Few would have foreseen the height and depth Christopher Nolan realises in the world’s Greatest Detective in 2005, a year that marks the first installment of his Dark Knight trilogy. Batman Begins explores the transformation of Bruce Wayne, and while it is an entertaining 140 minutes ride with Gotham, the film itself is arguably the most conservative one made under the name of Nolan. The moral dilemmas are touched on at an amateur level, accompanied by the typically clichéd Hollywood dialogues. Yet, to judge Batman Begins on its own would inevitably overlook the cornerstone it has created for our 21st century moral struggle and religious adventure.
The cornerstone Batman Begins provides is not the realisation that ‘justice is more than vengeance,’ but, rather, that Batman is more than a mere physical combatant: he is an idea. Even though the man that hides behind the mask is mere flesh and bone, the idea of Batman is immortal. If the Wayne legacy is more than bricks and mortar, as Alfred suggests, then Batman secedes the man who created him. ‘Training,’ therefore, ‘is not the point,’ as his mentor, Ra’s al Ghul (then known to Bruce as Henri Ducard), tells us. Through defeating his mentor, Bruce has created a symbol that will lead us into a war beyond good and evil.
What does Batman represent to those he aims to serve? Is he a silent guardian? A watchful protector? Or a vigilante who does not respect social consent? Is he a man so arrogant that he regards himself above democracy and takes the laws into his own hands? His wealth, combat training and technology would destroy the very foundation of society. Regardless of the answer, Batman represents hope to Gotham by the beginning of the second installment, The Dark Knight. Although officially classified as an outlaw, Captain Jim Gordon is in cooperation with Batman. His ambiguous status is momentarily outweighed by his contributions for the city – yet no unanswered question would be left unexploited by his nemesis, the Joker, who is threatening to tear everything apart.
“You can’t kill me without becoming like me! I can’t kill you without losing the only human being who can keep up with me! Isn’t it ironic?” – Batman #663 (The Clown at Midnight)
The Dark Knight presents the ultimate battle between good and evil – one that could only be fought by the insane. The insanity of Joker rests in his crystal-clear concept of the evil that lives inside humanity, and his understanding of the hypocrisy of morality. Thomas Hobbes tells us that morality is the foundation of human society; through the concept of morality we establish our social contract. It sets out a limit that constrains our root of evil and defines the moral conducts by which our civilisation operates. The fragile contract, however, is voided at the first sign of trouble; our system collapses and we abandon our moral conducts in order to stay alive, like mere animals. We, the civilized people, are only as good as the world allows us to be. ‘See, I am not a monster,’ teased the Joker, ‘I am just ahead of the curve.’
The insanity of Batman, in contrast, rests on his radical, irrational belief that humanity could be inspired by his deeds, that we crave and are ready to believe in good. A millionaire who inherited a business empire, Bruce’s only real hobby is to put on a bat suit under the cover of nightfall, flying around Gotham and punishing criminals with his bare hands. He forbids himself from killing but is more than happy to interrogate and torture if necessary. The extreme violence he employs against crime seems nothing but a contradiction to his belief. As Bruce Wayne himself suggests, ‘a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.’
Yet surely few of us would relate Batman to insanity. He is a hero, one who sacrifices his safety in order to restore public order; a hero who aims to return hope to the people. If this is true, then Batman is also a lunatic who indulges in heroism. The spread of good and justice would be a remedy for his childhood wound, a trauma that drives him on this destructive path. Batman allows Bruce to pursue his vision of justice through his own means while at the same time aiding the mourning of his parents.
The purest good serves as the clod from which the upmost evil is born, like Lucifer was also once an angel, but fallen
Nevertheless, Bruce knows the days of Batman are limited. ‘Gotham needs a hero with a face,’ and this hero is coming. Harvey Dent is a man who shares Batman’s enthusiasm for justice; a man who has a clean public image; a man who indulges in being a hero and secretly admires Batman; a man who is conceited enough to believe he controls his own destiny with his coin. Joker sees it all so clearly that once he understands the great importance of Rachel to both Batman and Dent, he needs only to bring destruction upon them by murdering Rachel. Despite the great importance of Dent, Batman chooses to save Rachel, and as a result, loses both.
Rachel dies and Dent lives on. The purest good serves as the clod from which the upmost evil is born, like Lucifer was also once an angel, but fallen. Dent suffers through the greatest tragedy of man when the pursuit of morality annihilates his life, obliterating everything he holds dear along the way. He gives up on his belief of order, justice and the idea of civilisation to embark into this random and unpredictable world. His coin will lead him to those who are responsible for the deaths of Rachel and himself, and it alone can decide their fate.
Harvey Dent is the ace of Joker due to his ability to reconcile the incompatible magnetic field between Batman and Joker, and the clash between the two has merged perfectly to create this new identity for Dent – Two Face. As Gotham puts its moral trust in him, the fall of Dent would mean the moral destruction of Gotham. Citizens are ready to murder Reese, who wants to expose Batman’s identity under the threat of Joker; their criminal and ‘civilised’ people are ready to ‘eat each other,’ pulling the trigger and blowing up another ship. The designators remain untouched not because Gotham is ready to believe in good, as Batman claims; instead, it is because its citizens do not have the courage to put their evilness on display; they cannot admit to the fact that their morality is after all, the worst joke. Upon the moral destruction they create for themselves, Gotham is not ready to embrace goodness, nor is it ready to admit its own evil. The image of Dent is the only thing left in this war for Gotham to maintain their faith in morality, and through bringing Dent down to his (or our) level, Joker has won everything.
Once and for all Batman knows he is the one who is responsible for Rachel, Dent and Gotham. The rules he sets up for himself are nothing but illusion he tangles himself in, and he is too late to realise the destruction of his indulgence of heroism. ‘You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ In the face of the Joker’s victory, Batman is losing everything he fights for. ‘But the Joker cannot win,’ Batman sighs as he turns Dent’s unburnt side of his face up, burying his scorched side into the ground and, in turn, covering up half of the truth. Batman is destined to refine his limits; hence, after invading everyone’s privacy in Gotham with his mobile phone-based surveillance system and taking down two SWAT teams in order to capture Joker, he finds his salvation by admitting to the crimes Dent committed – or the crimes that they committed together. He believes in Harvey Dent because he is the face of the hero that Batman could never be, and Harvey Dent believes in Batman because it is an idea that Dent could never be, and Batman fails him. His failure leads Dent to lie to Rachel the moment before she dies; Alfred lies to Bruce by burning Rachel’s letter that she chooses Dent over him; Gordon lies to his son when Dent tries to murder him; and Batman, in turn, has to lie to Gotham for the greater good. Batman is not a hero, but someone who sees beyond heroism. By shedding his mask, Batman sees for the first time morality as something beyond himself, something for all mankind. Only when he starts to see morality through the eyes of Gotham does he begin to understand the meaning of Batman; to endure, to embrace and to forgive the darkness of his city, and of himself. Batman is never meant to be a hero, rather, he is anything he needs to be in order to enable what needs to happen; ‘because sometimes, truth is not good enough; sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.’
The fall of the Dark Knight offers a temporary refuge for Gotham and sets the stage for Nolan’s ultimate theological adventure.
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