Today I want to shift the discussion of Endings to a more economical aspect: risk and reward. In short, what are the heroes or heroines sacrificing and what do they obtain in exchange? What do they receive for what they gave up?
Are the protagonists reaping rewards they have not earned? Are they altruists who do not mourn the sacrifices necessary to save the day (or the world)? Or has the story found that sweet-spot where we the audience ask those very questions ourselves?
Was it all worth it, in the End?
For my first example, I would like to use an American classic: The Lone Ranger. In every episode, The Lone Ranger has a grand adventure, saves the day, and rides off into the sunset. It’s all nice and pretty: the eternal hero is always there to fight, to save the day. But what does he get for his time and trouble? Nothing, but the chance to serve again. The eternal hero asks for nothing and gives everything. And while that is a lovely dream, it’s hardly real.
What about a hero like Dr. Who? He is another example of the “eternal hero”, but his story is very different from The Lone Ranger. The Doctor’s story has tragedy. It has fear. It has death. The character himself is based on the premise that he can die, but he will regenerate and be reborn as someone new. (I’m highly paraphrasing, of course. It’s more complicated than that, but that is outside the scope of this conversation.) But he can, he does, and he will die – time and time again. What does that mean for him as a character? What does that mean for us as an audience?
For all The Doctor has done, loving and losing, suffering tragedy and celebrating victory, is he really any more than a gladiator fighting in our television Colosseum? Are we really any better than a vulgar mob, salivating in anticipation at his next victory, his next tragedy, his next loss or death? The mythology of the character says that he can only regenerate a limited number of times, and (if I recall correctly) he has used his last one. What happens to him now? What will his next death bring? Do we, as an audience, even care?
The character seems so tragic to me. He is so widely popular, but we love him with such malicious glee. But the Greeks explained that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is whether or not the hero in question resolves the conflict that originally lead to their quest, and if the hero can reharmonize with the world. If so, it is a comedy. If not, it is a tragedy. And since The Doctor’s story is yet unfinished, calling it tragic may be premature. But there will be tears – I would bet on that.
Will it be worth it all in the End? Will everything he’s sacrificed and lost be balanced by all the joy he has gained – all the good he has done? Maybe it’s not even that kind of story. We must wait to see.
Finally, I want to discuss the Ending of Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film: The Dark Knight Rises. I won’t argue it is a perfect film – far from it. There are plot holes, and plenty of times when I wish things had been executed better. But I love the way the ending of the film ties the overarching storyline from all three movies together.
In the first film, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s life is destroyed. His family is killed, and he wanders the world – lost and without purpose. He wants to fight evil, but does not know how to do so constructively. And by the end of the film, he discovers how to do that: become Batman. It’s a great origin story.
In the second film, The Dark Knight, we are shown the consequences of Wayne’s choice. We see how criminals are reacting now that they’re cornered, and the lengths some of them will go to in order to beat him. The Joker is especially of note – not merely because of the late Heath Ledger’s amazing portrayal of the character, but because The Joker GETS Batman. The only way to beat someone who has become a symbol is to fight them symbolically. It reminds me of a line from the movie The 13th Warrior: “War is in the will.” The Joker gets that, and proceeds to try and destroy Batman the best way he knows how. But he loses at the end of the film, because Batman makes the sacrifices necessary to protect the city and still maintain his ideals, even if they make him a pariah.
Then there is the third film.
And here we see the cost of the decisions made in “The Dark Knight”: Wayne is crippled from the physical exertions of his exploits as Batman, his company (his parents’ legacy) is in shambles, and he has become a recluse – holding parties which he does not even attend. But when a new threat appears, Wayne becomes Batman again, even though he no longer has the strength to fill the role. And he loses because of that. But he rediscovers that strength and returns to save the day at the end of the film. However, it seemingly costs him everything: his money, his company, his home…he even fakes his death at the end of the film so he metaphorically loses his life.
But what does he gain?
Batman is another version of the “eternal hero”, and his story is often told in a very similar way to The Lone Ranger. No matter how dire the straits, Batman saves the day, rides off into “the sunset”, and will return next time to save the city. But that is the way Nolan’s film differs from the other tellings of the story.
In Nolan’s story, Wayne’s final reward for being Batman is that he no longer HAS to be Batman.
Bruce begins his story of Batman from a place of vengeance and redemption. He’s trying take revenge on the kind of people who killed his parents, and make the world a better place (or counter the decline). His dedication to improving the world is what differentiates him from a mere avenger. He contrasts the violence he uses to fight with a rock-solid set of morals that allows him to operate honorably even as a vigilante. But he is still the “dark” knight. For all his virtues, he is not a paladin.
Bruce shackles himself to the past, a single tragedy that set the course of his life. But at the End of the Nolan films, Bruce escapes that cycle. Yes, he loses his money and social standing, but how much were they helping him? He used everything he had to further the mission of Batman. How much did he really care about those things in the first place? I doubt they meant much, since he walked away from them once already in the first film. Yes, Alfred leaves, but that is a positive event in the long term: his caretaker is gone, and Bruce has to grow up. He has to start living his life.
He also meets Selina Kyle in this film, and over the course of the film she gets to know him. At first, he’s a mark for one of her jobs. But by the end of the film, she becomes his ally, and knows some of his most guarded secrets. She is in fact the one to kill Bane, not Batman. She even argues with him in the final act of the movie, saying, “Come with me. Save yourself. You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them EVERYTHING.” She’s seen what he’s done, and is trying to save him from his self-imposed burden. How many people have tried to save Batman? And the final time we see her is with Bruce, when Alfred sees the two of them together at a cafe.
So what does Wayne lose? His money, his social standing, his mission, his surrogate parent – every keystone of his life.
But what does he gain? He gets…his life back. He’s free from the burdens of the things he lost – those obligations are gone. And in the last scene we see him, he’s with someone who sees him for who he is, knows his secrets, accepts his past, and is trying to build a life with him.
Batman was born when a young boy lost his family. Nolan’s story of Batman Ends when a man makes his own life and creates his own family. The story of Bruce Wayne goes full circle – and the wrongs that created an avenger are rectified. Bruce Wayne reharmonizes with the world. The story Ends, and he seems happy.
And I like that Ending. I like that the reward for a life’s work is not more work, but rest. Like a quote from the movie Hero starring Jet Lee, “A warrior’s ultimate act is to lay down his sword.” The war ends, the hero gets to go home.