Beware: you may find spoilers in here!
Christopher Nolan and company's three-part, epic presentation of the Batman mythology has now run its course, leaving us with that sense of finality that pervades superhero stories; at least, for the few minutes until someone in the process goes public with the plan to reboot or retcon the whole thing. Movie watchers and comic book readers alike have come to recognize that every dramatic change of the status quo is one wave of a hand from being reversed, and that the continuity tying a hero's adventures together is a fleeting, scarcely maintained fiction. Nolan's Batman may be done for good, but Batman will be back for more sequels as long as studios deem them feasible and profitable.
Still, we are meant to think that Nolan's movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) are special in some way. Whatever loose ties that bind the various Batman media together are not fixed as strongly to the Dark Knight trilogy. Whatever perceptions we have about Nolan as an auteur have strongly colored our perception of these movies, and it isn't all hype: the trilogy is tonally distinct from just about every super-hero film ever shot. He takes Batman seriously, and made three very serious movies about him; this is something fans like me appreciate very much. So I think this trilogy will likely be held apart from other Batman-related media for a very long time.
I first saw The Dark Knight Rises on July 26th, but I re-watched all three movies with my girlfriend over the course of last weekend. Multiple viewing of multiple movies, of course, has a way of warping your memory and diminishing your appreciation of each as a distinct work, but it also allows you to catch more allusions and self-references. In movies as dense as these, it's helpful to have all the relevant details fresh in mind.
Now, I love Batman. I'll take Marvel Comics over DC any time, but you don't get to be as big of a nerd as I am with out recognizing Batman's superiority as a crime fighter and hero. But Batman/Bruce Wayne isn't easy to get right, and plenty of creative people have gotten him very wrong. There are three very important elements to get right when drawing Batman's character. The first is his extraordinary high level of skill, intelligence, and strength; without these traits, the character cannot be taken seriously. The second is his extremely damaged psychological state; despite growing up with unimaginable privilege, the trauma of his parents' death was enough to drive him into adopting a life of extreme violence and uncompromising conflict with dangerous enemies - all while dressed as a bat. And the third, of course, is the conscience of Bruce Wayne, directing his traumatic rage toward "bad guys," without allowing him to commit the act of murder.
Batman fans owe a lot to Frank Miller, the author of many classic Batman stories. Books like Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are very obviously sources of inspiration for Nolan's trilogy, to say nothing of the tremendous influence they have had on decades of comics. For a long time, Batman stories had lost their way: the traumatic element of his life, his prime motivation for engaging in super-heroics, had been watered down by years of high camp and kid-friendly attitudes. Miller helped bring back the pain and violence that were inherent to the character, and helped expose the fundamental contradiction that has troubled fans of all superheros for decades. The essence of the superhero fantasy, the ability to act unfettered for the sake of an idealized good, ultimately resolves to a form of fascism. Superheroes, being disproportionately strong, intelligent, stubborn, and very often wealthy, are one unprincipled decision away from seizing control over a society they mean to protect.
So the best thing I can say about Nolan's depiction of the Caped Crusader (a campy moniker if ever there was one) is that it does not follow Miller's more closely than it should. In today's age of "dark and gritty reboots," it's become far too easy to turn Batman into an amoral, authoritarian lunatic. At a certain point, that becomes cartoon-ish in the worst sense of the word; the conscience of Batman becomes a flimsy pretext, an invitation to glory in Batman's violent adventures while admitting no "weakness" or humanity. There's no Bruce Wayne in this conception, except as the original source of the pain that drives the Batman; we get something a lot closer to the Punisher.
The Dark Knight trilogy understands the character in a more subtle way, while still being forthright about the pain and contradiction at the core of Batman. As portrayed by Christian Bale, he's certainly damaged: in Batman Begins, young and undisciplined Bruce Wayne attempts to murder his parents' killer on the day of his release, and only fails because a mob assassin pulls the trigger first. His obsession with not only brutalizing, but also terrorizing the criminals he fights speaks to the hurt and rage that drives a man of privilege to attempt to personally restore order to a decaying social structure.
But once Wayne goes through the essential transformation and adopts his new persona, he acts on the basis of a focused conscience. Although he operates outside the law, the dominant theme of these movies, particularly The Dark Knight, concerns which lines Batman will not cross. As Batman he exercizes incredible power, but he does not see himself as a ruthless conqueror. District Attorney Harvey Dent compares him (favorably) to Caesar, but perpetual dictatorship is not Bruce Wayne's desire; instead, it is a dark shadow of his mission, a consequence he strains to avoid with his uncompromising moral code. It's a role he plays, but at great cost to himself
Not everything Batman does in these films is right or praiseworthy. He's guilty of torture, spying on ordinary people, and a conspiracy of silence that leaves his city woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that takes place in The Dark Knight Rises. But most of these actions, regardless of how they turn out, are motivated by a selfless ethos: the belief that he must commit certain sins in order to allow Gotham City to become a truly free society. The epic conflict of this third movie draws from the fact that, heroic though their intentions may have been, the actions of Batman and Commissioner Gordon helped set the stage for Bane's assault on the city. Batman saves Gotham, but only after he finally decides to put absolutely everything on the line to do so.
So this is Nolan's picture of Batman for us: deeply flawed and fallible, yet deeply and essentially oriented in mindset toward the greater good. He operates in a society that blurs the line between the surface and the underworld, where terror confronts ordinary people in random and shocking ways, and the notion of civil society is pressed against the drive toward authoritarianism and the death of freedom. Against this nightmare world, Batman is essentially the product of a dream: that the darkness which made our fears can provide us with hope.
The Dark Knight Trilogy is not the last word on who Batman is or what he stands for. There will be more movies and books that will develop the character further, and there will always be alternative interpretations of what, if anything, the example of Batman has to teach us in the real world. But their tremendous visibility makes this version of the Dark Knight more accessible and widespread, and I am glad for that.