Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy has accomplished many great things over the span of its run from 2005 to 2012. Nolan’s trilogy recreated the comic book movie genre, allowed for the most popular movie villain of this decade, successfully revitalized a dying hero and gave us one of the greatest movie sequels ever. However all of these pale in comparison to Nolan’s greatest victory: the successful changing of someone’s mind.
Before I saw Batman Begins I had two resolutions:
1. Batman was a lame hero. My friends and I could not relate to him like we could with Spider-Man, who tried to date cute high-school girls, was kind of a dork, and had fun being a mutant-spider-kid. Bruce Wayne was as emotionally cool and brooding as Wolverine, but come on, the man was a genius, billionaire playboy, something Wolverine never had as a crutch and something that Tony Stark wore brashly on his sleeve. Lastly, he was not awesome like the epic Superman.
2. I did not want to see Batman Begins. This was partly because at age 14, the trailers for the movie had given a very good indication of what the film would be like: dark. I did not thing I would like a movie so dark, nor a hero as dark as Batman. The movie did well but I still did not care to see it. Not until my father rented it for me to watch, assuring me it was a good movie, did I give it a try.
Seven years later, I consider Batman to be my favorite hero and all three of the movies are in my Top 10. So what happened along the way?
The Gotham Next Door
There are a few defining characteristics of the Dark Knight movies that separates them from all other superhero movies. One of those is the gritty realism that each film adheres to. Part of this is due to Batman as a hero and the fictional world he inhabits. Gotham is not a Metropolis or Spidey’s New York. The name is the only blatantly fictional element about it. The city is a dark, foreboding, dangerous and real. No supernatural heroes or villains exist to fight for this city’s soul. The fight between the damnation and the redemption of this city is left to regular people, as in the real world (sort of; look to the Afterword for more on this). Mayors, policeman, citizens and petty criminals are all part of a huge war in these films, not one supernatural figure versus another.
Batman may be a billionaire, playboy genius but that is all he is (I recognize the humor in that statement). His scientist pal, Lucius Fox, oversees the creation of some fairly amazing inventions but none of them are as otherworldly as an Iron-Man suit and each of them are grounded in reality. For example, Batman’s morally mucky gadget at the end of The Dark Knight, the one that uses every cell phone in the city as a means to track the Joker, is fictional, but only barely so. The contraption’s implications also come across loud and clear to an audience who lives in the post-9-11 era.
The villains of Batman are horrific, and part of the horror is that we recognize them as only slightly beyond the realm of reality. There are no green power-ranger goblins, no “god”-like powers, and certainly no overdose of radiation that creates these villainous figures. No, they are far more sinister. The villains are ideologically driven ”good guys”, judges, crime lords, psychiatrists and oft-kilter lunatics. The Joker was imitated by the insane James Holmes in the Aurora theater shooting a few months ago, but what made the Joker so horrific was that we all recognized that he existed before Ledger took upon that role. Enough murderers, serial killers and insane bombers had been around for us to see the semblances of them in the uncanny Joker. And the weapons of the villains also strike closer to home. They prefer the efficient means of gasoline, crashing planes and trains, assaulting public spaces, the influence of bought-off government officials and the power of a simple, deadly bullet.
Gotham, its citizens, its heroes, and its villains are presented to us with a straight face. They are a city we all recognize, with villains who we fear far more than any Norse god or mutant being. The stakes are far higher.
The Hero Gotham Doesn’t Deserve
But of course, the Dark Knight movies focus on one thing in particular: The Dark Knight. In some ways, Batman has always struck me as the super-hero equivalent of Moses. He is born into the super-elite, and after abusing his privileges and losing his way, returns to set “his people free” from those he once called “brothers”. A defining mark of Batman is his genuine, deep love for the people of Gotham. Spider-Man’s arc echoed the theme that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Most other superhero films simply take for granted that if you have great power, you are indebted with using it for the good of others. With Batman, there remains a little of that theme, but it’s not for the general well-being of humanity or simply because he has a duty to be a hero that drives Batman to do what he does. Rather, Bruce Wayne takes upon the cowl due to an undying affection for the people of Gotham, for the suffering, the afflicted and the oppressed.
Look at the way that Batman is challenged over the course of the three films:
1. Batman Begins: Villain: Gotham is too corrupt and does not deserve a second chance. It must be wiped out. Batman disagrees, steps in and fights the “good guys” in order to save his dark, dirty city.
2. The Dark Knight: There is no truth or “goodness”, so why fight? All is corruptible, but most importantly, all is chaos. The soul of the city is at stake between the chaotic grip of a madmen or the hold of a hero. In the end, the hero takes the fall for all the “sin” of the city in order to stop the madman.
3. The Dark Knight Rises: Look at how your people have rejected you; they, more than ever, are not worthy of life. The city must be destroyed, once and for all. Batman is broken, but rises up to save his lost city once more, this time for all to see.
There are Biblical themes galore in the arc of Batman, and those are all worth of inspection, and all serve as reasons for why I love the movies, but neither of them will be discussed in length here. Except for one. The reason Batman is such a powerful hero, and the movies so resonant, is that they so clearly represent the greatest epic being told. The Dark Knight movies dimly echo the story of a Savior who wages war against utter wickedness and those who deem themselves as righteous, and who loves a lost, broken, hurting people with such passion that He takes a cross for them rather than leave them to the chaotic and hellish end that is coming upon them.
Batman loses everything he holds dear in his fight against the darkness that seeks to engulf the city in flames, but his sacrifice is worth it. The singular reason why I love this trilogy so much is that the evil is strong, real and horrific, the world gritty, familiar and close-to-home, but the resolution perfectly clear: evil and darkness will never ultimately triumph. I find it no mistake that the final end to Gotham’s plaguing evil occurs at dawn in the end of the third film. For a trilogy so steeped in darkness, in content, in color, in scenery and in setting, the final act of the grand finale occurs at daybreak.
Ironically, the reason I love The Dark Knight Trilogy so much is that in the end, the light triumphs over the darkness. Courage downs fear, truth absolves chaos, and love outdoes hate. It is a hard path, filled with violence, madness, and grief along the way, but the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.
“The night is always darkest just before the dawn. I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
- Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
Afterword: When I say the fight for a city’s soul is left to “real people” I am not discounting the spiritual war going on nor the fact that true victory is achieved through the work of God. I mean only that God does not give us supernatural heroes to fight the earthly battles for us; we are called to take this upon ourselves, much in the way Batman, Jim Gordon, John Blake and others do. So my point was not an entirely humanistic one, but an admission that in our world, as in Batman’s world, normal people are called to rise to the task and bear responsibility for their city.