Warning: Spoilers for all the Batman films, as well as a few Batman comics, abound in the following:
The most troubling element of the Dark Knight Trilogy (as it is now known) is that the entirety of Gotham City does not realize that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Interestingly enough, a variety of characters figure it out throughout the film not because he tells them, but through deduction alone.
Consider that, by the end of the series, the following characters (approximately chronologically) know that Bruce Wayne and Batman are indeed the same person:
- Ra’s Al Ghul
- Alfred Pennyworth
- Lucius Fox
- Rachel Dawes
- Coleman Reese (the accountant guy who tries to blackmail them)
- John Blake
- Selina Kyle
- The entire League of Shadows
- Commissioner James Gordon
These people fall into three categories: those who naturally know that Bruce is Batman because they watched him become Batman (i.e. Alfred, R’as, and Lucius), those who know he is Batman because he disclosed his identity (Rachel, Selina, and Gordon), and those who deduced it (Blake and Reese.) Bane and the League of Shadows fall into the first category, as they know Bruce is Batman because he used to be one of them.
You then have to consider people who would probably figure it out, such as the smugglers in The Dark Knight who help him kidnap Lau, the ballerinas with whom he was vacationing, and all the guys in the prison.
This is a rather large amount of people to know what should be an extremely confidential piece of information.
When I walked into The Dark Knight Rises, I had two solid expectations about the ending: a) Bruce Wayne would no longer be Batman, and b) Everyone in Gotham would know that Bruce Wayne was had been Batman all along.
Instead, Batman gets ostensibly blown up while Bruce Wayne’s estate is dissolved, in what are meant to be two separate incidents? And only four men are at Bruce’s funeral, because they are the only four people who knew his identity? But then, who were all those people reading his will?
Consider a different possibility: everything that we see in the Dark Knight Trilogy is not the reality of Gotham City, but the reality as Bruce Wayne perceives it. Every single scene is either an event as he experiences it, or a scene that he imagines takes place. Why?
Because the entire concept of him being Batman is simply a complicated, carefully-constructed reality that has been created for him by outside forces.
I’m not saying that Bruce lives in The Matrix, or that it was all a dream the whole time. What I’m saying is this: every single person in Gotham knows that Batman is really Bruce Wayne. They are only humoring him, as it’s the way to keep him (relatively) under control, to keep his fortune in Gotham, and because he is incredibly entertaining. One can simply call it: The Bruce Wayne Show.
The villains each have a slightly different explanation: Liam Neeson, rather than portraying Ra’s Al Ghul, is actually playing himself (Liam Neeson). Alfred hired him, asking him to fill a role similar to that of Qui-Gon Jinn.
The Joker is also a hired actor, and this would explain some of the baffling moments involving him in The Dark Knight. Particularly, why does he not seem particularly concerned with Batman’s identity? It would also explain the line in the interrogation room in which The Joker says: “You know for awhile there, I thought you really were Dent. The way you threw yourself after her.” Currently, this line makes little sense. What would have suggested to The Joker that Batman wasn’t Dent? Who does The Joker think Batman is? (Edit: It has been pointed out that of course The Joker knows Batman isn’t Dent, because The Joker kidnapped Dent. That’s what the entire interrogation is about. The Joker would have learned the difference, if he didn’t know it sooner, during the car chase. This is a valid point. Instead, I suggest that the oddest thing about the entire car chase is that, when you think about it, it seems more as if Commissioner Gordon and The Joker were conspiring to surprise us than anything else.)
Finally, The Joker is referencing the Dent fundraiser, in which Batman jumped out the window with Rachel and then The Joker and his goons…. said goodbye and left? (An oft-quoted plot hole on internet websites.) It’s the most baffling moment in the film. What happened in the fundraiser after Batman jumped out the window? The most compelling explanation is this: Someone called out “Good job, folks!” and The Joker began washing his makeup off as all the hired extras shuffled over to the elevators. Meanwhile, Bruce recovered and forgot that he hadn’t actually solved anything.
As for Harvey and Rachel, they wanted to move away and so they worked with Alfred and Gordon to write themselves out of Bruce’s delusions. Everything was set up perfectly so that, after Dent’s faked death and The Joker’s arrest, Bruce would retire from being Batman and just start relaxing and having a normal life. For anyone who is saying “How did they fake all those deaths? What about Harvey’s scars?” The simple answer is this: “Theatricality and deception are powerful weapons.”
This takes us through the first two films, but instead of relaxing, Bruce moped for eight years after The Dark Knight. He went all Howard Hughes on everyone, until Gotham decided that they needed to give him one last fantasy as Batman. So they hired a whole cast of new actors to play both bad guys (Bane, Daggett, Tate), and good guys (Blake, Selina) and quickly realized that Bruce was going to make this extremely easy for them, as he began revealing his identity to anyone who talked to him for more than five minutes, making references to his “powerful friend” and basically just shrugging when people began asking him point-blank if he was The Bat-Man.
They then simply had to convince him that his back was broken, and put him into an Bond-style, easily-escapable trap in which no guards would watch him. They decided to give him a television as well, on which they broadcasted an imaginary mockumentary news channel about the collapse of Gotham. Finally, Bruce escaped (like he was supposed to) and went and saved the day.
Consider some of the details of TDKR that suggest this. The moment where the police are all lined up in the street, ready to fight the Occupy Gotham crowd, suggests this the most. Why are they all standing, blank-faced, looking at the bad guys? What motivates them into action? Why, the Bat-Man, of course. And why is that? Because they are extras in The Bruce Wayne Show.
And then the ending. Gotham has finally rid themselves of the self-centered, delusional nuisance that is Bruce Wayne. All they have to do is have Selina bring him to an Italian café, where he will coincidentally see Alfred. They make sure that it’s a café exactly like the one that Bruce imagined when Alfred described it to him before. Meanwhile, Bruce daydreams about John Blake finding the bat cave, and Commissioner Gordon admiring his new Batsignal present that Bruce left him.
Like all “fan theories,” this comes with the danger of diminishing the impact of the subject, similar to interpretations that Patrick Bateman never committed a murder, or that Cobb was dreaming the whole time. But just because it might not have been real in the way we first perceive it, does not mean it isn’t real.
Neil Gaiman suggested something similar in his comic “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader,” in which a dying Batman views different eulogies taking place at what may or may not be his funeral in Crime Alley. Gaiman has Alfred confess to having been The Joker all along, saying “What Master Bruce needed was a Moby Dick to his Abad, a Moriarty to his Holmes. And so, regretfully, I did what needed to be done.” In my theory, Alfred was not the Joker but one of the puppet masters, doing what he felt needed to be done.
In Gaiman’s parallel Gotham, Alfred explained to Bruce “If you believed that you were fighting evil, then you were indeed fighting evil.” Which perhaps is all the explanation we need. And it makes sense, when you consider the body of Nolan’s work. There are deep undercurrents of deception in each of Nolan’s films, some of which are resolved at the end (such as The Prestige and Following), and others in which some answers are left buried or ambiguous (Inception and Memento.) The Dark Knight films are of a third variety, in which you can take them at surface level, or you can consider a different possibility.
Some people say the final scene of The Dark Knight Rises was simply Alfred having a daydream. Consider instead that the final moment was the final piece of Bruce’s misunderstanding, but just as real as everything that came before it. Nothing but a daydream, created to help Bruce mourn his parents and become the spectacle Gotham both needed and deserved.