What’s the matter with Gotham?
Wait, let me back up.
After we saw The Dark Knight Rises, my best friend lamented . . .
Wait, let me back up again. SPOILERS. MASSIVE, DIRTY, NEVER GOING TO GET TAKEN HOME TO THE MEET THE PARENTS SPOILERS. SPOILERS OF STUFF THAT WAS IN THE TRAILERS IN CASE YOU DIDN’T WATCH THOSE LEST YOU GOT SPOILED.
There. Now, where were we?
After we saw The Dark Knight Rises, my best friend lamented the uprising that followed Bane taking over the city. The attack on the 1% didn’t sit well with her. She saw it in direct contradiction of the superlative humanist moment in The Dark Knight‘s finale, when each of the ships chose not to blow up the other.
Did you hear that, Joker? Your plan for chaos failed! Prisoners —convicted murderers — aren’t going blow up innocent people to save their own skin. Those same innocent people aren’t going to go in for a mass death penalty. Take that.
So how can those same people follow Bane? What’s changed in the last 8 years?
What’s the matter with Gotham?
When my best friend made this complaint, I asked her to cut Gotham a little slack. Sure, there was an initial frenzy, but pretty soon people were hiding in their houses. The streets were deserted, lest you get roughed up for stealing an apple (man, is there a greater symbol of inequality and injustice in literature and cinema than being forced to steal a singular basic food item? Paging Jean Valjean!). Worse yet, you might end up in front a Kangaroo court, forced to choose between death or exile.
Even so, I think “What’s the matter with Gotham?” might be the wrong question. Or rather, I think it’s lonely without its twin. “What’s the matter with Bruce Wayne?” is more to the point.
Sometime ago I confessed to a far bigger comics geek than I (especially on the DC side of things) that one of the reasons I so enjoy the Nolan trilogy is its focus not on the original Bob Kane stuff but the Batman: Year One/Frank Miller side of things. I’ve watched all manner of Batmans over the years, yet they always side-step his most important quality — Batman is a fuckin’ weirdo. There’s just something not right about a young man who is so thoroughly unable to cope with his parents’ murders that he dons a mask and positions himself outside and above the law for the sake of . . . what, exactly? Gotham?
Gotham hasn’t exactly done Bruce Wayne any favours. It took his parents and was willing to let their killer walk for the sake of catching a bigger fish. While Batman went after organized crime, the city rewarded him with true villainy in the Joker, a man with no motivations, no allegiances, and no goals. Other franchises suggest supervillains are born in response to superheroes, but there was no sense of that here. The Joker is the same as Batman — born out of the shadows. It was the city that failed to keep him locked up and in line.
Still, Batman was able to stop such a man. And what was his reward? Exile.
Exile’s just another form of death. In some ways, it’s worse. It takes his muscles, his skills, and his reputation, then digs down a little deeper for a piece of his soul. Gotham needed an idea, alright, but one idea wasn’t enough. A hero to inspire them wasn’t enough. They wanted a villain, too.
So when Blake tells Bruce it’s time to come back (prepare your suspension of disbelief for a barrel roll of its very own in that scene), you have to wonder why Bruce has anything for Gotham other than a double deuce. Alfred wonders much the same thing. We finally get our answer:
“The city needs me, Alfred.”
“The city needs Bruce Wayne.”
That’s the problem: it needs both, but it can only have one. And the person making that decision, the one left holding the trigger, doesn’t know how to be Bruce Wayne anymore. Hell, he never really did. Fast cars and faster women were all props in a performance. Bruce Wayne only exists to make room for Batman. And Batman only exists because Gotham made room for him. Hero or villain, it doesn’t matter. The city needshim.
Gotham didn’t get the hero it needed. They tried that with Harvey Dent. No, Gotham got the hero it deserved — one born out of pain, suffering, and shadows. Bane thought he was Gotham’s reckoning and pretended to be its deliverance, but he knew he could never be either. He wasn’t born out of its brokenness the way Batman was. He couldn’t rise above it, fight his way into the dawn, and disappear forever into that blinding light the way Batman could. The way Batman was meant to.
Who Batman is doesn’t matter any more than which city Gotham represents. There’s a reason why Bruce clings so tightly to the city that took everything from him. It’s the one thing he has left to give. No, not his life, although he’ll get that in the exchange.
The thing that Bane, and Gotham before him, tried to stomp out of him at every turn. The thing that brought Bruce Wayne back to Gotham after 7 years and the thing that brings him out of retirement after 8. The one last thing he can restore to the city before he goes.
It’s a small gift, one that Bane claims lends cruelty to despair. But he doesn’t really get it. Bane knows love, but he’s never really known hope. It wasn’t Bruce’s fear of death that needed restored. It was his will to live. The hope that there might be something more, something beyond the cape, to live for. It’s the smile on Lucius’ face and the way Gordon runs his hand over the restored signal. It’s Robin in the cave. Above all, it’s Alfred’s small nod.
Goodnight, Dark Knight. It’s your turn to rest. Another will rise in your stead. And with him, hope.