Last week I re-watched the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, one each night for three nights. Seeing them one after another for the first time, without a gap of years between to dull my memory, something struck me that I completely missed before: these movies are three chapters of a single story, and the story is Bruce Wayne’s, not Batman’s. And the reason it’s Bruce Wayne’s story, it has to be his story, is to finally separate the two characters. Batman is not Bruce Wayne, anymore than the League of Shadows is Ra’s Al Ghul.
They’re both ideas, legends. Bruce set out to create something greater than one man, and he succeeded. That’s the point of the three movies: it’s the story of how Bruce Wayne created Batman (Batman Begins), nurtured his legend (The Dark Knight), and finally handed the cape and cowl off to the next Batman (The Dark Knight Rises). Bruce Wayne the man was always meant to bow out at the end of it, but Batman would continue: that was the point. Christopher Nolan was giving us something we don’t get to see in comics anymore: a way for the main character of the comic to die, but the comic to live on.
The hints that this is what’s going on start in the first movie, where Ra’s Al Ghul tells Bruce to “become more than a man,” because “men can be killed, but legends are immortal.” When I first saw that scene, I thought he was just telling him to become Batman so he could inspire fear, but there’s another layer here: Ra’s is telling Bruce that in creating Batman, he’ll be creating a symbol that anyone can become. Kill Bruce, and Batman can live on, since no one knows it’s Bruce. Just as Bruce thinks he’s killed Ra’s Al Ghul in the fire, and thus destroyed the League of Shadows, when in fact the real Ra’s has been using the fake one as a “mask” to hide his identity. This theme is repeated in the third movie, when we learn that the League of Shadows has not been stopped by the killing of one man: that others have taken up its banner, because it’s a symbol, not a single person, making it unstoppable.
In the second movie, we start getting hints that Bruce might not be the best person to be Batman. He’s vulnerable in the people he cares about, he’s pushing his body past its limits (Alfred gets on to him for that), and as Bruce Wayne he has access to wealth and power that can be abused as Batman (the cell phone sonar network he sets up, that Mr Fox condemns).
We also see an echo of the idea that anyone can be Batman when Harvey Dent claims it’s him. People believe him, and the cops arrest him, because no one really knows who Batman is. That’s part of his power, and they use that power to capture the Joker.
The third movie is the culmination of all these plot threads. We see that Bruce has gotten so bad at being Batman that he’s hung up his cowl. His fears and broken heart as Bruce Wayne have even caused him to become a recluse, letting his charity work and his company decline. He begins the movie ready to die, since he thinks it’s the only way to stop being Batman. By the end of the movie, after listening to Catwoman talk about wanting her “fresh start,” Alfred tell him his fantasy of seeing him away from Gotham, and working with Detective Blake - another orphan angry at his parent’s death that rebels against the shackles the system places on his fight against injustice - to save Gotham, he’s ready to retire, and let someone else take over as Batman.
That’s what the final scene is. It’s not blake becoming Robin, or even Nightwing. It’s a hand-off from one Batman to the next, closing out Bruce Wayne’s story and making way for someone else to take over.
Because Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne. He isn’t Blake, either. He’s a symbol, a legend, something that can’t be killed. He’s immortal.