“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.”
These are the iconic last words we hear from Sydney Carton before he is sacrificially guillotined in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities — a book which ends up being a rather important inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. [Read no further if you haven't seen the film!] The Carton quote is repeated in Rises near the end, as are other lines that reference sections of Carton’s last monologue (“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…”).
The Tale of Two Cities parallels don’t stop there, however. The whole film seems infused with the social upheaval, revolutionary unsettledness, and literary elegance of Dickens’ novel, as well as its themes of death, resurrection, and the desire to rebuild (or reboot, perhaps) from amidst destruction and ashes.
There is an uneasy peace at the opening of Rises. One could say (to quote the famous opening line of Tale) that it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Crime is low, Batman is unnecessary, and the wealthy galas go on at Wayne Manor. But as the aristocrats enjoy their comfort, the growing “other half” (or “99%” if you want to go with the Occupy language) is increasingly discontented. An army grows underground–led by a coalition of terrorists (Bane), corrupt billionaires, and involving everyday criminals and malcontents (like the “adaptable” Catwoman). As Selina Kyle (Catwoman) tells Bruce Wayne: “A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”
This line has been read by some to be the film’s most resonant “Occupy” line, reflecting the growing tension and disparity between the haves and have-nots. And indeed it does reflect that. But the “storm” of class warfare is also an allusion to the French Revolution, the setting of Tale and perhaps western civilization’s most harrowing collision of have and have-nots. The third section of Tale, after all, is called “The Track of a Storm.” It’s a testament to the savvy of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (the film’s screenwriters, who wrote the script for Rises years before “Occupy” movement became a thing) that they identified Dickens’ Tale as a timeless and yet timely inspiration for the epic conclusion of their trilogy, which has always been as much about classic hero myths as about the specific context (terrorism, media, corporate greed, worrisome surveillance trends, etc.) of our unsettled day-and-age.
The Nolans weave references to Tale into their film in various ways. Sequences of sentencing “hearings” at populist tribunals (“exile or execution”) and images of “1%” aristocrats being dragged out of their posh mansions by the mob are clearly nods to the revolutionary tribunals and general chaos of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.” A final “war” scene between the cops and occupiers evokes 18th century battle tactics. The film even gives a nod (perhaps unintended) to the French Revolution by casting a French actress (Marion Cotillard) as one of the most significant new characters.
But perhaps the most important theme from Tale that informs Rises is the concept of rebirth or resurrection. [Major spoilers ahead!] We see this even in the film’s title: The Dark Knight Rises. Everything in the film speaks to the belief or desire for rebirth. Just as the French revolutionaries sought to totally destroy the old regime and rebuild a new society, so too do the villains in Rises seek the destruction of Gotham and the birth of a new order. Catwoman seeks a reboot of her own life–where her past is erased and her future is a chance to make something better (and less criminal?) of herself. The very idea of cats and Catwoman–nine lives–implies second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake also experiences something of a rebirth in his identity and purpose–though I will say absolutely no more about that ;)
And then there’s Batman himself, whose arc in the film is a series of “deaths” and “rebirths,” from his start as an out-of-commission recluse to his flashy return as Batman, to his broken-back defeat by Bane and subsequent imprisonment in the prison “pit,” to his rise out of the darkness and defeat of evil, to his final act of sacrifice and, well, that last scene.
As dark as the film is, it presents such a faith in resurrection. The light above the pit speaks to the hope which animates one’s purpose even in the midst of despair. In contrast to Bane, who sees hope as a liability that only adds to one’s despair, John Blake and Batman see it as the only thing that can answer fear and evil. When Blake is caring after the orphans and it looks as though Gotham will be soon destroyed by the bomb, he insists on keeping the boys’ spirits up, unwilling to let them die thinking there is no hope.
Without hope–without the possibility for redemption and renewal–what would keep any of us going? Hope is what helps any of us deal with the ugly realities of day-to-day life. It’s what we need to move through the horrors and traumas of planes going into buildings, fires destroying our livelihoods, babies dying in the womb, deranged killers opening fire on crowds of moviegoers.
Life is such a series of frights, disappointments, failures, imprisonments (physically, emotionally, spiritually). It’d be unlivable without that hope of beginning again, that hope of resurrection and renewal, that Phoenix-like desire to rise out of the shackled prison pit our own fear, despair and brokenness.
The impulse toward resurrection is grand motif of human existence: it’s the arc of all creation and everyone within it, groaning and aching for the dawn of better days, when all is put to rights and evil is subdued. The hope of resurrection is the thing Sydney Carton takes refuge in before his own death in A Tale of Two Cities, as he rests in the truth of John 11:25-26:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
That’s the hope we have. He rose, and in Him we can all rise. The Dark Knight Rises stirs us so because it taps into that hope, as does Dickens (more directly, perhaps) in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a hope our world needs.