When Batman Begins debuted, it was clear that Bruce was going to be a different kind of hero. His motivation began as a personal quest to ease his own emotional pain, but those reasons gradually became greater and larger than himself. In The Dark Knight, Bruce was shown to be at the top of his game as Gotham's savior, having met his legendary foe the Joker, and pushing the limits of technology and physical strength further than they had ever been before. Bruce battled with how far he would go before crossing the line into becoming a villain himself, often barely different in his methods and approaches. By the time the film wrapped, he allowed a villain to be hailed a hero, and took the blame for all the man's misdeeds himself. In essence, Bruce chose to become in name what he stood against in his heart. Eight years later, Bruce is weary, physically weaker, heartbroken, and considerably less resolved to be Gotham's hope. Bruce is now a has-been hero, no longer jumping from buildings and leaping from aircraft, but a recluse; shut-up in the confines of his manor with only Alfred for consolation.
Batman Begins is a perfect origin story. Bruce is seen as a child, a college student, and finally a man. He grows from one stage to the next and through his experiences determines to become the Bat Man in order to take Gotham back from the corrupt powers that have overrun it. In a city so bad that there is no higher power to appeal to, Bruce dared to stand alone against the tide of evil and corruption, using his billionaire funds to equip himself to be mysterious, powerful, swift, and terrifying to those who stood in his way. Everything from Bruce's martial arts training to his fancy toys were accounted for and explained in Batman Begins.
As a sequel, The Dark Knight stands as one of the greatest sequels ever made. Where Rhas Al Ghul challenged Batman's definition of justice, the Joker tested Batman's limits. Bruce was once a young idealist who refused to become an executioner, but how long could he hold to that? Deeper still, what is the true difference between a hero and a villain, and how far can a hero go before he becomes a villain? Even Bruce couldn't answer this one, but he found out the answer before fleeing into darkness for eight years. Now as a worn out, discouraged, and seeming failure of a hero, the question is whether or not Bruce will rise again and come to Gotham's rescue one last time.
The Dark Knight Rises is first and foremost, a tale on perseverance. Bruce is not what he used to be and even his faithful Alfred declares "You're not Batman anymore!" Bruce knows it. He grapples with whether or not it is time to don the cape again, even though he doubts that Batman even exists anymore. Physically, Batman is no match for Bane, and Bruce is for the first time, struggling financially. But somewhere between all of this, Bruce realizes that not only is he still the most able to save Gotham, he is the only one who can. The question then becomes, will he? The city that demonized him now cries out for his aide, while the only person that he truly cares about is telling him that he can't. Will he lose everything or sacrifice it? And will any of it really make any difference?
Gotham City is exactly the type of place that seems doomed to continue attracting the world’s most maniacal breeds of Fausts and Mephistopheles for the rest of time, which raises the question as to why Batman/Bruce would go to such great lengths to save it. As previously mentioned, The Dark Knight Rises is a tale on perseverance. It is a story of plodding onwards in the face of truly overwhelming odds with only the tiniest glimmer of hope that any victory is even remotely possible. Bruce lies in a pit with a broken back, watching news reports of Gotham rip itself apart, yet he musters the courage to crawl out and rise to Gotham’s aide. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, and it is the hill he has chosen to die on, figuratively speaking. Gotham will not stay saved forever, but Bruce still rises from his fallen and broken state to give the last that he can before leaving Batman behind.
When Bruce first became Batman, he knew the workings of a criminal mind and the complexities of the not-so-simple nature of right and wrong, yet he was still something of an idealist. His vision was that his example as a symbol of justice would inspire others to fight back, and that eventually a legion would rise to restore Gotham. With very few allies, it seemed a one-sided battle for many years, and when white knight Harvey Dent turned two-faced, the battle seemed to be losing. Now in the final showdown, the conflict demands that this be the end of Batman. But before Bruce leaves Batman behind forever, he chooses a successor who is everything that Bruce used to be, and more. Gotham will still need saving, but Bruce’s time has passed. So young Detective Blake is chosen to be Gotham’s next savior. Like Bruce, he graduated from the school of hard knocks, but unlike Bruce, he is untainted by it. Blake has a heart of compassion and purity that Bruce no longer has, if he ever did, and Bruce recognizes that it is time to pass the mantle off to someone who is still good, and willing to give as much as Bruce did to the cause.
Batman Begins was the start of the story, The Dark Knight was the climax for Batman, and The Dark Knight Rises seems to be the climax for Gotham, and the epilogue of the Batman tales. Bruce has been challenged in his notions of justice and his motives for becoming the Bat Man. He has tested his moral and ethical limits and his emotional strength. He has been forced to ask himself how far he can go before it is too far. Now he has learned endurance. The Batman trilogy of movies do not necessarily seek to dictate whether or not Bruce passes these tests, but to posit that rather than doing the best that he could; he did what was necessary.