On The Themes and the Quality of The Dark Knight Trilogy (WITHOUT Plot Spoilers)

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s entire Dark Knight trilogy at the theater. In this post, I discuss the quality of The Dark Knight Rises and pay specific attention to how well it handles its broad themes. I reveal nothing specific about the plot. Those who like to go into a movie spoiler free in terms of story will have close to nothing ruined by me. I discuss in some depth the thematic ambitions of the film, but in such a cryptic way that will tell you nothing of how they are concretely realized. These remarks are only spoilerific in that they reveal whether the film ends by affirming or critiquing the ideal of a superhuman as salvific hope. Otherwise, they’re pretty vague. Future posts about the trilogy will be chock full of spoilers and explicit thematic discussion, all of which will be hidden from the front  page of the blog.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises drastically ups the scale and the stakes and profoundly murkies the philosophical waters of his trilogy. It was hard going in to imagine how this film could top The Dark Knight in terms of its ambitions but in many ways it actually does. I feared that Bane would be simply another Joker and therefore repetitive. Worse, I was worried that the shadow of the Joker would overwhelm Bane and the finale would be anticlimactic. But Nolan did a brilliant job of convincing me that the Batman’s greatest threat had actually been saved for last, after all. Bane actually manages to make the Joker seem, well, unserious. In this film Bane is essentially what you would get if you harnessed the Joker’s deadliness with all of Batman’s skills and gave him Ra’as al-Guhl’s political ambitions. While not quite what the Joker is in terms of sheer charisma, Bane makes the Joker’s chaos feel like mere games and practical jokes.

And there’s a reason for that—mythically the Joker symbolized the principle of chaos in the world. Bane represents its total and complete despairing annihilation as convincingly as a comic book film is going to manage. And, on the literal level, the kind of chaos that he creates is the kind a merely chaotic criminal simply cannot. A criminal can only implicitly undermine order. A tyrant explicitly destroys the entire moral order. Joker turns out to be a mere criminal. Bane is a tyrant. 

Watching all three films together in a row revealed something I never noticed about The Dark Knight—it is from start to end a suspense film. Much has justifiably been made out of the way The Dark Knight transcends being merely a comic book film to be an exemplary crime drama which can almost stand up without any of the super hero trappings taken into account. Sandwiched between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, it stands out as the most brisk and action packed chapter. There is a whole lot there philosophically and psychologically, but it never slows down the relentless action and it is all played relatively straightforwardly, both in its literal and mythic dimensions. It’s pretty easy to follow and it is remarkably tidy.

Batman Begins had set a tone of meticulous realism which earnestly tried to prove that Batman could really (just barely) exist if the right combination of tragic and serendipitous circumstances met the right person and he used every human invention from the ancient arts up to the most cutting edge futuristic 21st Century technology to create himself. Batman Begins tried to convince us of the scope of human potential if only we harnessed every internal and technological power available (or soon to be available) to a human being.

The Dark Knight started to stretch the limits of plausibility as both the hero and the villain escalated in their abilities to control variables to extraordinary degrees. Despite that film’s dogged success at making Batman and the Joker feel like they were in a real life crime drama, both their superhuman abilities and what they thematically symbolized pushed the series into the realm of the mythical. While the tone was kept convincingly gritty and realistic, The Dark Knight undeniably crossed the boundary into a story not about perfected humans but superhumans. A super hero and a supervillain. Overmen. As the Joker put it to Batman, alluding to the paradox of the concept of an omnipotent being, they were an unstoppable force and the unmovable object. Thematically they were the eternal dialectics between chaos and order and between untamed primeval humanity and moral human civilization, interacting through flesh and blood avatars and fighting for the souls of the petty, all too human, people of Gotham.

In this context, The Dark Knight Rises is a wild mixture. In some ways its themes are pessimistic in a gutsy, upsetting, and politically controversial way. Most of the way this film reminded me of Plato’s Republic for its willingness to imply that ultimately every human political arrangement we can devise corrupts itself by its own internal logic. It is, until the end, a cynical slap in the face to both the solid optimism about human nature and the predictably unstable resort to faith-creating falsehoods that represent the twin sources of hope at the end of The Dark Knight.

For most of the way, The Dark Knight Rises continues all three films’ tendencies to (appropriately) agonize over the question of what it means to have our hero be someone who puts himself above the law. Up until the ending wrap up, all three films constantly struggle with moral dilemmas in which evil will win unless the good guys break rigid moral rules and, yet, the good guys risk losing both the moral struggle and the tangible war if they break the rules. Throughout the trilogy Batman’s entire existence and above the law methodology is constantly necessary for the greatest short term outcome but also constantly incurring a diabolical karmic kickback. Batman, up through the final major plot twist of The Dark Knight Rises, keeps incurring greater risk in the long run to both himself and to Gotham through all his arrogant stunts. Every time he goes above the law he tries to signal to others that they can be not only law-abiding but heroically good, in hopes that this will lead them to reform the orderly structures that depend on good people to work and which are constantly being corrupted by human weakness. But throughout all three films, his heroic efforts repeatedly blow up in his face (often literally).

In this way, he lives in a world where neither slavish lawfulness nor hubristic lawbreaking will prevent chaos and corruption. In short, this is the trilogy’s most sublime and, until the end, uncompromising realism. The laws, with their necessary formality, are imperfect both to punish and to prevent every crime. And then, most awfully, corrupt people perpetually exploit the very formality of the law to their own ends with impunity. And the pure and brave of heart who break the laws for the greater good typically wind up facing all the more wreckage for doing so. This is the abiding tragedy of human political and moral life. These films are as thoroughgoing a meditation on it as one will find.

But in the end this final film is a comic book movie and a major studio blockbuster and it does not keep its early promises of truthfulness well enough. In the end we do not get complicated dialectic but instead an unrealistic redemption and the naïve fantasy about the salvific potential of superhumans who abandon institutions as hopeless. The trilogy ends on a bittersweet thematic upbeat, by reaffirming confidence in the symbol and the heroism that had been deconstructed over and over in everything that was admirably realistic in what preceded.

The large scale action scenes in this film are almost purely in the realm of sheer comic book fantasy. The stretched tight tethers to reality that Batman Begins prided itself on are all gone. There is nothing realistic about Batman when he is strong in this film. There is only truth in his weakness and in his struggle to overcome weakness and, in particular, in his struggles to match Bane’s sheer physical strength. Whenever Batman goes toe to toe with Bane it’s as exciting, raw, and visceral as the trilogy gets. The huge Bane fan in me (I bought something like 10 copies of Batman 497 when it came out) was hugely satisfied.

Most that is super heroic that Batman does is unbelievable. Bane’s supervillain skill at planning and executing diabolical attacks is also wildly unbelievable (even beyond what the Joker managed). Thematically, Bane’s supervillain excesses are welcomed for the dark thematic doors they open. But Batman’s ascendency to super hero ability only closes those doors dishonestly.

This might be Nolan’s cowardly failure. It might be his genuine delusion. It might be the logic of studio blockbusters inevitably winning out over artistic guts. It may be an invitation to a future director to continue the dialectic he’s begun but with a new, post-Batman spin.

Or it could be that Nolan has deliberately pleased the crowd only on the surface. It could be that those who understand the dialectical pattern understand that the hope offered in the end is really only of the variety that sets us up for an even more profound despair when we realize we have gotten all our hopes up for what is in reality only a myth.

Because I found the experience of the films so satisfying, I am going to think of them the final, and most truthful, way. Just as Plato’s Republic compellingly defends the ideal of philosopher kings, only to implicitly indicate that ideal’s profoundly ironic dark side and to argue that even it is subject to total dialectical dissolution because of human limitations, I think Nolan’s defense of the superhuman who changes the world by abandoning all hope in institutions is also replete with warnings of profoundly ironic dark sides and of the inevitability of dialectical dissolution as well.

And a hopeful ending does not invalidate any of those warnings for anyone paying attention.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Good review. Hope I get to see it sooner rather than later.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Despite that film’s dogged success at making Batman and the Joker feel like they were in a real life crime drama…

    Sorry to be so rude, but that’s about the most ridiculous commentary I’ve heard in a long time. What’s so “real life” about the Joker? Has any criminal like him risen to power with significant support from other criminals? Of course not — for-profit crime is too rational an enterprise to tolerate someone as loony as the Joker. A real gangster, big or small, would have put a bullet in his head as soon as he saw him. As a lunatic, he’s kinda believable; but as a criminal genius/mastermind with whom others would have any reason to trust or support — you’re kidding, right?

    The Joker in TDK was nothing more than a cheezy villain borrowed from the horror genre. And that’s pretty much all TDK was: a lame horror movie that distorted reality and used implausible characters, in even more implausible scenarios, to inspire baseless fear, with nothing close to a real solution even mentioned.

    In this way, he lives in a world where neither slavish lawfulness nor hubristic lawbreaking will prevent chaos and corruption. In short, this is the trilogy’s most sublime and, until the end, uncompromising realism.

    Where “uncompromising realism” = “total lack of imaginination and contempt for the complexity of real humans.” Seriously, if I had a shot of whiskey for every time the most demeaning and negative view of ordinary people was pompously labelled “uncompromising realism,” I’d be dead of alcohol poisoning. Admitting people can be petty or evil is realistic; pretending that’s ALL we can be, and calling that “realism,” is demeaning, divisive, emotionally abusive, and a form of enforced helplessness.

    “Spiderman” is about as silly and unrealistic as superhero movies generally get. But the very least I can say for that silliness is that it sometimes shows ordinary people helping the superhero, not just passively depending on him; and that, in fact, is how lasting good gets done in the real world. THAT’S uncompromising realism.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      I don’t see how saying that the message that neither slavishly obeying the law nor hubristic lawbreaking is uncompromisingly realistic is the same thing as calling

      the most demeaning and negative view of ordinary people

      “uncompromising realism,”

      I’m probably just reading what your sentence refers to incorrectly, though. In which case I apologize.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Relax, oh Raging one, I just finished my first post dealing with specific themes and I share your suspicion of Batman’s condescension to ordinary people: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2012/07/20/justice-order-and-chaos-the-dialectical-tensions-in-batman-begins-and-the-dark-knight/

      I will say much more specifically about the twists of The Dark Knight Rises next.

      Talking about the Joker’s realism, I did say all sorts of things about the character being implausible and more mythic than realistic. The crime drama elements are nonetheless there and widely lauded. The opening heist, the cops and robbers game. Some crime dramas are about lunatics playing cat and mouse games with the ever-two-steps-behind cops, you know.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      And in the end of the post, I spent a lot of time critiquing the film’s final reaffirmation of the idea that the only hope for change is great individuals who work outside of institutions, in some libertarian way.

    • Dan D

      Daniel,

      I enjoyed reading your analysis of the three films. I am myself attempting to discern the “major” theme of this last film and its connection with the other two films. I’m not sure how you feel about Zizek, but I think he had an interesting thought on TDK (that I contend relates to the theme of “abandoning hope in institutions” and the lie(s) necessary to maintain social order).;
      “In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante who is corrupted and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend police commissioner Gordon realise that the city’s morale would suffer if Dent’s murders were made public, so plot to preserve his image by holding Batman responsible for the killings. The film’s take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us. No wonder the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain. He makes it clear that his attacks on Gotham City will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman – another lie. In order to entrap the Joker, Gordon fakes his own death – yet another lie.

      The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilisation, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?”
      -Slavoj Zizek

      Any thoughts on this?

      Thanks,
      Daniel D

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I apologize for what may seem like a threadjack, but I’d just like to add that the people who helped Spiderman were low-level workingmen (specifically, construction-crane operators) and public servants (specifically, cops and firefighters), the kind of people our moneyed elites routinely piss on, and lay off, as easily as they breathe. We need to have more acknowledgement of such people in our popular culture, and less of the demeaning infantilism, fear and helplessness those same moneyed elites gave us in “Batman.”

    Next tiem you pay for a movie, think of the message you’re supporting with your money. Just because it’s fiction, doesn’t mean it’s benign or harmless. The messages we get through our pop culture MATTER.

    • http://alephsquared.wordpress.com aleph squared

      Yeah, I haven’t seen the latest Batman installment, but the way in which the cultural narratives of Batman (and, honestly, Iron Man) interact with the real world is profoundly disturbing to me: rich men creating advanced weapons for themselves or their personal armies is not purely comic-book fare, and positioning their manipulations of society as heroic isn’t a particularly deep or useful message (we get pounded with it every day, admittedly in non-comic-book areas like “job creation.”)

    • josh

      Well, comic-wise Batman has a number of ordinary people sort of allies, particularly in the police department. Haven’t seen the latest film but that would be Jim Gordon, who in the first two is portrayed as a working class, fundamentally honest man trying to deal with outsized problems.

      I think you’re taking a little too much of the fantasy as a message. The fantasy is that someone is both noble enough to sacrifice themself for the greater good AND has the power, in terms of money and physical ability and brains, to make a difference. It’s a nice bit of heroic escapism which can be inspirational despite the fact that none of us is likely to own a billion dollar slush fund or dress up like a costumed vigilante. I don’t think most people see the takeaway message as: “We need a rich guy to violate the law for our own good.” (Admittedly, some people sort of believe that independently of a summer movie.)

  • Deepak Shetty

    Out of curiosity do you read the Batman comics?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I read probably 150 or so back in the day but have only read a bit in recent years. I’m trying to get back into the comics lately.

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I’m loving your commentary on these films – I feel I understand something more about your philosophy and what animates you intellectually and morally after reading them, and I’m appreciative of the depth of consideration you’re giving to them. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear I’ve always had a soft spot or Superman. The legends we choose to live by are revealing, no? ;)

    • josh

      I’d rather read the adventures of Batman, but I’d rather have the idea of Superman around.

  • QuestionPrince

    I’m glad I read this post, I read the exit of the cave as Simile Of The Cave. There was an ascension that both characters had to perform.

    The second was Aldous Huxley’s saying “Experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him”. The same characters had traumatic childhoods. One wanted to destroy Gotham, the other wanted to save it. It shows whatever happens to us beyond our control, we still have the choice to chose how to respond to it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      There’s not much in Dark Knight Rises that substantively parallels the allegory of the cave.

  • Brendan

    I think Nolan chickened out. He wanted to say something about the emptiness of our edification of law and order and myth and ultimate hopelessness and despair we mask through that process, and couldn’t deliver the necessary third act to say it. It would have been brave to have said to the movie going public: “when you embrace the chaotic darkness in yourself instead of looking for a savior – or a distraction – only then will you be free.” Nolan knows the movie going public won’t buy tickets to that. And the guy’s got investors to please.

    . . . so the beat goes on . . .

  • Jdog

    amazing article. great analysis and finally something in depth found on the net.

    I suppose the main theme i propsed when watching the dark knight rises is the whole idea of ‘rise’.
    If we looked in the context of the film the idea of ressurection is undoubtedly the strongest motif yet one aspect I think Nolan couldnt quite nail it in the coffin.

    At the start we see the batman in the bottom of all lows. In fact he lost all purpose to life with rachael dawes, harvey dent and of course jokers dismisals. For me, Bane becomes this mechanism which drives the ‘rise’ of Batman because he is the catalyst that ultimately shows Batman he has nothing left. I think seen by his lost of wealth and Alfred in the movies also adds to the idea he has lost everything yet he still believes in an ideal society that could not sustain itself hence the mechanism of Bane. In fact it seems evident Batman needs Bane as much as anyone else in order to find purpose to life. Such as ‘Fight Club’ the quote that goes along ‘It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. I suppose this spurs batman back in the idea he is suppose to represent which is evident in the first film and so he rises?

    I think it also evident in Selina Kyle who seeks the flash drive to clear her record so that herself can ‘rise’ in her own spectrum which is an escape reality which very much is similar to which Wayne is trying to do his as well. However he can’t do it because Batman no longer represent that symbol of justice.
    Marina Tate also gives that idea of ‘rise’ in the idea she seeks to ressurect her legacy. Futhermore John Blake ‘rises’ becaue he is a man that has nothing and has lost faith and seeks to ‘rise’ from the injustice that surrounds him. I think that is what Nolan trying to do with so many characters that often critics describe as 2Dimensional.

    Lastly i think this societal commentary is far more simple than suggested. I think Nolan is tryin to suggest that despite our growing inequities and helpelss to captalism as suggested by the film, it is more simply the fact despite our fears and often troublesome pasts, we have endeavoured to rise from those issues. the ending suggest there is hope despite this immoral society. AS the two batman movies before have left us in speculation and agony to the fact we need Batman as a physical manifestation to protect us, i think TDKR responds to use that its only the idea of justice which will prevail.

    Sorry for disjoined comment. too late at night.

  • J Ro11

    If anyone hasn’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, I would suggest not reading this. Not that I will have huge spoilers but I always like to go into a movie with a blank slate. Anyway…

    Great review, but I was hoping that you could talk about one specific theme that seems to go throughout Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of Batman Begins, Lt. Gordon says “I never said thank you” to which Batman replies “and you’ll never have to.” A wonderful response that resonated with me because I love a character that believes in a higher purpose above his own personal ambitions. In the most recent film, John Blake says something similar to the effect of “I never said thank you” comment but Batman says “Don’t thank me yet.” Is there anything to this progression of response from Batman or I am wildly off? I think The Dark Knight Rises talks about the struggle between what Gotham needs from Bruce Wayne (as stated by Alfred) and what Bruce Wayne feels he must do to help the city. Anyway, what are your thoughts on the “thank you” theme throughout the trilogy and how it reflects upon the character of Batman?

    Thanks

  • William

    Though the overall themes are a bit mixed by the thrift outing in the trilogy. It’s better to watch TDKR as the story of Bruce Wayne. Notice how the Batman isn’t present throughout most of the picture. Bruce Wayne is pushed to the center and thus all the smaller characters get elevated. A great way of looking at the film also comes from Richard Corliss, who put almost all the character in the third film apart of the gathering of “orphans”. Everyone is emotionally scarred and abandoned at some point. Even Bane is left alone in agony for a time. The end of the film can be considered a cop-out, but that is just one perspective. When we see Bruce Wayne alive, this is showing that he has truly understood what he has done. As was explained in earlier comments, the lies we’re compounding on top of him and he has the realization that it must be let go- Batman, Gotham, and his own emotional wounds. You can almost say that Bruce Wayne becomes disillusioned with the idealism that drove him about inspiring good, and realizes that he has to fight for himself. Hence, the title.

    Each film stands on its own and treats the evolution of a superhero as a natural and fallible process. Batman Begins was about overcoming childhood trauma and finding your path. Just as Bruce says,”My place is between you and the people of Gotham.” That line has such a great dual meaning, for Brice Wayne truly does straddle the line.

    The Dark Knight was the test of those morals and the ideals that were established in Begins. As with the despairing comment by Bruce, “I see now what I would have to become to stop men like him.” He gives in, by using the technology to spy on the city, and lying to the city about Harvey Dent.

    TDKR is about Bruce having to come to terms with who he is as a person. While he fraught valiantly for the city, he fought selfishly. His anger and fear drive his actions and he learns that is not enough. He speaks about Batman being a symbol and how the mask is to protect others, and as he learns to climb out of the Pit by learning to actually want to LIVE HIS LIFE, and not a life for others and dependent on fighting his dopplegangers. It may have been corny but when Bane asks Batman if he has come back to die with his city, Batman/Bruce Wayne simply states “No. I came here to stop you.” It encompasses his mission and mindset perfectly. He is no longer fighting to defend the helpless masses, and he no longer considers them helpless, since he is willing to leave the city. Instead he knows that he will defeat Bane for himself; to put his demons to rest.


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