger, beating thugs and master criminals with his bare hands? Would Ra’s al Ghul have asked his daughter to sacrifice herself for his cause? Surviving the fight would demand a reflection too painful to withstand. Perhaps all this — the mask and cape, the murder and subterfuge, the nuclear weapon — perhaps it all could have been avoided if our fathers had not abandoned us. Perhaps we have not been fighting for our fathers, but against them. Perhaps we have been fighting their ghosts.
Gotham is a city without fathers. Harvey Dent, the white knight savior of the city from The Dark Knight, is dead and gone at the start of The Dark Knight Rises. The public initially believes that he died nobly at the hands of the Batman, but we in the audience know his abandonment went far deeper than that. And what does it mean, to be a city of fatherless children? In a poignant scene, Officer John Blake, himself an orphan, clues us in to the telltale sign of an abandoned child. Blake grew up idolizing the orphan billionaire Bruce Wayne, and it was this sense of connection, in fact, that helped Blake deduce that Bruce was the Batman. How did he know? Not from the sense of justice and purpose Bruce projected. What Blake saw when he looked in his hero’s face was not a face, but a mask: a cold exterior hiding an endless rage, an anger that could not be sated. The same churning anger that drives Blake to quit the police force at the end of the film, to pursue his own course of vigilantism as Robin, in the name of his adopted father, Batman.
Throughout the film, we are shown scenes concerned with the fates of the young orphans of Gotham. And in the end, Wayne Manor is converted into a home for these children, heralding one of several tidy tying-up of loose ends that takes place in the film’s last minutes. Perhaps it is simply Christopher Nolan’s disinterest in delivering a convincing “happy” ending (see Inception), but I view this development as more ominous than sappy. Like Blake, the faceless children of the repurposed Wayne Manor will grow up idolizing the orphan-billionaire Bruce Wayne. They will stare in awe at the newly erected statue of Batman in City Hall. They will absorb these icons, these larger-than-life supermen, as their fathers. Strong, brave, righteous. Absent. And their anger will begin to rise, and they will fight to keep their internal objects intact.
Why do we fall? Because there is no one to catch us.