Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman film comes out next month, and we've been promised an epic climax. But what will actually happen to the Dark Knight in The Dark Knight Rises? Batman expert Will Brooker, author of the new book Hunting the Dark Knight: 21st Century Batman, has studied the trailers and viral marketing, and he's noticed some shout-outs to certain key Batman comics.
Here are six major Batman comics that Nolan seems to be drawing on — and the clues they provide about what happens to Bruce Wayne in Nolan's final Bat-film.
Top image: Cover detail of Batman: Gates of Gotham.
1. Gates of Gotham (Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins, Trevor McCarthy, 2011)
Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer freely admit that key moments in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were adapted from classic comics and graphic novels of the last thirty years, particularly Frank Miller's Year One and Loeb and Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.
One shot from the Dark Knight Rises trailer clues eagle-eyed viewers into the more recent source material Nolan and Goyer are using for the third movie in the trilogy.
Recognise those exploding bridges? They're from Gates of Gotham, a 2011 series written by Scott Snyder.
Gates of Gotham is a Batman story, but this Dark Knight isn't Bruce Wayne; it's his former sidekick Dick ‘Robin' Grayson. If Nolan wants to show a younger man taking on the Caped Crusader's cowl, he's got a model for it right here — and it looks like he's been reading this story closely.
There are other reasons why Gates of Gotham would grab Nolan's attention. Its central plot conceit has two brothers changing their names, and their descendant taking on a fake persona to conceal his heritage. Nolan's movies are conjuring tricks, built around doubles, twins, dual identities and last-minute reversals; this kind of twist is just his style.
We know that Dark Knight Rises, like Batman Begins, Memento and Inception, flashes back to the past to help explain the present, so Scott Snyder's tale of false identities may provide further inspiration for its plot dynamics. Batman Begins saw Liam Neeson cast as ‘Henri Ducard', and only revealed as Ra's al Ghul in a third-act switcheroo; is Nolan really going to cast another of his favourite Inception actors, Marion Cotillard, as a no-mark minor character called ‘Miranda Tate', or could she be Ra's al Ghul's daughter, Talia?
2. The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley, 1986)
Batman Begins owed two of its most memorable scenes -– the young Bruce's tumble into the Bat-Cave, and Batman's trick of hanging a perp upside-down over the city -– to Frank Miller's 1986 epic, The Dark Knight Returns.
The most recent Dark Knight Rises footage, revealed at the MTV Movie Awards on 4th June, shows that Nolan is quoting directly from Miller again. A veteran cop, recognising Batman, grins to his rookie colleague that they're in for a show; that sequence was storyboarded in the comics, back in 1986.
Miller's greatest innovation, as fellow writer Alan Moore notes in his introduction to the graphic novel, was giving Batman a ‘final and greatest battle', and providing his story with a mythic closure worthy of Robin Hood.
Miller's four-parter concludes with Bruce Wayne faking his death, and then – on the last page – emerging into a new life, without costumes and masks, but leading an underground army of loyal young soldiers.
Nolan quoted directly from Miller's Dark Knight Returns to show us Bruce Wayne's childhood – what could be more fitting than to return to that seminal Batman graphic novel of the 1980s, to close the story?
3. Knightfall (Chuck Dixon, Dennis O'Neil, Alan Grant and others, 1993-4)
The most obvious inspiration for Nolan's Dark Knight Rises is the 1993 story-arc Knightfall, which faced Batman off against Bane for the first time. Part One, ‘Broken Bat', ends with the iconic scene of Bane snapping Batman's spine:
Unsurprisingly, we haven't seen that moment in the trailers, but the shots of a limping Bruce Wayne, and Bane crushing the Bat-cowl, strongly suggest it's coming.
But let's not forget the plot device that drives Knightfall Part Two, ‘Who Rules The Night'. Bruce Wayne spends most of the story in a wheelchair, and Batman, once again, is played by a younger man: in this case, the religious acolyte and assassin Jean-Paul Valley. There are no obvious candidates on Nolan's cast to take Valley's role –- but Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as ‘beat cop' John Blake, looks like a shoo-in if someone else has to wear the mantle of the bat while Wayne is out of action.
4. No Man's Land (Chuck Dixon, Sean Beatty, Greg Rucka, Paul Dini and others, 1999)
The viral marketing campaign for Dark Knight Rises encouraged fans to search for and photograph rough, graffiti sketches of a Bat-logo, scattered around the world:
Again, we can find an origin for this icon in the comic books — and it appears in the No Man's Land saga from 1999. (That story also opens with the bridges that link Gotham to the mainland being destroyed).
In a Gotham without Batman, gangs run riot, staking their territory through graffiti tags: and when Batman returns – as he does after eight years of exile in Nolan's Dark Knight Rises –- he has to learn the new language, adopting his own street signifier to show he's back.
But that familiar-looking silhouette? Not Bruce Wayne. Again, someone else is behind the mask –- in this case, the new Batgirl Cassandra Cain. We're not expecting Marion Cotillard to take on the role of the female crimefighter, but it's further proof that, in all the comics that have explicitly inspired Nolan this time around, ‘Batman' is more than just a single person.
And finally, clues from Nolan's own Batman movies...
‘Are you ready to begin?' Henri Ducard asks Bruce Wayne, at the start of their training. His advice to Bruce provides a further clue about how Nolan's trilogy might end. ‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely. A legend, Mr Wayne.'
The message has been there since early in the first instalment: Batman is more than just a man, more than Bruce Wayne. With Ra's al Ghul returning in this final episode, can there be any doubt that his prediction will come true, and that Bruce will have to finally take his mentor's lesson to heart?
"You don't owe these people anymore,' Selina Kyle tells Bruce in the Dark Knight Rises trailer. ‘You've given them everything."
"Not everything," he replies gruffly. "Not yet."
What else can Batman give to Gotham –- except Bruce Wayne?
But the sneak footage and teaser material for Dark Knight Rises should also give Bat-fans some hope that their hero is going to make it.
By adopting the viral marketing technique of enlisting fans around the world to tweet Bat-graffiti, The Dark Knight Rises demonstrated Batman's grasp of crowd-sourcing and the hive-mind. The viral marketing for The Dark Knight invited fans to see themselves as the Joker's followers, encouraging them email pictures of themselves in make-up to a ‘Why So Serious' website, while the trailers for Dark Knight Rises, in turn, show Bane's control of the crowd. For too long, Batman's considered himself as an individual, a lone vigilante on a war against the world of crime. That's the old model, and it won't work in this movie. Bane combines brains and brawn, but his power lies not so much in his biceps and pecs as in his understanding of people, his ability to lead.
This movie is about the battle for Gotham; the city and its citizens. It's not man-against-man, or Dark Knight against Joker, as we saw in the previous film. It's the fight for the loyalty and command of the masses. By learning the language of the street, and realizing that Batman has to be more than just a single individual, Bruce Wayne is recognising the importance of myth, folklore and urban legend to the Dark Knight -– and that's going to be the key to his own victory.
Because Batman, as his fans have known for decades, can never die.
Will Brooker is head of film and television research at Kingston University, London. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice's Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience and the BFI Film Classics volume on Star Wars. His new book, Hunting the Dark Knight: 21st Century Batman, is published by I B Tauris in June 2012.