The Dark Knight Trilogy is the greatest ever committed to film. From start to finish, it tells a beautiful, cohesive story in an artful and emotionally stirring fashion. It frightens and inspires and leaves us both satisfied and wanting more. It is ambitious, and its messages are shrouded in symbols and the convention of the superhero genre. But it is not the story of bats or clowns, superheroes or mercenaries. It is the story of holes. Holes define the narrative and chart the progress of the protagonist. They mirror the emptiness in Bruce Wayne's heart, and his journey to save Gotham is, more than anything, a quest of healing.
The first thing that we see happen to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins involves a hole. He stands on what he presumes to be solid ground, until it gives way and sends him tumbling into a cave. In the cave, bats find him, frighten him, subdue him, and leave him cowering. Bruce has fallen, and at this stage in his life, he is too young, too weak to climb back out.
But it's okay, because Bruce has a protector. He has his father, who descends into the hole and comforts him, and then lifts him out. As he carries him home, he tries to impart a lesson on young Bruce. "Why do we fall?" he asks. "So that we fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up." Bruce is free of the hole and safe from the bats, but not of his doing. He had a hero to save him.
And then his hero is struck down, and young Bruce is left adroft for the next decade of his life. He wanders around the world, trying to bury himself. Guilt haunts him. He is empty during this period of his life, like a shell of the man he could have been. His body was pulled out of that hole, but his spirit, his soul was left down there - left with the bats.
He returns to the same hole and descends again, and when he finds the bats, his soul and body are reunited, but he does not climb out. He stays in the hole, in the darkness, and in that darkness, Batman is born. Bruce boards up the hole, content that it has served its purpose, that it has made him stronger. And Batman, he believes, is to be his salvation.
But we never see him climb out of it. Because he doesn't.
There is no salvation in Batman for Bruce Wayne, only pain and the never-ending quest to slay the demon that he met when he was a child, a demon that frightened him and subdued him and that he believes he has conquered by wearing its skin. It's only when Gotham's court jester speaks the truth to him; when he corrupts its white knight; when he cuts the only rope Bruce had left for himself to climb out of that hole by murdering the woman he loves, that this truth can be known. When Batman defeats the Joker, and when he kills Harvey Dent saving Jim Gordon's son and then follows Dent's fall, taking the blame on himself, he finally acquires the means to do what he had been trying to do all those year away: he buries himself in that hole.
And he decays. When it becomes necessary, he lies to himself, tells himself that he hasn't, but the hole inside him has only grown, and it leads to his defeat at the hands of a younger, hungrier adversary.
When Bane imprisons Bruce Wayne in the Pit, Bruce is forced to face the truth that he never left it. One hole is as good as another, and the only time in all three films that he emerged from a hole was because his father pulled him out of it. But he has never climbed out. He has never shown himself worthy of climbing out. He is still the child, trapped, frightened, subdued. And only with this epiphany does he recall the words of his one-time savior: "Why do we fall?"
Only when he finally comes to terms with this lesson is he capable of climbing out of the Pit. And he does, stone by stone, step by step, until he has reached the point of no return. The bats emerge again, but this time they do not frighten him or subdue him. He has moved beyond them. And with them behind him, he closes his eyes and jumps.
He climbs out of the Pit, body and soul united, but in the light for the first time since he was a child. What follows - the bloody climax of the trilogy - is a mere formality. Bruce Wayne has healed himself. The hole in his heart is gone. After three films of falling, he has finally picked himself up.
This is not a trilogy about bats or clowns or superheroes or mercenaries. It is a trilogy of holes, of failing, and of how one man who has spent his life falling finds within himself the strength to rise.