Why Bruce Wayne Has to Die

Selina Kyle/Catwoman: You don’t owe these people anything. You’ve given them everything!

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Not everything. Not yet.

After reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there were many questions debated by those of us consumed by Rowling’s universe.  Was Snape a true villain or the ultimate ally to Dumbledore’s plan to facilitate Harry’s defeat of Voldemort? (This one was fun, and a question I joyfully answered correctly.) But the biggest question surrounding the conclusion to one of the most powerful pop culture tales of all time was, “Will Harry Potter die?”

Now, mere hours before the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and the conclusion of pop culture’s next great epic tale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we find ourselves asking the question, “Will Bruce Wayne and/or Batman die?”

[DISCLAIMER: The articles linked in this article and the theories espoused by me are all spoiler-free.  Any relation they may have to The Dark Knight Rises are merely lucky guesses. The only spoiler alert needed is that I’m a huge nerd and there’s a chance I could be right about some of this. It was published more than 10 hours before I knew the answer of whether Bruce Wayne would die and has not been edited since.]

When it came to Harry Potter, I argued strongly that, at its core, the books were a children’s story.  Therefore, the hero had to live in the end.  I was right, although Rowling’s genius still handed us an excellent ultimate sacrifice and resurrection ending harkening to the core Good News of Christ, appealing to universal values that everyone could relate to.

When it comes to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I’ve wavered back and forth over the past twelve months, but as the clock ticks toward the midnight premiere, I become more certain of one thing every moment: Bruce Wayne has to die. 

At first, I believed the tagline (“The Legend Ends”) was just Christopher Nolan playing mind games with us.  After all, this is a superhero saga.  Superheroes always ride into the sunset in the end, leaving us resting safe at night knowing they’re out there, protecting us, keeping us safe.

I could write a thesis-length blog post analyzing my theory and explaining why I’m adamant that it is true, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet for those of you preparing yourselves for the movie event of 2012.  I would be afraid of overhyping it, but (a) I’m a hype man and (b) with both The Dark Knight and Inception, I hyped as much as possible and Nolan still surpassed expectations.

So here’s why Bruce Wayne has to die:

Much like Harry Potter’s ultimate fate was necessitated by the genre (children’s fantasy) in which J.K. Rowling was telling her story, no matter how much she bent it and matured it, Bruce Wayne’s fate is necessitated by the way Nolan has formed his superhero tale from beginning to end.

Exhibit A: Batman as a symbol

There’s been much discussion about Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan’s emphasis on the following scene from Batman Begins

Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting. 
Alfred: What symbol? 
Bruce Wayne: Something elemental, something terrifying. 
Alfred Pennyworth: I assume that as you’re taking on the underworld, this symbol is a persona to protect those you care about from reprisals. 
Bruce Wayne: You thinking about Rachel? 
Alfred Pennyworth: Actually, sir, I was thinking of myself. 

We had, from the first chapter of this saga, deep philosophical discussion about the nature of superheroes.  We had emphasis on Bruce Wayne as a man who can be destroyed, here today and gone tomorrow.  As a symbol, however, he can create an impact that is bigger than him, that outlasts him… that doesn’t require him to be alive or necessarily present in order to achieve the goal of shaking them out of their apathy.  But, from this first chapter, it’s also important to look at the other origins of Bruce Wayne as Batman.  He became a vigilante (against the warnings of everyone around him) not solely to help the common good.  Bruce Wayne as Batman has NEVER been Clark Kent’s do-gooder Superman.  Bruce Wayne, especially in Nolan’s universe, is angry.  He’s bitter.  He wants sweet revenge, which is constantly contrasted with the concept of justice in the first chapter of Nolan’s saga.  Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman in order to save the day; he’s Batman to get his revenge.

Exhibit B: Batman is not a hero 

One of the most famous scenes and pieces of dialogue from Nolan’s trilogy is the closing to the Heath Ledger-dominated The Dark Knight. Gary Oldman, being as badass and awesome as he ever is, answers his son’s question about why Batman is running away and the police are chasing him…

Lt. James Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight. 

In Nolan’s world, Batman is no superhero. As the Grantland TDKR preview discusses, so much of Nolan’s tale is about dissecting the notion of to what extent a world of superheroes (as formerly depicted in comic books, movies, TV shows, and the rest of popular culture) is even what’s best.  So much of Nolan’s epic saga is about the transformation of a tormented soul born with a golden spoon in his mouth into Gotham’s sacrificial son, the silent guardian, the watchful protector… you get the drift.

The world Christopher Nolan has created in this trilogy has often been praised as the gritty, realistic superhero universe.  It’s not so much that it IS realistic; the world is more believable because it deals with the nuances of human nature, telling an ultimate good versus evil story while acknowledging the various shades of grey that exist.  It resonates because no character in this world is perfect, as they are forced to make horrible decisions between rocks and hard places, leaving all of their hands dirtied and bloody.  It resonates so strongly because (well, besides being masterfully made, thought-provoking films that just so happen to also be top-tier, deliciously fun summer blockbusters), in a post-modern world where we’re told there are no absolutes, this story acknowledges there is still good and evil amongst the shades of grey.  And, standing up for good to overcome that evil, whether brutally physical evil or psychologically demented evil, is the honorable, virtuous thing to do.

And doing so may mean being ostracized, hated, hunted, and despised.  It may mean a bad reputation.  It may mean not only that all your loved ones are in danger, but that you are ultimately responsible for some of their deaths.  But it could also mean one other thing…

Exhibit C: Batman’s Ultimate Sacrifice

I’ve been haunted by one dialogue exchange that has been in most previews for The Dark Knight Rises. In many previews, especially the 13-minute one below, it has been prominently featured as the climactic exchange at the end.  Every time I hear it, I get goosebumps.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman: You don’t owe these people anything. You’ve given them everything!

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Not everything. Not yet.

I no longer think Christopher Nolan is playing games with us.  I think he’s telling us what his entire three-part story is about.  It’s not meant to be some sort of shocking twist ending – he wants us to know that Bruce Wayne is a human, flesh and blood, something that can easily be destroyed.  He wants us to know that this doesn’t make Bruce Wayne and his sacrifices (including the ultimate sacrifice of his life) any less significant, but actually more powerful.  Because as it has been made clear in this saga, Bruce Wayne can be selfish and hot-headed, becoming Batman in the first place for personal revenge.  But through the story, through falling down so he can learn to pick himself back up, through the sacrifices, Bruce Wayne’s actions as Batman make him something more.  Getting his hands dirty, falling down, and being broken creates a different person – someone willing to die not only so that others may live, but so they may have a symbol of sacrificial love to aspire to and emulate in order to make their communities better off.

When the curtain falls on Nolan’s saga around 3 a.m. this evening/morning, Nolan’s Bruce Wayne won’t be the same man he was back in the summer of 2005 when we first met him.  He’s realized that his duty, responsibility, and choices have nothing to do with what he does or does not owe Gotham and its citizens.  It has everything to do with what kind of symbol Batman becomes.

Nolan’s been beating us (and his Bruce Wayne) over the head with that message during the first two movies. In the end, Batman can’t be the one Gotham will always depend on.  In what way is THAT a symbol that shakes people from their apathy? Batman must be a symbol they aspire to.  Bruce Wayne must create a symbol that will spur people not to be vigilantes once he inevitably dies, but will spur people to care passionately about Gotham’s decline and do something about it – to be their neighborhoods’ guardians, their communities’ watchful protectors, their city’s servants.  But in this fallen, dirty, disgusting world that Nolan has created as a mirror to our own, what kind of symbol can spur people to do that?

A sacrificial one.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

And that’s why Bruce Wayne has to die.

Bruce Wayne’s death, undoubtedly saving all of Gotham and defeating Bane in the process, leaves the question of whether someone else will find the bat cave and don the black cape to become the next caped crusader.  I’ve long theorized that person will be what Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character.  Whether that will happen, I’m still uncertain. I could see Nolan going several ways with that one.  But I’m certain of one thing hours before I watch the final chapter tonight for the first time… Bruce Wayne will die.

From the first scene of Batman Begins, it’s been clear that Nolan has been creating a new superhero universe.  He has bent the convention every which way and that will undoubtedly conclude with having the hero we’ve known and loved pass away tonight.  Because it was never about creating a superhero to save us all… it was about creating a symbol to remind us we can do it ourselves.

[One final disclaimer: when discussing this theory with my brother-in-law, he presented this article to me that proposed precisely the same theory I had.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to it as well… although it is a bit more profane than mine and doesn’t view Christian symbolism quite the same way I do, it’s well worth the read for it’s breakdown of why Bruce Wayne must die, and why The Prestige and The Sandlot are key to that ultimate conclusion.]


Posted on by Joseph Williams in Faith, Featured, Movie Previews, Movies

2 Responses to Why Bruce Wayne Has to Die

  1. Graham Gillespie

    Gah, I love y’all’s posts. Keeps me feeling connected to the 901.

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises | The Wise Guise

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