SPOILERS ABOUND! This article is intended for readers who have already seen the film.
“Mere improvement is not redemption.” – C.S. Lewis
Why can’t we all have a ‘clean slate’? Why is that so difficult? What has to happen in order to make a clean slate fathomable? Lewis suggests that redemption supersedes the desire to be better. It is an absolute; one can not be partially redeemed. It’s puzzling to consider that a film based on a beloved comic-book character may have something serious to say on the subject, but despite the unquestionable entertainment value of “The Dark Knight Rises”, it proves to be an incredibly serious film.
In “The Dark Knight”, the middle film in Christopher Nolan’s masterful, genre-defining Batman trilogy, Harvey Dent argues that, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” At the film’s climax, these words serve as self-fulfilling prophecy, and Batman accepts the mantle of villain, allowing Gotham City to memorialize her ‘hero’, Harvey Dent. Redemption on a grand scale–for our anti-hero and the city that rejected him–fuels the action and the intrigue in the story’s final chapter, “The Dark Knight Rises”.
From what must they be redeemed? What does redemption even look like? Is a second chance, like the one Selina Kyle/Catwoman hopes to acquire with possession of the ‘clean slate’ software, really enough? Kyle believes that a clean slate will mean anonymity and a criminal record that is expunged. She equates freedom to getting away with her crimes. Her character fascinates us because her actions at the film’s climax confirm that the removal of punishment alone doesn’t satisfy. She has been morally ambiguous throughout, but ultimately chooses a more benevolent path and denies her self-preservation instinct.
Gotham’s redemption appears a more formidable task as she must crawl out from under the inequality and corruption that oppress her like a plague. Though other bloggers/critics have rightly pointed out that the script for this film pre-dated the Occupy Wall Street protests, it is difficult to avoid drawing parallels with a movement that sought to highlight these same faults and inadequacies. Unlike the protestors who called for change, Bane insists that the time for redemption has passed and purposes to bring about Gotham’s reckoning instead. His acts of terrorism remind us that the balance of power is not restored by stealing from the rich, and determining a just punishment for corruption is onerous at best. Despite our occasional impulses to the contrary, Bane’s torment exposes the horror that would ensue if our society was to inflict pain on all of those responsible for its ills. In my opinion, the prevalence of corruption (Gotham’s, and ours) itself corroborates the necessity of a collective redemption, as we all tacitly assent to such indiscretions and abuses of power until some sort of personal affliction results.
But literature, folklore, and religious ideology would have us believe that redemption doesn’t transpire on its own; there must be an agent of change. Mankind’s depravation and subsequent inability to rebound from such a hopeless state compels the establishment of mythical figures (as Barthes and Lewis would employ the term) equipped to succeed where we can not. Batman is one such character, but he must pay a significant price for his own redemption, and that of the city he is determined to protect. A ‘clean slate’ isn’t an easy thing to come by. (At one point the characters question whether it truly exists at all–literally and figuratively!) It can only come at a cost.
For Batman/Bruce Wayne (and us?) the cost is three-fold:
First, he must acknowledge that a ‘fresh start’ is impossible. Commissioner Gordon can not undo the lies he has perpetuated for 8 years to cover-up Dent’s heinous acts, any more than Bruce Wayne can forget about the childhood tragedy that has fuelled his fear and anger throughout his entire life. In another film I viewed this weekend, Sarah Polley’s “Take this Waltz”, Seth Rogen’s character states that, “some things you do in life, they stick.” It is seemingly a condition of our humanity that we will be haunted by the past: mistakes, regrets, tragedies endured. We can not simply return to a time when we were complete, unscathed by the evil we seek to bury. In “The Dark Knight Rises” it is an early visit by John Blake, portrayed admirably by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that brings about this realization for Bruce Wayne and persuades him to once again don the cape and cowl after an extended hiatus. An angry orphan himself, Blake peers deeply into Bruce’s dark soul and reminds him that any effort to deny the permanence of particular qualities and circumstances is futile. Batman’s reappearance on the streets of Gotham is evidence that Wayne has listened.
Next, our hero is humbled in more ways than one. It’s fascinating to note that along with physical training and the obligatory high-tech gadgetry that is his trademark, one of the prerequisites for Batman’s participation in Gotham’s redemption is the loss of his own fortune. Though technically a citizen and a billionaire, Wayne’s distinguishing characteristic was his money. Forced to answer his own door, break into his own house, and eventually, endure a prison where his previous wealth and status earned him no special treatment whatsoever, Wayne realizes perhaps that he can’t truly act on behalf of the people until he is one of them. When he fights alongside hundreds of Gothamites who have themselves sworn to serve and protect the citizens of their great city, he may be the only guy in a batsuit, but he is certainly not swooping in to single-handedly save the day as he did in “The Dark Knight”. Instead, he identifies with the risk and threat of failure that they face daily. He still advocates for them in the name of justice, but also allies with them on the ground where they live.
Finally, Bruce Wayne/Batman is reborn–forever changed by the physical and psychological tests he faces in ‘Bane’s prison’. Forced to watch as Gotham burns, and powerless to respond due to his fractured back, Wayne is confronted with the harsh truth that he lacks the strength, resolve, and resources to overcome such an evil. It is here that Lewis’ quote is most applicable: “Mere improvement is not redemption”. He can not simply wait for his back to heal, grab his gear, and try again; grabbing a rope and climbing out of the hole will not suffice. Wayne’s cellmate suggests that the climb can only be made without a rope due to the super-human ability that the fear of death will inspire. Perhaps more essential to our understanding of redemption as portrayed in the film is the recognition that Wayne’s triumphant climb accomplishes a task that ‘no man’ has ever performed, and in doing so, qualifies him to embody the symbol of hope that he has thus far only aspired to represent to the people. It elevates him above the world of mere mortals to heights of greatness that an entire society may never expect to achieve, heights that could only be reached by a wholly new creation, clean and free of all that previously held him back. The film frequently refers to the damaged condition of Wayne’s ‘soul’, one that is arguably made whole again as he tosses the rope down to the remaining prisoners and takes his initial steps away from pain and suffering toward his destiny as Gotham’s redeemer. The madness and agony and fear that held him hostage are no more!
I relish the sublime final moments of Nolan’s opus, but I’d also be curious to temporarily inhabit the mind of a Gothamite who believes that his ‘saviour’ has made the ultimate sacrifice to allow for his salvation. Regardless of Batman’s eventual fate, Nolan’s film reenforces the tremendous cost of redemption. A ‘clean slate’ can’t be stolen, manufactured, or even earned. Evil will always rise mightily and with destructive power. but the costs of redemption are worth embracing. Failure to do so ensures that we will never defeat the horrors of this world and transcend the dark pasts that limit our potential.