Batman Mythology vs. The Dark Knight Legend
An analysis of Christopher Nolan's under appreciated ultimate twist, and a look at a potential future direction for the Batman series
One of the primary complaints I see made about The Dark Knight Rises is that the story differs drastically from that of the comics, specifically giving a definitive ending to Bruce Wayne’s story. In addition to feeling cheated out of the chance to see Nolan’s Batman pursue any of his other classic villains, the leading point of discontentment is that Bruce Wayne effectively was Batman for a year, quit because of the death of Rachel, and then returned as Batman three times in the span of several months before leaving the cave to Robin John Blake. What I’m offering with this editorial is a thesis on how this was, quite simply, the –only- direction the story could have gone in following the conclusion of The Dark Knight.
If you look at The Dark Knight Trilogy as one film, and each film functioning as one part of a traditional three-act structure, you begin to realize that Christopher Nolan pulled one of the single greatest plot twists in cinematic history. The genius of the twist is that it relies fully on the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the Batman story and their expectations of where that story will go. Before I go in-depth on how he did this, I’m going to use a quick example to set up what I’m going to be saying. The recent Daniel Craig James Bond films serve as a reboot of the previous 20 films, from 1962-2002. It’s a whole new continuity, and the first two films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, exist for the sole purpose of introducing the character of Bond. If you haven’t seen the most recent film Skyfall, I’m hoping it isn’t a spoiler to say that by the end of the film, they have finally established Daniel Craig’s incarnation of the character as classic James Bond. Everything we know and love about the character is fully in place, but because we built up to it, it becomes that much more meaningful.
Hopefully by this point, you’ll see where I’m going with this. Batman Begins introduces us to the character of Bruce Wayne and his story, as well as to various important supporting characters, plot points, themes, equipment, and traits that are famous within the classic Batman mythology. By the film’s end, almost everything essential to the character and his story has been established, albeit not fully. Several important factors, such as Gordon’s position in the GCPD and Bruce Wayne’s full, life-long dedication to his mission have had their seeds planted, but they have not fully grown into the shape we know just yet.
The Dark Knight would then apparently serve two purposes: to show us what a fully unadulterated Batman story would look like in this universe, and to bring the rest of the mythology to the form we have recognized in the comics for decades. The Joker and his eternal battle against Batman is introduced, Gordon has been promoted to Commissioner, and with Rachel dead, Bruce sees no life for himself outside of Batman. Here is where Nolan pulls his genius plot twist, toying with our expectations of where the story should go based on our understanding of what it is: Batman taking the fall for Harvey Dent kills the Batman mythology as we know it just as it’s barely getting started, and instead replaces it with the Dark Knight legend.
Examine the evidence: Bruce, in Batman Begins, said he would only be Batman for as long as Gotham needed him, until it could fend for itself. He saw a life outside of the cave, specifically one spent with Rachel. Many complain that Rachel’s death is what compelled Bruce to quit in the 8 years leading up to The Dark Knight Rises, going completely against what Batman as a character represents. However, I think the trilogy is very clear that if anything, her death would lock him into Batman for life. He now sees nothing for him as Bruce Wayne; Batman is the only thing left for him. In addition to this, while hanging upside down, Joker tells Batman not only that the people of Gotham will soon start losing their minds, but also “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Viewing The Dark Knight Rises, we know this never came to pass, and because of how Batman and Gordon handled Harvey’s death, it never could have.
Up until the climactic scene with Two-Face, the entire Batman mythology has been fully established; everything is as we know it. Bruce is fully locked in not only because of Rachel’s death giving him no other options for life, but also because at that point, Gotham will always need Batman; he will never be able to leave. Imagine for a moment, an ending where Batman and Gordon instead decide to let Gotham know the truth: this would lead to the Gotham the Joker predicted, the Gotham everyone who knows the story of Batman is familiar with.
The Joker left traditional crime irrelevant, and so people like Black Mask and the Penguin would start a new age of supercrime. People like Victor Fries and Pamela Isley would look at how their white knight Harvey Dent was pushed over the edge and corrupted into Two-Face; if even he couldn’t fight back the corruption of his soul, what cnace would they have? They would follow his example and give into Mister Freeze and Poison Ivy. People like Edward Nigma would see the Joker as an example of expressing who you really are by refusing to restrain your psychopathic tendencies, and follow this example by becoming the Riddler. Batman would constantly be needed to stop this slew of supervillains, and since Batman would always be there, Joker would continue to plague his existence; meaning batman would exist just in case the Joker escaped custody again. Bruce would be at this for years, fully locked in because Rachel’s death left him with nothing else, because Gotham won’t stop needing him, and because he holds himself responsible for the further corruption of the city. The Dark Knight showed him already heavily injured only 6-12 months into the mission, meaning after a few years he would be more than happy to train a partner (Robin) to fight in the field, while he used ridiculously hi-tech equipment and developed his detective skills to the zenith they are in the comics in order to make the job easier for himself.
Essentially, classic Batman. As for why Bruce wasn’t Batman at the start of The Dark Knight Rises, well… he was. He had been Batman, repressed and unable to do anything for 8 full years. Alfred even said something to the effect of “You’ve been sitting here, waiting for things to go bad.” It’s not that he doesn’t want to be, and he most definitely did not quit because of Rachel, he simply can’t; he’s no longer needed. Organized crime has been completely eradicated due to the Harvey Dent Act, the citizens of Gotham, ignorant to Dent’s corruption, have not lost their minds or their faith, and there’s nothing for Batman to do. He would arguably make things worse by continuing to operate, as his presence would simply stir up unrest and paranoia. Nolan built up the classic Batman mythology, and like Joker did to everyone’s plans in The Dark Knight, “turned it on itself”, creating something wholly new and unique. The resolution he reached at the conclusion of his trilogy was the logical next step from Batman and Gordon’s decision, as the comic version of the story would no longer make sense following that moment. Nolan did, however, incorporate everything I feel is essential to a true Batman story and gave a fitting conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s journey, in the process creating something different than what we’re used to or expected, but on its own every much a definitive take on the character.
The last part of this editorial/analysis (this ran away from the original length I had intended) is meant to address where the series could go from here, based upon the Joker’s future than never came true and continuing with Nolan’s legacy. While picturing what the series could have been like (indefinitely continuing, comparable to James Bond), I found myself slightly disappointed that we would never get to see that world. However, based upon what we’ve heard about the Batman reboot, I think we will. If the Warner Bros. executives were smart (to be fair, they’ve made numerous idiotic decisions recently, so that’s up for debate), they would build up the reboot to act as a spiritual successor/continuation to that imaginary conclusion to The Dark Knight. It’s been said that the film will start with Batman’s second year in Gotham, which lines it up extremely well with that particular timeline. The reboot will likely initially feature a similar tone, style, and feel to Nolan’s films (similar technology, Gotham, etc.), but will gradually allow the more fantastical aspects to take root and develop, leading to a series comparable to the one I described above. At the very least, that’s what I’m hoping for, and I feel that would be the most logical and exciting route for them to take. Anyways, I apologize for the length of this editorial for those of you who made your way through the entire analysis. Here's to the continued success of Batman on screen.
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