I’m not sure how dark of a knight Batman is, but director-writer Christopher Nolan certainly seems to be comfortable with his dark side. In Batman Begins, he posited the tragic origins that led Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to adopt a secret identity and scours the streets as a vigilante on the side of right. In that film, Batman’s mentor and later nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) saw the bleak, stylized city of Gotham as a diseased boil of humanity that needed to be erased. It was an almost Faustian dialectic, with Luciferian Ra’s in a face-off with God-like Batman, arguing with biblical vehemence over whether mankind could — should survive.
Then came The Dark Knight — a longer, crazier movie that really did explore the two sides of mankind (represented, late in the film, with the villain Two-Face). There, Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker — a character without an apparent alter ego, a raging id unleashing meaningless chaos on a city of beings he held in contempt. There was no reason, no logic behind Joker’s trail of havoc; he was torturing the citizens of Gotham (which now looked less like a comic-book fortress and more like New York City) with mind games merely to prove an obscure point about human failings. Unlike Ra’s, his mission was merely destructive.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan seems to be attempting to bridge these similar but unconnected attacks of Gotham into a unified principle. Once again, the villain is a demonic, Joker-like entity operating entirely on evil impulse. We learn a little about Bane (Tom Hardy), who lives his entire existence behind a mask that gives him the skull-like appearance of a tiger perpetually gnashing its fangs. Who he is seems almost irrelevant again — it’s what he represents, the lesser angels of mankind.