The ominous tag line for the forthcoming Batman film finale The Dark Knight Rises reads: "The Legend Ends."
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who directed and co-wrote 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight, is bringing his Dark Knight trilogy – as the tag line clearly states – to a definite end with the impending release of The Dark Knight Rises this week.
But more importantly, Nolan’s last Batman film also marks the end of the defining genre narrative of post-9/11 cinema. Forget Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga. The tormented and steadfast Caped Crusader is the one we are all looking to for guidance and solace in the face of uncertain times for the country and the world. Everyone wants to see how Batman handles the next onslaught of threats aimed at Gotham City.
"You’ve changed things. Forever. There’s no going back." The late Heath Ledger delivered that haunting line in his Oscar winning portrayal as Batman’s arch-nemesis – the Joker – from The Dark Knight. Conveniently, the quote can act as an allegory for how Christopher Nolan was able to weave a surface story that adheres to the conventions of the superhero genre: a dark and brooding masked hero (Batman) mentally and physically battling a garishly colorful villain (Joker), but in actuality the struggle between Batman and the Joker was a sub textual metaphor for our nation’s ongoing “war on terrorism,” especially since the events of 9/11.
Batman had to cross ethical lines while hunting down the Joker by essentially wiretapping cell phones to pin down his location and put an end to his terroristic threats and attacks. Sounds similar to the secret domestic wiretapping program that was uncovered during the Bush administration. Consciously or unconsciously, audiences here in the U.S. and abroad were drawn into the layered "real" world interpretation represented in Nolan’s Batman epic, and turned The Dark Knight into a cultural phenomenon that grossed over a billion dollars at the world box office. Nolan succeeded in shedding the standard conventions of the genre to transcend all other superhero films, not unlike the way Clint Eastwood turned the western genre on its head with his masterpiece Unforgiven.
Often forgotten in the conversation – due to the significant impact of The Dark Knight – is how Batman Begins pitted the rookie Dark Knight against a clandestine organization of militant warriors who are hell-bent on destroying Gotham City with a biological weapon of mass destruction. The charismatic villain Ra’s al Ghul is the leader of the League of Shadows organization and the parallels between him and Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network are blatantly evident throughout the third act of Batman Begins. From the very beginning of his Dark Knight cinematic narrative Nolan has been tapping into our anxieties and fears of another terrorist attack occurring on the same scale of 9/11. Nolan’s Batman was forged and reconstructed as a morally ambivalent outlaw who takes it upon himself to make the difficult decisions in the age of terrorism. As in the climax of Batman Begins when Batman – having already established his trademark "no killing” stance in his personal code of ethics earlier in the film – refuses to kill Ra’s al Ghul, but instead decides to save himself and lets Ra’s perish on his own in the climactic battle. The contradictory nature of Batman’s decision highlights what differentiates this Batman and his on-screen saga from all the rest. We secretly like his moral ambiguity when it comes to dealing with his enemies. And it’s not the first time our culture has embraced a movie character with those qualities – remember Dirty Harry?
Now with the last chapter about to unfold in The Dark Knight Rises the question is: can Nolan deliver a worthy ending to his era-defining Batman opus?
Answer: The world will be watching to find out starting at midnight on July 19.