Batman has been steadily present in popular culture since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Besides the comic books from whence he sprang, we’ve seen movies, serials, television programs, cartoons, live stage shows, video games and novels. Others far more talented than I have written about the enduring appeal of the Dark Knight Detective and the fact that the core concept is malleable to such a wide variety of interpretations. After becoming a kind of grotesque parody of itself at the box office, the Batman franchise had run out of steam with 1997’s Batman and Robin. Taking a bit of a chance, Warner Brothers handed the keys to the franchise to a relatively low key indie director named Christopher Nolan. Nolan, in turn, produced one of the most successful trilogies of all time (if the most recent film holds up in regards to popularity).
Mark Waid, speaking as a successful comic book writer, said that good superhero stories are about something. That is to say, as much as we love watching people in costumes duke it out on the big screen, we need something a little more substantive. Following the rules of good cinema, Nolan and his co-writers (comic writer David Goyer and Nolan’s brother Jonathan, who also helped write the excellent Prestige) have succeeded in making each movie a journey unto itself. The minor miracle they have pulled off is also making the trilogy a journey as well. I would argue that each movie works on its own merits; however, they all strengthen each other as a whole.
There are a few arcs I wish to follow throughout the three films, three questions I wish to answer. How does Bruce Wayne/Batman change throughout the three movies? How does Gotham change throughout the three movies? How does evil change throughout the three movies?
Part 1 BATMAN
When we first meet the grown Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, he is in a hellhole of a prison half a world away from Gotham (a situation he finds himself in again in Dark Knight Rises). He is filled with anger and kind of directionless. Through a series of flashbacks we see the murder of his parents, his inability to stay at Princeton, and his desire to murder Joe Chill (the man who killed his parents). He is very much trapped in a narrow world-view. He is angry about having his parents taken from him. He wants to have revenge. It isn’t until Rachel Dawes (his old childhood friend) opens his eyes to the realities of Gotham that he begins to see the bigger forces at work.
Rachel is the person who convinces Bruce that Joe Chill was the symptom, not the disease. Economically, Gotham is in the dumps and that breeds crime. Oddly, Bruce still doesn’t place his efforts in the right direction. His parents fought against the economic downturn with their charitable donations and civic improvement projects. Bruce sees organized crime as a sort of parasite that drains the city while corrupting it. When I discuss the changing face of evil in Gotham we will look a little closer at Carmine Falcone and Salvatore Maroni’s empire. For now, accept that Bruce is still aimed at fighting the symptoms. Considering his doctor father, Batman Begins is like a long episode of House where the caped crusader finally figures out where true evil lies.
Although very much wicked, Ra’s Al Ghul (played by Liam Neeson) has a lot of honest things to say to Bruce. Ra’s himself is a legend and has worked hard to achieve that. He is really the only character in Batman mythos that is larger than life without being clinically insane. He solves a couple of storytelling problems getting Bruce from rich boy to vigilante. Ra’s instills in Bruce a sense of theatricality and trains him to be a smart warrior. At this point in Bruce’s development he is clinging onto a childhood fear of bats. We see the initial trauma of him falling into the bat cave and his father rescuing him. By embracing his fear of the bats that live beneath his home, Bruce has acknowledged that his parents are gone. He has grown up and is ready to pick himself up. The one aspect of Bruce that Ra’s cannot get out of him is his compassion and belief in the law as the delivery tool of justice.
The Joker says a very telling thing in The Dark Knight. He says, “You’re not one of them, even if you wish you were” implying that Batman, deep down, wants to be a police officer. He wants to be a legitimate force for justice working within the confines of the law. Although his parents taught him compassion, I believe it is his love for Rachel that drives his belief that the system can be saved. He has felt the kindness provided by young Officer Gordon after his parents were killed. He knows there are good people in the system. I don’t think Bruce realizes the dual power represented by his Batman persona until Dark Knight Rises. He is counting on fighting crime with a fearsome, legendary alter-ego. He doesn’t see that he can inspire and lead the way to a better Gotham with that same persona. He actually denies the most potent aspect of his creation until the last act of Dark Knight Rises. But I get ahead of myself.
Emboldened by his lack of fear, Bruce returns to Gotham and goes about attacking what he sees as the problem, crime. He pins his hopes on Jim Gordon as the one honest cop in Gotham. Although Bruce in no way arranges for Gordon to eventually become Commissioner he is very lucky that his ally reaches such power. With Rachel in the D.A.’s office and Gordon on the police force, Batman is now in a position to do more than just harass criminals and beat the hell out of them, he can actually get them off the street. Of course, there are still crooked judges and tons of crooked cops to deal with but Bruce seems to think that restoring belief in the law is the way to restore the city.
The biggest problem, for me as a Batman fan, with Batman Begins was the final confrontation with Ra’s Al Ghul. Having made the mistake of sparing Ra’s his life at the beginning; Batman decides to let him die as the elevated train they are in crashes and explodes under Wayne Tower. Bruce seems to be going against his principles of compassion and the rule of law in order to deliver a pithy bon mot as his enemy dies. The whole idea of Batman (as made plain in The Dark Knight) is that he lives by certain rules and doesn’t deviate from them. In fact, that he doesn’t allow the Joker to die at the end of Dark Knight seems to enforce this idea. In the end, all I could figure was that there is no justice waiting for Ra’s in Gotham since he has “infiltrated all levels of power.” Ironically, this was the lesson Ra’s was trying to teach Bruce all through the beginning of the movie, when the law fails justice must be served.
Realistically, and in retrospect, Bruce did not yet have the allies and friends in place who could bring Ra’s to justice. Therefore, Ra’s had to die. It seems pretty pragmatic for Batman, who does not yet have the luxury of idealism. If there is an arc to Batman throughout the three movies, it is that, as his legend grows, his ability to live up to his ideals increases. Batman has to kill the legendary Ra’s Al Ghul to become the legendary Batman. Somewhere between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, criminals begin catching on that he won’t kill them. Therefore, it is time to change the legend.
In The Dark Knight, Batman has now reached the status of symbol. He is inspiring average joes on the street to dress like him and attack criminals. The opening fight in The Dark Knight is a perfect storm of all the problems in Gotham. Batman must face his imitators, the last vestiges of organized crime and the rising tide of freak villains (Scarecrow) who are looking to combat Batman using his own tactics. Unfortunately, Batman has no control over his message. His followers rely on guns and homemade armor which places them in danger. Batman wants to inspire people to take back the street but he wants to do it through the law.
As Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes become bigger parts of the D.A.’s office and Gordon continues to rise through the ranks, Batman is needed less and less. He was the push needed to show the people they could stand up to crime but now, he might be hurting as much as he is helping. Bruce feels like Gotham is reaching the point where it can stand up on its own and he can retire into the sunset with Rachel. The Joker, through no chemical means, is creating the fear that Ra’s Al Ghul meant to unleash on the city in the first movie. Batman has moved beyond his ability to inspire the citizenry. He only comes out at night, he is the scourge of the underworld. There is no scene in The Dark Knight like the one in Batman Begins where he gives a little boy his telescope device as a gift. His only interaction with children is blowing up cars in front of them and traumatizing Gordon's son. Batman is now placing all his efforts into building up Harvey Dent. If Dent can fix the system, Batman can truly retire.
The moral dilemma set forth by the Joker is that deaths will continue to happen unless Batman reveals himself. In other words, admit you are just a man, remove your power as a symbol. Bruce almost gives himself up but he doesn’t see that, like all of Joker’s options, it is a lose-lose situation. If Batman is destroyed as a symbol, whatever momentum he created towards justice becomes lost and Gotham reverts to the cesspool it was when Batman started. In The Dark Knight Rises they refer to the old days as “war-time.” Indeed, Alfred understands right away that by becoming Batman, Bruce has to look out for the long-term good of the city, not the few lives that may be lost in the interim. He has to have faith that, if he doesn’t give up his beliefs, the people of Gotham will reward him by not falling to pieces in the face of fear. In the most flagrant example of upholding the law by breaking it, Batman invades Hong Kong to retrieve a mob accountant. His travels outside the U.S. in the other two films don't go as well.
Batman’s ultimate triumph in The Dark Knight is when neither boat explodes under Joker’s conditions. The idealist view wins out. Bruce is vindicated in his belief that symbols can inspire and Gotham is not beyond hope. Of course, he still has to deal with the fact that the Joker corrupted Harvey Dent. In the end, the ramifications of Batman’s decision to take the blame for Dent’s death are far-reaching. Batman, as a symbol, is dark and misunderstood. People following his example resort to vigilante activity and create more danger. By making Harvey the symbol of heroism, Bruce is trading respect for the law with vigilante justice (which was his ultimate goal). Dent dies a martyr to Bruce’s ideals (as far as the public knows). With the rule of law front and center, Batman is not needed. However, Bruce is still not looking at the big picture.
As The Dark Knight Rises begins, we see a safe Gotham. There are, no doubt, still street crimes and bank robberies but Gordon’s police department has a handle on it. Bruce stuck to his rules and his systems and saved Gotham. He has won. By removing Batman as an influence, the tidal wave of freak villains never seems to emerge. Organized crime is shut down thanks to the scary-sounding Dent act. Yes, Bruce won his city and lost his reward. With Rachel dead and the city safe, Bruce has no direction or drive. Believing for all these years that she would have waited for him (and that he was so close to succeeding) has pushed Bruce into seclusion and brooding. In the interim years, Bruce has apparently almost bankrupted his company by working on a cheap, renewable energy source. It appears that he was finally attacking the disease rather than the symptoms. As the project was shuttered for being too dangerous, Bruce is left with no real weapons to fight injustice anymore.
Only through multiple prods and pushes does Bruce decide to reclaim his mantle as Batman. The name has been the source of urban legends and his symbol is one school children still believe in. The symbol was potent and has only increased in potency through time. Having lost his fear back in Begins, Bruce is confident and cocky that he can face any challenge and come out on top. Of course, he also has a bit of a death wish. With nothing to look forward to, no Rachel waiting, he just wants to commit a heroic sacrifice. He knows battling Bane might destroy him but, he seems ok with that idea. This will be the final step of the legend, to martyr oneself as they claimed Dent did to fight evil.
Unfortunately for Bruce, he doesn’t defeat evil nor does he get to die a hero’s death. Bane breaks him, physically. Bane then sets about his plan to break the Batman mentally. For Bane, this is all about finishing the work of Ra’s Al Ghul (even though Gotham doesn’t really need destroying anymore). For the second time in the trilogy, Bruce is trapped in a prison half a world away. Ra’s gave him a get out of jail free card in Begins but Bruce must find his own way out in Rises.
The old men in the jail claim he needs to embrace his fear. He has to find it again. His lack of fear made him a legend but Gotham needs a heroic man to regain its humanity. No one has yet pointed out that Batman makes his first day time appearance in this movie. Without the shadows making him a horror-movie spook, he is a man in some weird armor. He inspires and leads the police army in the final battle with Bane’s minions. Bruce finally gets to be a force of order, an agent of the status quo. Of course, order is restored to Gotham but we never quite find out if it recovers economically. Perhaps that is why someone else is forced to take the mantle of the bat, so long as the inequalities that create a criminal class exist, so too will crime. This seems to be the ultimate failure of Bruce Wayne, he squandered his resources on a war against crime when it seems a war against poverty would have been the smarter battle.
One freedom Nolan has that few others working with a licensed figure like Batman get is the freedom to give Bruce Wayne an ending. Be it happy or sad, Nolan is under no obligation to set up the further adventures of Batman. In this regard, Bruce gets a bit of an ambiguous ending. One, I would argue, as indecisive as the spinning top that ends Inception. Bruce loses everything and starts with a clean slate. One imagines Selina does as well. He hasn’t lived a life as Bruce Wayne in years. As Rachel said in Begins, the Batman is his real face while Bruce Wayne is the mask. How a former vigilante and a former jewel thief make a life for themselves is kind of up in the air. Bruce, in the end, doesn’t get the life he wants but I think he gets the life he deserves.
Next time I will discuss how Gotham grows and changes over the course of the films (besides turning from Chicago into New York) and how the villains of the Bat-verse reflect and add to Batman’s own journey.