The Dark Knight Trilogy is an important addition to the current explosion (or glut, depending on your perspective) of all things superhero-related in modern Hollywood. Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster trilogy came during a lull in the superhero craze, when the initial wave of mainstream superhero movies (Spider-Man, X-Men) had given way to a string of critical and commercial disappointments (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Hulk) leading to predictions that the superhero craze had run its course and run out of interesting things to say. Even during the critical and commercial successes of the early X-Men and Spider-Man movies, the superhero genre never approached anything resembling respectability as studio executives tended to lump these as purely escapist fare and treated the source material with suspicion and contempt – frequently dumbing down the movies for larger audiences and changing the more outlandish aspects of the superhero properties that seemed silly to them (leading most famously to the black-leather clad X-Men in the original movie).
The Batman property meanwhile was also at its lowest ebb in the years just before Batman Begins hit the screens, as the laughing-stock that was Joel Schumacher’s 1997 camp-film Batman & Robin had practically banished any serious consideration of a big-screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader for close to a decade. The news that the director of the indie-hit Memento was going to take on a Batman origin story was met with cautious skepticism and seen as an enormous risk by the parent studio Warner Bros. There was the sense that this was just the studio’s way of cashing in on the dying embers of the superhero craze before enthusiasm went into a deep freeze.
Of course in hindsight, it is easy to laugh at those baseless fears as the Dark Knight Trilogy ended up being an enormous success. Nolan’s grounded and gritty take on the superhero was seen as revolutionary in an industry that assumed there was only one way to tell a superhero story. Nolan dared to make superhero film that was in every sense as complex and artistic as any of his other movies, so much so that there are many more parallels between his Dark Knight Trilogy and the rest of his work than there is to the other Batman movie adaptations. At the height of The Dark Knight’s explosive success there was even outrage when it didn’t get nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, such was the critical praise surrounding the movie. The Dark Knight trilogy basically helped earn the entire superhero genre respectability within the industry and paved the way for the genre’s subsequent taking over of Hollywood as a whole.
Ten years after the series’ peak however and the Dark Knight Trilogy seems to have lost a little bit of its luster. The reasons for this seems are two-fold. First, The Dark Knight Rises – the conclusion of the series – was seen as a minor disappointment compared to the first two movies (although, as I will argue, part of that has to do with Nolan not playing to our expectations of a superhero conclusion). But I think the larger reason the Dark Knight Trilogy is seen in a lesser light has to do with the dirth of movies that came in its wake trying to replicate its success, most of them learning the wrong lesson about why Nolan’s vision worked so well.
What most of these successors failed to realize was that there was a specific reason why Christopher Nolan chose to adapt his Batman story the way he did: he was interested in exploring Batman in the real world. He wanted to understand the mind of Batman – to see what could motivate someone to put on a mask and fight crime and to see how he could realistically do that. And in order to properly explore that, he had to base his movies around a darker and grittier aesthetic that more closely resembled our own contemporary world – it was not merely an aesthetic for its own sake.
In revisiting The Dark Knight Trilogy this time around however I think I’ve stumbled on a fundamental reason why most blockbuster movies looking to copy Nolan have failed: Nolan’s exploration of the viability of Batman in the real world ultimately leads him to fairly pessimistic conclusions. Over the course of three movies, he explores how Batman would rub up against psychology, ethics, politics, and justice, and shows how Batman ultimately falls short as a viable human project. For a studio system built around the endless proliferation of IP-based movies, this is a decidedly unproductive approach to take.
“…and you’re wearing a mask, and jumping off rooftops.”
From the very offset Batman Begins distinguishes itself as a very different kind of origin story because unlike most superhero movies, Christopher Nolan approaches his subject without a sense of reverence for the character of Batman but with an innate curiousity; he wonders what could motivate someone to devote his life (and his body) to the task of vigilante justice and how exactly that would look like in the real world.
This is why we arrive in Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) story as he journeys to the League of Shadows headquarters after spending years exploring the criminal underground and not in the life-changing event of his parents’ death (which we will get to later). This isn’t a story of a tragic event prompting a boy to become the Batman. This is the story of an adult becoming radicalized to serve true justice and goes to an extremist organization to learn how to do so. It is here that Bruce learns the basic template of what would become his Batman character from the currently disguised Ras al Ghul (Liam Neeson) who teaches him that he must become more than just a mere man to his opponents, using theatricality and surprise to induce fear, and working outside of the law to enact justice. When he realizes that the League of Shadows is too radical and ultimately evil with its judge, jury, and executioner, Bruce breaks away and tries to destroy the league clearly distinguishing himself from the league. But crucially, Bruce takes most of the league’s lessons to heart and uses its mode of being, along with his detective skills, to fight crime. Batman Begins asks the question of whether a man can use the methods of an unjust philosophy, and still ultimately be just. It is clear that Nolan thinks this is a question that does not have a reflexive, easy answer.
But there are two other crucial pieces to Bruce’s origin that we need to mention before we get to the Batman himself that are fortunately shown to us in flashback. The first is the now-extremely familiar death of his parents which is naturally a formative part of the narrative. But Nolan differs from the traditional depiction of his parents death in one key aspect. While traditionally Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered after a fun night out at the movies with Bruce, Nolan instead lays the (unintentional) blame for the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne firmly in Bruce’s lap because Bruce got afraid at an opera performance, prompting their early departure into the empty streets of Gotham. This point gets nailed home later on when a young Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) have a heart-to-heart and he breaks down confessing, “It was my fault, I made them leave the theatre.” Nolan’s Batman is clearly at some level motivated by crippling guilt over his fear.
The second flashback involves Bruce coming back to Gotham to confront his parent’s killer at trial. Bruce returns with clear murderous thoughts, looking to punish and exact revenge on the person that ruined his idyllic life. That his murderous plan involves killing the petty thug Joe Chills who has turned informant on the mob in a mob-driven city simply drives home the simultaneous moral reprehensibility of his intended act as well as the rationality of his reasons for doing so. For Bruce, he desires vengeance because he is not an impartial arbiter of justice. This is personal. As his childhood-friend/grown-up love interest/assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) points out, “Justice is about harmony, revenge is about making yourself feel better.” Because of Bruce’s close proximity to Joe Chills, he is incapable of meting out impartial justice. Only to underline this fact, vengeance is taken away from him as the mob takes out Chills, robbing Bruce of any cheap cathartic release and providing another reason in the creation of Batman. For him, the the Batman project is personal quest for justice – and not borne out of altruism.
By the time Bruce blasts his way out of the League of Shadows, Nolan has subtly sown three seeds of doubt into our understanding of the rightness of Batman and his cause: he employs methods from an organization he finds reprehensible, his chief motivation is crippling guilt over his moment of fear and weakness, and his quest for justice is a radically personal one.
With this background out of the way, Bruce returns to Gotham and sets out to establish himself as the Batman. Key to his plan is establishing the Batman as a mythological force for Gotham, a “dramatic example to shake them out of apathy, a symbol, something elemental, something terrifying,” as he muses to Alfred on his return journey. His mortality and lack of any superpowers necessitates that the Batman has to in some way project an image bigger that the man in the suit.
The next section of the movie is perhaps the most conventional part of the Dark Knight Trilogy as Bruce gets all the necessary pieces together to become Batman. Still Nolan subtly subverts the heroic narrative as the whole process plays out a little bit like getting a behind-the-scenes look at how the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz managed to deceive his subjects. Bruce is interested in making Batman a larger-than-life character, and he goes to great lengths in order to manufacture the legend. Using his largess, he co-opt bored Wayne Enterprises board member Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) into granting him access to some shelved Wayne Tech projects. He uses the anonymity of the global capitalist economy to funnel his supplies through dummy corporations. Using his theatricality he recruits a pre-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to be his man on the inside. And in his initial coming-out party when he takes down the mob boss Falcone and his goons, he uses surprise and disorientation to take out the crew and then straps Falcone to a spotlight, using him to establish the precursor to the Bat-signal. All of these are precise tactical calculations by Bruce in order to establish the Batman mythos, meant to project a fearsome and mythic reputation for the Caped Crusader. But ultimately, Bruce is projecting a lie; like any lie, it has a limited half-life.
Fortunately for Bruce and his growing group of allies, Batman’s mythology receives a surprising boost from the first major villain of this trilogy in Dr. Crane’s terrifying Scarecrow (Cilian Murphy). Nolan’s Scarecrow, like most of the villains in his trilogy, has a real-world believability to his methods and motives. Ostensibly a mob-backed psychologist who keeps them out of prison by declaring them “mentally unfit”, he fits in naturally with the corrupt city of Gotham. However his ordinary criminality disguises a much more ominous motive: he is an ally of the League of Shadows, and buys their desire to watch Gotham crumble and burn. He is primarily armed with a hallucinogenic poison that heightens the fear of its victims to the point of mental paralysis, which will later ironically prove useful to Batman. But he is also representative of an important reality when it comes to establishing Batman’s myhtology: Batman’s notoriety directly corresponds with the formidability and monstrousness of his villains. There is a ceiling to how much fear can be induced by merely capturing petty thugs and mob bosses, whose crimes are very much monetarily based. Batman’s otherworldliness prompts the existence of otherworldly villains.
The critical public coming-out moment for the Batman myth happens when Batman shows up at Arkham Asylum. With Rachel Dawes stumbling upon the truth of Dr. Crane’s operations and is given a lethal dose of his fear-serum as a result. Batman attacks Crane and his goons is his typical shadowy style, sowing confusion and fear amongst the villains as he takes them out one-by-one. Then in a reversal, he doses Dr. Crane with his own serum, sending Crane into a fear-induced hallucenogenic spell where the Batman appears to him as a vengeful demon – establishing him as a larger-than-life terrifying angel of justice. Having dispatched Crane, Batman then faces a police force that is looking to capture him. Fortunately he is able to deploy a special signal that brings a host of bats into the vicinity which has the dual effect of giving Batman the cover to slip by the cops and providing a theatrical symbol of his aura – a building block to the legend the public will tell of him. The serum will be used to Batman’s advantage one more time in the climax, where a drugged Gotham similarly glimpses Batman as a terrifying mythical creature.
This incident firmly imprints the growing legend of Batman in the minds of Gotham’s public but it also exposes a fatal flaw. With an increasingly delusional Rachel in tow, Batman jumps into his Bat-tumbler and races across Gotham to get back to his headquarters and administers an antidote. This journey involves immense collateral damage including several crashed police cars (while probably severely injuring its occupants), a building damaged by missiles, endangered motorists, and most importantly enough chaos is sown in Batman’s flight that a chunk of Arkham Asylum’s occupants are allowed to escaped. As Alfred rightly points out, it deviates from the strict philosophy Bruce has worked out in building the Batman persona to bring justice to Gotham in the first place. He engages in this reckless behavior because his need to save Rachel outweighs his larger mission. He is limited in his ability to serve true justice because he is one man, with personal attachments clouding his judgment in crisis moments.
Of course these are still early days in Batman’s vigilante career and his mistake in choosing to save Rachel over the larger task at hand does not prove to be a fatal one. The reemergence of Ras al Ghul in the third act gives Bruce a second chance to correct that wrong as he is thrust into battle with Ras who seeks to weaponize the serum by releasing it in the air and plunge Gotham into a fear-induced chaos that would theoretically cause Gotham to implode. Batman’s victory here (after the prerequisite amount of action) seals his place as Gotham’s defender, to the rejoicing of the populace and the terror of the criminals.
A surface reading of the movie would see this as a triumphal victory, but Batman’s closing scene with the now-Lieutenant Gordon throws a huge amount of doubt into the validity of the Batman project. The newly empowered Gordon challenges Batman, citing the fact that though Batman has brought hope to the streets and sent corrupt cops and criminals running scared, it has come at a a cost. The Narrows – the neighborhood that directly borders Arkham Asylum and the poorest part of the city – has been lost in the battle with Ras al Ghul while a bunch of criminals from Arkham are still running through the streets. Meanwhile, Gordon continues by asking, “What about escalation? We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds. And you’re wearing a mask, jumping off rooftops.” This is perhaps the most important exchange in the whole trilogy. While Batman’s vigilante justice has galvanized the “good guys” of Gotham to press on for justice, it has also produced an equally terrifying force against it. The “good guys” are galvanized because Batman has become a mythological figure – a symbol for justice that they can rally around. But his myth has been built largely through smoke and mirrors. Bruce uses theatricality to induce fear, has manufactured all the elements of his legend using some very-down-to-earth means, and been aided by a serendipitous application of his opponent’s fear serum. More importantly behind this growing larger-than-life legend is one man motivated by guilt, vengeance, and personal attachments – a decidely human person who can be compromised. Batman Begins ends on a note of hope. We will soon see that this hope is false.
THE DARK KNIGHT
“You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.”
The opening scene of The Dark Knight shows Gordon’s prophetic fears at the end of Batman Begins come to pass. A high-stakes bank robbery carried out by masked goons with automatic weapons happens now in the middle of the day as Batman has driven criminality away from the shadows of night into the light. The unknown leader of this heist is of course the Joker (Heath Ledger), a nihilistic and tactical anarchist whose opening gambit involves him robbing a mob bank just for the seeming fun of it. The ferocity and audaciousness of this attack is a mere shadow of things to come as Nolan’s Joker takes aim at tearing down Gotham’s institutions not by physical means, but by exposing the hypocrisy that upholds them.
In the time between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, several key developments have occured. As mentioned before, the mob bosses and criminal underworld are successfully cowed by the legend of Batman and so have either beefed up their operations or have decided to hide in the light of day. Meanwhile though law enforcement puts up a token show of trying to rein in the vigilante Batman, public perception of him as a crusader for justice has taken hold, so much so that other fellow citizens have taken up his vigilante cause by dressing up as the Batman and doing their own crimefighting albeit with his disapproval.
When we meet up with our heroes they are on the verge of striking a massive blow against the mob operations in the city. The Joker’s heist exposes illegal mob finances, creating an opening for Batman and Gordon to exploit. A strong alliance is formed with Batman working outside the system to drive the mob out into the open, Jim Gordon working with law enforcement to catch the mob once that happens, and newcomer Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – Gotham’s new D.A. – looking to gather the evidence to properly prosecute those arrested and deal a fatal blow to Gotham’s organized crime. These three are terrifyingly effictive at doing exactly that. They are so effective that in an act of desperation the mob turns to the Joker, the very same person who robbed them blind earlier, to kill the Batman and get him permanently off their backs. In other words, escalation.
The Joker is built out of the same mould as Batman in that his entire persona is based of a theatricality that is precisely fine-tuned to project a larger-than-life monstrosity. He tells a different story to each of his victims about how he got his monstrous smile, and the genius of Heath Ledger’s performance is that he manages to sell his narrative not only to his victims but to us as the audience so that it is only upon the second different retelling of the story that we realized we were duped the first time. He gives the appearance of a homicidal and unhinged maniac, but as his infamous “pencil kill” scene shows this is all a ruse to hide exactly how tactical and precise each of his actions are. He may be an agent of chaos, but his is a controlled chaos and all the more deadly for it.
He will prove to be formidable for our heroes precisely because a key part of the Joker’s strategy to upend Gotham is in psychologically tearing the central triumvirate down not by defeating them on any real battlefield, but in the perceptions of the people of Gotham. The Joker ultimately is interested in exposing the hypocrisies of Dent, Gordon, and Batman as a way of turning the crowds against them.
Dent’s hypocrisy is easy to expose: He is an aggressive DA who sees the capture of the mob as a springboard for his larger political ambitions. His nickname around his opponents is “Two-Face”, so while his intention to put the mob away may be sincere his motives for doing so are less than altruistic. Similarly Gordon hypocrisy is clear: He seeks to serve justice but is working in a corrupt police force, even going so far as to hand-pick several crooked cops for his investigative team. His is an ethics of the ends justifying the means. Compared to Batman and Dent, his hands are the most sullied.
But it is Batman’s hypocrisy that is of most interest to the Joker and to us. Dent and Gordon’s hypocrisies are ultimately of the garden variety, commonplace in the real world amongst those in power. Batman’s hypocrisy however is much more complicated because it is an inevitable consequence of him donning the mask. Batman is a hypocrite because he is an individual whose personal interests will always cloud his judgment when it comes to fighting for justice. He is an individual accountable to no one, with only a butler to keep him in check. While Batman’s sense of moral justice is sufficient in black and white ethical situations, it will be compormised when the right thing to do is not immediately apperent. This hypocrisy is exposed when Batman and the Joker confront one another the first time. The Joker breaks into a political fundraiser Bruce is throwing for Harvey Dent, prompting Bruce to conveniently disappear and for Batman to appear. In the ensuing battle it is clear that the Batman will have no problem taking out the Joker’s goons, and that the Joker himself will be no match for Batman in a physical fight. By all accounts the battle should be over, but the Joker manages to escape for one reason – he puts Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in danger and forces Batman into a clear cut choice: save Rachel or capture the Joker. Inevitably, as he did in Batman Begins, he chooses to save Rachel and the Joker escapes to fight another day. His personal feelings toward Rachel and his desire to protect her, as admirable as they may be, ultimately compromise his supossed fidelity to bringing justice to Gotham.
The Joker being allowed to escape produces some horrific consequences for those involved. At the public funeral for the current Commissioner Gillian Loeb, who along with the judge presiding over the mob case was murdered in the coordinated attack that was also supposed to take out Harvey Dent, the Joker stages another terrorist attack, outsmarting Batman and his allies which results in Gordon’s seeming death.
Naturally this spends Batman and Dent into their respective tailspins. Batman in particular goes on a rampage through the criminal underground as he desperately tries to get on top of the elusive Joker and his mindgames. He encounters Sal Maroni, the current Italian mafia boss and engages in his unique-brand of interrogation which results in both of Maroni’s legs being broken. To call that kind of tactic torture would be an understatement, and it highlights another problem for Nolan’s Batman. From the very offset, his Batman has used fear tactics and forceful coercion that skirt into ethical gray areas. His interrogation of Arnold Flass in Batman Begins, where he hangs Flass from his legs off a building in the pouring rain and pumps him for information – a clear allusion to waterboarding Earlier in The Dark Knight Batman illegally extradicted the Chinese businessman Lau (Ng Chin Han) who had taken the mob’s money for safekeeping when he returned to Hong Kong, circumventing international law because it suited his purpose. On the issues of using terror, torture, and illegal extradition – seemingly more black and white ethical issues – Batman reveals himself to be a utilitarian, the ends justifying the means. Ironically Batman’s one ironclad ethical rule is that he won’t kill anyone intentionally, and this movie makes the case for why that rule is naive and nothing more than an arbitrary line in the sand separating him from the monsters he tries to capture.
Harvey Dent meanwhile begins to reveal his less-than-altruistic motives for wanting to capture the Joker: his blind ambition. Like Batman he psychologically tortures his prisoner to pump out information from him, while revealing a vengeful streak. Then in a stunning twist he falsely claims that he in fact is Batman and should be arrested. It is a bald-face move designed to bring the Joker out into the open, but also a maverick move that could turn around Dent’s public reputation and get his political career right on track if it works. By pure luck the gambit works and they manage to capture the Joker. This happens not because of the Batman’s actions, because once again he is given a clear shot at taking out the Joker and he fails to do so out of his hypocritical moral code – even while more law enforcement officers have been murdered. In a fortuitous moment of luck, it is revealed that Gordon had not perished in the earlier attack and had in fact gone underground to catch the Joker unawares. The mission works, but only because the alliance between Batman, Dent, and Gordon has become fractured by mistrust with all three of them acting on their own instincts.
Up to this point the Joker has inflicted minor cracks in the visage of Batman’s righteousness and his cause. However what follows next is the true body blow. Working on the vulnerabilities of our heroic trio, the Joker exploits Gordon’s crooked cops into kidnapping Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes in order to set up a Sophie’s-choice type scenario for Batman and Gordon. This causes Batman to break as he interrogates the Joker with a ferocity that can only be described as abusive. Their converstation is revealing in that the Joker step-by-step dismantles the noble narrative Batman has created for himself. First the Joker points out that the only reason he exists right now is because Batman changed the game – escalation was the only solution for criminals now that there was a crimefighter willing to flagrantly work outside the system to defeat them. Then he points out that the Joker and Batman are in fact two sides of the same coin: both of them are outcasts in the system, and the only reason Batman is loved by Gotham is that currently he gets them results. At the first sign of change in that status, they will turn on him in a heartbeat. And then he cruelly exposes the hypocrisy of Batman in this desperate situation: Batman lashes out at the Joker because he is ultimately motivated by his personal gains – and not justice. The Joker has given him an impossible situation: choose Harvey Dent, the White Knight of Gotham and Bruce’s ticket out of his crimefighting, or choose Rachel, the reason he wants to get out of crimefighting. And finally as the coup-de-grace, the Joker drives home exactly why Batman’s moral justice fails here: Batman has no bargaining chip here, there is no reason for the Joker to capitulate. The Joker is only interested in watching the world burn.
It is telling that the choice Batman ultimately makes is to save Harvey Dent and sacrifice Rachel because ultimately he knows that Harvey as Gotham’s White Knight needs to survive because his narrative is the one that can spur Gotham towards justice and more importantly the concept of Batman is coming to the end of its half-life. The Joker has terrifyingly exposed the limits and frailties of vigilante justice.
All that is left for the Joker to do is to drive nails in the coffin at this point. Gordon’s is perhaps the easiest to expose: it was his crooked cops that caused Rachel and Harvey to be kidnapped in the first place. It was his insistence of playing within a crooked system that had helped him rise to place of commissioner, but at the cost of the death of countless cops along the way. Harvey meanwhile, having been scarred by the explosion and losing Rachel, easily reveals his ruthless nature that earned him the moniker “Two-Face”. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Harvey and the Joker finally confront one another and in a telling example of how the Joker is no mere chaos agent, he tactically manipulates Harvey into blaming Harvey’s allies for his current predicament, and not the Joker himself. The Joker deflates yet another of Gotham’s narratives: without his political career and any hope of personal happiness dashed, Harvey Dent is exposed as someone who would easily chase vengeance at the cost of justice. Two pillars of Gotham’s triumvirate of justice are brought down because of their human flaws.
This leaves Batman and for him the Joker has a two-pronged attack. First he constructs a literal lifeboat situation in the hopes that Gotham would prove that when push comes to shove, Gotham’s citizens would rather save themselves than pursue justice. It is constructed as the fatal blow to Batman’s narrative that he is saving a people worth saving. It is such a direct threat to Batman’s overall mission that Batman breaks all ethical rules of privacy in order to stop it from happening: he rigs Lucius Fox’s cell-phone surveillance rig so that he can hack into any communication device in Gotham to locate the Joker. The move is such an egregious ethical breach that Fox immediately resigns his commission, only staying long enough for the completion of Batman’s mission because he is given the kill-switch. The halo of Batman’s image as a righteous warrior is eroded.
This is why though he does save the day by finally captures the Joker, and Gotham proves itself worthy of being saving, the victory comes across as hollow. Over the course of two films, Batman has steadily found his moral compass eroded to the point that his image as a righteous warrior is but a facade. His decision not to kill the Joker remains the one empty symbol Batman can cling to for why he is different than the Joker.
And in a final death blow, the Joker reveals his ultimate ace-up-the-sleeve: he has successfully turned Harvey Dent, the White Knight that embodied the hopes of justice in Gotham, into a rampaging murderer – killing several cops and a mafia boss in cold blood, while threatening to kill Gordon and his family. Again, though Batman shows up just in time to stop Harvey from killing Gordon and his family, the damage is done. The Joker has won. Or at least his triumph would be complete except for one final soul-crushing move by Batman and Gordon: they lie about what happened. They agree that the only way to turn this defeat into any sort of victory is if Batman, the masked vigilante, is made to be the scapegoat and Harvey the matryed hero. It is a lie that works because as the Joker predicted, the public only loves Batman in so far as he is useful to them. They will turn on him the first moment they get. The only way Gotham survives on its quest to justice is if the myth of Batman is finally torn down and a new, if fallacious, myth is put in its place. But like any lie, it is one that can only hold up so long.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
“Why do we fall, Bruce?”
The Dark Knight may have been an effective dismantling of vigilante justice in the face of true terrorism, but The Dark Knight Rises is the movie that thoroughly dismantles Batman as a viable human project. Picking up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight the movie finds our heroes in various levels of existential angst. The lie Gordon and Batman concocted about Harvey Dent has worked and as a result the public has rallied around Dent as a martyr to the cause of justice. The direct result of this is the passing of the Harvey Dent Act – a large reaching law and order crackdown that, at the probable cost of civil liberties, gave law enforcement and prosecutors the teeth to virtually eliminate the mob from the streets of Gotham. But this is justice won at the cost of a lie.
The city of Gotham is naturally pleased, but it is clear that the lie their success has been built upon has taken a devastating toll on the ones who spun the lie. Gordon, wracked with guilt over propping up the man who almost destroyed Gordon’s family, is at wits end and is wanting to tell the truth to clear his conscience even if it as the cost of all the victories won. His wife and family have left him because he chose the lie over them, and he has paved a better world for greedier and more ambitious officers to take his place.
While Gordon’s standing as a moral and upright defender of justice has been severely compromised, it pales in comparison to the fall from grace Batman and Bruce Wayne have had in the intervening years. Bruce has hung up the Batman cape and made himself a recluse in Wayne Manor. His body has begun to fail him, a toll from the years of physical abuse he endured while wearing the cape and cowl. The death of Rachel is his excuse for self-flaggelation as he remains static – a Howard Hughes lookalike.
Interestingly the one thing to get Bruce out of his reclusive stupor is not a moral sense of justice, but is once again, a personal interest. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into Wayne Manor and steals his fingerprints for mysterious reason that intrigues Bruce enough to want to investigate why, but there is no altruistic pretense of justice for why he does so. When Alfred will later blow-up at Bruce for taking up the Batman mantle again, his charge is an especially prescient one and echoes his own original objections to the Batman project in the first place: Bruce takes up the mantle because at some level, he loves the thrill of playing the superhero vigilante detective. As much as Bruce has spent the last eight years punishing himself for letting Rachel die and Harvey Dent fall, Alfred accurately accuses Bruce of “waiting for things to go bad again.”
Fortunately for Bruce, there is a villain willing to grant his wish in Bane (Tom Hardy), a protege of Ras al Ghul and the de-facto current leader of the League of Shadows. Like Batman before him, his villainy is built through legend – a man who overcomes adversity by rising through a previously unescapable prison called “The Pit”, who wears an outfit that theatrically builds his notoriety (“No one cared who I was till I put on the mask”), and whose belief in the righteousness of his mission rivals Batman’s own. When he introduces himself by assaulting the stock exchange, it is precisely the bait Bruce needs to reintroduce Batman to Gotham. Yet in many ways, Batman’s reintroduction echoes his original appearance in Gotham. A police force that was previously devoted to chasing and capturing Bane instead becomes distracted by capturing Harvey Dent’s supposed killer, allowing Bane to escape. In chasing after Bane, Batman also commits some more collateral damage in Gotham for nothing more than to basically satisfy his curiosity.
While the reappearance of Batman does bring with it mostly fond memories from the populace, there are several great complications to Batman’s return. The first is the physical state of Bruce Wayne. In perhaps the greatest indictment against the practicality of a real-life Batman, a physician runs down a litany of Bruce’s injuries that he has picked up over the years: concussive damage, multiple joint damage, scar tissue on internal organs, and multiple broken bones and fractures. Exacerbating the situation is that Bruce is also at least eight years removed from whatever peak form he used to have. The eroding passage of time means that the Batman project has to have an expiration date – Bruce’s body has been pushed to the limit and his mortality has never been more apparent.
The second grand problem with Bruce’s return as Batman is that he returns in a different financial situation. The intervening years since Batman disappeared have found Wayne Enterprises increasingly drained of most of its resources – primarily because of a renewable nuclear energy project Bruce shut down the moment he realized it could be weaponized (more on that later). With his resources generally tapped apart from a few Lucius Fox toys, Batman’s reach is more limited than in years past – revealing just how much the Batman project could really only be accomplished because of the enormous riches of Bruce’s estate. The Dark Knight Rises takes great pains, and is perhaps the most preachy, in pointing out the social inequalities that Gotham lives under. It is clear that the Harvey Dent Act, while punishing criminals, has allowed those social inequalities to grow and at some level allowed Bruce (and Batman) to prosper. In the subsequent encounters between Selina Kyle and Bruce, she constantly highlights this difference, pointing out that she and Bruce occupy different worlds. For a rich man to try and bring justice to the city of Gotham will always be a compromised mission, an act of colonizing by a man who cannot know the true nature of injustice (that Batman is a white upper-class man simply exarcebates the situation). He fights for justice while basking in the depths of privilige from his multi-million dollar house while overseeing a multi-million dollar business empire. Bane cutting off Bruce’s finances (hence why Selina Kyle needed to steal his fingerprints) is meant to highlight just how much the Batman’s mission is dependent on the largess of his estate.
The final problem with Batman’s return, as we have hinted at before is that his return is fueled by pride. This is precisely why Alfred finally quits on Bruce because by returning as Batman the way he does, Bruce reveals an essential truth about why he put on the mask in the first place: he did it for his personal vengeance and not necessarily for the ideals of justice. He is the Batman because ultimately he needs to be the one to enact his form of justice. He chose not to use his wealth in the way his father did by working within the system to improve it because it wasn’t flashy enough. He refuses to turn over the intelligence he has gathered on Bane to Gordon or the authorities because ultimately he needs Gotham to see his worth. Alfred leaves because the ugly truth is that for all the good Batman has done so far, it is nothing more than a vanity project.
It is these three problems that Bane exploits to finally bring to an end the Batman project as Bruce originally conceived it. He exploits Batman’s pride by goading him out into a direct confrontation with him – it is the single greatest tactical mistake we have seen Batman make so far. He then exploits Batman’s relative frailty by brutally breaking his body in physical combat and by doing so hopelessly exposing the central weakness of Batman’s myth: that he is merely a mortal after all. And finally, his body broken, his mask destroyed, Bane enacts his last iconoclastic act: using the wealth and privilige of Bruce Wayne by taking Bruce’s failed nuclear energy project and weaponizing it as a bargaining chip to hold Gotham hostage.
With Bruce Wayne now disposed of and consigned to the same prison Bane was once trapped in, the next hour or so plays out as a horrific manifestation of Batman’s chickens come home to roost. The lies that propped up Harvey Dent that Batman and Gordon promised to tell the world at the end of The Dark Knight come crashing down when Bane exposes the truth and with it, the moral imperative to hold the criminal element of Gotham in prison is similarly crippled. Batman’s use of theatricality, torture, and violence to enact justice are unnervingly mirrored by Bane who uses the same tactics to keep Gotham in terror and enact his own kangaroo court form of justice and cause a populist mob to tear Gotham apart. Finally Gordon’s original fear of escalation at the end of Batman Begins comes to pass: Batman’s original quest to stop the mob bosses who ran Gotham has escalated to the point that now Gotham faces a literal nuclear threat from a terrorist who is equipped on multiple levels to fight the forces of good. That the nuclear threat is a piece of Wayne Enterprise tech further exarcebates the irony of the situation.
It is at this point that the tone of the movie shifts. After grim realism for two-thirds of the movie, the story suddenly shifts into a more traditionally outlandish superhero extravaganza (including a melodramatic ending) that seems strangely out of place to the aesthetic that had been established over two and a half movies. One might cite this as evidence of The Dark Knight Rises’ comparative weakness in the trilogy. But I think the reason this shift happens is because at the moment Bane breaks Batman’s back, Nolan’s curiosity of the possiblility of Batman’s existence in the real world is answered. Clearly, a rich and intelligent man putting on a mask and fighting crime is not a viable human project. It will end in failure. It will end, as it does here with destruction, and a broken man trapped in a prison of his own making. And this is a bitter pill for us, the comic-book superhero fans, to take. Although anyone looking objectively at The Dark Knight might have noted Nolan’s clear pessimism of the Batman project (Nolan thought it complete enough to originally not want to make the third movie), too many comic-books had groomed us into accepting the grim second act while awaiting the presumably redemptive third act that restored the status-quo. But instead of that redemptive third movie, Nolan simply doubles down and makes it clear that the very central premise of Batman as a superhero – that you or I could presumably become him if we had the same intelligence or resources – is simply not true. If the Batman existed in any realm that remotely resembled our own, the end result would be a disaster that closely resembles what we see here.
This does not mean that Nolan sees no value in Batman, and I think this is why the tone of the movie shifts. Batman may not have much value to Gotham as a real person, but he does possess real value as a symbol and a legend. So having thoroughly deconstructed the Batman project, Nolan’s final act is to reconstruct Batman as myth.
And in some sense, Bruce Wayne realizes this lesson too. With his fall so complete, he is finally able to, as the title of the movie suggests, rise again. And so, like Bane before him, he escapes from the Pit not because he is unafraid of death, but because of a newfound appreciation of life that makes him want to not die. Unlike his previous path of solo vigilante justice, he embraces his allies and rallies them to becoming a viable force against Bane’s goons. And in a over-the-top dramatic final confrontation, he rides into battle like a legendary medieval knight to vanquish his foes. There are some twists and turns to the narrative, including a betrayal (Marion Cotillard turns out to be Talia al Ghul and the real villainous brains of the situation). And then, when it is apparent that the nuclear device cannot be stopped and Gotham’s annihilation is at hand, he flies the bomb out into open waters where it detonates harmlessly for all the citizens of Gotham to see. His final public act to the citizens of Gotham is by sacrificing himself so that Gotham survives.
And with his apparent death, comes the impetus for Gotham to rise up to the cause of justice. Batman’s final appearance in the movie is not in flesh and blood, but as a statue in the middle of city hall, memorializing as Gotham’s defender. This is significant because this is precisely how Nolan thinks Batman works in the real world: as a myth to stir us to be better than ourselves. This is how Batman has always worked for us in popular culture – as an avenging angel of justice who inspires us to be better. It is for this reason that Gordon reads from Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities” at Bruce Wayne’s funeral:
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Batman’s strength lies not in his viability as a real-life analogue. His strength lies in his ability to inspire us to justice, to remind us to fight on the side of angels, and to reject evil in whatever form it takes.
(Note: If you’re wondering what I thought about Bruce’s apparent resurrection, the whole character of John Blake aka Robin played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Blake’s highly ambiguous appearance in the Batcave at the end – I choose to believe those are studio mandated decisions meant to soften the grimness of Nolan’s conclusions and provide hope for future instalments. But they ultimately detract from the neat symmetry of his exploration of Batman’s character.)
The Dark Knight trilogy was of course a phenomenal success in the box office. Naturally this brought copycats and imitators out of the woodwork and apart from a few exceptions (the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy comes to mind) they have largely failed because they took the wrong lessons about why Nolan’s trilogy worked so well. Yes, the portrayal of Batman was more grounded, more gritty, and darker than had previously been shown onscreen. But there was a purpose to those choices beyond mere aesthetics: Nolan was always interested in exploring how Batman could work in the real world. As we have examined here, the results aren’t pretty. Batman isn’t a viable real-world project, and his greatest power is in his mythical legend not his grounded realism.
Nolan’s iconoclastic approach to storytelling also goes against most modern blockbuster principles because Nolan clearly had a definitive end to his story in mind – and a mostly tragic ending to boot. This is not a viable strategic movie for studios intent on brokering an infinite amount of movies from their IPs. Nolan’s aesthetic in The Dark Knight trilogy lends itself to iconoclasm and not the kind of myth-building required to sustain these neverending IP-based movie franchises. Copying the aesthetic without the substance of Nolan’s basic argument makes the movie dark for darkness’ sake which renders the end product both exhausting and uninspiring (read: the DCEU).
The Dark Knight trilogy is undoubtedly an exemplary series that elevated the superhero movie to new heights – but it also opened a pandora’s box about the central viability of superheroes in general. The DC comics movies that came in its wake seemed to learn the wrong lessons by continuing to iconoclastically cut-down their heroes without understanding that doing so also destroys why these heroes were compelling in the first place. Meanwhile in an ironic twist Marvel Comics and their cinematic universe have succeeded because they have leant hard into the mythological nature of their superheroes – learning Nolan’s lesson by going in the opposite direction. Nearly half a decade after the conclusion of Nolan’s trilogy its influence on the superhero movie is most keenly felt by its absence as more and more successful superhero movies embrace that their greatest power is not in reflecting the real world, but in providing us myths that inspire us.
Ratings (for what its worth)
Batman Begins: ★★★★½
The Dark Knight: ★★★★★
The Dark Knight Rises: ★★★★