Masked Gotham: A City of Lost Children

In \'The Dark Knight Rises\', Christopher Nolan has transformed the art-house paranoia of \'Batman Begins\' and the urban, hyperrealist decay of \'The Dark Knight\' into a multi-tiered, self-reflexive study into trust, false idols and legacy.



Warning: this article contains spoilers about key plot points in the final instalment of Nolan\'s Dark Knight trilogy.

“The mask keeps the pain at bay,” Tom Conti’s inmate explains of the masked terrorist known only as Bane (Tom Hardy). A convict-turned-dictatorial-warden of a hellish prison – repeatedly referred to as a place of “darkness” and “hell” – Bane wears a grotesque, spider-shaped breathing mask to reduce the extremity of a physical trauma. Conti’s prisoner, however, could be talking about any character in the film, including Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). More than any other film in recent memory, Christopher Nolan’s final instalment of his Batman trilogy conveys the power of the unconscious, evoking how – if unchallenged – our emotional trauma can manifest itself into further anguish and possible self-destruction. If The Dark Knight’s Joker (Heath Ledger) was a cubist, non-representative artist that used violence and bloodshed as an expression of his psychosis, The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane is an expressionistic artist who projects his pain as a theatrical symbol. What previously enfeebled Bane now empowers him, as he declares to a CIA agent in the opening sequence, “No one cared about who I was until I put on the mask.”   

In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan utilises the literal imagery of the ‘mask’ to explore the concept of pain, addressing how we use facades – a honed ego – to protect our fragile ids. The Dark Knight ended with two monologues about the need for faith over truth, but this new film provides a reversal of this sentiment, suggesting that each of the characters consciously and unconsciously protect themselves against their needs. Previously the chorus of this series and a representation of unpretentious decency – bemoaning the corruption of his colleagues like Shakespeare’s Horatio – Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is emotionally and morally paralysed at the beginning of this film, a victim of his own deception. In Oldman’s embittered, anguished performance, Gordon is a soldier who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and displacement: he lionised the “madman” who almost killed his child, demonised the one “friend” who truly understands Gotham’s corruption, lost his family and lied to an entire populace. The “peace” of Gotham stems from Gordon’s distrust in other people: the mask may protect Gotham, Nolan suggests, but it also violates the moral consensus of society, leading to a lack of faith and moral certainty. As a betrayed Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells Gordon, “you betrayed everything you stood for … your hands look plenty guilty to me, Commissioner,” and – through the radical Bane’s attack on Gordon’s legacy of uncertainty and deception – the Harvey Dent treachery creates more violence and social unrest than ever before.     

\"You\'re not living, you\'re just waiting for things to go bad again.\"

Alfred (Michael Caine)

In this respect, the ‘mask’ is not a solution to either individual or communal pain, but an anaesthetise that postpones our anguish. Boldly, Nolan and his writers (which also includes brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, who receives a “Story By” credit) strip away many of the superficial components of their protagonist’s existence, attempting to examine Bruce’s most pertinent emotional needs. By the time that Bane has beaten and imprisoned Batman, Bruce has lost his fortune, control of his company, the friendship of Alfred, the reliance upon a seriously injured Gordon, his anonymity and even his alter ego. In one of the most nakedly emotional scenes in the film, Alfred even takes Bruce’s false memory of Rachel away from him. Like the city of Gotham, Bruce’s faith in others was built on a falsehood, and this intense feeling – although painful and one that leads to the inevitable breakdown in their relationship – is necessary for Bruce’s growth in the film: to confront his pain, not hide from it, for the first time in many years. In this sequence, the true friend Alfred pushes the previously distant and hollow Bruce to an emotionally intense place, addressing that his “mask” is more a source of dependency than the expression of positive action initially intended in Batman Begins. This is a difficult moment for both men, but a necessary one, as Alfred notes. Later, a more reflective Bruce tells Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) that Alfred “left, taking everything”, a mournful elegy to his lost faith.

In this respect, Bruce and Nolan’s villains share the same psychodynamic inclinations, as they tend to revert emotionally from the world and, instead, fixate upon their pain. Bruce, the draconian Ra’s Al Ghul (Josh Pence/Liam Neeson), ‘The Masked Man’ Bane and the revenge-seeking Miranda – or Talia Al Ghul – are all connected by their respective traumas: Ra’s, Bane and Miranda were all victimised by the same oppressive regime, a feudal “hell on earth.” In contrast to The Dark Knight’s monstrous depiction of Joker – a mythical representation of chaos and destruction – these characters are tragic characters pushed to destruction, a cautionary reflection of Bruce’s own propensity towards obsession. In fact, the true villain of the film isn’t Bane, Talia or even Ra’s, but the destructive, draconian legacy of that emotional trauma, and their collective inability to resolve their pain in healthy and constructive ways (a concern also explored in The Dark Knight’s depiction of the tragic hero Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent). A mocking Ra’s tells his former protégé in a dream sequence, “there are many forms of immortality” and – although the three villains escaped from the prison long ago – this disturbed family still define themselves by their pain, a grief that manifests itself into apocalyptic destruction.

In contrast, Nolan suggests that true strength is defined by faith, in which we control our pain, not allow it to overwhelm us. Bruce and the Madame Defarge-like Talia may be lovers and spiritual siblings – her father serves as a mentor to him, they both lost their parents and they are the only two characters who escaped from the hellish prison – but they are defined more specifically by their differences. When Talia and Bruce first meet – in which she, deliciously, is holding a black Venetian mask and dressed in an elegant maroon dress, a reflection of her final military garb – she explains, “you have a practiced apathy … you have to invest if you want to restore balance to the world.” Not only does this line subtly repeat some of her father’s dialogue from the first film (“we have returned to restore the balance”), but it addresses both his need and her want: she seeks to impose “balance” through extreme violence, whilst he needs to “invest” in others in order to protect them.

Later, he makes a literal leap of faith – a spiritual investment in himself – in escaping from the prison, a Biblical moment in which he faces his primal, childhood fears and finally attains self-awareness. All of his strength, friends, toys or forms of assistance are gone. Instead, Nolan returns to the imagery of Batman Begins’ first scene and again places Bruce into a position of danger and darkness – located at the bottom of a well, surrounded by bats – only this time, Bruce rises without any benefit, restoring faith in himself and finally resolving his “practiced apathy”. In that first scene, Bruce discovered the bat cave and the power of the bat symbolism: in this leap, he learns to jump without the trappings of the Batman. Nolan returns to this concept of a leap of faith in the final battle of the film: Blake attempts to lead an “exodus” of children outside Gotham, whilst the morally compromised Foley (Matthew Modine) leads a group of police officers against Bane’s tumblers, a further expression of the power of spiritual faith in overcoming fear (as a redeemed Gordon suggests, the city can only be saved from “the inside”).      

“There are always people that you care about.”


Ultimately, Bruce reclaims the idea of the ‘mask’, reinterpreting the key symbols in his life in a constructive manner. In a final montage, Nolan articulates the power of symbols for constructive, rather than detrimental, means. A representation of death and destruction at the end of The Dark Knight, the Batman embodies self-sacrifice and compassion, as Gotham commemorates him with a statue. His home is no longer the “mausoleum” of pain, as it signified for a brooding Bruce in Batman Begins, but an orphanage, a final recognition of the collective and an ultimate testament to his parents’ humanist values. Bruce repairs the bat symbol, previously a broken testament to Gordon’s shame and guilt. ‘Robin’ John Blake rejects the “shackles” of the police force by possibly re-assuming the Batman legacy (Bruce earlier explained, “the mask is not for you, it’s to protect the people you care about”). Unlike the opening of the film, in which Gotham was suspended in a period of a simmering, unconscious shame, Gotham is finally empowered to sustain itself, with or without Batman. If the series is about the battle between two families (Ra’s and Bruce’s) and their respective approaches to crime fighting, then the ending is a tribute to humanistic values of compassion and charity rather than the punitive, authoritarian approach of Ra’s.

Importantly, Bruce finally re-appropriates symbols of his pain for the possibility of a new and happy life. Initially, Bruce kept his mother’s pearls in a safe, compartmentalising the painful memories of his parents’ murder into a – literally and metaphorically – internalised space. Former prisoner Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) represents a challenge to his comfortable existence, and a possible danger: she steals the pearls, his fingerprints, his car, and betrays him to Bane, leading to his near-death. He has no reason to trust her, but he does (repeatedly saying, “there’s more to you”), a final sign of his emotional growth and movement away from his arrested development. As Bruce has recovered faith in himself, he has rediscovered faith in other people. Key to this development are two dramatic choices: when Batman ‘dies’, composer Hans Zimmer repeats the same cue as Bruce’s parents’ death, a sign that he has finally moved past his previous trauma. Another key moment is obviously Bruce’s final scene with Alfred and Selina: she is wearing his mother’s pearls. The jewellery is no longer hidden, and no longer serves as a source of pain for him: rather, they represent the possibility of hope and a future, a legacy no longer defined by self-destruction. This is also why Bruce and Alfred do not speak to one another: for eight years, Alfred was an emotional enabler, and Bruce no longer needs any psychological props, including any masks.  


Read our official review on The Dark Knight Rises (now in cinemas) here.



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