Like many eagerly awaiting the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I grew up reading Batman comics, watching the cartoons and television series, and suffering through different silver screen interpretations before finding “Batman Begins” in 2005 and the start of director Christopher Nolan’s three-part masterpiece. In anticipation of the beginning of the end, I wanted to briefly share why I believe Nolan’s trilogy is a work of art and a chilling reflection of the times we live in. As a disclaimer, I won’t compare Nolan’s interpretation to that of the original comics or the other movies; I will only look at Nolan’s work in a vacuum and make no inferences outside of what he’s created on screen. There are also many angles from which to analyze Nolan’s work, so I’ll focus on what I believe to be the main geopolitical themes alluded to in the movies.
Part I, Batman Begins: “The Narrows is Lost“
The overarching theme of this first piece of the trilogy is that a global organization – The League of Shadows – elects to exact vengeance on Gotham for its excesses. While the surface of the movie seeks to depict the upbringing, riches, and tragedy encountered by a young Bruce Wayne, the main undercurrent running through this film is a crude analog to how some global terrorist organizations viewed many aspects of western culture and opulence. Led by Ra’s al Ghul (or Mile Ducard, depending on your reading), The League plans a highly-coordinate attack to contaminate and poison the water supply of Gotham. Sounds eerily familiar to an event New York City suffered through a few years earlier. In Nolan’s Gotham, the authorities are so corrupt that even society’s winners, like the Wayne’s, are left exposed. And in the seediest part of the city, the underworld led by a mafia don smuggling and peddling drugs to armies of vigilantes who have lost all hope, The League works with a scientist named Crane to achieve two goals: weaponize a biological compound, and release the prisoners buried in the city’s most dangerous jail cells, Arkham Asylum. As the inmates enter into the streets, Gotham’s era of complacency is obliterated. The cops and district attorneys are either bought off or incapable of fighting back. The balance had been upset, chaos begins to replace order, and one inmate in particular has already hinted at his plans to organize and unleash some of that chaos in a manner that further disrupts the balance of society. At the end of Begins, we see a Gotham caught off guard by a problem it had shoved below ground, out of sight, where it was able to fester, grow, and gain resolve, so much so that it couldn’t be stopped by traditional authorities. Thus, the stage for The Dark Knight was set…
Part II, The Dark Knight: “When Things Go According to Plan“
The overarching theme of The Dark Knight is the tension between Batman (and the authorities) and the movie’s classic antagonist, The Joker, played in a performance for the ages by Heath Ledger. Having escaped Arkham and honed his skills in the Narrows, The Joker roamed Gotham as a vigilante without a cause, killing innocents and criminals without rhyme or reason while simultaneously trying to bury his painful and abusive past. Nolan’s villain embodies a comic book terrorist, someone who can be both cunning and whimsical, torturing subjects at will. The Joker is motivated by cheap thrills that can be leveraged into creating chaos. Nolan set this up as a classic battle between order, governance, and good versus chaos, terrorism, and evil. Note that the Joker wouldn’t kill Batman despite his chances, but rather wanted to unmask him, to let Gotham see Batman’s real face — to expose his charade to the people of the city. For me, the classic scene in this movie is when the Joker planned to get caught by the police, went to jail, organized former crazy inmates, and figured out a way to not only escape again, but also to set a trap for Batman and two people he needed to protect. The parallels to America’s foreign policy decisions over the first decade of the 21st century are too obvious to ignore. And, even though the Joker was taken care of, Gotham again lost its hope, its venerated district attorney turned to the dark side before dying, and Nolan leaves you wondering how Batman will be received in the finale, with a strong hint that Batman will fall on his sword and have the public he protects turn on him in order to galvanize faith in the normal system of governance.
Part III, The Dark Knight Rises: “Gotham’s Reckoning”
The main theme in Nolan’s finale deals with matters related to systems of governance. In The Dark Knight, Nolan’s antagonist – The Joker – attempts to disrupt the political status quo by using armies of vigilantes and escapees from Arkham to do things that don’t go according to plan. Chaos replaces order. While the Joker is trying to prove a point about the shortcomings of traditional governance, he is able to only temporarily consolidate power amongst those who seek an alternative before they, too, show him the limits of nihilist allegiances. Now, in The Dark Knight Rises, the new antagonist – Bane – comes to Gotham to, one and for all, finish the work of The League of Shadows.
Bane, unlike the Joker, has a plan. And, it’s detailed. He first strikes at Wayne Enterprises through a financial attack on their holdings. He consolidates power in the tunnels that stretch out from the Narrows, rife with vigilantes who can’t survive above ground, and where traditional authorities dare not govern. He works with financial executives and unions to lace drums of cement mixing materials with explosives, set to detonate in spectacular fashion. Bane wants to publicly overthrow Gotham’s government, proclaiming they’ve failed the people over and over again, and gone so far as to trick them into believing in their power. Instead, he wants the people of Gotham to have more responsibility over their lives.
The great irony of Bane’s reign, however, is that it was tyrannical. It wasn’t just destruction of the old order – it was a replacement with a new order. A new order that publicly tried the rich and the corrupt, trials that ended in punishments in the form of drowning in ice water. It meant people stayed at home, quiet. Waiting. The authorities were trapped below in a cave of concrete. The streets barely saw activity. Gotham was engulfed in quiet anticipation.
In the grande finale, Nolan’s exposes the limits of Batman’s physical and moral powers. Nolan, again, leaves his Gotham believing in a hero that has passed away. Positive martyrdom, to give the citizens hope in tomorrow. They will now have to rebuild their city. They will vote new people into office. New classes of criminals will be born, some directly into exile, or maybe even in the tunnels. What kind of life will they have? What will the affluent do with their wealth? How militant will the authorities be with those who are less fortunate?
The story Nolan tell is encompasses the cycles of civilization. In the long-run, there is no consistent order. A force of good and justice, like Batman, despite all his skills and resources, can only go so far, and for so long. Evil always lurks beneath the shadows, constantly mutating to adapt to the times. At the end of the day, it’s up to the people to take direct control and responsibility of their lives, their governance, and tomorrow. The rest will be history. That is Nolan’s main message as he closes out what is undeniably one of the greatest trilogies in modern theater, and has touched a chord with so many fans because he has told a long story that truly reflect the transformative and uncertain times we live in.