Reel Time Machine is a new Substream column in which we will reflect on films during their anniversaries. Do they still hold up the test of time? Are they better than we remember? Sit back and take a journey with us as we figure it out. 

When we reach the end of The Dark Knight, Gotham is on the precipice of a peaceful period. Only the audience sees Harvey Dent’s evil deeds, which have to be covered up by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman/ Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). The final frame of one of the best comic book films ever sees Batman ride off as a perceived villain and Dent a faithful martyr. But peace can’t last if it’s built on a shaky foundation.

Director Christopher Nolan forged a metamorphosis of Bruce Wayne in different ways leading up to The Dark Knight Returns. In Batman Begins, Bruce loses his parents, rejects his identity, retreats to a place where he can learn to be more than a symbol, and overcomes his mentor to save his beloved city. The Dark Knight provided a villain like The Joker (Heath Ledger) while messing with his psyche while not overpowering him. He kills the one person Bruce wanted to give up the mantle for in Rachel Dawes and almost has him forgo his principles of combat.

So, what does Nolan do? He not only provides a villain who can attack Bruce from all angles in Bane (Tom Hardy) but also uses Bruce’s arrogance and complacency against him. Eight years later, Bruce is a bearded reclusive with a walking cane and has no interest in building a life outside the cape. Alfred (Michael Caine) teases him about nonexistent dates and going outside. In all seriousness, he wants Bruce to gain a purpose leading to more pain and death — a fate Bruce Wayne almost welcomes with open arms. It’s as if he’s indirectly resentful of the status Harvey Dent obtained under falsehood.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros/D.C.

With all these blind spots, the story of The Dark Knight Rises takes more from Bruce Wayne until it strips him bare. Even with an eight-year absence, Bruce is still wealthy and can afford to exit stage left from society. Meanwhile, “a storm” is coming for Gotham — because as much as TDKR is a superhero film, it’s a socio-economical critique. This divide will make Bane and his criminal enterprise look like heroes. The power vacuum allows for this to happen. Some prisoners rounded up to go to Blackgate prison were arrested under false pretenses. The well-off returned to their glitzy parties, creating people like Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). She doesn’t necessarily have an allegiance to a good or evil side; it’s more who can do more to help her. Selena desires a fresh start from her life of crime.

The theft of his mother’s pearls and fingerprints by Selena and the boogeyman whispers of Bane implores Bruce to get back into action. However, the audience has Alfred’s point of view. Bruce is broken down physically, but carries a (skewed) mentality he can will his way to victory. That’s not how any of this works. It’s the Rocky 3 parable when the champ becomes entranced in wins, and a hungry challenger takes him out. Bane is a mirror image of Bruce when he was younger and is the physical embodiment that the past doesn’t stay dead.

Alfred makes an excellent point to Bruce right before he goes after Bane before the big fight scene. He had the chance to give all the tools to the police and do good without the cowl, but Bruce is too selfish. Ironically enough, a scrappy police officer named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the personification of what hope can embody. Blake comes from a similar background to Bruce — he lost his parents in tragic ways and was an orphan. However, he’s not sitting in a mansion sulking about it. Some kids in Gotham still need a hero to look up to.

So, Nolan brings Bruce back to the ashes of the beginning. Bruce loses his father figure, meets financial ruin, and has to trust Miranda Tate / Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) out of desperation. He also has to watch Gotham possibly get destroyed while he is nursing the wounds Bane gave him. In the pit, he rediscovers the fear that led him to be a heroic figure.

Upon re-watching The Dark Knight Rises for the umpteenth time, it’s interesting seeing how Christopher Nolan wanted to return to the essence of Batman Begins. Sure, Bruce gets the happy ending Alfred envisioned, and Blake’s name is flippantly revealed as Robin — but for a protagonist to realize his purpose, you often have to give him a baptism by fire. While it’s hard to follow the success and standing of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises strives to give our caped crusader an ending where he has to pull himself from the brink of darkness.