With less than a month to go until the concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the series thus far, and maybe throw in a little educated guess-work about what can be expected on July 20th.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you live on planet Earth, and have therefore heard of this series. If you haven’t seen the first two films for some reason, you have a little less than 30 days to catch up to the rest of us. And trust me, you really should, because even though the last decade or so has been dominated by the ‘superhero’ film as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned, it’s safe to say that this trilogy does a pretty great job of standing out from the crowd. Fondly dubbed The Dark Knight Trilogy or The Dark Knight Saga by fans, which has a distinctly Star Wars ring to it if you ask me, the soon to be completed set can be held responsible for engraving the word ‘transcendant’ into the vocabulary of the casual movie-goer, because in all honesty, even an entire decade after the comicbook movie craze began to sweep the globe, Nolan’s films not only go further than most in the genre, but they also manage to stand on their own as great works of cinema.
After the distater that was the 1990s, Batman had become synonymous with goofy Hollywood subterfuge, with the final installment before the death of the series being dubbed one of the worst films of all time. To put it accurately, Batman & Robin wasn’t much more than an extended advertisement for the movie’s toy-line, and most people would agree. After being churned out consistently within 2 to 3 year intervals, the Caped Crusader wouldn’t see the light of the silver screen until eight years later, in the form of Batman Begins.
Christopher Nolan’s re-envisioning of the Dark Knight’s beginnings has come to be accepted as one of the character’s definitive origin stories. Drawing from various sources, including and especially Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, the 2005 re-boot started a new trend in both superhero films as well as action-oriented cinema altogether. Overall, it had a much darker and grittier tone than any of its predecessors, but somehow managed to pull off the feat of grounding a character as escapist and at times flamboyant as Batman in a believable reality.
What tends to set Batman apart from his other DC counterparts is the fact that he’s quite simply, a man. He has no superpowers, and relies on technology and his own training to get the job done. And thus, it was this difference that made the idea of a realistic Batman film possible, the first that approached the character as a real man with real motivations behind the things he did. And it did so using the theme of Fear.
The reasons that Batman chooses the symbolism he does are explored in detail for the first time, as are his motivations for turning to crime fighting. It all really boils down to the moment his parents were gunned down in front of him, but the other factors that lead to his transformation forms the entirety of the film’s first half. His fear of bats, his desire for vengeance, his escape into the wilderness, his training, his rebellion, and so on and so forth. And back in Gotham, we don’t just see the grand testament to ingenuity that the city has always represented in both the films and the comics, we see a dilapidated metropolitan city at the height of its decay and descent into corruption, which leads to his need to battle crime in the first place.
By the film’s end, things have certainly gone amuck, but Batman manages to save his city from destroying itself. Things don’t seem hopeless for once, but the film ends with a familiar calling card and a nod to the escalation that will form the focus of its sequel, a film that went even further in exploring and evolving Batman lore, The Dark Knight.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that most, if not all the people reading this have seen The Dark Knight, so I don’t think it’s necessary for me to set up the plot for you, only that it takes place more or less a year after the events of the first film, with both Gotham’s progress and Batman’s influence on the rise.
The film contains one of the most iconic representations of The Joker till date, portraying him as an unsympathetic terrorist only concerned with one thing: Chaos. And amidst this chaos, the film pits the characters of Batman and Harvey Dent against one another, as well as against themselves, all the while never ceasing to provide some of the most intense and adrenaline-fueled action sequences in recent memory.
In the end, the film forces each character to make difficult moral and ethical decisions, most of all Batman, who takes the blame for the Harvey Dent’s murders so that the people of Gotham won’t lose hope. As Gordon’s iconic words resonate hauntingly, Batman rides off into the night, as uncertain of the future as we are…. And this will be used to set up the third and final chapter of the story, The Dark Knight Rises.
There’s been more than enough conjecture about this film ever since it was announced, and there will continue to be so until people finally see it, but what little is actually known about the film is based on trailers and word of god. It takes place around eight years after The Dark Knight, Batman has vanished into legend, and Gotham is at peace for the first time in decades…. until a masked terrorist known only as Bane decides to take control of the city. Say what you will about what you *think* will happen, these are the only things we really know for sure. And it makes a pretty damn good synopsis if you ask me.
Now, to really try and get a better idea of what kind of film we can expect The Dark Knight Rises to be, I propose a more in-depth look at each individual film, and the series as a whole thus far. While certainly connected by character, cast and crew, each of these films seems to stand alone as a separate story with its own distinct theme, but never once forgets to echo its predecessor. If you’ve already figured out that the marketing scheme and cinematography goes from looking yellow to blue to black, congratulations, you aren’t colour blind. But we’re talking about more than just posters and lighting here, not to discredit the fine work of Wally Pfister and the marketing team.
Nolan’s Batman films seem to take pride in adapting members of Batman’s rogues gallery to fit the universe that he has created for Batman, even some of the more over the top villains. At the end of the day, what is Batman without the people he fights? Each member of the rogues gallery is, in some way, Batman’s equal and opposite. And the characters that represent Batman’s struggle seem to have been chosen with that in mind.
First of all, The Scarecrow. Jonathan Crane has always been portrayed as somewhat of a nutter, going all out with the transformation into literally, a scarecrow. While the final incarnation of the character in Batman Begins may not have resembled the comic panel by panel, he had both a realistic and scary look about him, spending most of his screen-time with his mask off, but the remainder while wearing a cloth sack designed specifically to induce fear when under the influence of his trademark ‘fear gas’ hallucinogen. In addition to making him more realistic, the film managed to capture his similarities and well as his contrast to the Caped Crusader, as he uses both fear and deception as his primary agents, but he uses them as weapons against the innocent.
Secondly, Ra’s Al Ghul. While the origins of Batman and the character of Henri Ducard were altered from the comicbooks (Ducard being no more than a deceptive namesake), it was changed in service of the story at hand. Ra’s, an immortal demon in the comics, was now every bit a man as Bruce Wayne, but the ‘immortal’ aspect to him was kept alive through the use of deception, via a combination of body doubles and the passing down of a title. However, like his comicbook counterpart, Ra’s Al Ghul’s primary focus was on saving the Earth from the people who inhabit it. Like Batman, he’s a trained martial artist with a painful past, and a desire to combat evil, but he is willing to do whatever it takes, even to the extent of extremist compromise.
Then of course we have Harvey Dent, a man who like Bruce Wayne, fights for good, but when a tragedy befalls him, he uses his rage to exact vengeance rather than seek justice. Unlike Batman, he doesn’t choose his ghoulish appearance, and decides that chance is a much more fair and just equalizer than the system he has been a part of, as he has fallen victim to the chaos intended by the The Dark Knight’s primary antagonist….
The Joker. Throughout both his comicbook and cinematic history, The Joker has been perhaps the ideal counterfoil to Batman, choosing a lighter, larger than life appearance than the Dark Knight and announcing his crimes beforehand rather than working from the shadows. However, he falls just on the other side of the fine line which Batman so carefully treads. Hell-bent on proving that deep down, humanity is just like him, he leaves no stone unturned in pushing people to their moral breaking point, and in some cases, he succeeds. In the end, he’s responsible for the deaths of plenty of innocent people, but that was never important to him. For The Joker, it was always about proving a point.
And now, we have Catwoman and Bane. Not having seen the film yet, it’s going to be hard to say exactly what differences and similarities the characters will have with their literary counterparts, but from what the trailers have shown thus far, even though their appearances are drastically different, perhaps more so than any of the other villains in the series, the characters seem exactly as they’re supposed to.
Selina Kyle very clearly picks up the ‘Catwoman’ monicker because she’s a cat-burglar, and while it isn’t entirely clear where her loyalties will lie, it’s safe to assume that it’ll make sense, because Catwoman has always been the type of character to put herself before others, but she also has a strong moral compass, ending up more of an anti-hero than an all out villain. While Harvey Dent slid down the moral slide as The Dark Knight went on, it’d be interesting to see a character go the opposite route in this series, if that’s indeed what happens.
And finally, one of the most anticipated aspects of the final film: Bane. While significantly different from his comicbook counterpart, both in terms of appearance and apparent ethnic/regional origin, the Bane of the upcoming movie seems to be there for one very, very specific reason, much like in the story arc Knightfall. It is his intention to push Batman to his physical limit so that he can finally ‘break the bat’, whatever that may mean in the context of the film. Unlike his portrayal in Batman & Robin, Bane has always been an intelligent military strategist in addition to a fighter, and whatever his ultimate goal is in The Dark Knight Rises, you can be sure that it’ll test both Batman and the people of Gotham.
And now that I’ve talked about the villains of the series, I think it’s time for a plot-related, slightly more thematic analysis of the story. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, while certainly ‘superhero movies’ at the end of the day, stray far closer to the darker and more serious storylines of the graphic medium, concentrating on plot elements far more than most modern superhero flicks, which tend to put visuals first. Not to say the series doesn’t have its fair share of action, in fact the action sequences in them are far better than most things Hollywood puts out over the summer, the major difference being that they make a difference to the story. They make sense in the context of the film, and they matter, because there’s something bigger at stake. Each sequence isn’t just a great scene in itself, it’s part of a larger story altogether, just as each chapter in the saga stands alone, but is part of a bigger picture.
Batman Begins explores the psychological nature of Batman, exposing his worst fears and his most traumatic events, all of which lead him down the path of becoming a living legend. In an interesting turn, it’s his phobia of bats that leads him to choose the symbol of a bat, so as to turn his fear into a weapon against those who prey on the fearful. However the biggest and most influential element of his origin remained relatively unchanged, the death of his parents.
As a child, young Bruce not only sees his mother and father murdered in front of his very eyes, but in the case of the film, he blames himself for their deaths. It’s a burden he has to live with for years, until he finally has an opportunity to exact vengeance upon the man who killed them. Even though things don’t go his way, he stays behind to watch Joe Chill die, which is perhaps the lowest point to which he has fallen in the series thus far. Even though his parents had died a number of years earlier, it was here that his journey began. He wasn’t just a man afraid of bats, he was now a man afraid of himself and what he had become.
It was then that Bruce Wayne, the scared child, decided to run away to learn about crime before he could fight it. It was then that he travelled the world, seeking the means to fight injustice, and it was then that he crossed paths with Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows. After months of training, both physical and mental, he had not only learned to master stealth and combat, but her had also learned to master fear. Eventually, once he let go of his guilt and came to accept his rage as a weapon, he was faced with a choice. Either he was to execute the murderer in front of him, or turn against those who had taught and fed him. It was at this point that he became Batman, when he chose not to kill, and when he decided that stopping this league of assassins from marching to Gotham was more important to him than vengeance. For the first time, he fought for justice.
Upon ending his self-imposed exile, he returned to a Gotham consumed by the corrupt, a city where the poor were helpless and the rich were controlled by the mob, as were the police. By this point, he saw no choice but to become a symbol for the people of Gotham, a symbol they desperately needed. Step by step, learning from his mistakes, Batman started to investigate places cops couldn’t investigate, and interrogate people cops couldn’t interrogate, commencing his life of crime-fighting outside the boundaries of the law. And in the end, even though part of Gotham has descended into chaos, he and Lt. James Gordon had managed to prevent an even bigger disaster. By the end of this film, he had conquered his fears, and the people of Gotham knew his name. And so, Batman began….
But the battle wasn’t over yet, because as Gordon tells him at the end of the first film, escalation was the city’s next big problem. Criminals were a step ahead of the police force, and one in particular seemed to want to one-up Batman’s antics.
The Dark Knight opens with an elaborate bank robbery, showing us just what The Joker is capable of. Batman is still fighting crime, and has even inspired impersonators, and District Attorney Harvey Dent is putting in his best efforts to clean up the city’s streets. Gotham is moving in the right direction, but The Joker is intent on proving that the so-called good people of Gotham City will show their true nature under the right circumstances. He engages the mob, the police, the people, even Batman and Harvey Dent, and turns Gotham into his playhouse for a few days. He believes himself to be the true face of humanity, and he wants to prove it by driving everyone else to their breaking point. He believes that even the best men can fall and be corrupted, and so he focuses most of his efforts on Batman and Harvey Dent, all the while making sure he’s a step ahead of them. Batman tells Alfred what he learned from Ra’s Al Ghul, that criminals aren’t complicated. However, Alfred seems to think differently, for The Joker is the kind of criminal that he doesn’t seem to fully understand.
As Harvey says early on in the film, you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. The Joker choses to use this idea to his advantage, forcing Gotham’s heroes to take extreme measures. The people turn on their protector, Gordon is forced to make his family think him dead, Batman is forced to break his one rule and take a life, and Harvey Dent is reduced to a mindless killer. It was a xanatos gambit of the most gruesome kind, a gambit at the end of which the people of Gotham would either end up being forced to kill one another, or would lose any shred of hope that they once had when they learned what Harvey Dent had become…. which is where Batman stepped in, and made the sacrifice few heroes would dare to make. Rather than being a hero, standing tall at the end, he selflessly chose to take the blame for Harvey’s actions, preventing his legacy from dying with him.
Alfred is forced to lie to Bruce about Rachel’s decision, Fox is forced to compromise on his morals to help Batman, Gordon is forced to lie about what Harvey did, and Batman is forced to make himself a target so that his city could live on. In the end, the truth is all relative, and all that’s left are these men and the implications of their actions. Whether or not The Joker really won is still a matter of much debate, but one thing is certain, he did manage to push everyone to their breaking point one way or another. And in the process, the film itself managed to pose quite a number of relevant questions as well. What would one be willing to do in the face of terror and chaos? How far would one be willing to go to police and surveil in such situations? And above all, what would one really have to do to defeat a person or entity hell-bent on destruction?
The Dark Knight went above and beyond expectations, of both the genre and of filmmaking itself, placing larger than life characters in a scarily realistic world, descending them into chaos, and pitting humanity against itself. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight flow seamlessly into one another, telling the story of Batman’s journey to understanding what it truly takess to be a hero in the world we live in. Although the first film goes back about 20 years, the invasion of Gotham by the League of Shadows presumably takes place less than a year before the events of the sequel, which is something that will no doubt set the third film apart.
The Dark Knight Rises takes place eight years after The Dark Knight. Gotham is at peace, Harvey Dent is still thought of as a hero, and Batman, still considered a vigilante, is nowhere to be found. First of all, this makes his sacrifice at the end of the second film mean something. And secondly, when he is forced to put on the cape and cowl again, we’re dealing with a much older Batman who isn’t at the top of his game.
Story aside, this film seems to be on an even larger scale than the previous two, costing $250 million to make, and with sequences that seem to reek of genuine destruction. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s probably going to combine the storytelling of Batman Begins with the size and scope of The Dark Knight, and it’s going to be one hell of a swan song for a series that has essentially defined an entire generation of cinema.
As far as some of the characters go, no, I don’t know exactly who Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are playing or how they will fit into the story. At this point, nothing would surprise me, but It’d be interesting to see how each decision is handled. Secondly, there’s clearly something much bigger going on than in the previous film. The Joker certainly wreaked havoc in Gotham, but most of his big plans were foiled along the way, because he didn’t really care about the body-count so long as he managed to prove that people could fall to his level. Bane on the other hand, seems to actually carry out his intentions, blowing up not only a football field, but the bridges that seem to connect the city. I could certainly be wrong, but I think it’s fair to assume that these acts of terror take place relatively early on in the film’s 2 hour and 45 minute runtime, setting up a much bigger story. I don’t know what that story is, or what Bane’s true intentions are, but I’m excited to find out.
Batman Begins drew its theme and tone largely from Batman: Year One, and although neither The Scarecrow nor Ra’s Al Ghul feature in that comic, the connections are quite clear, because Batman Begins is the story of how Batman came to be.
The Dark Knight too draws from more than a single comic, but it can be said that it has a strong thematic resemblance to The Long Halloween, a Harvey Dent related story in which characters are forced to go beyond their moral limits. Additionally, it seems to take a hint or two from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, in which The Joker tries to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by pushing him to his breaking point.
And while it won’t be entirely clear where The Dark Knight Rises has taken its inspiration from until it comes out, there are a number of theories that hold a fair amount of weight. There might be a minor spoiler or two in the next few paragraphs, but it’s nothing any self-respecting Batman fan won’t already be familiar with. Still, this is a spoiler warning.
1) The Dark Knight Returns - Apart from the titular similarity, both stories seem to focus on an older Batman coming out of retirement.
2) Knightfall - In this story, Bane figures out Batman’s identity, causes a prison breakout to push him to his physical limit, and then breaks his back.
3) No Man’s Land - Gotham has been cut off from the rest of the country, and has descended into gangland territory.
Additionally, the story of the third film is said to come full circle. This has a number of implications no doubt, the primary among them being a possible re-discovery of what makes Batman who he is, in addition to a number of other themes and concepts explored in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. One can expect that The Dark Knight Rises won’t simply be a re-hashing of the Joker storyline with a different villain, but something with a different purpose with regards the caped crusader himself.
Yes, it most certainly appears that Gotham will descend into chaos once again, but rather than the citizens being flung into a temporary state of emergency, it seems like Gotham will fall under a prolonged situation of drastically shifted status quo. The first film saw a corrupt and decaying Gotham come under fire by the League of Shadows in a single evening, and that same city was still trying to fix itself when The Joker wreaked havoc for about a ten days or so, but enough time has passed that we’ll see an entirely new Gotham, a flourishing city that is plunged into anarchy for longer than ever before.
Batman Begins was an origin story that dealt with a city at the peak of its decadence being pushed over the edge. The Dark Knight was a continuation of that story, in which the people of Gotham experienced their greatest collective setback in the face of what could have been their return to glory. The Dark Knight Rises will be a war film, one that takes a completely peaceful Gotham and turns it into a mercenary-run battleground.
It’s hard to make out from the trailer alone, but it appears Bane’s plan involves cutting the city off and removing both the police and the aristocracy. I’m sure many people will say it’s based on the Occupy movement, but keep in mind that the film was already well into principal photography before the movement began. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t share similarities to the movement and its theme, no matter which side of the argument it comes down on, because we do live in an age of economic disparity and totalitarianism, therefore having Bane take control of the city would only make sense.
Another factor that plays in to the ‘full circle’ theory is the presence of the League of Shadows. In the story arc Bane of the Demon, Bane joins forces with Ra’s Al Ghul and becomes the leader of the League of Assassins (the inspiration for the League of Shadows) so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume the film version of him has some sort of connection to them. He’s clearly no longer the lucha-libre inspired hispanic who grew up in a prison in the Caribbean, but as Alfred says about him in the trailer, he was “born and raised in hell on Earth” which too could have any number of implications with regards his origin. But no matter what it turns out to be, you can expect an appearance or two from Ra’s Al Ghul in some capacity, so it’s safe to assume that Bane was a member of the League of Shadows at one point, if he isn’t still a member or even its new leader.
Like the other villains in the series, Bane will most certainly be a counterfoil to Batman. He will match him in terms of both intelligence and strength, but where he will differ from him is what he chooses to do with those important facets. People have even theorized, perhaps rightly so, that Bane will be a dark mirror to Bruce Wayne, a reflection of what he could have become had he chosen a different path. They both clearly have troubled, painful pasts, but what they choose to do with their pain is what will separate them.
And finally, now that I’ve gone a fair bit into detail regarding the possible plot of the third film, I’d to discuss what I think it’s really going to be about.
If I have to summarize the themes and major elements of each film, and perhaps break them down, it might seem like a difficult task, but in the end it yields some interesting results. These films are extremely complex, and there’s so much going on at each and every level that I almost don’t want to try and deconstruct them in case it seems like I’m oversimplifying, but I think anyone reading this will see what I’m getting at along the way.
Batman Begins deals with many psychological aspects of Batman, from his phobia of bats, to his traumatic youth, to his eventual victory over his fear. Both The Scarecrow and the League of Shadows use a fear-inducing hallucinogen and cover the city in a wave of fear, and Batman’s biggest enemy throughout the film is fear. In short, it can be said that Batman Begins is about fear.
The Dark Knight sees the city of Gotham plunged into chaos, with The Joker trying to remove all sense of order to induce the random nature of both humanity and the universe. The characters are pushed to their limits by this chaos, and in this end, the order of things has been so upset that even the best have shown their worst side. The Dark Knight is about chaos.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we will see an aged Batman and Gordon, living with the burden of Harvey’s actions. We may even see the reality of those actions exposed to the public. We will see a villain with a painful past, and a Bruce Wayne upon whom the worst kind of physical and mental pain will be thrust. The Dark Knight Rises will be about pain.
Fear. Chaos. Pain.
The fear that drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman. The chaos that lead him to make a sacrifice. And the pain that will decide the fate of the Dark Knight, and the fate of Gotham city.
Batman is a character that thrives on fear. His own fear drives him, and he becomes a symbol by turning that fear on others. He’s also a character that can’t exist without chaos, even if he doesn’t know it. In a world dominated by order, be it lawful or otherwise, Batman has no place. It’s only when someone needs to bring order to the chaos that he can exist, both as a person and as a symbol. And finally, his pain is what drives him. The pain of seeing his parents shot dead at the age of ten is a burden that he carries to this very day, and a pain he can only deal with by fighting the very criminality that took them from him. And I don’t claim to know exactly how, but I feel that by the time the curtains close, Bruce Wayne will finally have to confront his pain.
On July 20th…. The Legend Ends.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES