One of the more common criticisms of The Dark Knight Rises revolves around the apparent ease with which Detective John Blake discerns that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Those defending the film point most often to Robin #3, Tim Drake, who in the comics figures out that Bruce is the Batman and more-or-less argues his way into becoming Robin. Those trying to tie Blake to Drake seem essentially to argue “Well Tim was that smart, so maybe John is too?”
Both critics and defenders ignore essential Batman lore that Nolan clearly uses in his trilogy: Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears.
Somewhere back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, comics writers figured out that the Batman is more truly Bruce Wayne than the careless, billionaire playboy persona Bruce wears in public. Batman becomes the wish-fulfillment of a child who can’t face loss. The Batman is, after all, a person who dresses up like a monster to frighten the people who took his parents from him.
But Batman’s war on crime relies on his being able to stay in the shadows. If people figured out Bruce Wayne is Batman, his crusade would be over. And it can’t be that hard in Gotham to figure out that Bruce Wayne could be Batman. He’s one of the few people in the city who has the resources to do what Batman does.
This is precisely why Bruce maintains his Billionaire mask. In the minds of Gothamites, Bruce Wayne is the least likely person to be Batman. Batman fights for justice. Batman helps Gotham. Billionaire Bruce wouldn’t help an old lady across the street.
The Billionaire Bruce becomes one more weapon in Batman’s arsenal. Chris Nolan understood this aspect of the Batman mythology and wove it into his trilogy.
Batman Begins concludes in the ashes of Wayne Manor as Alfred shows Bruce a newspaper with the headline “Drunken Billionaire Burns Down Home”. In that same scene, as she touches Bruce’s face, Maggie Gyllenhal Katie Holms Rachel Daws says,
This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved – the man who vanished – he never came back at all. But maybe he’s still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I’ll see him again.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce maintains his mask: he falls asleep during make-or-break board meetings. When the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital, he gets into a fender-bender trying to run a red light, then asks Gordon, “Do you think I should go to the hospital?”
Each of these moments reinforces Bruce’s billionaire playboy mask to the Gotham public.
Nolan picks this theme up again strongly in The Dark Knight Rises. At Miranda’s masquerade ball, when Bruce is dancing with Selina, she asks,
“Who are you pretending to be?” — Selina Kyle
“Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.”
— Bruce Wayne Batman
The scene oozes irony: Bruce appears to be the only person not wearing a mask, when in fact his presence as Bruce Wayne is the mask.
So how does this understanding of Billionaire Bruce as Batman’s mask help us understand how John Blake figured it out?
In his first conversation with Bruce, Blake reveals that he was also an orphan who watched his father murdered. That he understands what that does to a kid, how he – like Bruce – was trapped in his anger. He told Bruce,
You gotta learn to hide the anger… it’s like putting on a mask.
Blake recounts a visit Bruce made to the orphanage where Blake grew up. And the moment Blake laid eyes on Billionaire Bruce – stepping out of a fancy car with a supermodel on his arm,
Right when I saw you, I knew who you really were. I’d seen that look on your face before. It’s the same one I learned myself.
Blake wears his own version of the Billionaire mask to hide his own version of the Batman.
Of course once Blake knows that Billionaire Bruce is a mask, he easily figures out what Bruce is hiding. Bruce finds comfort in confiding in Blake, and the end of Blake’s journey is inevitable.
Blake recognizes that Bruce is the mask because he wears his own. Blake and Bruce are the same kind of person, which enables Blake to take up the Batman mantle.