The Dark Knight Rises

This morning, like many people around the country, I woke up excited, because today was finally the day when I’d get to see Christopher Nolan’s exciting end to his up to this point excellent Batman trilogy. Shortly thereafter, while, like many people, enjoying my morning cup of coffee, I learned of the shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a theater in Aurora, CO. Heartbreaking.

The first thing I did was to text my finacee and ask her if she still wanted to join me for our planned 11:30 AM showtime knowing that she’d be as troubled by the incident as I was. She did, and I told her I’d meet her at the theater later as I was going early to stake out good seats at what I assumed would be a packed showing.

A short time later as I sat in my seat reading for the hour or so before the movie was scheduled to begin, watching the theater slowly fill with people, I couldn’t shake that touch of fear that what happened in Colorado could very easily happen here. I thought about the measures that could be taken to protect me – metal detectors in the lobby (although the killer in Colorado reportedly entered through one of the emergency exits), armed peacekeepers in every theater, staying home – and I realized that nothing, ultimately, could keep me safe.

I sat there in that fear as my finacee arrived, as the previews flickered across the screen, and as the movie progressed, my eyes ever darting anxiously from one side of the theater to the other every time someone in the lower section rose to go to the restroom. The fear was still there when the movie was over and probably will be every time I go to a movie from now on, just as my heart has skipped a beat whenever an airplane has suddenly flown overhead in the time since September 11, 2001.

It is somewhat appropriate that the movie associated with the tragedy in Aurora and the movie I watched as I reflected on this event is The Dark Knight Rises, the final act in a trilogy of films specifically concerned with how individuals in a society deal with terror. These Batman movies are about fear and our reactions to it. The journey our hero, Bruce Wayne, and his city, Gotham, takes is the same one our society has been taking since 2001.

The Dark Knight Rises does such a good job tying together and wrapping up this story that it makes comparing the three films against one another difficult. I think The Dark Knight Rises is the best in the series, because its story is tighter than the other two, its characters are, on the whole, richer, and the scope is greater. Furthermore, being the conclusion of the trilogy, the movie just feels more complete than its predecessors.

Granted, The Dark Knight Rises lacks a stellar performance like that given by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, but Ledgers performance (and, I’d argue, Aaron Eckhart’s as Harvey Dent/Two Face) overshadowed the second film’s plot holes (Batman’s non-injurious forty plus story fall that left the Joker in a room full of wealthy socialites) and cinematic flourishes that, while thematically appropriate, were narratively superfluous (the CCTV-like cell phone enabled invasion of privacy device that gave Batman digital sonar). Additionally, the Two Face ending felt tacked on in The Dark Knight, like it had been planned for a sequel but had to be included in the second film because of the death of Heath Ledger.

The Dark Knight Rises contains none of these inconsistencies and is a stronger movie for it. It is my favorite film in the series.

A common criticism of Batman films is that the hero is eclipsed by his villains. This is usually because he has been treated as a James Bond-like character with a static emotional journey. His villains face tragedy, work (wrongly) to overcome it, and ultimately fail. The movies are essentially the villains’ stories, and Batman is just there to make sure they learn their lesson.

Nolan’s Batman films, on the other hand, are Bruce Wayne’s story. Bruce’s emotional arc is the driving force of each film and of the trilogy in general. The other narrative arcs of the story, be they the Joker’s, Commissioner Gordon’s, or whoever’s, are important too, but in the end they are reflective of and serve Bruce Wayne’s. They all help answer Batman’s driving question.

That question is, “What do we do about our fear?” In Batman Begins, Bruce tries running from his fear, but he learns that does not work. In The Dark Knight, he is tempted to become like his fear, to fight fear by becoming more ferocious. This too is a fool’s errand, because in the end, to become like your fear is to give your fear a home within yourself. Now, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce tries hiding from his fear, but this too proves fruitless.

All these methods of dealing with fear are ill-founded because, ultimately, they are all a denial of fear, like saying there is nothing to be afraid of. This is a lie, and, as The Dark Knight Rises exemplifies, your can’t build peace on a lie. The only way, finally, to combat fear is to embrace it. One has to own up to the thing one is afraid of and continue moving forward, to continue living anyway.

The Dark Knight Rises says that Bruce has to admit, accept, and embrace his fear, or, as Jesus said it, “Love [his] enemy,” which is his fear. And what does that love look like? It takes the form that love always takes – self-sacrifice. Batman stops running, fighting, and hiding, and is finally willing to lose himself if that’s what it takes to save Gotham from its fear. He has to say, “I’m afraid,” and jump anyway.

This is the same emotional journey my finacee and I had to take to go see The Dark Knight Rises this morning and the same emotional journey that millions of people across the country have to take this weekend as well. We had to accept our fear and sit in that theater anyway. This is the same emotional journey society has to take as we move forward in a time when terror is the weapon of choice by our enemies. We can’t run away. We can’t become like them. We can’t hide. We have to accept that we are afraid, embrace our fear, love our enemies, and continue living.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is so popular because it is so emotionally resonant for its audience. Much like the citizens of Gotham, much like Bruce Wayne, we live in a time of terror, a climate of fear, and we must learn to accept it and live anyway. We must be willing to sacrificially love each other and our enemies if we are going to find a truly peaceful way forward.