Christopher Nolan's recent revelations about his involvement in the next Batman film, and his specific references to an “ending,” have fueled much speculation about his intentions. Fans and the media are debating whether this means an actual "end" to Batman, either through death or retirement, or if Nolan is at least planning to end the existing film series in a way that requires another reboot of the franchise after Nolan departs. Others expect merely the end of the arcs set in motion in the previous films.
I'd like to talk first about what I DON'T think Nolan is planning, and then talk briefly about what I think his comments are most likely to mean for the future of the Batman franchise after the third film. Finally, I will focus specifically on what I believe Nolan's comments might tell us about what to expect in the third Batman film.
WHAT AN "ENDING" DOESN'T MEAN
I don't think Nolan's comments about an "ending" refer to simply bringing previous arcs to a conclusion that merely has Batman accepting his role "forever" and becoming a hero again in the eyes of the city. Those will be components of the story, I believe, but are not primarily what he means by "ending" and “conclusion,” in my opinion.
However, while I do expect it to be more than simply tying up the arcs and storylines, I also suspect that some fans are so used to the way the comics sometimes resort to gimmicks like "he's dead!" or "he quits!" etc that when they hear "ending" they immediately think in terms of the way the comics often attempt to sell such concepts. People should avoid speculation that assumes obvious and contrived concepts regarding how to approach storytelling that seeks true resolution, and instead ask themselves more complex questions about these characters and the world in which they operate on film.
"Ending" things doesn't have to be so definitive that it provides such literal presentation of the concept of conclusion, and the approach to illusionary realism does not at all translate into a need to examine Batman's own mortality and for an "ending" to result in death or the cessation of everything. So in the case of Nolan's Batman films, I feel certain that Batman is not going to die or permanently retire in the third film.
It doesn't serve the story or the themes of Batman's character and the Nolan films to introduce the necessity of death in order to reach important resolutions. We've seen the importance of the growing realization that Bruce will always need to be Batman, and that he is determined to be whatever Gotham needs him to be. Part of THE DARK KNIGHT's message is that in fact his belief in an "end" where he can stop and have a normal life is not within his grasp; not only because of something within him that will always need to be Batman, but also because Gotham will always need him in one way or another. TDK ended with Gordon noting the difference between the hero the city deserves and the hero it needs right now. Batman is the hero they deserve, because he is willing to always be more than a hero and puts Gotham's needs above his own.
Likewise, The Joker's comments foreshadowing the eternal struggle between himself and Batman isn't merely about the literal fight they will continuously engage in, but is also about what each man symbolizes and how that struggle between good and evil, hope and resignation, are an eternal struggle.
Earlier in the film, The Joker tells Batman “there's no going back,” because Batman has "changed things…forever." Batman represents in this scenario a literal embodiment of the forces of good against the forces of evil, the struggle for Gotham's sanity and soul; a battle from which no retreat is now possible for either the unstoppable force or the immovable object. Batman has unleashed something in Gotham, something within men like The Joker and men like the "batmen" who take Batman's example too literally, but also within men like Gordon and Dent, and countless others who have embraced hope.
So it would be extremely contradictory for a third film to ignore these important themes, and Batman's death or final retirement would definitely represent such a contradiction. Therefore, I am convinced that Batman will still be alive at the end of the third film, and will be positioned to continue his mission as Batman.
This is all without even addressing the simple business aspects of such a decision regarding what is currently the most critically acclaimed and popular film of the genre, something no studio would allow to be ended just when it's finally taken off to such incredible heights. Warner Bros. publicly noted their desire for the Batman franchise to be one of the series that remains as a constant and dependable summer tent pole film for the studio, and I do not believe that they would forgo the continuation of the existing characterizations even after Nolan has left the series. When you have a franchise that just made more than $1 billion, you don't follow that success up with a film that ends the franchise.
WHAT DOES AN "ENDING" MEAN FOR FUTURE BATMAN FILMS?
To get a bit out of chronological order, let's now consider what Nolan's plans might mean for Batman films after the third installment.
I am pretty certain Nolan's third film will be his last of the franchise. He's made it clear that he views the third film as an ending, and I believe part of that perception is an ending to his own role in the series. Perhaps he will remain onboard as a producer or simply a consultant to help ensure the smoothest possible transition, but I am convinced he will not direct another Batman film after the third installment.
There is no chance that once Nolan departs, the studio will choose to simply end the franchise for a long time. Batman will remain a key series in Warner Bros.' plans for films that help replace the massive profits enjoyed by the last decade of Harry Potter films. They have made it clear that with the end of that series drawing near, they intend to utilize DC characters as the way to replace the revenue that will be missed after Harry Potter has run its course.
That series amounted to easily a billion dollars worth of profits from box office and DVDs for each film, not to mention other merchandising revenue. The total revenue from the Harry Potter films has been about $7.5 billion over a period of eight years, or the equivalent of almost $1 billion every year. Batman is perhaps the main franchise viewed as central to replacing this lost revenue stream, and there is simply no realistic or rational reason to expect the studio to simply stop making Batman films after Nolan departs. So Batman will continue, which means he will have to be in a position to return in a fourth film and future films -- another reason to assume Nolan's "ending" will not involve the death of Batman.
Starting with a fourth film, a new creative team will take over wherever Nolan has left off. They will not come in and reboot the franchise. The series is exactly what it needs to be, it hasn't faltered or become dated, it hasn't missed opportunities, Nolan and Warner Bros. have a great working relationship, and the series is hailed by critics, fans, and a broad mainstream audience. The existing characterization and world are far too popular and perfected for the studio to erase it after Nolan's departure. Again, referring back to the desire to recoup the sort of revenue seen from the Harry Potter series, the existing franchise foundation is rather obviously seen as a “sure thing,” and Warner Bros. will not want to mess with that success if they plan to capitalize on it for the future, as they surely do.
Anyone hoping for a reboot will surely be disappointed; and to be blunt, it seems pretty clear that the majority of audiences would want and be happy to see the series continue in the existing framework. So we are looking at a continuing franchise within the framework established by Nolan's first three films.
Since Nolan's third film is going to be some sort of significant ending to his narrative arcs, that means the new team will be able to decide on the course for Batman's series for the following several films, so they'll have a lot of leeway with themes and narratives for their stories. I do strongly believe that they will be required by Warner Bros. to work within the framework of the basic foundation laid by Nolan's films, so that future films don't contradict what took place in the first three films and doesn't ignore key elements that have made the series so popular.
What key elements? I suspect a lot of people are hoping that once Nolan departs, the series will move toward much more fantastical elements, but I believe there is a limit to how far it will be allowed to go. The term "illusionary realism" will still remain important, although future directors and writers will probably have room to stretch and prod at the boundaries. I don't expect to see any aliens or supernatural monsters introduced, nor elements that go too far into sci-fi (although obviously some sci-fi elements have been suggested by things like the sonar system, for example).
These things shouldn't be seen as restrictions, however, and instead should be treated as challenges that require imagination and creativity in order to find exciting and original ways to introduce elements that might push the boundaries, and ways to balance out the degree of illusionary realism in some areas so that the films earn greater degrees of suspension of disbelief in other areas.
So continuity of the characterizations and story will remain, as will a general desire to adhere to a perhaps looser definition of illusionary realism (or, a new creative team might potentially want to use a stricter definition, something few people seem to have considered but which I think might be true of certain possible directors, like Michael Mann for example).
The cast, however, might see some departures, including Christian Bale and Gary Oldman. I think Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman will return if they are happy with the new creative team, as might other supporting characters (Mr. Reese or Mr. Earl, for example, as well as several of the police characters). Cillian Murphy could probably be persuaded to come back, and if Ra's ever returns I suspect Liam Neeson would likewise strongly consider reprising the role.
Whatever direction and casting changes might take place, however, the certainty is that Warner Bros. will continue the franchise with the characterizations and world Nolan has created, and will expect the series to rely on Nolan's films as the foundation on which to continue the stories.