If you really want to watch superhero flicks, just sit down with the Dark Knight trilogy. Christopher Nolan blends low art summer blockbuster entertainment with cerebral depth in all three movies in his Dark Knight trilogy, straddling the line between frivolous entertainment and Gesamtkunstwerk (that is, a synthesis of the arts, or total work of art).
I’m a fan of the notion that great art comes from compromise: whether limit on topics, subject matter, tools at hand, techniques, time, and more. Restrictions breed creativity, like the wacky situations (and solutions) MacGuyver faced week in, week out. Nolan taking on Batman films for Legendary Pictures and DC Comics, for (((Warner Bros.))) Pictures certainly bound his hands, and forced him to work within a predetermined box (or comic pane, if you will).
The Box of Batman
Batman is a comic book super hero from the 1930’s, the era of economic depression and FDR‘s “progressive”, “temporary” social programs that totally went away after they ran their course, like Social Security. (If you’ve had your identity stolen, like me, then you really appreciate the Social Security system.)
Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, two New York Jews chasing the success of Superman. Batman was to be an addition to the nascent “superhero” genre, which reflected a distinctly Jewish world view, which is best exemplified by Superman:
Superman is a metaphor for the writers. Superman is an alien from another world (read: immigrant), who has superpowers (read: he’s special, he’s Jewish), and who has a moral responsibility to save people by rescuing them from threats both physical and ideological (read: save people by writing stories to color their view of the world to the correct one.)
Clark Kent was a dweeb (like the writers), but underneath it all, he was a superhuman (Jew).
Batman mirrored characters like The Phantom, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel with the trappings of Superman to peddle more comics to eager readers in New York. (Funnily, the film industry began with fierce feuding between Edison and his new projection technology and Jews running Nickelodeons in New York. Both sides went as far as to have hired hands fight in the streets and burn down theatres. It was brutal. So brutal, in fact, that the Jews all escaped out of New York and went as far away as they could go: Hollywood. They founded many of the household names of the movie industry we know today: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal Studios, and so on. You could argue the Jews that stayed in New York were Hollywood rejects with Hollywood aspirations. It’s so quaint that the comics industry and movie industry merged so seamlessly, exemplified by the Disney purchase of Marvel in 2013.)
Batman, although created by Jews, was by no means a Superman. Superman was just born Jewish an alien with superpowers. Batman, on the other hand, was a badass. And, as the Batman mythos grew through different authors, Batman’s superpower became money: lots and lots of money. Similar to how Lex Luthor (Superman’s goyish arch-nemesis) was a dude with lots and lots of money.
Other authors, notably goyish, would change Batman’s “superpower” from just money and gadgets to money, gadgets, and superhuman willpower. It was the *will to power that defined Batman by the time pivotal Batman comics came out, interestingly penned by goys: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller), The Killing Joke (Alan Moore), Arkham Asylum (Grant Morrison), and more. A framework for Batman was built and morphed from distinctly Jewish sensibilities to distinctly goyish sensibilities.
Why all this talk about Jews and goyim?
Christopher Nolan is a goy. Nolan’s Batman films are (almost entirely) free of typical Jewish tropes that bleed into most every movie that you see in theatres (especially big, surefire hit blockbusters). The themes Christopher Nolan explores in The Dark Knight Trilogy include the timeless themes that permeate the Western tradition: Honor, Truth, and Heroism. These themes are classic goyish fare that we can see in older works of the Occident, like the Odyssey.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy takes the goyish parts of Batman and try to take the character beyond his pulp comic roots into something more “real”, visceral, believable, and relatable, while simultaneously elevating Batman to myth, a living symbol for our time. Nolan works the tools and characters of our time within a medium of our time, in order to tell an old story.
By working in the box of Batman, Nolan walks the line between mindless drivel and Gersamtkunstwerk to success. And yes, you should see it. In fact, you better have seen the entire trilogy because…
SPOILERS LIE AHEAD
The Dark Knight Trilogy Story
Now comes the obligatory plot synopsis part of the review. Since this review covers the entire trilogy, I will tell the trilogy’s story in one fell swoop.
Batman Begins, well, begins Bruce’s story and his transformation into Batman: it shows basically all the relevant events in Bruce’s life (in pop-psychology fashion, unfortunately—but the entire trilogy is working within the bounds of blockbuster movies). Batman Begins shows Bruce’s fall down the well, his traumatic event with bats, the rescue via his dad, his parents’ murder, and his training under Ducard (which we later find out is Ra’s Al Ghul) as part of the League of Shadows.
Bruce rejects the final step of his initiation, killing a murderer, and makes a patently ridiculous escape before returning to Gotham to become Batman. Batman works to fight crime, (Carmine Falcone, then Dr. Crane/Scarecrow) and uncovers none other than The League of Shadows working to destroy Gotham. Batman stops them, but only after killing Ra’s Al Ghul. No, wait, Batman didn’t technically kill Ra’s Al Ghul…
I won’t kill you… but I don’t have to save you.
We call that a crime where I’m from, but Batman needs to justify his cruel act, to both himself and normie moviegoers. The movie ends with Rachel Dawes discovering Batman is Bruce Wayne, and telling him something along the line of ‘Dude, as long as you’re Batman, we won’t be together. Once you lose the cape, we can start a family.’
That moment is huge for the series, not only because it sets the stakes which make the other two movies’ plots believable, but because it establishes the depth of the sacrifice Bruce makes to be Batman: he is giving up a family, a genetic legacy for a different kind of legacy: Batman’s. Finally, Batman Begins ends with a STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT MOVIE, BECAUSE IT’LL FEATURE THE JOKER message in the form of a playing card. Get it? Nolan made Batman Begins end with a beginning!11!!1!!1
The Dark Knight is the series’ best movie. It is also the most independent movie. (That is, if I was to show one movie from the trilogy to somebody, it would be The Dark Knight). Even the trilogy gets it name from The Dark Knight.
Things pick up right where Batman Begins teased the series was going: to Jokerville. The film opens with a glorious action scene (in IMAX nonetheless) showing a well-choreographed bank heist where the Joker double-crosses his allies. (Reading from the Ra’s Al Ghul playbook I see.) Batman gets introduced with a less impressive action scene, but at least he catches Scarecrow.
Rachel fell for another man while Bruce masqueraded around as Batman: Harvey Dent. Harvey Dent is an up and coming prosecutor with the balls to take on the Mob. Bruce fights the Mob exclusively, until the Joker makes himself known via a few very public antics, mostly involving murder.
The violence escalates quickly, with Batman getting brutal, Dent getting murderous, and Gordon seemingly dying. (A few minutes later, we realize Gordon faked his own death.) The Joker lies to Batman, telling him to choose between saving Rachel or Harvey, and flipping the addresses each of them are at. Bruce races to save Rachel, but finds Harvey Dent. Rachel dies, and Harvey ends up disfigured, now looking like Two Face. The Joker finds Harvey in the hospital and gives Harvey the little push that completes his transformation into Two Face.
Two Face runs amok, exacting revenge on those responsible for Rachel’s death, while Joker sets a big boat plan in motion, and Batman conducts a high-tech manhunt for Joker. The “little people of Gotham” are so inept, they fail at fulfilling the Joker’s plans. Batman stops Joker from blowing both ships himself, and apprehends him. Two Face takes Gordon’s family hostage and threatens to kill Gordon’s son. Batman shows up and inadvertently kills Two Face, thus Harvey. It’s a step up from Ra’s Al Ghul’s death at the end of Batman Begins.
Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight to put a bookend to his Batman movies because he wasn’t sure if he would get the opportunity to make the third installment in the series. It’s obvious when you see The Dark Knight that it ended at the end of the movie.
The Dark Knight Rises reintroduces us to the world of Batman many years later (eight to be exact.) The film is the most plot-heavy and character-dense of the trilogy, as it ties up the entire trilogy and introduces a whole new cast of villains, a few returning villains, Selina Kyle (Catwoman), and John Blake (or Robin Blake). The Dark Knight Rises also borrows heavily from The Dark Knight Returns. (Funnily, Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice looks to borrow heavily from the same source material.)
We’re back, Batman is back, and the League of Shadows are back, but we don’t know that at first. Batman quit and Bruce shied away from society because Rachel Dawes was basically his only connection to it. The central issue in Bruce’s head during the movie is ‘what’s the point of being Batman for such a shitty city?’ These thoughts are mirrored by Alfred and Catwoman throughout the film.
The film opens with the most ridiculous (and awesome) action scene in the entire trilogy, The Great Bane Plane Crash™. We see what a Batman-style badass Bane is, that he has devoted followers (“They expect one of us in the wreckage, brother!”), and that, “the fire rises.” We meet Catwoman and a few business stooges as well as get to know Bruce’s sorry state. (Man, Bruce really has a way of holding onto past emotional trauma.)
Bruce isn’t the only person is a sorry state. Gordon is all washed up too (and managed to separate from his family). Only the new character of John Blake has the energy to take on criminals. He not only convinces Bruce Wayne to pick up the Batmantle again, he gets himself promoted to Detective, and, later in the film, helps mobilize the trapped police force during anarchic Gotham.
Batman comes out of retirement to chase Bane. Catwoman betrays Batman, then discovers that Batman is Bruce Wayne, before seeing the Backbreaking Bane Beatdown™. Bane is the new leader of the resurgent League of Shadows. Bruce ends up immobilized in a prison pit, condemned to watching Bane reduce Gotham to anarchy, then a nuclear shadow.
But, Bruce aims to climb out of the pit, which mirrors the well little Bruce fell into in Batman Begins. (We’ll touch on that later.) As Bruce works up the ability to climb out, he learns of Bane’s past as the only person who ever escaped the prison. In one of the series’ most powerful scenes, Bruce climbs out of the pit. He returns to Gotham.
When Bruce was gone, a sick Gordon and a healthy, but inexperienced Blake work to keep communications with the cops open and plan to stop Bane and the League of Shadows. Still, Bane successfully caused Gotham to eat itself, like Joker predicted it would.
Batman makes his triumphant return, then takes on Bane and his army as Batman leading an army of cops (eyeroll). The final battle for Gotham ensues. We find out Miranda Tate, who worked with Bruce in and out of the bedroom, is in fact not only Talia Al Ghul and the leader of the League of Shadows, but the child who escaped from the pit prison. Bane was only her protector, which directly led to his mask, as a way to administer painkiller. Poor guy.
Bane sheds a tear, then sets off to kill Batman. We can assume he would have destroyed Bats, but Catwoman appears and missiles Bane to oblivion, uttering another throwaway line, but that has more significance at showing that Batman’s villains have surpassed Batman. Only deadly weapons would have saved Bruce from Death by Bane™. Batman seemingly kills himself to get the atom bomb out of Gotham, but Bruce and Selina escape to some kind of life after Gotham.
Summer Blockbuster and Myth
All films in The Dark Knight trilogy share:
- Hans Zimmer‘s signature music style (which gets me pumped).
- Christian Bale as a good Bruce Wayne and Batman. (I think his *much-lampooned Batman voice is fine.)
- Some kind of “gotcha!” plot twist involving revealing character histories and outcomes (Ducard is the real Ra’s, Harvey was where Rachel was supposed to be, and Miranda Tate is Talia Al Ghul/escaped the pit).
- Few classic summer blockbuster (eye-rolling) one-liners.
- The ever-likeable (and visibly aged) Michael Caine as Alfred. He adds much-needed warmth to these oft blue-filtered, cold films.
- Grand action set pieces (the train at the end of Begins, the bank heist at the start of Dark Knight, and the plane Bane insanity at the start of Rises.)
- None of the villains are directly inspired by Nazis (see: Star Wars, and Marvel Films for comparison.)
The Dark Knight trilogy features a number of recurring symbols and themes. What follows are a few that stood out to me.
Money Ain’t a Thang
Of course not. He thought our plan was to hold the city for ransom.
– Ra’s Al Ghul, on Scarecrow’s cooperation with the League of Shadows in Batman Begins
The League of Shadows used Scarecrow as a tool in their plan to destroy Gotham.
All you care about is money … Gotham deserves a better class of criminal, and I’m going to give it to them … It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message: everything burns.
–The Joker, The Dark Knight
The Joker manipulates men chasing money (basically, gangsters), to achieve his own goals.
And this gives you power over me? Your money and infrastructure have been important… until now.
–Bane, The Dark Knight Rises
Bane played the greed of underhanded businessmen to gain access to their resources so he could twist it to his ends: the destruction of Gotham.
Money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. A society full of people that value material riches and money above all else is a hopelessly decadent society. That’s what Gotham is. Seemingly, the only people that can use money as a means to a greater end are the heroes and villains of the story.
The Battle Over the ‘Greater Good’
Ra’s Al Ghul, The Joker, and Bane are exceptional people, much like Bruce Wayne. Ra’s Al Ghul, The Joker, and Bane clearly delve way into moral ambiguity, as does Bruce. However, the ideals held by Batman versus his villains are where the heart of the conflicts lie.
The cyclical view of civilization is viewed as Law by Traditionalists, like the League of Shadows. (From here on out, I’ll collectively refer to Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane as the League of Shadows). My favorite way to introduce the cyclical view of civilization is with Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire art series. It details the birth and death of a civilization in five stages: The Savage State, The Arcadian (or Pastoral) State, Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. Gotham slowly sinks into the Destruction phase, but the League of Shadows seek to hasten the destruction, in order to get to the whole rebuilding part.
Batman thinks he can reverse the Course of Empire, to stop the wheels of time by himself, by way of vigilantism, thus sacrificing marriage and family with Rachel (then later, her life), breaking his body and even losing all his money.
The conflict between Batman and the League of Shadows is compelling because it boils down well: Batman wants to save Gotham; the League wants to destroy it. But, go anywhere beyond the surface and you’ll uncover something interesting.
The real conflict with Batman and the League of Shadows in the Dark Knight trilogy is a matter of definition. No, not just the definition of ‘Greater Good’, but simply ‘Greater’. I think Batman and the League agree on what Good is: what’s best for the people of Gotham (lack of crime, safety, order, etc.). What Batman and the League don’t agree on is what ‘Greater’ means.
To Bruce, Greater is the amount of living Gothamites. To Batman, the ‘Greater Good’ is to save the living Gothamites from the wrath of the League of Shadows. In contrast, the League of Shadows’ Greater is a matter of timescale. To the League of Shadows, ‘Greater Good’ is to save the future of Gotham in future generations, the vast majority of living Gothamites notwithstanding.
The Well and the Prison
We watch Lil’ Bruce Wayne fall down a well as a child in Batman Begins. He is saved by his father.
We watch Bane introduce Bruce to his new prison home in The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce saves himself.
By climbing out of the prison himself, Bruce finally overcomes his bat-related childhood trauma, thus ending his “bats frighten me” justification for Batman—which kills his personal need for Batman (note: this is separate from Gotham’s need for Batman).
TLDR; The Dark Knight Trilogy is the story of Bruce Wayne sacrificing himself to help Gotham, only to realize that he has better things to do with his life than to give it away to help undeserving people.
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, specifically when Bruce climbs out of the prison, he sheds his stupid egalitarian mindset and adopts hedonism as his goal. Unfortunately, hedonism is not a higher goal than the ideals that Batman’s villains fought for. But the final movie is called The Dark Knight Rises. If Bruce Wayne lost his idealism, then how did The Dark Knight Rise?
Christopher Nolan tells us that hedonism, as decadent and degenerate as it is, is a step up from egalitarianism. There may be a higher ideal, specifically that of Batman’s enemies, but Nolan doesn’t explore that much, other than to say, “all of Batman’s villains had the right idea: Gotham is doomed.” At the end of the trilogy, Bruce realized that Ra’s was right. The Joker was right. Bane was right. The Dark Knight rose from being a man to being a symbol, to a mantle that certain capable men can adopt: to begin a tradition. Bruce rose above his egalitarianism, joined with Catwoman for some kind of future together, and left Gotham.
Bruce told Gotham, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”