Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy stands as one of the best set of superhero films ever made. I remember when Batman Begins came out; I didn't go see it at the theaters, as I figured the story wouldn't be anything new or great. I was wrong.
The film was excellent, offering a deeper look at Bruce Wayne's origin story and the issues he faced on a personal level. In that film, he underwent the Hero's Journey of self-discovery and overcoming his fears. But what makes the Nolan Batman films different from other superhero movies is that they are more complex. In fact, each movie warrants repeated viewings to soak in the nuances of the plots. The Dark Knight Rises does not disappoint in this area. Skillfully weaving together the plots of all three movies into one cohesive, three-act story, the movie does what few other sequels manage to do: offer a satisfying story experience.
And while we know that Bruce Wayne undergoes the Hero's Journey in the first film, he also undergoes a different journey in the subsequent stories. Nolan has said that the theme of the first movie was about fear. The second was about chaos, and the third is about pain, both physical and emotional. The same can be said of Bruce's journeys. In Batman Begins, he undergoes a journey of self-realization and overcoming his fear. In the second film, his journey is a bit different, and focuses on how far he is willing to go to stop evil. As Harvey Dent said, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." His journey was one of discovering how he can be the hero Gotham needed without becoming the villain.
The Dark Knight Rises also contains a Hero's Journey. This time, I believe it is one of overcoming pain and struggling with his destiny as Batman. The second film masterfully ends on a depressing note, one which carries over into the start of this film. So if you'd like to explore his journey in this final chapter, read on, but only if you've seen the third movie. Be warned: there are SPOILERS AHEAD.
One final note: this film is very complex in its plot and the amount of characters, but for the sake of brevity, my analysis is only focusing on the immediate circumstances of Bruce Wayne's life and how the events and characters help shape his journey.
1. Ordinary World: It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne gave up being Batman. Taking the blame for Harvey Dent's death, he himself struggles with the guilt of what it has cost Gotham, and he has become a recluse, not even bothering to come out from Wayne Manor. Whereas in the past, he lived the life of a billionaire, now he does not even take part in Wayne Enterprises, a fact that unbeknownst to him has affected the company financially.
2. Call To Adventure: When the mercenary Bane escapes a CIA transport, he and his minions create an underground army in Gotham City's sewer system. Commissioner Gordon and other police officers attempt to investigate, and Gordon is injured while escaping. Police officer John Blake pays a visit to Bruce Wayne at his house, indicating that he knows Wayne is The Batman, and that Gordon needs his help again.
3. Refusal of the Call: Bruce Wayne listens to Blake's story, but he does not want to be The Batman again. He has given up that life, and Gotham is a better place now. Batman is a wanted criminal, and he cannot fight as Batman anymore. Bruce trusts that the police will take care of everything, but Blake protests.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: Bruce eventually meets with Gordon at the hospital with a mask on, and Gordon says that the city needs Batman again. Bruce is still reluctant to get involved, but Gordon's words push him toward investigating. Alfred also serves as a mentor figure to him, as he always has; even John Blake is somewhat of a mentor figure, prompting him to action. Having spoken with Commissioner Gordon, he decides to try and investigate the situation a bit more closely. He meets with Lucius Fox, who not only shows him the newest gadgets he has been working on in the off-the-books Applied Sciences division, but Fox also informs him of Wayne Enterprises's ailing financial situation.
5. Crossing the Threshold: When Bane and his fellow mercenaries take over the Stock Exchange, stealing key financial records and information, Batman re-emerges on the scene after eight years of absence. The police pursue him instead of Bane's men, hoping to catch him and hold him responsible for his role in the death of Harvey Dent. But one thing is clear: The Batman is back. Bruce Wayne has "re-entered" the Special World of fighting crime as a masked vigilante.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Bruce Wayne undergoes many tests of his strength and commitment, such as when Wayne Enterprises goes broke due to possible investment fraud. His friend and caretaker Alfred argues with him about his desire to face his new enemy, Bane. Alfred does not feel that Bruce is ready to fight him, and leaves Wayne Manor rather than watch him die. Even so, Bruce has allies in Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon, as well as John Blake. Fox suggests that Bruce speak to Miranda Tate, a friend of the company, and show her the fusion reactor they were developing. Later, Bruce is double-crossed by Selina Kyle, who leads him to Bane in a trap to save herself. Batman fights Bane and is brought to near-death, with Bane breaking his back.
7. Approach: As Bane executes his plan of holding Gotham hostage while exiling Bruce to a prison that resembles a well, and from which there is only one nearly-impossible escape, Bruce tries to learn more about Bane from the prisoners. Because this journey is about facing pain, Bruce must overcome his physical pain as well as emotional pain if he is going to save Gotham from destruction. If he cannot do this, Gotham will be destroyed in five months by the device. Bruce speaks to the prisoners about escaping, and the former prison doctor helps to heal his back in a painful process.
8. Ordeal: Bruce tries to escape the prison, but fails until he learns to fear death. Once he has done this, he "rises" and escapes. He faces death and his greatest fears in the Inmost Cave.
9. Reward: Bruce is free and can now complete his Journey.
10. The Road Back:Bruce returns to Gotham. Having now trained himself and prepared to face Bane again, Bruce must
face his greatest challenge. Along with an army of police officers, he
faces Bane and his minions. He faces death as he confronts Bane, fully
aware that Bane is a worthy adversary. Bruce is able to defeat Bane, and he is able to stop the bomb from going
off immediately. However, the bomb can still detonate, and he must find
it. He needs to return to the streets of Gotham once again. With the help of Commissioner Gordon and other allies, Bruce finds the device, but they are unable to deactivate it.
11. Resurrection: Bruce must show, once again, that this journey has truly changed him.
Gotham will never be the same, but to preserve it, Bruce must make the
most difficult decision yet. He has faced fear and death, and now he
must embrace it. He must make a sacrifice. He faces death one final
time, sacrificing himself and the symbol of The Batman.
12. Return with the Elixir: But we learn that it is not truly the end for Bruce. He is literally
"resurrected" when we learn the true consequences of his choice and what
it means for him. Bruce Wayne is also symbolically resurrected after
his sacrifice when he leaves behind everything from his diminished
fortune. His home becomes a new center for orphaned boys, and he passes
on the crime-fighting responsibility to Blake. The symbol of The Batman
is powerful and unites Gotham. Whereas the old Bruce Wayne felt the need
to continue being The Batman until Gotham was free of crime and
corruption, this "new" Bruce Wayne understands that after what has
happened on this journey, he can entrust Gotham to the citizens and law
enforcement officials. While Bruce himself does not physically return, he has given Gotham an elixir in the form of a symbol. It is a symbol of courage and of hope. It is the symbol that is projected from the searchlight. The legacy of The Batman.
Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.