The Dark Knight rises only when Batman returns to Gotham after his imprisonment as a different kind of superhero, one no longer tied to mastery.
Batman is able to defeat Bane when he escapes from the prison. Because Batman is no longer a master, he no longer fears Bane.
Without his mask and his distorted voice, Selina Kyle is able to kill Bane easily, despite her lack of gadgetry or super strength.
In order to defeat Bane and Tate, Batman must enlist the help of the others, including the orphan Blake and the criminal Kyle.
Bruce not only has sex with Miranda Tate, he also trusts her with the keys to a fusion reactor, not realizing that she is the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul.
When we first meet Selina Kyle, she is stealing from Bruce Wayne. And yet, at the end of the film, he must trust her in order to defeat Tate and Bane.
Kyle not only steals Bruce’s pearl necklace, but she also betrays him to Bane. She nonetheless proves worthy of his trust in the film’s conclusion.
Batman provides Selina Kyle with the keys to the Batcycle, and she assists in saving Gotham despite counseling Bruce not to do so.
Nolan uses a close-up of Kyle’s voice talking about revolution to reveal his trustworthiness, despite her criminality in the film. Like Bane’s, her voice is the site of truth.
Alfred fantasizes that Bruce will free himself from Batman and live a normal life. It is this fantasy of a normal life that is the real trap for Bruce.
Freud conceives the ego ideal as the position that sees us as we want to be seen. This is precisely the position that Alfred occupies for Bruce.
The film reveals that Bruce repaired the autopilot function on the Bat. Thus, we know that his final act was not necessarily a self-sacrifice.
Selina Kyle and the device that she seeks—one that would erase all symbolic identity—is the true alternative that the film does not pursue.
A normal life for Bruce Wayne is the real danger that the film presents. This places him within the fantasy that Alfred proffers for him.
On two occasions in Dark Knight Rises, Bruce trusts someone with a revolutionary technological device. These are the first occasions in the trilogy when Batman has trusted anyone outside his circle of intimates. Even when he hoped that Harvey Dent would constitute a licit version of himself, he never offered Dent the keys to the Batcycle, as he does with Selina Kyle. He guards his technological gadgets because they are a crucial source of his power and, in the wrong hands, they could do considerable harm. But this caution diminishes with the increased threat in Dark Knight Rises.
Each time that Bruce engages in an act of trust, it is with a woman. The first time seems to be the better bet. He gives Miranda Tate control of the fusion reactor developed by Wayne Enterprises. As head of an ecological organization and Bruce’s one-time lover, she seems trustworthy. But Bruce’s trust in her is wholly misplaced. It leads to her nearly successful attempt to destroy the city of Gotham by using the reactor’s core as a nuclear weapon. Later, as Batman is on the verge of defeating Bain, she stabs him with a knife and proclaims her true identity as Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter. Though Bruce was wrong to trust her, she gave him every reason to believe that she was worthy of that trust, and the device that he gives her seems to hold great revolutionary hopes.
The promise of the fusion reactor is free energy for Gotham. This would eliminate the monopoly that the wealthy have on energy and create an opportunity for much greater equality. But the problem with such a device is not just its potential, as Bruce fears, for it becoming a weapon. One can also imagine capitalists finding a way to charge for the distribution and consumption of the energy, even if its production had no costs. The allure of free energy, properly controlled, is a capitalist dream, not a revolutionary one. In this sense, Tate’s betrayal inheres within the device itself.
In contrast to Miranda Tate, Bruce has little reason to trust Selina Kyle. She is a criminal rather than someone committed to ecological change. She stole the pearl necklace belonging to Bruce’s mother from his house safe and later betrayed him to Bane after promising to help him. Nonetheless, Bruce does trust her with this device, and Kyle proves completely trustworthy. While Tate wants to restore a lost sense of balance through destruction, Kyle expresses an egalitarian sensibility.
Throughout the film, Kyle, though a thief, clearly aligns herself with revolution. At a charity ball where she dances with Bruce Wayne, the camera rotates around the dancing couple as they move across the dance floor. But then Kyle moves her mouth close to Bruce’s ear, while both the bodily and camera movement stop. She tells him,
Though Bruce doesn’t respond, the way that Nolan shoots Kyle’s statement reveals its efficacy and truthfulness.
The cessation of all movement and the attention to Kyle’s mouth signals that this represents a moment where the truth pierces through the overriding symbolic fiction. Here, as with Bane at other times in the film, Kyle’s voice becomes detached from her body and functions as an object speaking what all the wealthy attendees of the ball repress. It is almost as if Nolan uses a close-up on Kyle’s voice itself. It is this voice that Bruce can trust, even if Kyle’s intentions are criminal.
Kyle is desperate to acquire a device that would erase one’s entire history and thereby allow one to start over from scratch. She steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints for the capitalist Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) in exchange for such a device, but when she gives him the prints, he informs her that no such technology exists. In theory, it would wipe out every computerized record of one’s identity and enact a form of symbolic suicide. Though Kyle wants to use this device to escape her life of crime, it nonetheless embodies the spirit of revolution itself.
The symbolic identities that we have sustain prevailing inequalities and relations of production. Only a break from such identity could facilitate a genuine social change. In his plea for revolutionary change, Theory of the Subject, Alain Badiou insists on the evacuation of identity as a prerequisite for such change. He proclaims,
Only by destroying one’s identity can one endure the capacity for risk that revolution requires.
Though the nuclear core that Bruce gives over to Tate has the power to destroy the city of Gotham, the device that he gives to Kyle has a greater power. It offers the possibility of a complete break from the past. It embodies the revolutionary event, a point at which the sedimented identities of the social structure explode and give way to new possibilities.
But Dark Knight Rises does not explore the revolutionary potential of the erasure device that Batman gives to Kyle. Though Bruce overcomes his mastery in the prison, he is unable to overcome the idea of an authentic self outside of the mask rather than an authentic self within the mask (like the authentic voice of Bane). This leads him the illusion of a normal life, an illusion that is not even his own but that of Alfred.
Alfred as villain
Throughout the three Nolan Batman films, the figure of Alfred occupies a special place for Batman and for the spectator. Unlike the other characters within the filmic universe, Alfred knows the truth of Batman and, at the same time, cares for him like a surrogate father. His constant reference to Bruce as “Master Wayne” both secures Bruce in a position of mastery and infancy, given the multiple meanings of the term “master.” Alfred still looks at Bruce like at a young “Master” who hasn’t yet graduated to the title “Mister,” and yet he remains for Alfred the undisputed master of the house.
Concerning Bruce’s enemies, Alfred always offers sage advice. In The Dark Knight, he warns Bruce that the Joker is unlike other criminals who have a consequentialist agenda, and in Dark Knight Rises, he offers Bruce an honest assessment of his physical readiness to confront Bain. Alfred doesn’t simply tell Bruce what he wants to hear, which is what many servants do. Instead, he sees Bruce from the position he wants to be seen, which is what the ego ideal does.
Though Freud never explicitly delineates the distinction between them, the ideal ego and ego ideal play vastly different roles for the subject. In his essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” he provides the clearest explanation of their effects within the psyche. The ideal ego is, as Freud puts it,
The ideal ego presents the subject with an image of how it wants to see itself, which is why Jacques Lacan relegates this formation to the imaginary register. The power of the ideal ego keeps the subject within the confines of its own ego without any awareness of any outside authority (even if this authority might govern what appears as an ideal).
Just a bit later in his narcissism essay, however, Freud abruptly shifts his terminology. After explaining the ideal ego, he turns to a discussion of the ego ideal without detailing the difference between the two terms. But the association of the ego ideal with the surveillance of the subject that Freud suggests in the essay provides the key to the distinction. While the ideal ego derives from the subject itself and provides an ideal with which it can identify, the ego ideal is associated with social authority, which is why later Freud will place the figure of social authority in the psyche, the superego, in apposition with the ego ideal.
The ego ideal is an external measuring stick located within the psyche, an ideal point from which the subject imagines itself being seen, which is why Freud links this agency to surveillance. As such, it is a manifestation of the law, as Jacques Lacan makes clear in his discussion of it. In his Seminar I, Lacan notes,
That is to say, the ego ideal is a measuring stick by which we think of ourselves in terms of what the social authority demands of us. The ego ideal may seem like our friend within social authority (while the superego is our enemy), but its attachment to this authority is nonetheless just as strict.
When Alfred leaves Bruce, this creates the possibility for Bruce’s break from the position of the master. But the problem is that Alfred never leaves Bruce’s psyche. He makes sure of this when he relates the fantasy that he concocted about Bruce during the latter’s absence from Gotham. Alfred sentimentally tells Bruce,
Here, Alfred provides a concise articulation of an ideological fantasy. It is the fantasy of a life without the mask, the fantasy of a true life lived elsewhere.
Though Alfred presents this fantasy as his own, it is in fact Bruce’s fantasy. It involves being seen from the exact perspective from which one wants to be seen—that of the ego ideal. As Alfred recounts this fantasy, Nolan cuts to images of the sighting in the café. In the montage sequence that concludes the film, Nolan includes a scene in the café from the fantasy that repeats the fantasy almost exactly. We see the same look from Alfred, though this time Bruce is accompanied by Selina Kyle.
It is tempting to interpret this scene as just Alfred’s private fantasy with no diegetic reality. But this would miss the real deceit that Nolan explores here. If the beginning of Dark Knight Rises aims to deceive us about the film’s true villain in order to show the danger that resides in the ideal of balance, the film’s conclusion offers an even more cunning deceit. When we hear that Bruce Wayne repaired the autopilot function on the Bat that he used to fly the nuclear device out to sea and we see the Bat Signal miraculously repaired, we know right away that this implies Batman could have survived the blast by jumping from the aircraft prior to the bomb’s detonation.
By showing Bruce living out Alfred’s fantasy, Nolan offers the perfect Hollywood resolution. The hero retires with the romantic partner at his side. And yet, here the conventional ending cannot but disappoint because it illustrates the extent to which Bruce has misunderstood the nature of his own subjectivity. His subjectivity does not reside in the identity of Bruce Wayne who has permanently left the Batman’s mask behind. It resides in the mask itself, in the truth that appearance allows to emerge. The mask is the truth of the subject because it manifests the past trauma. This is the case for both Batman and Bane in the film: both wear a mask in response to a trauma that has scarred their being irreparably, and the promise of life without the mask, like the promise of life beyond trauma, is an ideological lie. This is the lie that Alfred peddles in the film.
Batman can defeat all villains, even Bane, but he cannot defeat Alfred. When contrasted with the superego, the ego ideal usually gets good press. But the conclusion of Dark Knight Rises reveals its treachery. As the ego ideal, Alfred offers Bruce a position from which he can see himself as likeable, and this will allow him to avoid the radical alternative embodied in the device that he gave to Selina Kyle.
The film’s final scene is not the scene depicting Alfred’s recognition of Bruce and Kyle in the Italian café. Instead, Nolan opts to conclude with Blake (revealed at the end of the film to have a given name of “Robin”) entering into the Batcave and seemingly taking up the role of the superhero. The suggestion here is that Blake will become Robin to Bruce’s Batman, the superhero Nightwing, or perhaps even the new Batman. On a purely cynical level, this ending paves the way for a sequel, but it also serves to undermine Bruce’s decision to retreat from the mask in the penultimate scene. Most Hollywood films would simply end with the café scene and avoid an additional scene that might detract from the typical fantasy. Blake’s discovery of the Batcave could easily have preceded the scene in the Italian café. Nolan’s decision to end the film with Blake rather than with the fantasmatic scene of Bruce and Selina reveals just how unsatisfying this fantasy is.
Despite the numerous leftist attacks on Dark Knight Rises, perhaps Rush Limbaugh was right to fear its release. Though its creators avowedly adopt a Dickensian moral view of political change and thereby implicitly reject the possibility of genuine revolution, the film nonetheless points to where true radicality lies—in the mask itself and the truths that the mask enables us to utter. And at the same time, it makes evident the psychic barrier that confounds our revolutionary dreams. The problem is not the fantasy of Batman—people believing that they are superheroes or believing that a superhero might save them. No, the problem is Alfred and our investment in his belief that there is someone beyond the mask, that there is another life, a better life, in an Italian café. We can live with the fantasy of Batman, but we can’t live with the reality of Bruce Wayne.