Batman Begins. The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises. Ever since the final movie's title was announced, referring to Bruce Wayne as "Batman" in the first title and "The Dark Knight" in the last two has bugged me.
When my wife and I saw The Dark Knight Rises, and how much it brings the entire series full-circle, my ADD with the film titles flared even more.
Until one of the many discussions we had about TDKR made me realize something: the first film's title calls Bruce Wayne "Batman" because it's the only one that's referring just to Bruce Wayne.
The "Dark Knight" in the last two titles refers to Bruce Wayne and his "Batman" persona, yes...but not only to him.
Bat spoilers ahead. Of course.
As Bruce says many times throughout the trilogy, the point of Batman is to inspire regular people to stand-up against evil and not be afraid. Inspiring people to do good, then, is established as Bruce's primary goal throughout the series.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce thinks he's found that person: Gotham's Distrct Attorney and "White Knight," Harvey Dent.
Of course, the "White Knight" doesn't just catch Bruce's eye. He also attracts the attention of the Joker.
And so one of the film's primary thematic struggles emerges, as Bruce and the Joker fight to imbue Dent with their diametrically opposed ideals.
We all know who wins that fight, of course (which, one one level, might also mean the Joker wins the second film).
Faced with true darkness and despair, Dent spirals into madness and murder.
Suddenly, "Gotham's White Knight" is no longer white at all. He falls, becomes a Dark Knight.
After his death, Bruce and Commissioner Gordon make the thematically-disastrous decision to cover-up Dent's crimes. At the same time, Bruce is making an internal cover-up by adjusting his original goals as Batman: if Dent represents a failure of his quest, perhaps creating a false version of Dent to inspire the people of Gotham can count as some twisted form of success.
Another knight rises
The 8 years that pass between the second and third film prove this to be false.
The cover-up has taken its toll on both Bruce and Gordon, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. Worse, as the hospitalized Gordon says, something evil is rising out of what they tried to bury.
As the evil spreads slowly beneath Gotham, we meet John Blake, an "everyman" member of Gotham's finest who's trying to figure out why dead teenagers are washing out of the sewers.
We learn that Blake was orphaned as a child, and that he chose Bruce Wayne ("Billionaire-Orphan," not "Batman") as a role-model after Bruce made a visit to the boys home where Blake lived. The legends the children made up about Bruce inspired Blake to learn to control his anger and work hard to find success in spite of his situation.
Blake, we see, is a fantastic cop, and throughout the movie shows great bravery, strength, intelligence and detective skills (and not just in how he deduces Batman's identity).
All of this makes him a great hero, but it's one specific quality of his that makes him a pivotal character in the Dark Knight trilogy: his unshakable moral compass.
As I described earlier, in The Dark Knight we watched Dent, Gordon, and Bruce all fail morally, to varying degrees, in the face of utter despair.
Blake's morals, by contrast, never waver once. Even in the most dire and hopeless situations.
We see this demonstrated during two crucial sequences: when the police destroy the city's last standing bridge, and when Blake learns that Gordon and Bruce lied to elevate Dent as a martyr.
What's important is that, even when his two role-models fall out from under him or fellow officers trap him and a bus of orphans with an atom bomb, Blake's morals don't give as much as a shudder. He never stops fighting for what he thinks is right. What's more, what he thinks is right never changes.
Bruce sees this and realizes that Blake is proof that he has finally, and unexpectedly, fulfilled the original goal of the Batman persona.
Which is of course the reason that Bruce leaves Blake the Bat cave. And why the last shot of the film, and of the entire series, is literally and metaphorically a new Dark Knight rising.