In Search of True Justice: A Conversation on the Dark Knight Trilogy
Earlier this year, FilmFisher ran a collaborative piece by Timothy Lawrence and Robert Brown, discussing the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Now, they have joined forces again to analyze one of the most successful blockbuster trilogies of recent years.
ROBERT: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – still the unchallenged zenith of bold and brainy blockbuster filmmaking in the 21st century – turned 10 years old this summer. FilmFisher’s own Joel Bourgeois just published a retrospective on the film, and doubtless there are dozens if not hundreds of similar appreciations and analyses popping up all over the internet – and rightly so. However, this is also an ideal time to revisit and discuss The Dark Knight’s less popular and less accomplished older and younger siblings, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Certainly, The Dark Knight is by far the best of the trilogy, but even so, it is all the more striking when framed between the bookends of its prequel and sequel. Taken together, in themes and in story beats, Begins and Rises form a rhyming pair to contrast with The Dark Knight’s singular line – the three form an A-B-A rhyme scheme, if you will. To change the metaphor, the first and third films are like major chords placed before and after the dissonant minor chord of the second film. The hopeful ending of the first film deepens the tragedy of the second, and the third film brings needed resolution and closure.
With this idea of framing as our guiding – well – framework, let’s talk about how these two films mirror, complement, and dialogue with each other, and how this enhances The Dark Knight and the entire trilogy. Naturally, let’s start with Batman Begins. Timothy, what’s your overall take on this film, and what are some central themes you think are worth highlighting as we survey the sweep of this three-part saga?
TIMOTHY: Thanks for framing (heh) this conversation, Robert. I have fairly fond memories of Batman Begins, much of which my grandfather (with whom I first saw the movie) can still quote verbatim. I discovered it in high school, when I was only beginning to appreciate film, and like many high schoolers, I thought Christopher Nolan’s brand of cerebral quasi-nihilism was just about the coolest thing ever. Nevertheless, times and tastes change, and while I still consider The Dark Knight a genuinely remarkable film, I’m less taken with Begins because I am, as a general rule, less taken with Nolan. There are a number of reasons for this. The modern moviegoer finds few things more off-putting than overt emotionality (often labeled “cheesiness”), but while I find lazy sentimentality obnoxious, neither do I require that all films be as orderly and intellectual as those of Nolan, whose approach to emotion often evokes a stereotypically stuffy British temperament. I am increasingly drawn to a certain amount of poetry in my films, but Nolan’s style is very prosaic, which is why many of his movies have the quality of puzzles to be solved. As far as superhero trilogies go, I will gladly take Sam Raimi’s earnest Spider-Man over Nolan’s aloof Batman, though I suspect I am in the minority there, judging by the way most blockbusters today keep a certain distance from their audiences – if not by detachment and self-seriousness, then by the winking irony popularized in Marvel films, which has the same effect. Of course, it would be unfair to judge Batman Begins for the trends it set or for the sins of the imitators that tried to ape it. It remains head and shoulders above most of its peers in the “superhero origin story” genre, merely by virtue of being a solid, dutiful, efficient piece of work – but I have not found it a lastingly affecting one.
No matter how grumpy that last paragraph may have sounded, I promise I do ultimately like the movie, especially as the beginning of a trilogy that subsequently corrected its more misguided tendencies (and, among other things, proved the excellence of its casting). However, at the risk of coming across as a total downer, let me kick off our thematic discussion by pointing to what I think is problematic about Begins’ thesis. Nolan is stoic in temperament, but he also tends to be Stoic in philosophy: his characters are always stifling their desires in order to pursue their ideals. As a Christian, I sympathize with much Stoic teaching, but only to a limited degree, for though Christ teaches that we should be wary of bodily pleasure, He does not condemn it entirely or straightforwardly. The problem is that Nolan is a materialist, so his idealists’ attempts to enforce order are doomed by the innate meaninglessness of his cosmos. In Nolan’s films, meaning is manmade, and so we find Bruce Wayne creating Batman by sheer force of will. Much of my dissatisfaction with Begins can be traced back to one repeated refrain: “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” I do not demand that all films voice some kind of theological orthodoxy to receive my seal of approval, but this line, devoid of reference to anything higher than man’s will, strikes me as a dispiritingly hollow foundation to build on – and yet, two sequels did build on it, with very compelling results.
ROBERT: Funny, I first saw Batman Begins with my grandfather, too! He took me and my family to see it in IMAX. It was my first big-screen Batman film (I grew up with the iconic 90’s cartoons, and had seen Burton’s first Batman on an airplane), my first Nolan film (who to this day is still one of my favorite directors, even with his faults), and my first IMAX film. All in all, not an insignificant milestone, which may explain some of my fondness for it. But Batman Begins has more than nostalgic value for me, because it still holds up very well 13 years and perhaps a dozen viewings later, for reasons I will get to in a moment.
But first, to respond to your overall critique of the trilogy’s director, I want to give my take on Nolan’s filmography: Maybe it’s my own analytic temperament, but the charge of Nolan’s films being impersonal and chilly has never really resonated with me. Of course, some of his films are indeed chilly – I’m thinking of Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige – but in those cases that distancing fits with the alienation and isolation that the characters themselves feel, and it also seems appropriate given the serious moral compromises and deadened consciences of those characters. But I find Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman films to be very emotional viewing experiences, and at least Inception and Interstellar can also be said to be very personal, semi-autobiographical films for Nolan.
As for Nolan’s philosophy, I think he is a thoroughly postmodern director. However, I appreciate how his postmodernism is usually – usually – haunted and conflicted. You are right to say that in his films, “meaning is manmade,” but films like Memento and Inception – and for our purposes here, The Dark Knight Rises especially – show so powerfully and painfully how manmade meaning and artificial truths create a hell on earth. And so I prefer to think that Nolan is a keen and concerned observer of the postmodern world, rather than a gung-ho promoter.
But then again – I did stress the word “usually” – there is the ending of Interstellar to reckon with. There, Nolan is paradoxically at his most religious and his most atheistic. As Hans Zimmer’s church organs blare, Matthew McConaughey’s character seems elated to discover that the universe is just a big mirror reflecting back on man. (Contrast this to Kubrick’s 2001, a film Nolan loves and is so obviously trying to copy, wherein the mirror of the universe doesn’t necessarily reflect the face of God, but it does show that man is pathetically feeble and small.) Maybe Interstellar is Nolan’s philosophical manifesto, but that film’s lack of ambivalence or disillusionment doesn’t square with his other films. It would be no comfort to the protagonists of Memento, Inception, or The Dark Knight to hear that man’s savior is man. They would throw up their hands in defeat, not exclaim in triumph.
Back to Batman Begins – I would posit that the film’s thematic (and emotional!) core runs along two intersecting axes, with Bruce Wayne caught in the middle. The first axis runs along the theme of justice. How can what the characters call “true justice” be established in Gotham City? Bruce is torn between two options: The traditional, institutional, philanthropic approach of his father – represented in the film by Alfred, the steward of the Wayne legacy and a father figure to Bruce – and the anarchic, retributive, vigilante approach of Ra’s al Ghul (also a father figure to Bruce). Bruce chooses to take the middle road – a philanthropist who works within the system and a crimefighter who doesn’t – and much of the three films are about him navigating the inevitable tensions of that compromise. The second axis runs along the theme of identity. Is Batman a symbol, or is he a person? Or, to put it differently, does Batman serve Bruce or Gotham City? Bruce insists otherwise, but the answer is a little bit of both, and this too is a central preoccupation of all three films. I’d say Batman Begins does a fantastic and thorough job establishing both of these axes, which the next two films then complicate and finally (maybe?) resolve.
TIMOTHY: The two themes you highlight strike me as being closely intertwined. You mention two fathers – Alfred and Ra’s al Ghul – and two identities – Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce is the son of Alfred (a stand-in for his biological father); Batman is the son, or heir, of Ra’s al Ghul. The entire trilogy could fruitfully be interpreted as working through the tension between these two identities, and the two traditions or schools of thought they represent.
I don’t mean to jump ahead to Rises prematurely, but your mention of “true justice” immediately brought to mind Bane’s speech outside the prison and clarified how his agenda is a natural extension of Ra’s al Ghul’s. As you mention, both are primarily retributive, empowering the “oppressed” to turn violently against their “oppressors.” The League of Shadows is aptly named, then, as its representatives align with the Jungian shadows – the repressed elements – of society. In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul’s plan starts in Arkham Asylum and the Narrows, an island literally separated from the rest of Gotham City, and in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane encourages the underprivileged to rise up against the rich elite. The stated goal of the League of Shadows is to bring about “balance,” a superficially Eastern concept, here resembling something Western: “an eye for an eye.” But no matter how dispassionately Ra’s al Ghul presents his ethos, his idea of justice is highly personally motivated, and as a result, it’s destructive, rather than constructive. Batman, for all his attempts to chart a middle course, cannot avoid playing a similar role. He is driven by very personal trauma, and while he tears down the structures of evil in Gotham City, he cannot set up structures of good except by proxy. That responsibility falls to Bruce Wayne, along the path proposed by Alfred and set forth by his philanthropist parents – and unless I’m forgetting something, he spends most of the trilogy shirking it in favor of dressing up like a bat. I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s distinction, in The Brothers Karamazov, between “active love” and “love in dreams.” The latter is swift, dramatic; the former is slow, unglamorous, laborious. Nolan may not be so cynical as to suggest that Batman is nothing more than an ego trip for Bruce Wayne, but he does come surprisingly close in The Dark Knight Rises, in which Alfred vocally (and rightly) criticizes Bruce’s reliance on his persona, and the self-imposed isolation it leads to. Alfred wants to bring Bruce “back to the world,” and accuses him of “hoping for things to go bad again” – and like many a Nolan protagonist tending towards solipsism, Bruce tells him, “There’s nothing out there for me.”
Alfred is right, though. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman largely turns out to be a red herring. Early on, his antics distract the police, literally allowing the bad guys to get away – and their plot hinges not on anything related to Batman, but on taking control of Bruce Wayne’s company and weaponizing his resources. Batman’s mission to rid Gotham City of crime has been successful, after a fashion, but Bruce Wayne has neglected his mission to care for his neighbor – dramatized most pointedly in his failure to care for at-risk children, who are subsequently recruited by Bane. The film’s late revelation of its true villain completes this pivot. In the end, the real threat is not another masked mystery man but another wealthy orphan trying to avenge her father’s death. The two sets of fathers and identities we mentioned earlier are reflected here, and this time the identities are split not metaphorically but literally. Bane mirrors Batman; Miranda mirrors Bruce. Because Bruce is wrongly preoccupied with theatrics and larger-than-life figures, he thinks Bane escaped the pit, but it was Miranda – just as it was he, Bruce, who escaped the pit, not Batman. Nolan does not do away with Batman in the end, but he does shift the focus decisively to Bruce – from the persona to the person behind it.
ROBERT: Nolan’s trilogy is filled with characters whose self-reporting is highly and demonstrably suspect, especially when they talk about justice or identity. These characters do not know themselves as they ought, and their ideals do not match up with their actions or deepest desires. Rachel warns, “It’s not who you are underneath” – or, we might add, what you profess – “But what you do that defines you.” When Ducard/Ra’s first shows up in Bruce’s prison cell in Begins, he refers to vigilantes with disdain, but at the end of the film he says, “If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart,” which sounds suspiciously like something a vigilante would say (and Miranda/Talia will go on to take those words very literally). He also claims to have found peace through revenge (Rachel tells Bruce that justice and revenge are never the same), and he burns down Wayne Manor and leaves Bruce for dead as payment in kind for Bruce’s own arson and life-sparing (“consider us even”). Again, Ra’s’ “true justice” is anything but. Similarly, as Joel demonstrated in his article on The Dark Knight, the Joker isn’t really the embodiment of chaos. He is a “schemer” with a definite “plan,” no matter how much he says otherwise. The Joker says chaos is “fair,” leading Harvey Dent to conceive of justice as something that can only be accomplished by the flip of a coin. But he, too, is being hypocritical, because he’s the one choosing who will be subjected to the justice of that coin.
Yet as we’ve said or suggested a few times already in this conversation, it is Bruce who fails at honest self-reporting the most repeatedly. He says that being Batman is symbolic, not personal, and I do believe that, to some degree, being Batman is not a complete “ego trip.” Consider his genuine concern for the citizens of Gotham, and how in the second film he comes so close to hanging up the cowl, if only the Joker hadn’t intervened to kill Rachel and ruin “Gotham’s true hero,” Harvey. But from his reckless race to save Rachel from the fear toxin to his stubborn resolve (even a death wish) to face Bane, it’s also clear that all along being Batman is also a symptom of selfishness and immaturity.
You said that Alfred is highly critical of Bruce’s reliance on Batman in the third film, but really, that critique pervades Alfred’s relationship to Bruce in all three films. In Begins, you can see his skepticism in the airplane when Bruce returns from exile, and his fierce pride for the Wayne legacy in multiple heated exchanges. You can see his frustration in the second film when, once again, he brings a tray of breakfast to an empty bed, and then tries to remind Bruce that while Batman may have no limits, Bruce Wayne certainly does. And in Rises there’s that powerful, wordless shot of Alfred taking the elevator down to the Batcave for the first time in years, realizing that, yes, Bruce will either rot at home or make himself a martyr through Batman.
This is why I find the finale of Rises so touching. We can quibble about plot conveniences, but even if the ending doesn’t make narrative or literal sense, it makes complete emotional and figurative sense. If Batman is to be immortalized as a symbol and if Bruce is going to survive with his soul intact – if both sides of this dangerous dualism are to be maintained – Batman has to die and Bruce has to die with him, only to be resurrected a new man. (With this death and resurrection motif, and with scapegoating being central to the endings of both The Dark Knight and Rises, I’d say this trilogy is the closest Nolan has ever gotten to Christian themes.) Maybe too much of it is expressed indirectly through heady monologues, but I do consider Bruce’s three-film character arc to be very satisfying.
TIMOTHY: I remember when The Dark Knight Rises came out and it seemed like everyone was tossing around theories about Batman’s autopilot or whatever. But this strikes me as even sillier now than it did then, because as you say, a literal interpretation is largely beside the point. Much great art leaves its audience with unresolved contradictions to contemplate, and I think Nolan’s films are at their best when they are at their most paradoxical – when he pushes against the limits of the rationality that so rigidly governs most of his cosmos. When the credits roll at the end of Inception, the top is forever suspended, in our minds, between falling and not falling. The Dark Knight Rises is no different. The man who flies the nuclear bomb out over the face of the deep to save his city is Batman, but he is also Bruce Wayne. This man dies, but he also lives. Much of the trilogy, as we’ve discussed, hinges on the duality of Batman or Bruce Wayne, and whether he will choose to live or choose to die. Nolan resolves these central tensions elegantly by resolving none of them, leaving us with what is, essentially, Schrödinger’s Bat: Batman lives and dies.
(NOTE: Dunkirk, which I think is Nolan’s best film after The Dark Knight, also concludes with a man stoically flying over the waters. My reading of Rises’ ending is indebted to certain thoughts of our editor, Joshua Gibbs, published in this piece on that film at CiRCE.)
But let’s pull out from Bruce Wayne’s crises of identity and broaden our focus. One of the things I find most interesting about Nolan’s trilogy is its continued focus on Gotham City (which, by the by, feels like a precursor to the “God’s-eye-view” perspective Nolan employed in Dunkirk). I’m struck by the extent to which these seemingly frivolous superhero movies are also rather serious political films – and not in the popular sense of the term, which is to say, “Movies About Some Hot Button Topic Right Now.” Nolan’s Batman films are interested in how the people of Gotham function as a political society, and I bet many fruitful essays could be written placing them in conversation with philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. (The Joker, at least, certainly wants to bring Gotham back to a Hobbesian State of Nature.) We’ve already discussed at some length the faulty vision of justice set forth by Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, but the vision propounded by Alfred and embodied by Bruce’s parents is less clearly defined. What does it mean, in these films, for the people of Gotham City to flourish? And what do the actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne accomplish for the city they call home?
ROBERT: The film’s treatment of justice is “less clearly defined” indeed, and leaves much to be desired. I really like how you said earlier that Bruce “cannot set up structures of good except by proxy,” and Batman can only destroy, not build. But while I think you’re also right to say he “spends most of the trilogy shirking [philanthropy] in favor of dressing up like a bat,” I think we should give Bruce a little more credit. While his work as Bruce Wayne is never as effective as his work at Batman, and his failures as Bruce Wayne may even be more serious than his failures as Batman, still it’s important to note the constructive things he does rather quietly in the background when he’s not in the suit.
In the first film, Wayne Enterprises falls under the control of Earle, who wants to take the company public and pick up more military contracts, which one board member explicitly states is leading the company away from the Wayne legacy. Meanwhile, Lucius Fox, an old friend of Thomas Wayne who is more principled and would be a more fitting steward of the company, is exiled to the R&D department in, of course, the dungeon-like basement (i.e., Wayne Enterprises has suppressed its own conscience and principles). At the end of the film, Bruce buys up most of the company’s shares when it goes public, and fires Earle and replaces him with Fox (“Didn’t you get the memo?”). This way, “the company’s future is secure” and once again on track to be a force for good in the community. But, sadly, we never see what Wayne Enterprises actually does outside of conducting boring board meetings and giving Bruce his superhero tech off-the-books (so much for Fox’s principles). Outside of funding charitable trusts, building the affordable monorail under Thomas Wayne, and Bruce attempting to create a sustainable energy source during his 8 year hermitage, what does Wayne Enterprises accomplish to solve the economic disparities exasperating Gotham’s crime rate? Not much.
In the second film, Bruce hosts a fundraiser for Harvey Dent, because we wants to make sure this “legitimate ray of hope” has the resources to stay in office. And again, between the second and third film, we learn that Bruce was trying to bring cheap, renewable energy to Gotham, and that Wayne Enterprises funded a number of causes and institutions, including the orphanage where Blake grew up. All along, however, ostensibly to avoid suspicions, Bruce maintains what Miranda calls “a practiced apathy.” He can never be seen to be too enthusiastic and concerned about the plight of his city, offsetting his big donations by creating another persona: the devil-may-care, scandalizing playboy. Rachel says that “this is [his] true mask.”
But then, as you rightly noted, by the time Rises begins, the Bruce Wayne part of the Bruce/Batman dichotomy has thoroughly failed to steward his parents’ legacy. The company has become as lethargic as its owner, losing so much money it can no longer fund the orphanage – something Bruce is entirely unaware of until well after the fact. Daggett, a twisted inverse of Bruce Wayne – a billionaire playboy leader of a corporation with its own designs for Gotham’s future – takes the same tactic as Bruce several years prior, slowly buying up all Wayne Enterprise’s shares. Daggett, implicated in a foreign military coup, would take the company back in the warmongering direction pursued by Earle. Although Bruce ended a partnership with Lau in The Dark Knight because of his shady business dealings, he makes no move to stop Daggett’s insidious absorption of his company. Meanwhile, he also places too much trust in Miranda. She would seem to be more like Thomas Wayne and Lucius Fox and less like Ra’s al Ghul, and that is what makes her betrayal all the more shocking – to Bruce, at least. (Miranda/Talia is such an interesting character on paper, and yet so boring in execution. The same is true of Daggett, and not even great actors like Marion Cotillard and Ben Mendelsohn can save them.) When Bruce is getting ready to put the suit back on for the first time in years, Alfred pleads with him, telling him the city needs Bruce, with all his intellectual and financial powers, not Batman. And really, if Bruce hadn’t left his company on autopilot and had been more persistent in helping his city economically, as his father had, wouldn’t the city have been in less trouble and less susceptible to Bane’s attack?
TIMOTHY: For my money, Ben Mendelsohn is one of the best, most interesting actors working today, and I will forever lament that my entire generation was first introduced to him as Daggett. You make a good point about his takeover of Wayne Enterprises mirroring Bruce’s own takeover in Begins – wonderful catch. Now that you point it out, Earle’s push for more military contracts recalls our earlier discussion about the distinction between destructive and constructive actions, and it seems significant to me that all of Wayne Enterprises’ military tech winds up co-opted by either Batman or his enemies. In the first film, the microwave emitter is commandeered as part of Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme; in the third, Bane plunders the contents of Fox’s arsenal for his army, and obviously, Miranda uses the fusion device as a bomb. The most interesting variation on this theme occurs in The Dark Knight, however, when Bruce himself (or rather, Batman) uses Fox’s cell phone sonar to spy on Gotham City, resorting to unethical means in his desperation to find the Joker. In each instance, when Wayne Enterprises departs from the legacy of Bruce’s parents, it leads inevitably to the other extreme embodied by Ra’s al Ghul and company.
In the conversation I linked to above, Gibbs writes that Nolan is “torn between a great love and a great hate for mankind,” and here, he seems similarly torn between what we’ve described as opposing constructive and destructive impulses. In the end, Bruce Wayne empties himself, giving up his wealth and status to support his city, but Batman is enshrined in a public memorial, and Bruce leaves instructions for Blake to find his cave and – one assumes – take up his mantle. Nolan criticizes Batman and what he represents a great deal in The Dark Knight Rises, but while Bruce frees himself from his alter ego, in the character of Blake, Nolan seems unwilling to do away with the destructive impulse entirely, and perhaps this is the only sensible conclusion. These films could not sustain a vision of an eschatological future where all swords are beaten into ploughshares; Nolan’s cosmos is far too earthbound for that. Interstellar is the exception, and its yearning for a secular utopia feels appropriately naïve; the Dark Knight trilogy, however, remains properly conflicted till the end, for man is a creature made of profound contradictions. Gotham’s best hope is to hold these dualities in an uneasy equilibrium. Wayne Manor is an orphanage entrusted to Alfred, who carries on the Waynes’ legacy of institutional philanthropy. On the other hand, Blake rejects structures as “shackles” and chooses to follow in the footsteps of Batman. Early on, we framed this conversation around two fathers, two ways of life – and ultimately, both persist. Perhaps this is why I find Jim Gordon to be one of the trilogy’s most sympathetic and compelling characters; like Bruce/Batman, he is forever caught in the middle. As a police officer, he represents institutional good, but practicalities force him to work with a vigilante. “I don’t get political points for being an idealist,” he tells Harvey Dent: “I have to do the best I can with what I have.” But while Gordon may be a pragmatist, he never devolves into a cynic, and Rises finds him shepherding the myth of the Batman. Bruce dreams of inspiring ordinary citizens to heroism: this dream originates in, and is fulfilled by, the actions of Gordon. (“A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hadn’t ended.”) My favorite moment in Rises’ ending montage belongs to Gordon, discovering a new Bat-signal on the GCPD roof and looking to the heavens in joyous bewilderment.
The denouement of Gordon’s story strikes me as microcosmic of the denouement of Gotham’s story. His feet are firmly planted in the real world, but he continues to hope for something more. Per the letter to the Hebrews: “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” In the meantime, it seems the world’s best hope is simply to try holding itself together. Nolan presents his hero with another path, however: Bruce Wayne purges himself of Batman, discharges his duty as a son of the Wayne family, and peacefully escapes from the contradictions of the tortured world. In so doing, he fulfills the hopes of Alfred – and, by extension, his parents – but fittingly, Gordon is the one who, at his funeral, tells his story: “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.” (NOTE: There is a subtle element of philanthropy to this denouement as well, since Bruce takes a reformed criminal with him – although, judging by Interstellar, perhaps running off with Anne Hathaway is simply Nolan’s idea of heaven.)
We’re wrapping up here, so I’ll leave you with this final question, Robert: in The Dark Knight, the Joker speaks of “the battle for Gotham’s soul,” and in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane says he will “feed [Gotham’s] people hope to poison their souls.” Throughout the trilogy, this is the battleground on which the heroes fight. What do you make of their attempts to reform Gotham? In the end, do we indeed see “a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss,” or something more complicated? Should we leave this story feeling despair or hope for the soul of Gotham?
ROBERT: If we look, as you just did, to a few heroic individuals in Gotham – not just Jim Gordon, but Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, Rachel Dawes, John (Robin) Blake, the convict on the ferry who throws the detonator away – there is hope. But, sad to say, revisiting these three films has left me feeling less hopeful about the health of the city’s soul as a whole. This insightful article by Steven D. Greydanus has only confirmed my suspicion that something is indeed rotten in the state of Gotham. Ra’s al Ghul tells Bruce that the death of his parents “galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since.” That cycle of galvanizing, limping, then dying once again appears to have no end. In Begins, Batman pushes the police to finally shut down Falcone (Commissioner Loeb is really annoyed about that intervention because it makes him look bad), and the climactic events of that film force the city to reckon with the inhumane conditions of the Narrows. But as the next two films show, the economic inequities that created the Narrows persist, relocated or transmuted into other forms and never resolved. To quote Ra’s again, Gotham was “so corrupt” the League of Shadows easily “infiltrated every level of its infrastructure,” and that corruption is never fully dealt with either. The cops on Gordon’s team are complicit in Rachel’s death, and even though the mob no longer exists in Rises, white-collar crime and elaborate conspiracies still do. While the complacent leaders of Gotham say “peace, peace,” Daggett builds a cutthroat business empire above ground, and Bane builds an army undisturbed below. And even the elimination of the mob was a pyrrhic victory. Justice was established by injustice, dependent as it was on Gordon’s (ig)noble lie and the creation of the Dent Act, which denied prisoners parole and (if memory serves) also circumvented due process. Again and again, it seems the city is only scared into half-hearted reform, and the reforms only address the symptoms, not the causes.
Worse still, even though Bruce repeatedly insists the non-criminal citizens of Gotham are “innocent,” “good people,” and “ready to believe in good,” the films themselves are more in line with the doctrine of total depravity. Everyone in Gotham has gone astray. The Joker’s ferry experiment was just barely, barely foiled – and not because of righteousness, but two men’s recognition of their unrighteousness. In Rises, only a few citizens join the anti-Bane resistance, and everyone else is either hiding in fear at best, or recklessly looting and enjoying the spectacle of the kangaroo court at worst. Ra’s can be defeated, the Joker can be defeated, Bane can be defeated, and doomsday weapons can be destroyed, but the charge against Gotham still stands. The wickedness that drew these villains and weapons to Gotham like moths to a flame endures.
But the city’s desperate wickedness makes Bruce’s love for it all the more beautiful. To be sure, all of Bruce’s best intentions and efforts are feeble, fragile, and fallible – but so are ours, so he is in good company here. Selina Kyle/Catwoman is right. Batman doesn’t owe Gotham anything. And in one sense, Gordon is right to say Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, and in another sense he is wrong. A thoroughly broken and jaded city like Gotham could only deserve a thoroughly broken and jaded hero like Batman, and yet he is also a hero of which it is entirely unworthy. One of Nolan’s influences was the Batman origin comic “The Man Who Falls.” Embracing that metaphor, Nolan has Bruce/Batman fall (literally and figuratively) several times. You could even say he is in perpetual free fall from the moment his parents die until he rises – get it? – in the final minutes of the trilogy. (Hans Zimmer’s score even suggests this idea with a particular musical cue, sung by a boy, that only appears twice in the entire trilogy.) In part, the falling is meant to be tragic. It represents Bruce’s nihilistic, self-destructive bent. But I also think the falling has a heroic aspect. It is kenosis, self-emptying. Before the final battle, Batman tells Catwoman he still hasn’t given Gotham everything, and by the end of the day he has, just short of sacrificing his future.
The love that Bruce/Batman shows to Gotham is largely thankless. He is an outlaw as Batman, an outcast as Bruce. This thanklessness frustrates Blake… and you know, Blake is the perfect place to end this conversation (finally!), because he is where Nolan ends his trilogy. The first scene of the first film has Bruce falling into the cave, and the last shot of the last film has Blake rising on a platform in the cave. Blake is the one character whose future feels undefined and uncertain to me. Sure, it seems he’ll become the next Batman, or Robin, or Nightwing, or whatever – but what will that look like? I can picture Alfred working at the orphanage, Lucius retiring, Gordon (I hope) reconciling with his wife and kids, and Bruce and Selina going on an endless vacation. But Blake is like the spinning top at the end of Inception, caught between two different states. Just like Bruce is torn between Ra’s and Alfred, Blake is torn between Bruce/Batman and Gordon. Like Bruce, he is taught by two different schools of justice. Ultimately, disillusioned by how the city is still too broken to mend itself, he takes the path of Batman. (Bruce set him up for this – so is Batman really dead to Bruce?) I think Blake knows what we know. Gotham is not yet “a beautiful city,” and may never be, but it’s not beyond hope or too far from grace. And so, for better or worse, he takes the leap.