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The Villains Were Right: How Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy Is About the Judgment of Gotham

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

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I was re-watching the Nolan Batman trilogy recently. Despite the massive saturation of comic genre shows and movies across the board these days, Nolan’s movies stand out as among the very best of them because of its thoughtful approach to society through the lens of the Batman. It was powerful enough to win Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar in 2008, and it propelled the second entry of the trilogy into one greatest movies in the genre.

During this particular re-watch, I happened to notice a hidden theme that I had not noticed before while also falling in line with the social commentary theme. That the three movies serve as a judgement of Gotham City. A not entirely unfamiliar sentiment as fans of the comics know that the city itself was a character in the world of Batman.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham during Batman Begins

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham during Batman Begins

Sowing the Seeds

Batman Begins is about the origins of this version of Bruce Wayne becoming the Bat. It has him training with a secret society of ninjas called the League of Shadows so that he can become a key part of their plan to destroy Gotham City. Bruce rejects this path once it becomes known to him, choosing to fight villains but not go to the extreme of killing people. The rest of the movie follows the birth of Batman and his conflict with the League at the end of the movie.

The League’s charismatic leader, Ra's Al Ghul, is hell bent on Gotham’s demise because he views the city as decadent and corrupt. Moreover, he says that this isn't the first time they’ve done this either, claiming responsibility for bringing down multiple ancient civilizations when they’ve gone too far. So as Gotham became more and more corrupt, something the movie makes abundantly clear, they tried to use economics rather than old brute force. But the death of Bruce’s parents somehow galvanized its people for a time to change its ways.

Only to fall down again.

That was the city’s one grace card. Now Ra’s has decided that the old ways do work best. As he explains to a defensive Bruce Wayne, the city was so corrupt that he had people at every level and that in itself was indefensible. Though he is defeated and killed in the end, it's not the end of the trial of the city. Al Ghul's words and convictions were spot on and Bruce knew this well. However despite that, he just could not get on the train so to speak and wipe out his home city. There were innocent people there who had nothing to do with the corruption and needed protection.

And this is tested in the next installment.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham in Dark Knight

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham in Dark Knight

The Fall

The Dark Knight begins years later. Batman’s exploits have now become famous to Gotham citizens and feared by its underworld. With cooperation between him, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent, things seem to be going well to achieving the holy trinity’s dream of cleaning up Gotham and ridding it of the corruption that Ra’s had thought made Gotham worthy of destruction.

It's at this point that Bruce decides that the time is approaching where he can lay down the mantle, or pass it down to someone else who was worthy of it. Unfortunately the only contenders are wannabes who dress like Batman but use lethal weapons, while also being total amateurs. Harvey Dent becomes the first, real potential successor that Bruce recognizes as taking that burden from him as he makes an enormous arrest that cripples the mob. There’s only one problem.

He’s seeing Bruce’s childhood friend and would-be-love-interest Rachel Dawes.

At the end of Batman Begins, Rachel had left the possibility of a relationship between her and Bruce open. In this film, she is already well on her way to moving on from him. Here is the first reveal that Gotham has not overcome its corruption, and it starts with the Batman himself.

Though he likes Harvey Dent and wants him to become Batman as the two seem to share similar views on justice, Bruce wants Rachel back. And he’s willing to go behind Dent’s back trying to woo Rachel back to him to do so. All the while grooming him to become his successor, Gotham’s white knight.

The corruption is also accompanied by a false sense of security by the Bat and the police force itself. Batman is a vigilante and what he does is illegal. That no one questions. However, he is so good at what he does, optimized by his capture of Chinese-national Mob accountant, that no one seriously questions the legality. Everyone is aware that what Batman does is illegal, but they turn a blind eye because he’s cleaning the city up for them.

It makes Gotham prime for the Joker’s reveal into the spotlight as Batman’s new antagonist, but it is not so simple. The Joker doesn't start with attacking Batman directly, but the people around him. The wannabes and cops. Using guerilla and terrorist tactics, he kills five people all in order to get Batman to reveal his true identity to the world. The acts of terrorism start to expose Gotham’s fragility for what it really is.

The same people that looked up to Batman now demand he acquiesce to the Joker’s demands. The cops he assisted in removing corruption from the streets now no longer want him and blame Batman for the deaths of their colleagues. The last straw being the supposed death of Jim Gordon. And now, Batman’s usual fear tactics are no longer working because criminals fear the Joker more.

The corruption deepens even within Batman himself, as he did let people die before choosing to act, though arguably also necessary. Though he was going to surrender himself, further fractures are exposed as Harvey Dent, in support of Batman, takes the rap for being him without Batman’s knowledge. Batman takes advantage of the situation as Harvey hoped, and captures the Joker with assistance from a ‘resurrected’ Jim Gordon, who faked his own death without the other two’s knowledge. Still another fracture in the structure now tenuously holding up Gotham City.

It’s the Joker’s brilliant monologue to Batman when they finally meet in the interrogation room finally verbally confirms this progression. In the end, Joker not only gets under Batman’s skin, but recognizes his weakness in Rachel Dawes, and his ongoing deception indirectly results in her death and the marring of Harvey Dent.

Though by the end of the movie it seems that the people of Gotham prove themselves worthy to live by not killing a boatload of criminals, it's proven to be a red herring as the Joker reveals to Batman that he knew the key to breaking the city’s will was Harvey Dent. Ultimately Dent is killed when he holds Gordon’s family hostage and Batman attempts to save his son. Standing over the fallen successor to the mantle, Batman and Gordon make the final jump into corruption by agreeing to cover up Harvey’s death. Seemingly a heroic sacrifice at first because of Batman’s willingness to take the fall for the people. Yet another lie all the same.

Though for noble reasons, Batman has now become immersed in the same evil that he had promised to cleanse.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham isolated from the rest of the world in Dark Knight Rises

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Gotham isolated from the rest of the world in Dark Knight Rises

Judgement Day

The story of Gotham’s reckoning climaxes in the Dark Knight Rises. Now eight years later, Bruce has retired as the Bat and Gordon is now Commissioner. Through the Dent Act, he was able to return Gotham to some semblance of what it was pre-Joker. But again this false sense of security is again shattered, this time by the returning League of Shadows under the leadership of the physically imposing Bane.

This time their attempt to take down Gotham City is successful. Bane breaks the recently-returned-but-not-up-to-strength Batman. He figures out he’s Bruce Wayne and exiles him a world away while taking his equipment and vehicles from Wayne Industries. He forces the country to abandon Gotham City with the threat of a nuclear bomb roaming somewhere across the city. And most of all, he reveals publicly to Gotham that the security they had over the last few years was built on the lie that their white knight was no hero at all. Gotham now falls to pieces as criminals are released and havoc reigns, and its people and now defunct-police force wait to see what happens.

The end of this progression is capped off with Bruce seeing a vision of his deceased mentor, Ra's Al Ghul, exposing the true depths of Bruce’s failure. As Ra’s had said at the very beginning, Bruce was trying to save a city that was so far gone that it was incapable of realizing it's own failures. And this was repeated by his daughter, Talia, who had used infiltration not only into Gotham’s structure but Bruce’s bed as well, to gain control of a weapon that Bruce himself had failed to destroy.

Gotham’s judgement has arrived with its previously untouchable elites now being judged and executed by a false court , and their homes ransacked by not only criminals but the poor as well.

Fortunately, the second half is about how the city tries to rebuild itself. With the exception of Jim Gordon, all those who had been party to the corrupt system are now either dead or left the city. Now free of any emotional connections or indecisiveness, Bruce Wayne now fully becomes Batman, saving the city but faking his death, now able to let go of the mantle that previously he had allowed other people to die for. The mantle is taken up by a new successor who was not as susceptible to Gotham’s corruption as he and Harvey Dent had been.

"You have to accept Batman is a fact of life in Gotham City. And on top of that, you have to accept that somehow the city manages to function with a police force that's 90% corrupt."

— - Author, Greg Rucka

The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Rome

This is the ultimate brilliance in a trilogy full of brilliance. The story is about Batman and those around him. But it's also about how a city’s sins nearly destroy it, and how it takes it facing the judgement and loss of it true-but- too-late-appreciated hero for it to face up to its flaws and save itself.

Though murdering thousands of civilians in draconian fashion is clearly crossing a line, the city also needed to face up to its failures. And Batman and the police force were acting as a temporary, but limited stop gap to that progression. Gotham’s corruption never really stopped even after the vigilante appeared on the scene, but spread throughout it’s higher echelons. The Al Ghul family’s, Joker’s, and Bane’s critique of Gotham City were spot on and repeatedly proven. But though progress is made in cutting down the more obvious manifestations of it, none is made at its roots till the end.

Which by that point was manifested in the elimination of many of the people who upheld and profited from it, and the removal of the stop gap that had held back the fire for two movies. Though Gotham is not ultimately destroyed, Dark Knight Rises leaves the viewer with the heavy impression that the ramifications of how far the citizens had let themselves go has finally hit home.

From that point, it closes the trilogy on a hopeful note. A new dark knight is born clean from the corrupt influence that had gotten to his predecessor. His predecessor survives and lets those close to him know through subtle means that he has, while allowing the rest of the city to believe he has died out of I think moral obligation. The final piece of the trinity, Jim Gordon, survives and remains in Gotham but is now purified. And Gotham now truly embraces the Batman as it’s true protector and what that truly meant for itself and the those it looked up to, paving the way for his successor to take up the crusade.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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