It would have been real easy, after the critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight (not to mention Inception) for Christopher Nolan to play it safe with the conclusion of his Batman trilogy.  Instead he defies audience expectations and turns in an even more ambitious movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Once again writing with his brother Jonathan, from a tale conceived with David S. Goyer, Nolan draws on key plot points from the Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, and Earthquake comic book storylines, resulting in a nearly three-hour long production.

“I wanted something more for you than that.  I still do.” –Alfred

Gotham City is apparently enjoying the justice of the king, a period of relative peace going on eight years, since the disappearance of Batman, presumed responsible for the death of Harvey Dent.  The deception weighs on Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as well as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale).  Bruce now solely wanders the halls of Wayne Manor while being tended to by the ever-loyal Alfred (Michael Caine), who has known and cared for him since he was a boy.

Two strong women pop into Bruce’s life to draw him back out into the public to tend to his various responsibilities:  Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who’s heading up a clean-energy initiative and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar channeling the Black Widow, who’s caught mid-break-in of Wayne Manor.  Also entering his life is a young cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shares many of Bruce’s childhood traumas.

However, it takes the appearance of Bane (Tom Hardy) to draw out Batman.  The geek community grumbled with the selection of Bane as the features central villain (though after the Joker and Two-Face, not to mention a deft use of the Scarecrow, it’s not like there was a huge clamor for the Penguin or the Mad Hatter).   In Nolan’s tale, Bane, under the seeming Sean Connery impersonation, is a mercenary who wears a mask to neutralize the pain of his wounds.  Rather than injecting venom to give him strength (ala his comic book role), he’s a former member of the League of Shadows, the same group that taught Bruce/Batman.

As part of Bane’s convoluted plan, buildings and social structures collapse under attack.  Anarchy reigns, with prisoners (including the Scarecrow) being released.  They hold court, judging various political and financial leaders for their crimes against the underclass.  Evoking 9/11 trauma as well as the Occupy Movement, the movie touches on a lot of hot spots, but at its core, it’s also about the emotional and physical cost of being Batman.

“You’re not living.  You’re just waiting.” –Alfred

Everyone has to find a way to deal with the pain, suffering, and tragedy that comes with life.  It’s all about moving on.  For Bruce, having to learn to hide the anger, putting on the mask, has been his way of coping things.  Being Batman was his self-medication.  He fought the decadence of Gotham with/under his own moral authority.

But now Bruce has reached a point where he is tired of fighting, worn out by the struggle to do better.  He’s been wounded by the failure of his life’s plan.  He’s lost hope that he may ever find wholeness or the light, feeling broken, beyond repair, as if something is fundamentally wrong with him and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be fixed. Afraid to be around others for fear of saddling them with all of his baggage, letting them see him at his lowest, or worse, letting his disgust and anger with himself pour out over them.  He’s burdened by the weight of his story, his history, and how he is now seen.  By the time Bane has broken him and left him in hell, he has literally hit rock bottom.

“Batman could be anybody.  That was the point.” –Bruce

Bruce/Batman has to come to understand the depth of his failure of doing life his way.  He can’t outrun his demons anymore than he can outrun himself.  Every man has looked up at the light with the hope of freedom.  His situation can’t be true despair without hope.  Hitting bottom means he has reached the end of his self.  That sense of independence and need to control everything about him.  The way out involves a journey inward.  Internal journeying isn’t a matter of thinking one’s way out of something.  It’s about getting his identity straight.  About escaping the walls he’s learned to live within, because continuing to live in the literal and figurative pit of his despair, he wouldn’t be of any use to anyone.  He’d have to risk giving up the masks he carries.

The thing is brokenness can be redeemed.  Bruce/Batman, Gordon, Catwoman (like the Joker and Two-Face before her, offers an equal counterpart and reflection to Batman), Tate, and Bane are all looking for a clean slate, for redemption of sorts.  They each come to their own moment of crisis, a crossroads, and have a decision to make as far as who they are going to be and how they are going to live.  Finding redemption means washing their own wounds and past, giving them up and letting go of them.

“I see the power of belief.” –Alfred

He has to rebuild himself, inside and out.  And even as Bruce goes through the process of shedding the lies he’d wrapped himself in and other people’s expectations of him; at the same time, he (re-)discovers who he is and what he was meant to be.  It means finding forgiveness, for himself as well as others. In so doing, his wounds become occasions for new visions.  It means he may suffer failures and setbacks in his climb, but he has the light of hope and freedom to carry him.  It means taking a leap to freedom, becoming as a child, in order to repair the soul.

Also, in his weakness he has a reminder that he can’t do it alone.  Eventually he needs the support of others to walk alongside him on the path.  In short, sometimes a new man rises from the darkness.

“Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day.” –Alfred

Dark and heavy, The Dark Knight Rises comes full circle, tying together all of the plot strands coming out of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  Against the landscape of urban terrorism and class warfare, there is a deeply resonant emotional tale of the hero in sunset.  It’s not perfect, having to live in the shadow of its predecessor.  However, it continues to stretch what a superhero movie is capable of being and is as fitting a conclusion as anyone could expect.  Just in time for the entire franchise to be re-booted.