Who is he?
Batman, a comic book superhero created in 1939 by DC Comics artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Most recently (and in case, dear reader, you have been living under a rock the past few years), he has been the protagonist of a now-concluded film trilogy by director Christopher Nolan. Played by Christian Bale with an intensity unmatched by previous renditions, the trilogy is easily Batman’s best, and darkest, incarnation.
Note: the following article includes a number of spoilers.
What do we think?
Like the three acts of a soaring opera, Nolan’s three films progress through a recognisable sequence of introduction, evolution and conclusion. Each act focusses on a distinct theme central to the mythology of Batman, and is tightly tied to narrative and character development. Nolan has exercised great discretion with his trilogy, crafting a powerful series of films that redefine the Batman franchise, (thankfully) overcoming Joel Schumacher’s embarrassingly garish Batman and Robin (1995), and significantly raising the bar in the superhero genre.
The opera opens with Batman Begins (2005). As the title suggests, it introduces us to the origins of Batman and the unusual combination of events that lead Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s richest man, to don mask and cape and hunt criminals in the night. Fear is the theme that drives this film and its nuanced exploration of Batman’s motivations: fear of his past drives him to flee his privileged existence, to seek out the darkest fringes of society; fear of bats leads him to select a cave inhabited by a colony of them as his subterranean lair; this fear also causes him to choose the bat as his symbol, to instill his lingering childhood phobia into the hearts of his enemies; finally, fear is the psychoactive effect of the narcotic agent employed by those enemies and the weapon they attempt to use on the populace of Gotham.
These cinematic elements are so tightly woven they are impossible to unravel. As Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) observes to Wayne: “You must journey inwards, to what you really fear. It’s inside you.” We learn that fear is the origin, motivation and method of Batman. He is an agent of it, inspired by it and inspiring it.
The second act arrives in the form of The Dark Knight, much-lauded in no small way thanks to Heath Ledger‘s excellent and final role as the Joker. Duality is the theme that shapes this film and its detailed exploration of the conflicting forces of Batman’s psychology. This is revealed most significantly in the characters of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the Joker. Dent is Gotham’s White Knight, a district attorney determined to bring down organised crime from within the system; the Joker is a sociopathic agent of chaos – a man who pursues destruction without motive, “who just wants to watch the world burn”.
In terms of narrative, Batman is caught between these two forces, yet in terms of psychology, they both exist within him. The duality of hero and agent of chaos are epitomised by Batman’s intervention with the criminal underground of Gotham: he does good, but he does so outside the law. Dent’s lucky coin is a significant indicator of the shifting patterns of this duality, both within the separate characters of Dent and the Joker and within Batman himself.
Ultimately, Dent’s honourable ambitions are spoiled by the Joker, and the Joker’s destructive ones are foiled by Batman. Batman comes to understand that he must take on both roles: he saves Gotham from the Joker but to protect Dent’s legacy, casts himself as the villain. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) observes at the conclusion of the film that “Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now”. He accepts both roles, becomes a combination of hero and anti-hero.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the conclusion of the cinematic opera. Here, Nolan explores questions of humanity and the superhero, what unifies them and what separates them. The central theme that shapes this final instalment is an examination of the role of transformation in the identity of Batman.
The film returns to the origins of Batman and the sacrifices Bruce Wayne made in becoming him. Batman cannot be corrupted – he is a symbol, so can be any man. But in creating the symbol Wayne willingly became it, shedding his humanity in pursuit of a higher good. Indeed, his joke at the masked ball that he has come as Bruce Wayne yields more than a grain of truth. Wayne is now the mask, Batman the true persona.
Throughout the trilogy, Wayne speaks of a time when he can do away with the cape, once again become the man. In Batman Begins, he extracts a promise from Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) that they can be together once Batman is no more. In The Dark Knight, he is convinced Dent will allow him to achieve this. Only in the final instalment does he come to accept what he must do to achieve this transformation. This film encapsulates Wayne’s reawakening, stepping back from the impossible humanity of the symbol and reclaiming his humanity. As Batman, he fears nothing, not even death, but to become Bruce Wayne again, he must re-find his fear. When he is trapped inside The Pit by Bane (Tom Hardy), a fellow, blind prisoner asks him: “How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?”
The message here is clear: only a man who fears death can extract every promise from life. In escaping The Pit, Bruce Wayne re-finds his fear of death and uses the strength it gives him to overcome Bane. But he discovers he can also use it to overcome the inhumanity of Batman.
Thus Nolan’s trilogy reaches the conclusion of its story arc, exploring with extraordinary thoroughness the many complexities of the Batman mythology. We have seen both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight many times and found that they improve with each viewing, revealing fractal detail with every iteration: 5 stars. The Dark Knight Rises is most certainly a worthy conclusion, but having seen it only once we will reserve final judgment until subsequent viewings: 4 stars.