Considered as one of the greatest trilogies of all time by many, The Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan chronicles Bruce Wayne’s journey from vengeance into heroism. Each installment carries a theme that pervades the lives of all its characters.
The first film, Batman Begins, has the theme of fear, the motivation which drives everyone. Bruce’s fear of bats leads to the murder of his parents. From there, he fears his own darkness in his quest for revenge. Rachel fears she may lose him to vengeance. His servant, Alfred, fears the repercussions if Bruce’s secret identity becomes known. Gotham lives in fear of its corrupt cops and the gangster that runs the city. Scarecrow uses fear to terrify his patients into insanity. Fear is how the villain, Ra’s al Ghul, intends to force Gotham to “tear itself apart” by releasing a hallucinogenic into the water system. Once it explodes, the slums will erupt into violence. And, fear is what Batman installs into the criminal populace with his vigilantism.
The story pits Bruce against a dangerous ideology. Damaged by the murder of his parents, and desperate to understand “the criminal mind,” Bruce travels the world to grasp the nature of evil and encounters it in its most terrifying form, though he does not yet know it. In his wanderings, he meets Henri Ducard, an idealist from the League of Shadows, a group whose intent is to improve society by punishing crime. At first, this appeals to Bruce, since Ducard teaches him to overcome his fears. Ducard mentors him into embracing a higher way of being and devote himself to a cause. He tells Bruce, “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal and if they can’t stop you, you become something else entirely. A legend.”
Though inspired by Ducard’s teachings of strength and power, Bruce cannot agree with the League’s belief that “Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.” He refuses to adopt their murderous mindset. When Ducard asks him to execute a murderer, Bruce refuses, burns down the League’s training camp, and returns to Gotham. Rampant corruption has devastated the city in his absence. It’s a place where most men are criminals. Bruce decides to become a vigilante known as Batman.
He puts to use the skills Ducard taught him and becomes a man of shadows and illusions. In the process, he must confront his own fears when Scarecrow targets him with the hallucinogenic. Then, he discovers his mentor and friend Ducard is actually Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows. Bruce must stop him from destroying Gotham. His defeat pivots Bruce into a deadly dance with another kind of villain, the Joker, in The Dark Knight.
The theme of the second film is chaos. The Joker and Batman are two sides of Harvey Dent’s coin: Batman tries to establish order in Gotham and the Joker provokes confusion. Batman works in darkness, preferring to remain hidden; the Joker demands he come into the light and reveal his identity. Batman refuses to let his own blackmailer become a victim of the Joker’s evil; the Joker spreads a wide swath of collateral damage in his wake. His ultimate triumph is transforming the city’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, into a murderous psychopath who uses the flip of a coin (the ultimate “chaos”) to inflict revenge for the death of the woman he loves. Rather than let the Joker win, Bruce takes the fall for Harvey’s evil so Gotham can believe in their White Knight.
Chaos is what the Joker creates in Gotham, because none of his schemes profit him other than to cause confusion, anarchy, and amusement. He burns the mountains of cash he steals. He invites men to kill each other for the right to join his gang. He tricks Bruce into letting Rachel die in an explosion. Harvey Dent, in becoming Two-Face, carries on this chaos, in also not benefiting from his crimes other than to cause pain. He leaves whether himself and others live or die up to the toss of a coin. Bruce restores the balance, when he takes the fall… he once more establishes order in Gotham. Just as Bruce fought and overcame fear, he now overcomes chaos.
In the final film, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce confronts pain, in the devastating loss of the woman he loved, his reputation as Batman, his sense of purpose, and his broken body after Bane breaks his back. Alfred faces the pain of losing Bruce after the billionaire turns against him for a secret Alfred kept from him. His police commissioner friend, Gordon, faces the pain of his wife abandoning him and being shot. Catwoman spends all her time avoiding pain, but through watching Batman experience and return despite it, she chooses to embrace heroism. The villains also carry enormous amounts of pain. Talia al Ghul suffers from the murder of her mother, a traumatic childhood, and the loss of her father, Ra’s al Ghul. Beaten almost to death in prison and thrown out of the League of Shadows, Bane “lives in constant pain.” Only his mask keeps it at bay.
Bruce must overcome depression, anguish, and cynicism to once again become not the hero Gotham deserves, but the one they need. He kills off his persona in an act that establishes Batman as a hero and is free to live an independent life away from the pain of his former life. At last, Bruce has let go of his dead parents, and the city of Gotham, and can move on from his past. He found his redemption, having fulfilled his duty and conquered fear, chaos, and pain.
Nolan explores multiple things in his trilogy, among them the dangers of ruthless idealism, anarchy, the awakening of unforeseen consequences, and the many faces of evil. Though each villain impacts Bruce, I believe he learns the most from Ra’s / Ducard, who reminds him “Your training is nothing; your will is everything.” Rachel repeats this, in her belief “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Bruce sacrifices everything—his anger, his body, his reputation, even his life—to see Gotham saved. He sees hope where Ra’s sees a need to destroy. He advocates for mercy, and stands between Gotham, a city that deserves judgment, and Ra’s who believes in punishment.
“Each time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence,” Ra’s says, “we return to restore the balance.” The League may have sacked Rome, loaded plague rats onto ships, and burned London to the ground, but because of Bruce, it does not destroy Gotham. He paves the way for good cops and politicians who want to transform the city into greatness.
Ra’s, the Joker, Talia, and Bane all represent different, dangerous forms of injustice and evil. Ra’s is the embittered idealist, a man so convinced of his moral convictions he would commit mass murder to ensure humanity improves itself. He believes “compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” He is the ultimate zealot, whereas the Joker is the ultimate anarchist. Someone who believes humanity will always revert to its baser nature and enjoys the violence it produces. He introduces anarchy to Gotham for no other reason than to watch the world burn.
Talia represents a woman driven by revenge into destroying not only her adversary, but everything he tries to protect, and losing her soul and humanity in the process. Bane is the loyalist who puts aside morality for devotion to a higher cause. He uses class warfare to pit Gotham’s residents against each other, all in the service of Talia’s desire to avenge her father’s death and fulfill his mission. He’s willing to murder and die for the woman he loves.
For many, The Dark Knight is their favorite installment in the franchise, but for me, it’s Batman Begins, because of its villain. While the Joker is the most remembered for his reign of terror, Ra’s creates Batman. He is also the villain the most like Bruce: an embittered idealist who believes in vengeance. Dealing with Ra’s forces Bruce to recognize his own dark side and choose a different path. Not vengeance, but justice. Given multiple chances to kill his enemies, Bruce refuses. He is still not infallible (he tells Ra’s, “I will not kill you, but I do not have to save you!”) but rises from the ashes to become a hero.
As intellectual as it is entertaining, Nolan’s series depicts the ultimate struggle between the yin and yang of the universe—good and evil.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.