After seven years and two films that have pushed Batman ever deeper into the dark, the director Christopher Nolan has completed his postmodern, post-Sept. 11 epic of ambivalent good versus multidimensional evil with a burst of light. As the title promises, day breaks in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the grave and satisfying finish to Mr. Nolan’s operatic bat-trilogy. His timing couldn’t be better. As the country enters its latest electoral brawl off screen, Batman (Christian Bale) hurtles into a parallel battle that booms with puppet-master anarchy, anti-government rhetoric and soundtrack drums of doom, entering the fray as another lone avenger and emerging as a defender of, well, what?
Truth, justice and the American way? No — and not only because that doctrine belongs to Superman, who was bequeathed that weighty motto on the radio in August 1942, eight months after the United States entered World War II and three years after Batman, Bob Kane’s comic creation, hit. Times change; superheroes and villains too. The enemy is now elusive and the home front as divided as the face of Harvey Dent, a vanquished Batman foe. The politics of partisanship rule and grass-roots movements have sprung up on the right and the left to occupy streets and legislative seats. It can look ugly, but as they like to say — and as Dent says in “The Dark Knight,”the second part of the trilogy — the night is darkest before the dawn.
Informed by Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s resuscitation of the character in the 1980s, Mr. Nolan’s Bruce-Batman has oscillated between seemingly opposite poles, even as he’s always come out a superhero. He is savior and destroyer, human and beast, the ultimate radical individualist and people’s protector. Yet as the series evolved, this binary opposition — echoed by Dent’s rived face — has grown progressively messier, less discrete.
Mr. Nolan has also taken the duality that made the first film into an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it. Gordon believes in its structures; Bane wants to burn it all down. And Batman? Well, he needs to work it out.
So will viewers, explicitly given the grim, unsettling vision of a lawless city in which the structures of civil society have fallen, structures that Batman has fought outside of.