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Politics and Morals, Myths and Hope: Reading Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 13:55

Portraits in Hypocrisy

This motif is the thread that connects the vast majority of the characters in Nolan’s trilogy, and it’s far more compelling on an individual level than a societal one.

Harvey DentThe key here is to get past each person’s stated justifications for behavior and instead focus on the actions themselves – and through that process to see (most of) them as hypocrites. Two-Face wasn’t merely a quickly and easily dispatched villain in The Dark Knight; he’s the whole damned enterprise personified.

So yes, the Joker verbally advocates anarchy and chaos (“Do I look like a guy with a plan? ... I just do things”), but he executes complicated strategies that nearly require predictable behavior. In public, Bane talks like a revolutionary for the downtrodden, but he is a political and corporate terrorist who, once he seizes power, functions as a totalitarian ruler. (Sadism is his true philosophy.) Selina Kyle steals from the rich, but it’s clear early and explicitly that she’s more skilled opportunist than hardened redistribution-of-wealth ideologue.

And then there’s the Dark Knight himself, who says the right things about doing good and has two related rules (no deliberate killing, no handguns) that can’t begin to disguise his disregard for life, limb, and property. That he restates those governing principles to Selina as they forge a bond of convenience is an expert illustration of self-delusion; Batman clings to these effectively arbitrary strictures to reassure himself that he is different from his enemies. Selina, like Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker before her, rightly sees this as a flaw as much as a virtue.

So if you’re looking at any of the words of the iconic heroes or villains for guidance on how to interpret these movies, yes, they will come off as politically vague, or more accurately contradictory. Arguably the sagest line in the entire trilogy warns against putting too much stock into speech or ideas or philosophy or motives: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Even the “decent” characters can be said to be phonies.

Jim Gordon has himself become two-faced (if conflicted), praising Dent in the new movie while wanting to tell the truth about him. His hypocrisy, in the two Dark Knight movies, is couched in pragmatism: He works with crooked cops because that’s all there are, and the lie does more good than harm.

Lucius FoxHe is, in that sense, more weak that duplicitous, and he has plenty of company. As the Dark Knight’s source for technology and arms, Lucius Fox is sly, charming, and fully likable, but he’s a go-along-to-get-along guy. His objection to Batman’s surveillance masks his assent – and he’ll agree to it just this one time. The loyal butler Alfred speaks truth (actually, “troof”) and sense and wisdom to his young charge, but his interest is personal rather than ethical, and – like Fox – his nature is fundamentally deferential. (The dignified portrayals of Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine go a long way toward burying the reality that all three characters are, at core, sycophants, getting thrills on Batman’s capetails.)

Rachel DawesNolan has in the series offered a few contrasts – but they come with major caveats. Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows have a cogent, coherent philosophy, but it of course judges society as a whole and places no value on individual human life or action. Rachel Dawes came close to being a credible moral voice, but her relationships with Bruce and Harvey represented conflicts of interest.

All of this suggests that the trilogy grew from a seed of misanthropy. But with the addition of one character, The Dark Knight Rises forcefully re-frames Nolan’s Batman movies in personal moral terms rather than socio-political ones. And therein lies tenuous hope.

This conceptual construct was certainly suggested by The Dark Knight, filled with quandaries of situational ethics. The Joker can be seen as amoral – he faults Batman for those pesky rules – but he also seems genuinely curious about the choices people make. Will Batman let people die to protect his identity? Will he choose to save Harvey or Rachel? Will either set of boat people blow up the other? How many people will try to murder a nobody to save a hospital? Will anybody stop them? And the self-made luck of Dent’s two-headed coin – in which he was clearly responsible for the outcome – was with Two-Face replaced by genuine chance; does that somehow absolve him?

But it was hard to feel confident in reading that movie, in large part because both the Joker and Two-Face were insane and savage. It also lacked shape, increasingly entropic as a reflection of its villains, neither with an endgame.

John BlakeWith the whole trilogy in front of us, though, the task becomes a little easier. The Dark Knight Rises mimics Batman Begins in sinister plot, theme, and three-act structure; they are clear (and clearly intentional) contrasts to the disorder of the middle chapter. The Joker and Two-Face raise philosophical questions but cannot resolve them; the bookend movies provide some answers.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul was the voice of dubious moral certainty that Batman rejected – but only with his line-item veto. The hero drew a line at killing, and the result was two distinct but equally troublesome codes, radically different in methods and aims but still substantially similar: one unclouded but evil, the other gray but good.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake becomes the unambiguous, unencumbered, self-righteous, and righteous moral authority that the series had – by design, I think – lacked. He recalls the idealism of a younger Bruce Wayne without the revenge jones or self-loathing, and he has the elementary decency of a younger Jim Gordon. Like Bruce, he’s an orphan; like Gordon, he’s a cop.

And he correctly sees both of them as moral failures; for all the good they’ve done, they’ve also caused great harm, and their hands are, as he says, “plenty filthy.”

AlfredUnlike Alfred – who’s motivated more by love than virtue, and whose gentle Rises confrontation with Bruce is phrased hypothetically – Blake speaks truth to power, and he’s the most clear-eyed person in the series, a conscience nagging people who haven’t just crossed a line; they’re so far past the line that they can barely remember the other side.

And he walks the talk. Late in the movie, he foolishly but bravely risks his life in an effort to clear a blockade of Gotham’s remaining bridge. He stands up for others, without compromising his ideals.

The Dark Knight Rises – indeed, Nolan’s whole trilogy – cautiously casts its lot with Blake. Batman, while still capable of heroic deeds, is at core a lost cause and irredeemably damaged – as is Bruce Wayne while Batman darkens his door.

Blake, though, looks like he might be a white knight, the kind of hero Gotham needs rather than deserves.

That probably sounds familiar. After all, Harvey Dent looked incorruptible, too.

You’d be smart, then, to be skeptical that Blake represents an ultimate triumph of virtuous purity over evil (or equivocal goodness) in the series. These stories, after all, tend to repeat themselves.