The Dark Knight Trilogy Analyzed
Nolan’s Batman films are often praised for how they mesh topical socio-political commentary with explosive super-hero action. Batman Begins focused on poverty vs. opulence, corruption in authority, the failure of law and order, and the nature of justice as opposed to revenge. The Dark Knight mixed comic book icons with themes of post-9/11 anxiety, the breakdown of civility and decency in the face of chaotic terror, and the question of “how far is too far?” in dealing with overwhelming threats. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises examines notions of assumed power vs. true power, the need for hope in the bleakest of times, and liberation from and revolution against the constraints of capitalist society. Although the topical nature of these three films certainly adds to their overall cinematic quality, there are a series of more personal themes prevalent throughout the trilogy, the importance of which may be overlooked in the process of viewing each film as a contained story. The core element of the trilogy-the fall and rise of Bruce Wayne – is a personal character arc defined by duality, rage, grief, redemption, and finally acceptance and ties with the evolution of Gotham City as a whole.
In order to fully grasp the true quality of the storytelling craft inherent in Bruce Wayne’s arc, one must first understand the nature of the man and the mask as three intertwined yet separate entities. Bruce Wayne is not a complete human being – there is a part of him that was ripped away the night his parents died and he has replaced that lost innocence with what Bruce and Alfred refer to as “the monster” (“I am using this monster to help people” – BB). The third piece of this persona is the symbol of Batman: the ideal that the people of Gotham associate with the name, and which in the end inspires them to act on behalf of their city. This symbol is what Bruce was originally hoping to establish, and transcends the identity of any one man.
The Bruce we meet in the prison at the start of Batman Begins is fueled by the desire for vengeance. As we learn in a later flashback, he was denied the closure and satisfaction of murder Joe Chill and so he has put himself in a position where he is guaranteed to be accosted by criminals on a daily basis; he can exact what he believes is the closest thing to vengeance he is ever likely to have. Every criminal he beats is Joe Chill to him. As Ra’s al Ghul says when he first finds Bruce, “you have become truly lost” (BB). Bruce beats these fellow prisoners out of necessity to quell the rage of his darker half; he himself takes no pleasure in the action because he already knows the truth in his heart: that Justice and Vengeance are never the same. It is this truth, learned from Rachel Dawes, that inevitably puts Bruce and Batman at odds with the League of Shadows.
Just as Bruce molds his monster into a productive force, Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows aimed to mold Bruce into the figurehead of their twenty-year old plot to eradicate Gotham from the face of the earth. The League helps Bruce create the physicality of Batman and his methods of fighting crime. They give Bruce the tools to confront his grief and anger and use them as the driving force behind his developing second persona. Most importantly, they give him the will to act in the face of apathy and overwhelming odds. The rift between Bruce and his mentors forms when they also attempt to convert him to their own ideal of uncompromising justice. Deep down, Bruce has already developed a sense of morality from Rachel. He combines this with his training, and gives his monster and ideal: there is always hope, and that with dedication and perseverance, Gotham can be brought back from the brink of darkness, just as Bruce was. He gives his darker half a face and name, and saves his city from annihilation. In the wake of his victory, however, he learns two truths about what he has done in bringing Batman to Gotham. The first, from Rachel, is that the Bruce Wayne has become the mask that hides the monster. Batman is now the crutch that Bruce relies on. In using it to move past his parent’s death and save the city from the League, he has given it much more control. The second, from Gordon, is the escalation: Batman has the capacity to inspire hope and action in the people of Gotham, but he also makes Gotham a target. His presence will serve as a beacon to draw out madness worthy of fighting a man dressed as a bat. This realization is expanded upon in The Dark Knight.
The Gotham City the audience sees at the beginning of The Dark Knight is much cleaner that what we saw in Begins. Though the key figureheads of the mob are still at large and Crane’s drugs are still making a small circulation, Batman, with the help of Gordon, is making definite progress in cleaning up the city. The emergence of Harvey Dent as the public face of Batman and Gordon’s crusade builds hope in the people of Gotham. Dent also inspires Bruce in a more personal manner. When Bruce sees Rachel with Harvey, he realizes that Rachel will not wait forever for Batman’s fight to end, and so Bruce begins to look for ways to put Batman to rest so he can be with Rachel. He puts his faith in Harvey as the one who can continue the push for justice when Batman is gone. Likewise, Harvey relies on Batman to do the things that he, as an elected official and the “White Knight” of Gotham, cannot be associated with. The Joker also sees the importance of Harvey Dent as the figurative spirit of Gotham. When Harvey survives the explosion that kills Rachel, the Joker takes advantage of Harvey’s shattered emotional state and converts him, leaving a corrupted perversion of the man that once stood for hope and justice. Bruce is spared a fate similar to Harvey’s by once again relying on the monster, this time to such a degree that Bruce Wayne is all but consumed by his alter ego. However, there remains a faint shadow of the man that clings to the knowledge that Rachel had chose him over Harvey, and so Alfred burns Rachel’s letter in order to preserve what is left of Bruce Wayne. Ironically, Harvey gives in to his twisted sense of vigilante justice because he wrongly believes himself to be like Batman in taking matters into his own hands.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker is the antithesis of Batman in his own philosophy that anyone can be brought down with the proper push. Harvey Two-Face is the proof that the Joker is indeed right. As he stands over Harvey’s body, the monster (and what is left of Bruce ) realize the true nature of what they have created with Batman, and what they now must do with this symbol. Batman and Gordon cover up Harvey’s actions and allow his untarnished legacy to become the symbol of hope that Batman was meant to be because he was the hero the people believed Gotham needed, and Bruce decides to reward them for that faith. The true hero of Gotham adopts the consequences of Harvey’s actions and becomes a symbol of darkness.
The Dark Knight Rises is the conclusion to two stories that began the night Martha and Thomas Wayne were murdered: the intertwined salvations of Bruce Wayne and Gotham city. In Begins, Bruce dedicated himself to ensuring that Gotham would never produce someone like him again. In The Dark Knight, he learned that Batman would be whatever Gotham needed it to be, even if that meant standing as the paragon of the darkest depths of the city’s soul.
Despite being the longest of the three films, The Dark Knight Rises features less of Batman than the other two. The film is not about Batman; it is about what Batman has inspired in the people of Gotham and Bruce Wayne’s personal journey toward a life without his alter ego. Eight years after Bruce hung up the cowl, the legend of Batman has become infamous among the people of Gotham, though some remain stout in their belief of his original ideal of hope. However, although the essence of Batman is now beyond any one man, Bruce still relies on his monster. He has added his grief over Rachel’s death to his original grief over the loss of his parents and is unable to move on with his life. He believes that Rachel would have chosen him and so dwells on what might have been. For a time, he attempted to do good as Bruce Wayne by investing in a clean energy project that would help the world. When he learns that the reactor could be reprogrammed as a weapon though, he shuts the project down. Bruce and Batman have learned the hard way what happens with the malicious take control of another man’s tool for good. Bruce thought that Harvey Dent was ideal replacement for Batman until the Joker turned him into a monster. Similarly, Thomas Wayne built the Gotham rail system as a means to aid the people of Gotham, but Ra’s al Ghul almost managed to use that system to deliver Gotham to its own destruction. So, Bruce shuts down the project and hides away with his grief. The buildup, established over the previous two films, adds complexity to the plot of the third movie, which could otherwise be seen as a deceptively simple stop-the-bomb story.
Bane claims to be “Gotham’s reckoning.” His aim is to fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s original plan of destroying Gotham, which the League of Shadows sees as the pinnacle of decadence and injustice, even more so now that it’s “peace” is based on a lie. Bane is also Batman’s reckoning; he plans to exact brutal revenge on Bruce for possessing the arrogance to fight against what the League of Shadows believe is the natural order of things. Bruce and the monster are lured out of retirement even though Alfred is correct when he tells Bruce that he isn’t Batman anymore. At this point, it’s not about being the symbol. It’s about indulging the monster and, hopefully, dying in his quest to save the city. Alfred tries to make him realize there is another way besides death, and that the more victorious action would be to keep on willing. Bruce created Batman as a mean to move on from his parents’ death, but in truth, Batman was only a distraction and an indulgence to Bruce’s rage. Learning to live without Batman would be acceptance of life, but Bruce doesn’t feel he can do that until he gives himself to Gotham. Even knowing that Rachel chose Harvey does not help Bruce realize how he can stop. The catalyst for Bruce’s final push beyond his pain is Selina Kyle. Bruce falls in love with her and finally has a reason to not want to be Batman anymore. Selina wants a clean slate and a new life, and she helps Bruce realize that he wants that too. He challenges her to believe in something beyond herself, as he had to do when he first became Batman. Even after she betrays him to Bane, he still believes in her because he needs redemption for the trust he put in Harvey Dent. Bruce’s inspiration eventually draws her back to Gotham, where she kills Bane and saves Bruce. Bruce brings out redeeming qualities of Selina and in doing so saves himself.
When they first meet, Bane sees through Bruce’s anticipation of his own death, (having undergone similar training), and so he breaks Bruce and throws him in a pit to rot and watch the extent of his failure. In that hell on earth, Bruce learns to embrace the basest of human instincts: the fear of death. He leaves the monster behind and rises from the darkness of the pit, now at last a complete soul. Bruce proved Rachel’s letter wrong: he no longer needed Batman. Gotham did, however, and so Bruce puts the mask on one last time. Bruce Wayne, armed with the will to live, defeats Bane at the end of the film. He only wears the mask because of its necessity to the people of Gotham.
Side note on Bane: I’ve read criticism of the “impossible” line he utters when he sees the fiery Bat Signal that state it makes the character come off as unrealistically arrogant. While it is true that this version of Bane is shown to be much too cunning to assume that only he was capable of escaping the pit, remember that Bane didn’t escape; he was rescued. Talia was the one who escaped, and by all accounts she is the only person Bane cares about, and it would be natural to assume that this person you are emotionally reliant on is capable of things that no one else can do. Just some interesting insight into the character.
(Fourth Paragraph)Batman’s effect on the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises is best exemplified by two characters: John Blake and Commissioner Foley. At first glance Foley’s arc could seem like an underdeveloped cowardice-redemption-heroic death subplot. When viewed against a broader context though, Foley is quite important to the theme of the film in that he represents most of the people of Gotham. John Blake was always a believer; he didn’t believe that Batman was the killer most people made him out to be, and sought him out when he knew the city needed the Dark Knight to return. John was exceptional, and for this reason he was chosen to carry on the legend of the Batman. Foley is the average citizen. He believes Batman is a villain because that’s what he was told by Gordon, the only talking witness to what actually happened. When Bane took Gotham, he sheltered himself and relied on Bane’s false hope, again because that’s what the authority had told him. He didn’t trust Gordon about the bomb because Gordon had been revealed as a liar in the Harvey Dent murder. But when Bruce lights the flaming signal, Foley is inspired with the will to act. He takes up arms, fights, and ultimately dies defending his city. Foley embodies the victory of Batman; the people of Gotham were possessed with the will to act and therefore had overcome Thomas Wayne’s failure. Foley shows what Batman was and is capable of as a legend and an inspiration for good.
By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, John Blake is frustrated with the limited authority and facilities provided by law enforcement. He did not have the means to lead the citizens to safety or stand up against those obstructing the bridge that led out of the city. After witnessing the extraordinary feats that Batman was able to achieve, Blake knows that the Dark Knight would not have let this barricade stop him from doing what was right. Blake realizes that he cannot accomplish enough as a police officer, or a detective, and gives up on the system. Thus, he makes the perfect candidate for the heir to the Batman legacy after coming to the conclusion that becoming a vigilante is not just about taking the law into your own hands, but about having a righteous will to act. In order to save Gotham, Batman did not answer to anyone other than himself. But even though the idea of Batman was always about circumventing the law to do the right thing, it was never about being above it. This entity set its own standards, and thus became more than just a vigilante- it became a true inspiration for Bruce Wayne, who worked tirelessly to devote himself to the ideas that Batman created. But how is Batman’s philosophies not influenced by the whims of this man?
Although Bruce as a man embodied Batman, it was not his choice that the legend of the Dark Knight began. The Dark Knight was never about a single man- it was always about the legend of Gotham City. Gotham created this entity the night that it stole away the innocence of a young boy, who had no choice but to give everything he had back to its citizens. If Gotham created Batman, then that means that Batman is the true representation of the city. Although the fact remains that Batman is one person, the point of the mask is that anyone could be Batman. And if anyone could be Batman, then that means that all of Gotham is Batman.