One of the things that makes Batman such an interesting character is that he blends several motivations. He is a force of vengeance and justice. And while his life as Batman began on the night his parents died, the hero he has become has evolved beyond that singular motivation.
One of the highlights of the Dark Knight Trilogy is the way that the films explore Bruce Wayne’s development into who he is, looking at his motivations as he goes along. One of the first motivations the films hit upon is vengeance. Bruce Wayne lost his parents to a common criminal. Wanting vengeance against criminals is a natural response to that.
In the Golden Age origin of the character, he prays that night and swears that he will spend his life warring on criminals. In Batman Begins, he goes one step further, actively planning to kill Joe Chill on the day of his trial. Vengeance is taken from Bruce when the mob kills Chill, which leaves him aimless. Fortunately, with some help from his friend Rachel, he is able to realize that vengeance would not have brought him any real satisfaction. While Batman has a definite disdain for criminals (an attitude he brings into The Dark Knight when he dismisses the Joker, saying “Criminals aren’t complex”), he is not driven solely by the desire for vengeance. If he was, he wouldn’t be called Batman anymore. He’d be called the Punisher.
Bruce’s quest for vengeance eventually leads to his desire to become a symbol of justice. In Batman Begins, this is driven home when Carmine Falcone shows how powerful he is due to his life of crime, to the point where he can kill Bruce Wayne in public next to some police officers if he wanted. This moment drives home the truth of the Wayne murders: they would not have happened if Gotham wasn’t so overrun by crime. It is this moment that Bruce leaves Gotham for years to train as Batman. It’s not enough to merely hate criminals – Batman has to bring justice to the world. As Gotham falls into corruption, it enables more evil men to do evil things. Bringing criminals to justice not only stops individual crimes, but helps create a crime-free culture.
Tied in with Batman as a symbol of justice is a desire to bring hope back to the downtrodden. This is where the life of Thomas Wayne holds the greatest influence over Bruce. Thomas saw a world that could be made better, where the rich could use their resources to help the poor and where people didn’t have to live in fear. Bruce, likewise, seeks a world where hope can empower people. That’s why he helps to cover up the death of Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight – people had embraced Dent as a symbol of hope for Gotham, and Bruce and Gordon decided that at that moment hope was more important than truth.
Hope is also what saves Batman and keeps him on the path of heroism. Because he sees the best in people, he sees the city of Gotham as worth saving despite the arguments of Ra’s al Ghul. He puts his trust in Selina Kyle despite her not having earned it and is ultimately rewarded. And the ultimate difference between Batman and Bane is that in prison Bane saw hope as a foe while Bruce ultimately embraced it and allowed it to empower him enough to escape.
Bruce Wayne is a man without a childhood. His innocence was taken away from him when he watched his parents get killed in front of him. And ultimately, more than anything else, he never wants to see another person put through that. If Christopher Nolan made another Batman movie, it would be my wish to see some interaction between Batman and a child. That’s where he shines and where his true humanity shows through. Whether it’s taking in a boy who has lost his parents and giving him a purpose as Robin or simply funding orphanages in Gotham, Bruce cares about children, wanting to see them embrace opportunities he never received. In The Dark Knight Rises, this goes far enough that he not only helps to fund orphanages but also leaves Wayne Manor to those children in his will. Bruce is never a man who forgets what he has lost, and his biggest driving motivation is to see that nobody else faces those terrors.
One of the most satisfying things about The Dark Knight Rises is seeing Bruce finally achieve his goals. In comics, there is no retirement for the Batman. The serial nature of those stories means that Gotham will never get cleaned up. Even in alternate continuities such as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond, Batman fights a losing battle, with Gotham actually winding up worse following Batman’s retirement. But because The Dark Knight Rises represents an ending to this trilogy, we can get an end to Batman. By the end of this film, Bruce has indeed saved Gotham. Sure, the city is in shambles thanks to Bane’s attacks, but it is in position to rebuild. Gordon is in charge of the police force and has a stable of honest cops. The mob has been driven away. Wayne Enterprises is in the capable hands of Lucius Fox. He city has hope because of the symbol of Batman, who proves that one man can bring justice and hope to the world. And if things ever do get bad, there is a new Batman ready to put fear back into the hearts of criminals.
I think the ending of The Dark Knight Rises is what elevates these films into something great. Not only do we have a complete story told over three films, but we get to see something that comics simply will never show us – a Bruce Wayne who really did improve Gotham and who gets to enjoy retirement with the knowledge of a job well done. With everything that Batman has gone through over 70 years of comics and adaptations, it’s time for the guy to enjoy some real happiness for a change.
Images: Warner Brothers