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

On The Themes and the Quality of The Dark Knight Trilogy (WITHOUT Plot Spoilers) July 20, 2012

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.

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