Listen Jena, I did my best to stay calm throughout The Dark Knight Rises. When Selina Kyle kicked Bruce’s cane out from under him, when I realized Bruce’s limp was from the fall at the end of The Dark Knight, when Alfred and Bruce discussed Rachel, and when Batman faced Bane in the sewer, I managed not to cry out or jump to my feet. But when Gordon quoted Dickens, when lines from A Tale of Two Cities were uttered in a Batman movie, I had to cover my face with my hands. Many of the film’s best parts are drawn from Dickens, including the ending, and Bane, this victorian villain, this Bill Sikes of Gotham City.
If The Dark Knight Rises stretches the capacity of a superhero movie, it is in the size of its cast of characters. Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and John Blake are all protagonists for full chapters of the film. Miranda Tate, Bane, Selina Kyle, and even Foley, the cowardly police lieutenant, are all up to something, and all progress through three acts of development. The Dickensian scope applied to Gotham is unprecedented in comic book movies. Gordon predicted escalation at the end of Batman Begins, and he was right. Like A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend, this is a true ensemble epic that respects its audience. If you look away, you miss something.
Selina Kyle’s lines in the first full trailer, about a storm coming to Gotham, reminded me of Madame DeFarge, who describes justice as a slow-building but quick-striking earthquake. But as it turned out, Selina’s motivation was for vindication more than revolution and vengeance.
It is Miranda Tate, the mastermind behind Bane, who channels DeFarge. She speaks of a knife, slow moving, silent, and steady, inching toward Gotham and Batman. The image is unmistakably Dickensian, cut from the same sewn cloth as the lines Madame Defarge speaks to her husband:
“It does not take a long time,” said madame, “for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?”
“A long time, I suppose,” said Defarge.
“But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard.”
Then there is Bane, described by Nolan himself as a classic movie monster. He is intimidating, single-minded and dangerous. None of that is particularly Dickensian, even if his rhetoric rings faintly of the French Revolution. But in Bane’s final moments, his character takes an unexpected turn. Batman defeats him and bookends their conflict by throwing Bane’s “you have my permission to die” line back at him.
Then, just when we think we’re done with the monster, it is revealed that he is not the mastermind, but the arm. He is motivated not by vengeance, but by helpless affection for Miranda Tate. Torn apart by the mob he protected her from and banished by her father, he is devoted not to an ideal, but to a woman.
Though most of his face remains masked, the emotion in Bane’s eyes in those last moments is shocking. The audience may have expected to feel many things about Bane, but sympathy was surely not one of them.
Sympathetic villains are common in modern storytelling, but Dickens was perhaps the first to create a monster who surprises us by winning our sympathy late in the story, despite all wrongdoings. Dickens’ first pitiful monster was Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist.
In Oliver Twist, the frightening brute Bill Sikes clubs his lover, Nancy, to death. It is a horrible scene, one that left women swooned when Dickens himself performed the story aloud. At the time, frightening violence was not new in literature, but what Dickens did next certainly was. Rather than transitioning to Oliver or the authorities as they hunt Bill, Dickens stays with Sikes, who stands afraid of the thing on the floor that was recently Nancy. Soon enough Bill runs, and feels that Nancy’s ghost is pursuing him. He sees a burning building and stops to help the firefighting effort, anything to distract from the ghost and the dark.
Sikes remains brutal and evil, but just when the viewer is ready to enjoy watching him die, we are thrust into his world, fleeing in fear. Sympathizing with a cold-blooded murderer was not something novel readers were acquainted with in 1839.
Nolan makes Bane a Dickensian villain by using the same trick. He is not a “complicated” villain, but in the end we see him broken, and we feel for him. It’s a delicious coincidence that Tom Hardy once played Bill Sikes.
We come now to the peak: the finest result of this application of Dickens to Batman. At the film’s end, Gordon reads from the final page of A Tale of Two Cities, a novel that ends as beautifully as it begins. This part Gordon reads aloud:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
In A Tale of Two Cities, the better thing done is Sydney Carton giving his life to save another, and the rest he goes to is death after a life put to good use.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the better thing is Batman ending his reign to save Gotham. The rest is a life for Bruce Wayne outside of Gotham and without the Batman.
On that same page of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens writes:
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”
“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence.”
Dickens was talking about Paris and a heroic, alcoholic lawyer. We’re thinking of Gotham and the Batman.
Postscript: This is not the first time Batman and Dickens have crossed paths. Batman has starred in two Gothamite versions of A Christmas Carol, once in 1996, and again in 2011. Both versions are worth a read, though I think the 2011 version made much better use of Gotham as foggy London.