Be sure to check out Part 1 here. AND MORE SPOILERS AHOY!
The Evolution of Gotham
One of the best unspoken characters in the Nolan Batman franchise is the city of Gotham itself. Played (like Rachel Dawes) by a variety of fine cities, Gotham is the damsel in distress in all of the movies. Batman is rarely playing for stakes less than the lives or sanity of millions of people who make up his city.
In the first movie, modern Gotham is a city in decay. There are lots of homeless people and crime is running wild. There is a part of town called the Narrows that seems to be even more hellish and horrible than the rest of Gotham (and that is where they put Arkham Asylum). You have corrupt judges, corrupt cops and people living in fear. Ra’s al Ghul is kind of right when he says that Gotham has hit a low point (of course, Bruce is right in that the city can be saved).
As Rachel points out, there is all this crime and corruption because of the crappy economy. Desperate times create desperate men. Bruce has to live as a pauper to get inside the mind of someone who steals to live as opposed to someone who steals to better themselves at the expense of others. This is one thing that bugs me a bit about The Dark Knight Rises, a lot of the other characters spend time chiding Bruce for being a child of privilege who has never known deprivation but he actually did go through deprivation while traveling the world to become Batman. Regardless, Bruce is always one phone call to Alfred away from rescue and the people of Gotham have no one to bail them out.
As stated in part one, the Wayne family was making a real difference in Gotham by using their money (the profits from the Wayne Foundation) to sponsor civic improvements like the elevated trains (that don’t seem to exist after Batman Begins) and various charities. With Mr. Earle as the head of Waynetech, there seems to be no real focus on charity, just profit. The city has fallen into disarray and darkness. So what effect does Batman have on the city in Batman Begins?
We learn through his encounter with the little boy in the narrows that he is already an urban legend. However, he is such a slight legend that no one is really rallying around him or using him for inspiration. John Blake in the third film, was raised an orphan in the child welfare system of Gotham and the kids made up stories about Bruce Wayne the same way they made up stories about Batman. The resilience of youth in the face of horror is a very subtle point from the Bat-verse. Blake, Bruce, the kid in the narrows, even Rachel and Gordon’s children all either come from lower/middle backgrounds or were orphaned at an early age. All of these end up as noble, heroic characters and seem to affirm Bruce’s belief that crappy situations can’t keep the best from coming out of people. They just need a little hope.
Really, we don’t see the change in Gotham until The Dark Knight. Hope is spreading with the fall of organized crime. People are interested in taking back the streets but not really through legal means. While it might seem jarring to think Batman suddenly became hated due to the murder of Harvey Dent, the whole movie slowly turns people against Batman and onto the side of the police. With Joker murdering some actually decent members of the criminal justice system (like the judge who is sympathetic to Dent’s attempts to clean the city), he is actually pushing the public towards law and order and away from Batman. Really, the Joker wants to push the people away from both but it is easier to build public sympathy for hard-working cops who end up dead than a masked vigilante who is seemingly unwilling to expose himself to save lives.
By the end of The Dark Knight, the people of Gotham (even the criminals) have shown themselves to be basically good. As almost a counter-balance to all the good people who came from non-wealth and trying circumstances, the Joker starts all of his “want to know how I got these scars?” stories with families in dire straits due to crime or poverty. Goodness only knows what his real origin is but all the variations seem plausible because we understand how a rotten city like Gotham can create such monsters. Batman and his allies are turning things around, proving Ra’s al Ghul wrong.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the city is a normal, non-horrible city. Like the mayor says, “Every city has crime” but Gotham is under control. Batman is a villain that was never brought to justice. Joker is never even mentioned. Everything is referred to as “peace time.” So much so that there are rumors of Gordon being dumped by the mayor in the near future as he has outlived his usefulness. The only real problem is that the peace was built on a lie and used to suspend due process for a lot of criminals.
So crime, the symptom, has been cured (or at least brought to heel) in the modern Gotham. The disease of poverty is more prevalent than ever. As Waynetech slows down and loses money, so does the city lose the charitable efforts of Wayne and Fox. Really, the conditions are ripe for Bane to lead the city into sheer chaos. People let down by the system are going underground to find a way to make a living…the fire that is rising is not one of empowerment but one of destruction.
Seeing the film a second time, the taking of Gotham by Bane is fascinating to watch. Bane has created a small, loyal army under the streets of Gotham that help him enact his plan. He uses them to free the Blackgate prisoners and that swells his ranks. In the scenes that follow of the rich being pulled from their homes and those same homes being used for debauched parties, there is one shot of a doorman wrestling one of his former tenants to the ground but, otherwise, it seems that Bane’s “army” is mostly made of criminals and his original recruits. In the clash with the police at the end, it seems the vast majority of Gotham has just hunkered down and tried to avoid all the craziness. These are still the same basically decent people that the Joker failed to turn into animals. Bane’s demonstration of the fall of Gotham is mostly smoke and mirrors, fear and deception…just as the League of Shadows taught.
There has been much made about the feeling that the political message of this movie is muddled. Just like The Dark Knight had reference points to the invasion of privacy and the effects of terrorism, The Dark Knight Rises has been accused of casting the Occupy Wall Street movement as the villains. Perhaps I am being naïve about the entire point but all three movies seem to clearly state that income inequality leads to anger and frustration and crime. The real villains of these films try to turn these feelings against the status quo for their own ends. Anywhere there is despair; there is the opportunity for exploitation and the ascendancy of iconoclasts. Any movement of the people has the potential to be hijacked and corrupted, no matter the original intention. I think Bane’s “revolution” is more about the power of rhetoric than a solution to the problems of Gotham.
In the end, Gotham is made up of people. The threats to those people were outsized and extreme, prompting extreme reactions. Just like any city, some will resort to crime and brutality, but most just want to be left alone to live their lives. In a kind of sad statement, not that much has really changed for Gotham by the end of The Dark Knight Rises. One imagines the Dent act gets repealed, organized crime starts to rise again, John Blake has to do battle with these forces. Bruce Wayne’s real triumph in Rises is to allow his mansion to serve as a place of hope for the abandoned and under-privileged so that a demagogue like Bane can’t rally them to his purposes in the future. In the end, Batman doesn’t save Gotham so much as give it the tools to keep itself healthy in the future.
Part 3 The Rise of Evil
Nolan seems to have used a lot of the most significant Batman texts for his screenplays. He also demonstrates his keen insight by replicating the effects of these stories without necessarily having to capture the scope. For example, one of the themes of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sales’ The Long Halloween was the transition in Gotham from organized, “normal” crime to crimes committed mostly by freaks in masks with weird gimmicks. Batman is known for having a very colorful, and deep, bench of adversaries who almost all appear grotesque and gaudy in the real world. Nolan has, with only a few odd missteps, brought a large portion of this rogues gallery to life in a way that doesn’t break the hard-earned reality of his series.
Others more learned than I have pointed out that the best Batman villains play off of some aspect of his character. They either act as a “what if he had made this choice?” dark reflection or they take one aspect of his legend and corrupt it. Starting with Batman Begins we get a couple of dark reflections on the Batman.
Ra’s al Ghul was kind of a brilliant choice for the first villain in the series. Nolan managed work a twist into the storyline with Liam Neeson playing “Ducard” (in a really inspired move, Ducard is a character from the comics who helped to train Bruce Wayne and looked very much like Liam Neeson’s character in Batman Begins so that even comic fans mostly accepted this at face value). The eventual revelation of Neeson as Ghul shouldn’t have been a huge shock but it worked pretty well. I would argue that Nolan’s similar attempt to pull off a revelation in Rises doesn’t work quite as well. Regardless, we have a villain who espouses theatricality and use of the shadows and darkness to push the agenda of justice. He also works to create poverty where Bruce’s parents sought to create prosperity. We never find out exactly why Ra’s hates Gotham. He gives a speech about how all great empires fall and need to be wiped away. However, he was one of the architects of the fall…his idea of justice is to set up all the conditions for someone to commit a crime and then punish them. The end of The Dark Knight Rises leaves Gotham in exactly the opposite condition.
Like the Punisher, Ra’s serves as a representation of justice unfettered by compassion. Bruce carries a lot of feelings inside like anger and fear. Men like Ra’s and the Punisher are just dead inside because of things they have had taken from them. Bruce, himself, could have easily turned out as merciless as these men but he holds onto the lessons of his parents and his friends. Ra’s is also wealthy and resourceful, a legend who has made himself more than a man in order to accomplish his goals. In the end, I would argue that he doesn’t really lose until the end of The Dark Knight, when Bruce chooses not to kill the Joker. Although all his other villains die, I believe Ra’s is the only villain whom he could have saved without much effort. It is telling that Ra’s bows his head and accepts death with serenity (like a Jedi) at the end of Batman Begins, he has finally taught Bruce his ultimate lesson: sometimes death is the only true justice for a criminal.
Joe Chill is given exactly as much weight and importance as one would expect in Batman Begins. He does not grow up to be the Joker (like in Tim Burton’s Batman) and he has no real significance to the Gotham underworld. He is a small-time hood, driven to desperation by poverty. He kills the Waynes and then, eventually, learns some information that he can use as leverage to get out of prison. He is gunned down by the mob for being a rat before he can testify. Of course, he stands as an example of the Punisher/Ra’s Al Ghul road that Bruce has rejected before he begins his journey (thanks to Rachel’s influence). For Bruce, there is no revenge, only prevention and attack.
Zsasz is one of the scarier modern villains in the comics and he makes an appearance in Batman Begins. The serial killer who puts score marks on his body for every kill he makes (and is therefore covered in marks) is considered the Batman villain closest to pure evil. He just kills for the sake of killing. By placing him in Arkham thanks to the crooked testimony of Dr. Crane, we are shown how the organized crime elements use the freaks of Gotham to their own end. It isn’t that freaks don’t exist, it is just that they have no place outside of the Falcone empire (just like freaks are occasionally employed by Falcone in The Long Halloween).
Speaking of Dr. Crane, Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of the Scarecrow is as important to the series as Commissioner Gordon or Alfred. He is one of the few characters to make it into all three movies (although others have theorized that the Joker probably would have taken his place in Dark Knight Rises) and he helps to show how, in this version of the Bat-universe, the freak crime wave never really happens. Crane’s Scarecrow persona is just his literal way of instilling fear in his patients. As a hanger-on to the League of Shadows, Crane is all about theatricality and fear. He is in no way a warrior nor does he care about justice. He is the dark side of Batman’s own theatrical persona. If the bat is used to place fear into the hearts of criminals, then the Scarecrow is there to place fear into the law abiding and decent citizens of Gotham. His fortunes fall with the plans of Ra’s al Ghul but he is resilient. He appears in The Dark Knight as a supplier to the organized crime families. He has taken Zsasz’s place as the useful freak in Gotham. He could easily be the first of a new wave (with Joker acting as the new, improved version) but Batman’s disappearance curtails the need for the freaks. Gotham becomes a kind of boring old normal crime town. Without the Batman, the need for villains like the Scarecrow and the Joker fades away. When Crane appears in The Dark Knight Rises, he has seemingly abandoned his Scarecrow persona and found a sort of surreal authority amongst Bane’s army. His journey mirrors Bruce’s from man to legend to man again but in a much less successful way. We never see his ultimate comeuppance in these movies, making him arguably the most successful villain of the series.
Carmine Falcone (and Salvatore Maroni from the Dark Knight) are two lynchpins to the evolution of Gotham and Batman’s mission in it. They are the organized crime in the city. They represent the apex of real world villainy in the Batman universe. These are the people who actually exist out there and suck our cities dry with their drugs and violence. They live above the law because they have bought off so many judges and cops. They employ the occasional freak like Scarecrow and Zsasz but, make no mistake; the gangsters are the main problem with Gotham.
The odd trajectory of the story is that we were well on our way to the freak tidal wave that was illustrated in The Long Halloween but Nolan decides to divert the course at the end of The Dark Knight. Falcone himself gets as decimated as a person can in Batman Begins. Batman traumatizes him and leaves him strung up on a make-shift bat signal. Scarecrow finishes the job by destroying Falcone’s mind. By the end of Batman Begins, it seems the town just isn’t a safe place for common criminals anymore. Maroni suffers a similar fate in The Dark Knight. In a recurring motif, common criminals attempt to employ freaks who later turn on them. Falcone is destroyed by Scarecrow, Two-Face murders Maroni and Daggett (the nominal bad guy at the beginning of Dark Knight Rises) tries to buy Bane’s loyalty only to find himself being played. Joker predicts that there will be a new kind of criminal running rampant through Gotham but, in the end, Batman’s withdrawal from the playing field seems to stop the flow of freaks as well as Dent’s legacy stops the flow of organized crime. It really is a double victory at the end of The Dark Knight.
A lot has been written about Heath Ledger’s Joker and I could probably write another 5,000 words just on his character in The Dark Knight. He is another dark reflection of Batman, of course. Where Ra’s is justice without compassion and Scarecrow is fear without purpose, the Joker is action without reason. Batman’s victory lies in preparation, planning, resourcefulness and wealth. Joker is just as resourceful and just as good at planning. He claims towards the end of The Dark Knight that he only takes the plans of others and upsets them. However, he still needs a large amount of foresight to turn the seemingly triumphant trap laid for him by Gordon and Batman into the murder of Rachel Dawes, the freeing of Lau and the corruption of Harvey Dent. Everything with him seems to be an experiment in bringing out the darkest impulses of human nature. All of his plans seem to hinge on people being violent, distracted, hateful or careless. And he almost always wins. Batman is very much (as seen in part 1) an agent of order. He wants to usher in an era of law. Joker wants the opposite and, as such, sets up situations in which Batman fails no matter what he does.
In fact, I would argue that Batman mostly fails in these movies. Ra’s makes Batman kill him through omission of action. Scarecrow is last seen in a position of power (he is at least free again). Joker corrupts Harvey Dent, kills Rachel Dawes, and forces Batman to make himself a monster. When Joker taunts Batman in the interrogation room, Batman says he has only one rule and Joker says that is the rule he will have to break to win. Even though Joker doesn’t actually get Batman to kill, he gets Batman to appear to be a killer. One would think Batman’s effectiveness as a crime fighter would skyrocket if the criminals know he will kill them now. Unfortunately, the citizens of Gotham think he will kill them, too. Batman has a few minor victories in the Dark Knight but he achieves his goals in the worst possible way.
Two-Face is a nice flip side of Batman (no pun intended) and the most obvious dark reflection in the whole series. Not only are the two drawn to the same woman, they are both set up as the heroes of Gotham. Harvey is the White Knight and Batman is the Dark Knight. We don’t really get Harvey’s backstory but we know he is not comfortable around wealth, suggesting that he doesn’t come from privilege like Bruce. The very subtle allusion in the Dark Knight that I never hear anyone pull out is The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. In that comic, the Joker attempts to drive Jim Gordon insane and deprive Batman of one of his strongest allies. In The Dark Knight, the movie Joker succeeds in breaking Harvey Dent where the comic Joker fails to break Gordon. Dent is kind of an unholy mash up between Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker, justice without reason. With his arbitrary coin flip, guilt and innocence become laughable concepts (and easily corrupted). The law that Harvey Dent used to believe in has been replaced with chance, chaos.
Batman lets Two-Face die but not in the same way he lets Ra’s. Batman has a choice to save Gordon’s son or his old friend and he chooses Gordon’s son. No choice at all, really, but it doesn’t rankle like the Ra’s death does. That Batman and Gordon spin in it into a lie that allows for unparalleled security in the city is the ultimate time bomb left by the Joker. Of course, Joker could not have predicted Bane…who sort of diffuses the time bomb by exploding it at a time when it is just another setback for a town under siege.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we have an embarrassment of villains. Bane, Daggett, Talia, Scarecrow, Catwoman and the vestiges of the organized criminals who languish in Blackgate…all are added into a volatile situation where the legacies of Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker still haunt the town. The crippled economy introduced by Ra’s is still present, creating a breeding ground for Bane’s recruitment of the poor and forgotten. Joker’s compromise of Batman’s mission to inspire as a legend has forced Bruce Wayne to pursue other forms of world-saving (at which he is not quite as good). Gordon lost his family in defending the lie of Harvey Dent. The collateral damage of Joker’s campaign keeps accumulating. So, with no freaks and no organized crime, where does the criminal impulse that arises from economic inequality manifest?
Bane is the perfect storm of villainy. He is strong enough to face Batman and win in physical combat. More importantly, he is exactly the road Bruce Wayne didn’t travel, representing justice as revenge. There is no real reason left to destroy Gotham, it is not the cesspool that Ra’s al Ghul sought to decimate in Batman Begins. Bane is the vengeance of an orphaned child who only wants to destroy everyone she feels has wronged her. Bane is merely the charismatic front for Talia al Ghul’s impulses. Bruce could have joined the League of Shadows in Batman Begins and given in to all his hatred of the town that robbed him of his parents but he rose above and became a force for good. Talia has given in to her basest desires and uses all of her father’s methods to complete his plans. Bruce has become Joe Chill and now, Gotham has to pay.
Bane is so chilling because he is acting entirely from love. He doesn’t want money, he doesn’t have an agenda of chaos to push, he doesn’t like to conduct experiments using people…he just wants the woman he has cared for since she was a child to get her heart’s desire. He has the purest motive of any bat-villain and, in the end, as cheesy as it might be to say, he is defeated by love as well.
Catwoman (as true to her portrayal in comics and other media) is not a straight up villain. She is a thief and, most importantly, she is the kind of thief Bruce understands from his time as a pauper, she is a thief by necessity. She does a lot in the name of survival, to the point where Bruce is drawn to her. She is not, like Talia, trying to lure him into her web. She just wants to be left alone and all of her actions follow that logic. She has a huge chip on her shoulder regarding her low economic station but she is shrewd enough to recognize that Bane’s rhetoric is hollow and dangerous. She represents the soul of Gotham in the movie. Corrupted but looking for someone to help her start over. As she gets a new chance to do things right; so, too, does Gotham.
All of Bruce’s beliefs in the innate goodness of people is kind of wrapped up in his subtle battle for Catwoman’s soul. Talia admonishes Bruce to trust people and trust her (a big mistake, as it turns out) but she doesn’t realize his instincts have been pretty sharply honed. He trusts Selina, who screws him over about as hard as anyone ever has but that doesn’t shake his faith that she can be saved. Talia, on the other hand, exploits Bruce’s loneliness and desperation. She worms her way into his heart (although one wonders what she would have done had he taken her up on her offer to fly away to anywhere after they sleep together) just so she can twist the slow knife a little more.
When Catwoman kills Bane, she is rejecting the selfish path and embracing cooperation. She is paying off all of Bruce’s beliefs and giving him a new partner with whom to experience his life. Bruce and Selina are starting over with nothing, no support system, just each other. Bruce gave her the tools to do so. Likewise, he leaves Gotham’s fate in the hands of others. He has equipped Gordon with a new bat signal; Thomas Blake has access to the Batcave and all his gadgets. I also can’t imagine it is a huge coincidence that Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character has the same name as Catman’s secret identity in the comics. Perhaps a red herring to throw people off the trail, perhaps a sly nod to the fact that Catman is Bane’s teammate in the Secret Six and Catwoman’s enemy in the DCU. This Blake completely subverts all those expectations. I would like to think Catman is Gotham’s newest hero after the credits roll.
As you can see, if I did my work convincingly enough, Bruce Wayne is better off than he started. Likewise, Gotham is better than it was when he began. It seems there will finally be law and order without a lie underneath. As for the villains, who knows what awaits Thomas Blake as he begins his career as a vigilante? There is no one left to avenge Ra’s al Ghul or complete his work with the League of Shadows. The Joker is still alive, as is Jonathan Crane. Perhaps that freak wave will arise after all.
I would love to see a generation of fan fiction and novels arise from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I want to see the further adventures of John Blake or have the eight year gap filled in between The Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises. I think there is a lot of room left to play here and fun to be had with this iteration of Batman.
Agree? Disagree? Think I am talking out of my hat? Let me know in the comments. And thanks for reading!