As always, I’m going to mention that there will be major spoilers in this discussion, except for The Dark Knight Rises since I know that not everybody has had a chance to see it yet. I will definitely be going into some plot details in The Dark Knight Rises that aren’t necessarily spoilers, but I know that plenty of people have been trying to know as little about the film as possible so that they can have a clean experience with it, so be advised on that regard. If you haven’t seen the other two movies (But seriously, who hasn’t?) they’re available wherever DVDs are sold or rentable.
With that being said, let’s glide across Gothan to analyze Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy…
“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.”
Christopher Nolan landed his gig as the director of Batman Begins after his independent film Memento took Sundance by storm and his first studio picture Insomnia showed the potential he had with a bigger budget and more expensive actors. Nolan was always very talented when it came to gritty noir with unique twists sprung into them (The non-linear narrative of Following, the reverse chronology of Memento, the moral ambiguity of Insomnia), so Nolan was definitely an inspired choice when it came to who should revive the Batman franchise. However, nobody could’ve expected the vision that Nolan would bring to one of the definitive superheroes of all time.
What Nolan did with the Batman mythos was something that was never before done in the superhero genre: He took the comic book trappings of the genre, threw them out, and grounded the film in a level of reality that was never before seen in a film like this. Batman Begins was less concerned with the style, the gadgets, and the mood; and instead, an emphasis was put on Bruce Wayne. What drove Bruce Wayne to becoming the Batman? What motivates him to putting an end to villainry?
Say what you will about the previous Batman films directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, but none of them have had the same insight into the character of Batman that Nolan’s films do. Bruce Wayne actually acts like an actual human being, and Nolan achieves the impossible by making his transformation into a caped crusader that dresses up as a bat as believable as humanly possible.
However, while Batman Begins was the most realistic and gritty superhero to ever be realized at the time, it was still pretty stylized. The city of Gotham still had a Gothic, Burton-esque feel to it. It wasn’t until The Dark Knight, however, that the style became completely unartificial and the entire movie was grounded in realism. There’s really nothing about The Dark Knight that screams fantasy. Even some of the technology, like Lucius Fox’s cellphone sonar machine, at the very least fits the universe. The Dark Knight is the perfect marriage of comic book techniques and realism, and the balance is eloquently achieved.
Throughout this whole retrospective, I’ve noted the connections that each Nolan film has, and one of the most consistent thematic callbacks in his work is that each and every one of his films (And I mean every single one) contains the same basic character type for every protagonist: The specialist who holds professionalism as the highest virtue, but is brought to his downfall by emotional interference. This particular trait that connects all of Nolan’s films makes it easy to see why he was so interested in showing the true side of Batman: He fits that trait to a tee, almost even embodies it.
Like all superheroes who keep their identities secret, Bruce Wayne relies on a specific order in order to keep balance with his life. He acts out of a true sense of justice, but never out of personal vengeance. When things do become personal, however, that’s when problems arise for him. This includes the moments before he becomes the Batman when he is intent on exacting revenge on the man that killed his parents, then in the sequel when the Joker and Two-Face attempt to hurt the people he personally cares about, and then finally in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane brings Gotham to the dark ages just to see Batman squirm as he’s unable to save it.
That doesn’t just apply to Batman, however. There are tons of characters who end up being corrupted by emotional guilt. The one that comes to mind the most is Harvey Dent, who is literally brought into the realm of chaos when he loses the love of his life. In the Nolan universe, emotional guilt is a powerful force that can corrupt even the cleanest of souls, and the Batman films epitomize these sorts of characters.
The other thing worth noting about this trilogy is that each of the films get progressively more apocalyptic with each subsequent film. In Batman Begins, Gotham is already down in the dumps, but Batman is able to salvage it and put a damper on organized crime by the end. In The Dark Knight, the Joker almost makes things worse by attempting to bring innocent civilians down to his level of insanity. The Dark Knight Rises puts a cap on this by having a villain that actually succeeds at what the Joker failed to do, and truly bringing all of Gotham down into a state of apocalyptic despair.
It’s almost like the more things end up getting better for Gotham, they’re all brought down worse than before. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, as they say. This creates a true sense of menace that is unlike any other superhero franchise. There’s a reason why people are more interested in the villains of the Batman mythology than Batman himself. They’re genuinely terrifying, and Nolan truly emphasizes this fact.
They’re not just comic book villains, attempting to take over the world. While their plans may be on a smaller scale than most comic book villains, they’re actually scarier because of how specific they are. The villains are here to test the endurance of the human soul rather than achieve some sort of global domination, and that ironically makes them the most menacing villains in superhero movie history: They don’t just do menacing things; they reveal menacing things about ourselves. That is the true apocalyptic nightmare.
The other primary themes that I’ve been looking at throughout this retrospective were two that can be found in almost all of his work: The relationship between order and chaos, and the untrustworthiness of subjective perception and how it shapes objective reality. Last time, I discussed how Inception epitomized the latter theme. The Dark Knight trilogy, however, epitomizes the former. The Dark Knight trilogy is less about the conflict between good and evil, due to its moral ambiguity. Rather, it’s more concerned with the conflict between order and chaos. At first, it shouldn’t be hard to grasp. The good guy represents order, the bad guy represents chaos, case closed, right? Well it’s more complicated than that.
An agent of chaos requires order. Conversely, an paradigm of order must get his hands dirty every once in a while. The ambiguity on what constitutes which really blurs throughout this series. Each villain in the series from Scarecrow to Joker to Bane has chaos on their mind, but there’s more to them than that. In trying to stoop all of Gotham City down into their realm of chaos, then it wouldn’t be chaos, would it? Chaos doesn’t just refer to confusion and destruction. Chaos refers to a disruption in order, something that doesn’t fit in the ordinary realm of things.
However, if chaos was all that there ever was, would it even fit under the category of chaos? What the villains of the Batman series are attempting to do is to create a new order through chaos. By creating chaos on a mass scale, and sustaining it by bringing it out of the hearts of even the most innocent civilians, the chaos will become so plentiful that it will crystalize into a new order.
Even then, we see Gotham in the brink of consistent chaos throughout the first movie, and then in the third film, Bane succeeds in plunging all of Gotham into his vision of chaos. Does that chaos become order when it takes over? Is Batman the instrument of order that Gotham needs to be saved, or is he now the chaos that balances it all out? In the Batman films, it’s never as simple as “one is this and the other is that”.
The purest form of this theme is in the second film, The Dark Knight. We have a clear instrument of order (Batman), a pure harbinger of chaos (Joker), and in between the two of them is Harvey Dent, who begins as a white knight of order but descends into chaos when he realizes what sacrifices order must bring. His corruption not only ties into the character archetype that Nolan is obsessed with using, Harvey Dent’s arc is a perfect summation of the trilogy’s theme of order and chaos.
And that arc is perfectly summarized by the image of Harvey Dent’s lucky coin. Before, it’s double-sided to have both heads, allowing him to achieve a state of order. After the incident that kills the love of his life, though, that symbol of order is literally corrupted when one of the heads is burnt, creating an image of chance or, more appropriately, chaos. All humans have the capacity for terrible things within them, but when you give yourselves over to chaos, and begin to perceive it as the new order, that capacity reaches its true potential.
So what truly defines order and chaos? Is it the capacity to commit atrocities? Is it the lengths one would go for justice? Or does it tie into the second theme found in Nolan’s filmography: That subjective perception can change objective reality, or even who you are as an individual? Much like the theme of Inception, Nolan suggests that a simple idea can change your state of mind. That idea can be anything, including chaos or order. And depending on your perception, order can mean chaos and vice versa. The line between order and chaos is defined by our perceptions, our state of minds, and our ideals. Nothing is ever black or white, hell, the alternate title for our hero is The Dark Knight, which would normally sound menacing.
Such is the plight of the Batman. He exists for justice, but whether he executes it through the means of chaos or order is left up for debate. Especially in the end of the second film leading to the beginning of the third, everyone is convinced he’s the villain because of his lie about the true nature of Harvey Dent. He has to employ some chaos just so he can keep the order sustained. He’s the shadow that fights for light. An agent of darkness that sees the truth. He’s the hero that the world deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
And you know what? The same can apply to Christopher Nolan as well. He reveals truths by shrouding them in mystery. He makes us truly think about the plights of his characters so that we can also think critically about the ones that conflict in ourselves. He takes us through existential and physical hells so that we can see the light more clearly. And his Dark Knight trilogy is the perfect summation of what makes his films so special (Even the third film, which I wasn’t too crazy for). They’re all both intelligent and filled with spectacle. They thrill us, but at the same time, they allow us to think about the darkness within ourselves. Christopher Nolan is a director that, no matter your opinion of him, can not be replicated. He’s truly one of a kind, and his varied filmography shows that in spades.