Flashback Friday: A Far, Far Better Thing

3:38 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

Today is the first Flashback Friday here at The Storyologist! I'm at a writers' conference this weekend, and since everyone is already overanalyzing this year's movie in anticipation of the Oscars on Sunday, I thought you might enjoy something about a snubbed movie from two years ago. I hope you enjoy!
The glut of superheroes in current pop culture has been well-documented and written about to an almost excruciating degree. So when I say that one of the most talked-about superhero movies of the past decade is, at heart, a comic-book-ization of a nineteenth-century British novel read by every high school student in the English-speaking world (and, let's be honest, subsequently forgotten by about 90% of them). When watching The Dark Knight Rises, I was really struck by the constant references- both explicit and subtle- to A Tale of Two Cities, and to Bruce Wayne as a modern-noir Sydney Carton. As a bit of a literary nerd, I thought perhaps this was worth a further discussion.

Throughout the film, the major plot involves the "people's revolution" in Gotham, led in terrifying fashion by Bane. The elite- whether corrupt or bearing no fault besides wealth- are targeted and the city taken over after a mass prison breakout. A so-called people's court is established, but as Crane says, "Your guilt has already been established". This is not justice but vengeance. Both the legitimate law and pure justice- represented respectively by Gordon and Bruce- struggle to hold out in the face of such brute force and anger. This bears an eerie resemblance to the French Revolution and Bastille breakout of history and, of course, of ATOTC. The same themes run through both stories: a state turned corrupt and with an ever-deepening gap between the rich and poor, vengeful and angry revolutionaries who are every bit as corrupt as the system they replace. And like the Defarges and revolutionaries of ATOTC, Bane, Talia, and their followers are ultimately defeated. Hope springs out of the deepest despair. In darkest night, as one of the trailers for TDKR says, "a fire will rise" to bring light. This movement from dark to the darkest of all and finally into the light is a theme Dickens famously uses in ATOTC and one that is especially meaningful for the Dark Knight trilogy, where the light is brought by one who himself feels more inclined to darkness. Bane even references this at one time, taunting Batman, "You think the dark will protect you?" But the difference is that Bruce overcomes the darkness and rises, both literally and figuratively- and, by the end of the film, so has Gotham.

Gotham City rises from the smoke and ash
Obviously, the funeral scene is home to the most explicit ATOTC reference, as Gordon reads Sydney Carton's iconic final words at Bruce's grave. This got me thinking about Bruce Wayne and his striking similarity to Sydney Carton, particularly within the context described above. Here, I'm going to copy the full text of Sydney's speech, rather than the shortened version in the movie, but I'm bolding the most relevant passages.

"I see Barsad, ... Defarge, The Vengeance [a lieutenant of Madame Defarge], ... long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

"I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man [Mr. Lorry], so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.

"I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul, than I was in the souls of both.

"I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

"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."

Sydney is a wreck of a man, broken down by years of inactive living, drink, and the loss of the woman he loves. Yet, he is a good man, loyal to the end, and idealistic beneath his cynical exterior. He alone sees the possibility of a better France rising from two successive reigns of evil and believes its people are still good at heart. He is willing to lay down his life for others, knowing that they will hold him in loving memory and asking no other reward. And he sees, almost supernaturally, that there is a young man to come and take up his mantle but be a better man. Likewise, Batman, after suffering so much loss, goes to his death to ensure the safety of the city he loves; despite its current chaos, he believes it will rise from the ashes. And he leaves behind the means for another to follow in his "path of life"- leaving Blake the coordinates to the Batcave. Perhaps- and I know this stretches credulity and is comic-book heresy- when Blake has a son someday in the future, he will name him after the hero he once knew and tell him his story, just as Sydney sees Lucie and Darnay's son in the future. Batman is a Carton-like antihero and martyr- which adds to the depth of understanding of TDKR and its ending.

Robin John Blake, the young man who brings hope for the future

Finally, and most philosophically, the theme of duality, which has long run through Nolan's Batman trilogy. In ATOTC, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are near twins in appearance and are often viewed as two halves of a psychological whole; likewise with Bruce Wayne and Batman. Like Darnay, Bruce is an uneasy man of privilege, born to wealth and name. Batman is the Carton alter ego: living with only a few rules, reviled or at least distrusted by all but a select few. Bruce and Batman are inseparable for some time, just as Darnay's destiny entwines with Carton's. It is only at the moment of sacrifice by one that the other half can finally live in peace, though forever in hiding. Batman does a "far, far better thing than he has ever done" by sacrificing himself to save Gotham; but this also allows Bruce to come to "a far, far better rest than he has ever known" at last.