In a genre that has become all about setting building, The Dark Knight Trilogy stands out as a rare example of an arc-driven franchise film. It doesn’t introduce us to an expanded cinematic universe (although I think it should have, but that’s a discussion for another time). Instead, it tells the story of Bruce Wayne, his transformation into Batman, and his eventual retirement after a job well done.
So let’s take some time to analyze the three Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman movies: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. We will begin with the theme of symbolism, which gets to the heart of what Batman sought to accomplish throughout the triology.
The Importance of Symbolism
Symbols have always been a key part of superhero comics. Whether it’s Superman’s iconic S or Spider-Man’s web-patterned costume, most of the great superheroes can be identified by an iconic symbol. The Dark Knight Trilogy takes the stance that Batman is the world’s first and only superhero, and all three films underscore the importance of symbols in the human psyche.
If there is one key component to these three films that everything else flows from, it is the importance of symbols. In each of the films, the audience sees symbols before we even see the main characters. Batman’s symbol forms out of bats in Batman Begins, fire in The Dark Knight, and ice in The Dark Knight Rises. And before Batman even puts on his mask, the importance of symbols become apparent in the movies.
The Symbol in Batman Begins
In Batman Begins, the main symbol of the film is, fittingly, Batman himself. While Bruce Wayne is training under Ra’s al Ghul, he is given these words of wisdom from his mentor:
“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely…A legend, Mr. Wayne.”
This is something that Bruce takes to heart, and when he returns to Gotham City he explains to Alfred how important it is that his crime-fighting identity be more than just a man:
“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Batman begins in the mind of Bruce Wayne as a symbol first, and he is introduced to the people of Gotham in the same way. The first time the police see evidence of the Batman, it is when Carmine Falcone has been chained to a spotlight. The silhouette on the skyline resembles the iconic bat image, telling the people of Gotham that the times are changing. That image returns at the end of the film with Jim Gordon’s introduction of the Bat Signal. Now clearer in the sky, it symbolizes the change that has come over Gotham. With Batman’s introduction to the streets, things are starting to get better. Gordon is now a Lieutenant, the mob is running scared, and Gotham is on the road to recovery.
Just as Batman is a symbol, so too is his enemy in this film. Ra’s al Ghul leads the League of Shadows, which uses darkness and fear as their means to an end. Ra’s wraps himself in secrecy and legend, to the point where he is more than just a man. While the Ra’s of the films might not be truly immortal like the Ra’s of the comics, he is nonetheless something that cannot truly die.
We also get a symbol at the end of the film that serves as a treat for fans and a call for a sequel when Gordon shows Batman a new criminal’s calling card: a Joker. This brings us to…
The Symbol in The Dark Knight
As in Batman Begins, we see Batman as a symbol in The Dark Knight before he makes an appearance as a person. The film opens with Gordon shining the Bat Signal not because he needs Batman for something but instead as a way to remind criminals what’s out there. As we quickly see, it works. Criminals close up shop and run for hiding at the implication that Batman might be lurking in the shadows. What Bruce set out to do in the first film has been accomplished – even though Batman can’t be everywhere at once, criminals fear that he might be.
Harvey Dent comes in here as a symbol without a mask. A handsome and daring new District Attorney, he sets out to clean up the streets and makes strides through some very unconventional means. He earns the title of Gotham’s White Knight, becoming an important symbol in Gotham City. “I believe in Harvey Dent” is more than just a campaign slogan in Gotham – it’s an assertion that one man has the ability to inspire others.
Although he uses the iconic playing card as his calling card, the Joker is not somebody who delves too deeply into the importance of symbols. His plan is pure anarchy, and he seeks not to establish a symbol of any sort but rather to break down people’s belief in something greater. He accomplishes this to an extent by destroying Gotham’s White Knight and turning Harvey Dent into Two-Face. At the same time, he confirms Bruce Wayne’s success in becoming a symbol as Batman when he points out that Batman is “incorruptible,” a quality Bruce specifically mentioned in Batman Begins as something he hoped to achieve by making Batman a symbol.
While the Joker is captured alive at the end of the film, he is completely absent from the next movie. While that’s mostly because of Heath Ledger’s unfortunate death, it manages to play into the text of the trilogy as a whole quite well. The Joker, for all the terror he is able to cause, is just a man. Because he did not build himself up as a symbol, he can be locked up and put away. For all we know, the Joker spends the rest of his life in a padded cell, or maybe even gets the death penalty for his crimes. Regardless, years down the line people don’t remember the Joker’s crimes as much as they remember Dent’s supposed heroism.
The Symbol in The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises brings the importance of symbols full circle. This film is about Bruce Wayne being reduced to nothing and having to rebuild himself.
The film opens with Harvey Dent Day, a celebration of Dent’s accomplishments. As a martyr, Dent has inspired legislation that allowed Gordon to clean up the streets and eliminate the mob presence in Gotham City. Batman is gone from the city, but still exists as a symbol. The bat silhouette appears in the idle drawings of an orphan and later gets used to mark trucks as Gordon seeks out the truck that Bane is storing his bomb in. Once again, when Batman appears, he is preceded by something dramatic that makes his presence more than just a man showing up on the scene. When the lights go out in a tunnel where police are pursuing Bane, the veteran cops know immediately that Batman is coming, even though he hasn’t shown his face in eight years.
Ra’s al Ghul also continues to play an important role in Gotham’s fate despite having died years ago. He appears in an image to Bruce, who initially doesn’t recognize him as a hallucination but actually thinks that Ra’s might truly be immortal as he claimed. The League of Shadows lived on without the leadership of Ra’s, and now Bane threatens to finish what his old mentor started by destroying Gotham. Even his daughter Talia, despite her disagreements with some of her father’s decisions, now fights using Ra’s as a symbol, seeking vengeance for her father’s death and a completion of his vision.
Bane is the man who breaks Batman, which is true to his role in the comics as well. The Dark Knight Rises even includes the iconic back-breaking scene. But in both the comics and the film, Bane fails to realize the importance of a symbol.
In the comics, Bane is ultimately defeated by Jean-Paul Valley, who becomes the new Batman. Bane had his chance to kill Valley beforehand, but treated him as a non-threat instead. He didn’t understand that Batman is not a man but rather a mantle, and that even had he killed Valley, somebody else would have arisen to become the Batman.
In the movie, Bane is ultimately defeated by Bruce Wayne. Bane’s flaw in this film is that he doesn’t understand the concept of hope. As a prisoner, he saw hope as nothing more than a torment. He tries to use hope as a weapon against the people of Gotham, making them think they have a chance of survival when he really plans on killing them all. But a symbol gives hope, and from that hope grows strength. Here, Batman is a symbol not just to Gotham City but to Bruce Wayne himself. He is a reminder of what he once was and what he set out to accomplish years ago. Using the symbol of Batman and the legend of the child who escaped the prison, Bruce manages to overcome crippling injuries and return to Gotham City. When Bane is finally beaten, he can only muster a weak, “Why aren’t you broken?” While the methods of Bane’s defeat differ from the comics, his crucial flaw remains the same. Bane does not understand the power that a symbol has over people, and ultimately falls to somebody who does.
At the end of this film, Batman seals himself as a symbol that will forever inspire the people of Gotham by faking his death. As revealed after the fact, he had fixed the autopilot of the Bat, but chose to let people think he had perished. In doing so, he is honored with a statue and his status as Gotham’s hero is finally secured. The future looks bright, and even if something comes up, the symbol of Batman endures. As the trilogy ends, we find that the Bat Signal has been repaired and that Robin Blake is now poised to become the new Batman should evil rear its head in Gotham again.
The Dark Knight Trilogy is a very well-done series of films and something of an anomaly in the superhero genre because it wrapped up with intention rather than always looking for the next sequel. Perhaps the most significant theme that runs through it, however, is the idea of symbols and what they mean to people. They can give people hope or they can leave them living in fear. This theme drives these films, and everything else flows from it.
Images: Warner Brothers