The Symbolism of Batman and Where We Put Our Faith
(Spoilers: This post will be rife with them. Do not read unless you’ve already seen the movie or couldn’t care less about the story.
And, borrowed from Jaybird because he already covered all the bases: “Since we’ll have spoilers after the cut, I imagine we’ll also discuss spoilers in the comments. I’d ask that we either put spoilers after the first couple of sentences to protect innocent eyes checking out the gift of gab *OR* that we rot13 the spoilers if we absolutely positively must talk about how they’re all in the Matrix and the real bad guy is Killer Moth and that absolutely positively cannot wait to talk about that until after the first 100 or so characters of the comment.”).
The more I thought about The Dark Knight Rises, the more problematic it felt. The magic of its high points gave way to the seeming incongruity of its less elegant ones. By last Saturday afternoon, barely 36 hours after the midnight screening I attended, the movie felt endearing, charismatic, and formally tortured.
But then two things happened. That night I re-watched (8th or 9th viewing?) Batman Begins, and the following day I went to watch TDKR again with my girlfriend who hadn’t yet seen it. For the rest of Sunday I remained a wreck, restlessly pacing the bare wood floors of my apartment, every hapless action and undirected thought throbbing with the question “What now?”
It is just that good.
The arc of Nolan’s trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne’s becoming the Batman (a symbol), moves onto his being the Batman (forced ultimately to sacrifice that symbol), and then ends with his becoming Bruce Wayne again (and ultimately the purifying and rebirth of the symbol).
In Batman Begins, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne notes that as a symbol he will be incorruptible. But whether or not this is true will become a motivating tension that takes two more movies to work itself out. The Dark Knight puts Bruce’s theory to the test, with the Joker dismantling the very moral foundation upon which the Batman exists.
Nowhere is the difference between Mavel’s Avengers and DC’s Batman displayed with more clarity than in how both deal with threats to the innocent. Robert Downy Jr.’s Ironman explicitly says that even if they can’t save the earth, you can be damn sure they’ll avenge it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Whedon’s Avengers spend most of their time beating up bad guys rather than saving civilians. But Batman’s origin story is directly tied to personal loss, and his moral superiority (as well as the naïve idealism that accompanies it) comes from the fact that he is intent on saving the victims of injustice rather than simply punishing the perpetrators of it.
The reason the Joker poses such a problem is simple: Batman can’t kill him (even if the ethical dilemmas surrounding torture remain bracketed). At the same time, the Joker’s ability to inflict random and chaotic acts of terrorism, as a direct result of the Batman’s unwillingness to unmask himself, threatens to destroy the very source of the Batman’s power: his symbolism. The Batman was never an end in itself, but rather a means toward inspiring bravery and justice in others. Much like Bruce Wayne’s hyper-philanthropy, the point isn’t that he can be Gotham’s savior alone, but that his example might encourage others to try and save it as well, in whatever little ways they can.
If the trilogy has an overriding civic message it’s one of practical idealism: taking small steps, in whatever ways that are possible, with the goal of eventually reaching change on a scale that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The movies don’t deal in neatly packaged, off the shelf politics. Instead, they achieve a subtlety and complexity that elude writers like Aaron Sorkin even at their best. The power struggles which envelop Gotham result from an intricate mixture of symbols and individuals; structures and institutions.
In TDKR, Gotham is once again a city whose rot has been pushed underground. The corruption that people were confronted with in the second movie is now subterranean again. Bruce is told in Batman Begins that the Depression persists, whether people like himself will acknowledge it or not. And so the Batman is born, whose progress in rebuilding the city is ultimately vindicated by the goodness and courage individuals display in the final showdown with the Joker, even as it stumbles and ultimately unravels by the beginning of the third movie.
The project’s obvious failures by the start of TDKR stem from the fact that Bruce makes the wrong choice in how to deal with Harvey Dent’s transformation from paragon to monster. Batman convinces Gordon that the Dark Knight must take the fall, and be blamed for Dent’s murders, so that the former DA can remain the unblemished White Knight that Gotham supposedly “needs.”
Yet this proves to be a mistake. Because ultimately, people are corruptible, as are the institutions and social structures that we put in place. Papering over Dent’s fall with lies amounts to a false idolatry which proves toxic for the city, both because it leads to excess on the part of law enforcement, but also because it distracts from the deeper injustices of which tragedies like murder are an effect rather than the cause. The Joker succeeds not by corrupting every level of Gotham’s civic hierarchy, but when doing so leads Batman to put his faith in the wrong thing: a person rather than a symbol.
TDKR continues to struggle with this question of what we have faith in though. Alfred’s characteristically prescient point that Gotham needs Bruce Wayne, his resources and his legacy, more than it needs his body, more than it needs the Batman, is only half of the equation. The city also needs the inspiration that the caped crusader’s symbolism provides. Institutions cannot save Gotham; they are inadequate and easily perverted. Neither can virtuously rich and powerful individuals; for every Bruce Wayne there is a vulture capitalist like Roland Daggett waiting in the wings. And though the symbol of Batman remains one of hope, it has power only equal to those who choose to put their faith in it.
In the first movie, Batman barks “Don’t swear to God, swear to me!” while interrogating a dirty cop. In TDKR this idea of faith returns when a special forces Captain tells Joseph Gordon Levitt’s officer Blake to put his faith in something more real than the Batman. In other words, don’t put your faith in the ideals that the Bat symbol represents: courage, strength and due process; put your faith in men and women and human made institutions which are so easily broken. Don’t put your faith in the American promise and democratic experiment, put your faith in a real man, like Barak Obama, and hope that when tested, he’s as noble and virtuous as he says he is.
In the end, TDKR suggests that good things can happen when people place their belief in higher values and allow themselves to be raised up by them, and inspired to action as a result. The political structure of Gotham is destroyed in a nod when Nolan had Bane blow up the decadent private box seats the Mayor occupies at the football game. And the police that remain active participate in the resistance movement as normal, if trained, insurgents rather than badge and gun toting officers who invoke the specter of the state to legitimate their authority. There are no institutional forces left to work with.
Nor are the earlier social structures adequate to the new circumstances in which Gothamites find themselves. Bruce Wayne already knew this, which is in part why he became Batman rather than a police officer (and why Blake will leave the force eventually rather than stay with them), and also why he is not willing to support these structures through conventional means. He has superior technology but doesn’t share it with the cops. He has a sustainable energy source that will revolutionize the world, but will not make it public until he can insure it can’t be weaponized (an impossible criterion).
Careerists in the police department want to go by the book, not only in a legal sense, but in a political and social one, concerned more with easing their burden and not upsetting the mayor than in doing what their job requires. Thus Blake is a “hothead” which the structures of the police force simply can’t find a way to flexibly accommodate. And yet if it were not for many of these same structures, loyalty, chain of command, specialized responsibilities, the police would not be in a position to assist Batman in saving the city when the time comes.
Bruce’s problem is that he doesn’t trust anyone but himself. This proves wise with regard to Miranda Tate, who literally stabs him in the back, but equally as wise when Selina Kyle does not and saves his life instead. It’s not obvious then that any of these things (institutions, bureaucratic processes, flawed human beings) are necessarily bad, untrustworthy, or need to be abolished in the way Bane would: with a nuclear bomb. Instead, there’s the implication that all of these things are necessary parts of an unwieldy jigsaw puzzle, one that it is better to try and put together rather than just throw in the trash.
TDKR reeks of an incrementalism (or true conservatism as Andrew Sullivan would call it) that’s anathema to those would tear things down and start over, or submit fully to the powers that be hoping this one, or the next one, or the one after that, have what it takes to fix our problems for us. Indeed, I think the movie plays on more than a passing allusion to, at least metaphorically, the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries the United States has arrogantly tried to remake from the top down in its liberal democratic image.
It is a sick and ironic joke, though perhaps not a completely coincidental one, that the instruments of Gotham’s liberation are a series of bomb blasts followed by martial law in which power is given back to “the people.” While Bane’s project is not a serious one, but rather a means of deeper societal torture, it nonetheless pushes us to confront the ugly reality of nation building. If Bane’s speeches sound absurd, it is in no small part because we have heard them all before.
This is why I love TDKR, and Nolan’s trilogy as a whole. It proves to be an endlessly engrossing cipher upon which current social anxieties and unresolved issues find a deeply intimate voice. The Batwing (what Lucious Fox calls simply “the Bat”) follows from the greatest tradition of comic book gadgetry, and yet who can doubt that the military is currently investing billions of dollars into building a drone of similarly devastating capabilities?
Batman is ridiculous, dresses in a cape and cowl, and swears an oath that only a comic book character could hope to maintain: to never shoot a gun or kill his adversaries. But an altered version of these crime fighting ethics are currently at the center of a national debate (or regional murmur) surrounding the President’s Kill List and drone campaign. All the more relevant then is that Batman escapes in the Batwing when he could very easily have killed Bane, Daggett, and any number of other militants on the roof the night of the stock exchange heist instead.
In moments all over TDKR, these issues come pouring through the deftly managed floodgates that connect the movie to the 21st century in a way that few other (any other?) massive pieces of pop culture have. It is ridiculous, sublime, and in its best instants as deeply disturbing as it is heartswellingly reassuring.