It is not a highly supported argument, in terms of the general fan, to say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is not a good movie. However, the fact is the movie is not particularly good when considered as a single entity; instead, it is an overly-reliant-on-twists Explosion Spectacular Revenge Story by way of Lifetime Movie Network. [A second] However, as a rebuttal, Nolan’s determination to consider the psychological costs of what it means to wear a mask throughout the trilogy as a whole means Rises still has the ability to mean something. [The third] However, in the end, Nolan’s failure to truly address this psychological layering in this last Batman episode is what ends up rendering this as that Revenge Story and why the movie actually fails to deliver on the promise that seems so readily available after the first two movies.
When considering the psychology of masks, most people assume a mask has entirely to do with Hiding and Protection; strange as it may appear on the surface, these two terms can be mutually exclusive: Batman hides his identity, whereas Superman protects his by pretending to be much weaker. In the real world, a person may hide his identity to protect himself—the Witness Protection program, say—or, in a far more common trope, a person may use the protection of never having to identify him/herself to become an internet troll, and, thus, the mask most used today is the computer screen. For Christopher Nolan, however, in the Batman trilogy, the mask is not about H&P; it has everything to do with cultural projection, an interesting twist on how we—the viewer, the community of viewers, society at large—think of ourselves.
Strangely enough, one of the more intriguing interpretations of mask psychology occurs in the aptly named The Mask, a Jim Carrey vehicle that also helped introduce audiences to Cameron Diaz. While it’s easy, and correct overall, to see this movie as just another way for Carrey to act a loon and perform as many impersonations as could be thought of, at its core it asks an important question: Who am I? For Jim Carrey’s character, Stanley Ipkiss, the answer has two parts; on one hand he’s a mild-mannered man who just wants to be loved, on the other, he’s apparently a wildly outgoing man capable of seducing women through sheer will—the Superego and the Id. What we learn while watching, however, is that neither of these two presentations are truly who Stanley Ipkiss is; both are, in their own ways, masks he uses to create a version of himself he believes is most necessary; as the “nice” man he can prevent himself from taking risks that may hurt; as the “mask” he can take whatever risks he wants without any consequences because the masked Stanley is merely a cartoon, a non-reality that eliminates any possibility of hurt. The breakthrough (shallow as it may be) for him is discovering he can win Diaz’s heart by being a combination of the two.
Nolan has long dealt with the idea of identity of self versus the projection of self. In his early movie Memento, with Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a type of short term amnesiac trying to track down his wife’s murderer, we have a narrator who must cope with knowing exactly who he is but is physically incapable of remembering what he does for longer than a few minutes. He literally has no idea who he is in the present moment. Instead of a mask, he covers himself with tattoos, things he has determined to be essential to his identity. The movie is shot in jarring fashion, unraveling backwards, each cut a way to reinforce the memory faults of the clearly unreliable narrator. What we know of Shelby is learned by way of a phone call he is having that acts as the Plot Developer, but we eventually learn that Leonard has no idea who he is talking to; as such, how much of his story can we accept? The audience is privy to a host of possibilities, including Shelby being an escaped patient or being used to murder people for a dirty cop or purposely setting himself up to commit murder out of anger or some combination of those. By giving no clear indication of the answer, Nolan dares the audience to come up with it—Do You Know Who Leonard Shelby Is? could have been a pre-Facebook meme that considers an important facet of living in modern society: do we know who anyone is and if we can’t answer that question, does that means nobody can answer that question about ourselves? And suddenly things start getting complicated.
In the later films, The Prestige and Inception, the complications associated with identity aren’t just investigated but are completely unraveled. In The Prestige, for the sake of art Christian Bale’s twins dedicate themselves to being one person, maintaining the illusion through actual physical disfigurement; what is witnessed is far more important than what is true. Hugh Jackman, in turn, finds a way to clone himself, the ultimate mask in reality, only to kill off the extra version of himself for the sake of “magic;” more troubling to the viewer, though, is the question that never quite gets asked: Who is getting cloned? Is the original Hugh still in existence, or is each clone a copy of the previous clone, and, if so, how real is he? How real could he be? And is there any more obvious question to ask of Inception than, what the hell is real? Isn’t the very idea of entering into someone’s dreams a harrowing violation of self? Are we at any time any more “unmasked” than when we dream, but does that make our dream-selves more or less real than our awake-selves? Of course, Nolan elects to only leave the top spinning as an answer.
Considering this strange fascination with identity and its role in determining what reality is, it should be no surprise Nolan wanted to work on the Batman reboot. While the trilogy has been praised for gritty-ing up the comic book genre, in truth it should be most praised for pushing the layering of mask psychology to previously, in comic book movies at least, unexplored levels. What Nolan has been most interested in each movie isn’t so much the cost of being Batman but the cost of self-understanding. Ask yourself the following question, if you were a citizen of an actual Gotham City, who would you consider more real, Batman or Bruce Wayne? The obvious answer is Bruce Wayne; he was actually born, his existence has been determined through various governmental channels that we understand, he has a history that can, to a certain degree, be traced and understood. Batman, on the other hand, has none of those attributes. Yet, there is very little of Bruce Wayne that matters to you, average citizen that you are, whereas Batman may have a direct influence on your day-to-day life; Batman exists as an actual being creating change in your city; Bruce Wayne is an abstraction, a money sign that roosts over the city in general.
Knowing this, Nolan presents an interesting thesis: Batman is the real Bruce and Mr. Wayne is the mask he wears. In Nolan’s mind, Batman and Superman have far more in common than just capes. Mr. Wayne is a caricature of the Rich Playboy, easily able to have people believe he has absconded the Russian ballet on a whim or, more importantly, people believe him so incapable of committing to justice there is no chance he could ever be confused with Batman. Mr. Wayne is Batman’s most vital mask. As such, it is clear that the greatest cost of being Batman is not the physical risks but that at no point is the real Bruce able to be anything more than what other people need him to be; for Gotham he is Batman; for Batman and those closest to him, he is Mr. Wayne; Alfred knows of the two masks, and he clearly hates both. What must it mean to the human psyche to never be anything but Another in all situations and then to have the closest person to you desperately want you to give all that up?
This is, to put it bluntly, some deep shit to take on. We currently reside in a society where the ability to craft a self on multiple social media platforms means a person can have as many “selves” as s/he can come up with; the limits of our self-creation are whatever parameters our moral and / or imaginative guidelines determine for us. As such, Reality, as most of us most likely understand it, has very little to do with the world around us, and far more with how we project ourselves into that world. The dilemma of this is that such projections have nothing to do with reality, in a completely objective way, because self-reality is created by beliefs. Consider the response to the Guns-In-America debate: on one side, people assume gun control is necessary in order to prevent tragedies; on the other side, people assume tragedies are an inherent part of modern living, and, as such, they must take protective steps. Neither side can refute the following statement: Guns are designed to kill. What they do refute is the belief of how and why that gun is wielded. In essence, reality is arbitrary because its construction is one of billions of personal projections all seen as having the right to exist.
Therefore, the very idea of Who Am I means parsing through an incredible amount of internal and external stimuli. The fascinating part of this Batman trilogy is that it actually reflects much more on celebrity culture than anything else. Obviously, political overtones—extradition, due process, war on terror, etc.—are the things given most attention, but Nolan clearly, on purpose or not, has an understanding of the Cult of Celebrity, and this understanding feeds directly into the Idea That is Batman: if you are a celebrity who are you except that which the audience has decided? The question Who Am I has far less meaning than Who Do You Declare Me to Be. Batman / Mr. Wayne, even as Bruce himself struggles with the idea of Mask can be nothing more than what Gotham thinks of him. This is beaten over the movie audience’s head at the end of the second movie where Batman elects to be the villain in order to save Harvey Dent, in order to create a hero out of nothing, because Batman and James Gordon know that the objective reality of the moment has little to do with the projected reality the people will need. It becomes much easier to believe, despite all previous evidence to the contrary, that the abstraction in the mask is concrete evil, somehow existing as both specter and physical.
Such reductive thinking is no different than standing in line at the grocery story reading cover stories on the (incredible amount of) magazines dedicated to the lives of celebrities, giving its viewers and readers insight on the lives of people who the normal person only understands in a one-dimensional way—celebrity—brought to us by way of the ever astute “insider.” We, as the audience, may never truly believe what the magazines state, yet we cannot help but to include any statements into our “knowledge” of said celebrity. Combine this mentality with the internet where websites exist just to proliferate the grocery-store-line magazines and give people a chance to comment on these celebrities, and difference between rumor and reality no longer exists. The reason Mr. Wayne can supposedly run off with the Russian ballet, as stated to earlier, isn’t just because people believe it is possible of him but also because it verifies the opinions of him the people held. The reason LeAnn Rimes apparently deserves to be publicly destroyed in some modern version of the Scarlet Letter, to have each tweet, interview, picture, and PR move dissected for its layered and hidden revelation of her Horribleness, is because doing so enables people to continually reinforce their moral opinion of her. LeAnn cannot be anything other than The Woman Who Stole A Man, in the same way that Mr. Wayne cannot be anything but The Spoiled Rich Bastard, and in the same way that by the end of The Dark Knight Batman cannot be anything but The Unhinged Vigilante. There is no self but the one projected upon them by outside forces.
And this is why The Dark Knight Rises fails. Instead of continuing to build on the turmoil created by having no self but the one projected on him, we get a movie that at its core is about a woman fucking a man to fuck him over. Meanwhile, an epic opportunity to explore the layers of masks, self, reality, and projection are lost when very little actually occurs between Bane and Batman. Yes, Bane breaks Batman’s back, but even the backbreaking fight could be seen as merely creating a way to further complicate the twist of the Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter being revealed. Bane is the Batman the ending of The Dark Knight implies; he is the unknown masked terrorist, enacting justice as he sees needed, regardless of actual laws. In some parallel universe, Bane and Batman could easily reverse roles and nothing would be different. For Nolan, who so closely examined the idea of self in the first two movies, to ignore such fertile territory just to bring back Liam Neeson for a brief cameo and to give the viewers a “surprise” goes against everything that he previously established. It is sad, really, that the trilogy should end on a twist and a surprise because it could have been much more; it could have been a chance for Batman to look into the mirror and tell us what he sees.