As with our recent article on Batman Begins, this won’t exactly be a traditional “review” of The Dark Knight Rises so much as an examination of the comics that directly inspired the film, previous iterations of the character on the big screen, and the things that Christopher Nolan chose to pinch and blend together from the two of those in order to give us a recognizable version of Cinema Batman. Some of the most legendary moments in Nolan’s trilogy are those of true originality, but it’s good to remember every now and then that Bruce Wayne has been around a hell of a lot longer than Nolan and Co.
And if we’re talking comics that influenced Nolan’s last Batfilm, the only one really worth mentioning is Knightfall. Yes, there are a whole host of comic arcs that can claim to be influences for parts of Rises — the No Man’s Land arc sees Gotham cordoned off from the rest of the world; the four-part story The Cult has a villain operating from the sewers; Bane is the explicit right-hand man of Ra’s al Ghul in 1999’s Bane of the Demon; and Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns has a similar premise and conclusion to Nolan’s Rises, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
Movie-wise TDKR owes no small debt of gratitude to Tim Burton’s Batman films, in particular Batman Returns. Ben Mendelsohn’s rival mogul John Daggett (though a similar character named Daggett appears in Batman: The Animated Series) is a relative rehash of Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck in Returns, albeit in more of a minor supporting role. Both Daggett and Shreck believe they’re controlling their respective supervillain allies (Bane and The Penguin), but it’s really the other way around (“Do you feel in charge?”) while both also have a controlling interest in Catwoman. Meanwhile, speaking of Catwoman, the masquerade ball dance scene in TDKR is another clear parallel to Burton’s Returns:
But now: Knightfall. The year-long, multiple-issue crossover event was the biggest in Batman history, and probably the most important. This was 1993-94, when the likes of Terminator and James Bond were in high popularity and superheroes were simply not. Batman fandom was slipping as more violent, action-oriented protagonists took the center stage — to state it less tangentially, the “cool” thing wasn’t heroes that put bad guys in jail but heroes that fought bad guys to the death. The impetus for the entirety of Knightfall, then, was to somehow provide a timely reminder that Batman’s no-killing way is the only way. The series introduced the hulking Bane, a new and formidable opponent. He speaks with a kind of doomed elegance:
He releases the prisoners of Arkham Asylum:
He learns Batman’s true identity:
And, eventually, he breaks Bruce’s back and takes the Dark Knight out of commission:
So right there we pretty much have the whole premise of TDKR. Bruce Wayne recuperates and returns to Gotham to set things right, and Bane goes to prison.
But Knightfall introduced a second character alongside Bane: Jean-Paul Valley, an upstart crimefighter known on the streets as Azrael, who is taken in by Bruce as a kind of second Robin as Knightfall begins. When Bane breaks the Bat in Batman #497, Bruce goes away — but Batman remains. Valley takes up the mantle of the Caped Crusader and continues fighting crime in Gotham as Bruce recoups. His tactics and general philosophy of do-gooding gradually become more and more dangerous, reaching a point where it’s less “do-gooding” and more “psychopathic ego stroking”:
In TDKR, Bruce returns to defeat Bane and to reclaim his city; in Knightfall, Bruce returns to defeat this new Batman and to reclaim himself. It’s clear why Nolan and Co. chose to omit Valley altogether, opting instead to develop Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character and place more focus on the Batman/Bane battle. Still, the titular Rise of the Dark Knight is actually more powerful in Knightfall because Bruce essentially has to fight to win back a part of his own soul. Tom Hardy’s Bane does refer to the destruction of Gotham City as the torture of Bruce’s soul, so I suppose there is an additional parallel there.
Easy as it is to dub TDKR as “Knightfall sans Valley”, it’s really the ending that makes Rises, for better or worse, a unique Batman story. When Bruce becomes Batman again at the end of Knightfall, it’s a new beginning. He’s still Batman. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — which again, has a strikingly similar conclusion — Batman fakes his own death as he does in Rises. In Returns, though, he continues operating underground with his new Sons of Batman. The point is that no Batman story, regardless of how many scene-by-scene comparisons there are to other Batman stories, ever concluded with the actual end of Batman.
…except The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce retires to Italy with Selina Kyle, toasts Alfred as he drinks a Fernet Branca in a little riverside café, and then — well, and then nothing, presumably. JGL’s John Blake is shown discovering the Batcave, which is as much as we get in the way of the Batman mythos living on in Gotham. But it’s not Bruce’s Batman, and while Valley and others have worn the cape and cowl again and again in the comics, it’s always made clear that they’re really just filling shoes. Rises is a heckuva movie by any standard — Nolan, Batman, summer blockbuster — but that ending, though powerful and exciting and really quite perfect for Nolan’s set of movies…it just isn’t very Bruce Wayne-like.
There’s a line in Batman #403 (a simple and fantastic issue sadly eclipsed by the fact that Miller’s game-changing Year One appeared in #404-#407) that states “Batman is indeed two men…and both are Bruce Wayne”. There is no one without the other, especially not through a simple “retirement”. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises, in that sense, drops the ball on Batman. But hey: it’s Hollywood. If Nolan had even whispered a suggestion that he’d be back for more comic book fun, everybody and their sidekick would be hounding him until he obliged or finally disappointed them. We can give Nolan a break, then. He made a beautiful, self-contained trilogy that got very close to the heart of Batman and recalled important elements from the comics, the TV shows, Burton’s 1992 Returns, and — yes — getting rid of a bomb in the Adam West Batman: