The Dark Knight Trilogy is a big, epic set of movies with big, epic themes. For all the talk about them being darker and more realistic than your average superhero film, they actually have the same scope as a lot of epic fantasy tales, with battles between pure good and fell evil and the fate of an entire city in the balance. With such big action and high stakes, the films have some large themes and symbols behind them. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne crafts Batman as a symbol that is, “Something elemental, something terrifying.” Today we’re looking at some of that elemental imagery and how it runs throughout the films.
Fear is a major theme of all three movies, and the major theme of Batman Begins. The film opens up with Bruce Wayne exposed to the first real fear of his childhood when he falls into a cave and is swarmed by bats. The theme of fear continues to play a major role as both weapon and foe throughout the film. Fear is the tool which the Jonathan Crane uses to control his enemies. Fear is the tool that Ra’s al Ghul chooses to destroy Gotham. Bruce Wayne, little more than a frightened child calling out for Mommy and Daddy, must overcome his fears in order to win the day.
Despite fear being the enemy in Batman Begins, it is also a weapon which can be used to effect change in Gotham. When Bruce returns to his home city and finally manages to overcome his fear, he taps into something greater than he is and uses fear as a force of change. Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, and by taking advantage of that, Batman is indeed able to become something elemental and terrifying.
The problem that Batman faces in the second two movies is that he runs into villains who themselves have conquered their fears. The Joker is so insane that he is effectively devoid of fear, and Bane is a man who has faced his greatest fears through a lifetime of imprisonment. In The Dark Knight, the Joker even manages to break down Batman as a symbol somewhat when the mob becomes more afraid him than of Batman – Sal Marone goes so far as to comment that he’s figured Batman out and that the Dark Knight won’t kill him no matter what he does. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne remains a man surrounded by fear, be it the chaos caused by the Joker, Alfred’s worries that returning to a life as Batman will lead to his surrogate child’s death, or his own fears of inadequacy when he is broken by Bane.
Fear is the primary obstacle that Batman faces. However, once conquered, it can also be turned into a powerful weapon.
The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight rises get into elemental forces in the classical sense, using fire and ice as primary themes in their respective films. The Dark Knight opens with fire, and it is fire which is used as the primary weapon of the Joker, be it through explosives or by literally burning people alive. Wielded by the Joker, fire is representative of chaos and anarchy. With gasoline and dynamite, he is able to restore fear to streets that Batman has cleaned up and is able to bring Gotham almost to its knees.
Bruce, a man who has devoted himself to a singular cause and who has spent his life training for one single purpose, doesn’t fully understand the concept of sheer chaos. Trained by Ra’s al Ghul, he still sees criminals as a simple sort. Alfred tries to correct him by relaying some of his own experiences:
“With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away…He thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
The symbol of fire as chaos continues into The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane says in the opening, “The fire rises.” That prophecy soon comes true, as Gotham is soon reduced to chaos once again after eight years of peace. However, Bane isn’t looking for chaos. He’s looking for something else…
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
If Christopher Nolan did not have Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” in mind while coming up with The Dark Knight Rises, then color me surprised. In The Dark Knight, fire nearly consumed Gotham. In The Dark Knight Rises, we get to see the city perish twice, this time in ice. Ice here is representative of hatred and revenge. Those motivations nearly cause Gotham to be ultimately destroyed, and nearly take the life of Batman as well.
The main antagonist of The Dark Knight Rises is Talia al Ghul, who seeks revenge against Batman and Gotham for the death of her father. The real draw of the film, though, is Bane, who also seeks revenge, but in a broader sense. Bane seeks revenge against a world that was denied to him through a life in prison. He seeks revenge against the very concept of hope, which served as something to torment him rather than uplift him. Effectively, Bane hates the world and wants to die, but not before bringing everything down to his level.
In this regard, Bane and the Joker are very similar. The Joker wants to introduce anarchy to Gotham and show that even the greatest of men can be driven insane with one bad day – a motivation that comes directly from the classic comic story The Killing Joke. In the Joker’s moment of defeat, Batman taunts him by telling him that he’s alone. Bane also wants to bring people down to his level, to show them that hope is a lie and that the world is nothing but pain. Talia’s lust for revenge is more personal, but Bane’s is broader in its scope.
The strength of Batman is that Bruce Wayne forgoes revenge. Even when he has been broken and defeated, he rebuilds himself not out of any petty desire for vengeance but out of a legitimate desire to save Gotham City. This goes back to a lesson that was taught to him way back in Batman Begins, when he confesses to Rachel that he wanted to murder Joe Chill and is rebuked with the painful words, “Your father would be ashamed.” Revenge is something that freezes the heart and blinds the soul, and by moving beyond the need for vengeance, Batman is able to emerge victorious.
There’s one other major theme that runs through these films: the idea of compassion. In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul chides Bruce for his compassion, calling it a weakness. Throughout the course of the three films, though, Bruce remains a believer that people are inherently good inside. Ultimately, his faith is rewarded.
We see the idea of compassion in The Dark Knight, when the Prisoner’s Dilemma backfires on the Joker and nobody on the ferries is willing to blow up the other boat, even when that other boat contains hardened criminals. That moment of compassion in the citizens of Gotham does more to undo the Joker than Batman could ever accomplish below.
We see the culmination of Bruce’s hope for people in The Dark Knight Rises. In Batman Begins, Jim Gordon is literally the only honest cop in Gotham. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, the police force has become honest and brave enough to take on Bane’s men without weaponry. Even the police officer who had abandoned his post is talked back into service by Gordon and gives his life in the line of duty. This is the sum total of the change Batman has affected – in Batman Begins, Bruce insists to Ra’s that Gotham is not beyond saving. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, this has been proven, as even faced with overwhelming odds the people of Gotham are willing to be heroic in their own way.
Bruce’s willingness to see the best in people is also rewarded with regards to Selina Kyle, who he has absolutely every reason to distrust. In the first half of The Dark Knight Rises, Selina steals Bruce’s fingerprints and his mother’s necklace, kicks his cane out from under him, steals one of his cars, and then turns him over to Bane. Bruce would be quite justified in tossing her in the frozen harbor when he returns to Gotham. Instead, he puts his trust in her, believing that there is something more to her than meets the eye. In the end, his trust is rewarded when she returns to save him from Bane. And, thankfully, Bruce will have the rest of his life to figure out exactly how much there is to Selina, as the two wind up happily together at the end of the film.
(Dear Mr. Nolan: Please do a follow-up trilogy with Helena Wayne, the child of Bruce and Selena, fighting crime as the Huntress. You can even include Robin-as-Batman. It would be like the 1970s Earth-2 comics!)
The real reason that Batman is a superhero is not because he beats up a bunch of bad guys, but rather because of his ability to inspire the best in people.