The Alexandrian

Christopher Nolan’s Batman

August 3rd, 2008

Batman!

Before I say anything else, let me say this: The Dark Knight is probably the best superhero movie ever made. It may also be the best movie of the year. It may even deserve a spot in the Top 100 movies of all time (but that depends on a few more viewings and some reflection).

I’m not one of those fanboys who confuse geekgasms with quality (although there’s nothing wrong with a good geekgasm), but The Dark Knight really is that good: The scripting, directing, and acting all come together to create something that’s thematically, dramatically, and cinematically complex and rewarding. Heath Ledger’s performance, alone, would make the movie worth watching again and again — and he’s just one jewel among many.

SPOILER WARNING

With that being said, however, I did have one major problem with the movie: The ending, while thematically powerful, makes absolutely no sense.

BATMAN: They must never know what he did.

GORDON: Five dead! Two of them cops! Three crooked mobsters! You can’t sweep that under the rug!

BATMAN: We’ll say that I did it.

GORDON: What?

BATMAN: Admittedly, I have no motive. Plus everyone knows I don’t kill people. And there’s absolutely no way that you could know that I was responsible for these killings and I have absolutely no reason to confess it to you, but I think you should get on your radio right now and call it in.

GORDON: But Harvey is lying dead right here. And I haven’t even had time to get the story straight with my family. And what possible explanation could I give for my family being here anyway?

BATMAN: No. This has to happen. I can be this guy. I can be the Dark Knight. Call it in!

GORDON: … I’m sorry, were you still talking? I was just thinking about the hundreds of people — including dozens of cops and mobsters — that the Joker has killed all over the city in the past 24 hours.

BATMAN: What about them?

GORDON: Oh! Hey! Here’s an idea. If we’re going to cover up the truth anyway, how about we just blame the Joker?

BATMAN: Oh. Yeah. I guess that makes a lot more sense. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinkiing.

GORDON: It’s okay. You’ve been hit in the head a lot today.

Oh, wait. I’m sorry. That’s not the actual ending of the movie. That’s just the Way It Should’ve Ended.

But, seriously, the ending of the movie bugged me. This type of logical plot hole usually bugs me, but I think it particularly stood out in the case of The Dark Knight because the rest of the movie was so unmitigatingly perfect. It’s like the difference between seeing a fly land on your hot dog during a picnic and seeing a fly in your soup at a $100-per-plate restaurant.

But I think it also stands out because this particular plot point was being used to tie together the thematic content of the entire film. And that thematic content was rich and powerful, so seeing it become fatally flawed at (literally) the last minute was very disappointing for me. It was like watching Achilles get shot in the heel.

And, to be sure, it would be very difficult to have corrected this problem without losing the thematic closure of the film. Off-hand, I think the only solution would have been to have Two-Face bring together everyone he felt was responsible for Rachel’s death in order to determine their fate. (This would have put Batman at the scene of the murders, made it more important for a scapegoat to be found, and allowed for the creation of a plausible narrative — mobsters and crooked cops kill Harvey Dent, Batman takes revenge.) By opting for the more streamlined approach of having Two-Face kill them (or spare them) in a series of encounters, the narrative is simplified… but, unfortunately, it’s simplified to the point of making it nonsense.

Is this a nit? Yes.

But I can also draw a direct line between this foible of The Dark Knight and a similar problem with Batman Begins: Specifically, the scene in Ra’s al Ghul’s compound at the end of Bruce Wayne’s training when he’s asked to execute a murderer and refuses. Again, this is a thematic lynchpin for the movie. And, again, it makes no bloody sense.

BRUCE: I won’t execute this man. I am not a killer… And because I’m not a killer, I will KILL ALL OF YOU.

… say what?

I guess we’re supposed to give him a pass because he saves the life of Ra’s al Ghul. But, oddly enough, the theme of the movie is a little less powerful when interpreted as “I’m different than the criminals because I won’t kill anyone played by a recognizable movie star”.

I have similar problems with the end of Batman Begins, which suffers from two gaping holes in its logic:

(1) You have a machine which vaporizes water inside metal pipes buried underground… but has no effect on any of the fleshy bags of water wandering the streets of Gotham. (By “fleshy bags of water”, of course, I mean “human beings”.) I don’t have a problem swallowing super-technology in a superhero movie, but could you at least try not to insult my intelligence?

(2) Batman seems to consistently suffer a lobotomy at the end of these movies:

BATMAN: I have a plan. Wait until the train that’s a couple blocks away starts moving. Then you drive the Batmobile and race the train towards Wayne Tower. Just before it gets there, blow up the pylons nearest to Wayne Tower and cause the entire train to collapse.

GORDON: And what will you be doing?

BATMAN: I’ll be on the train, fighting a largely meaningless battle with Ra’s al Ghul.

GORDON: Or — and this is just an idea mind you — why don’t you just get back in the Batmobile right now and blow up the train pylons we’re practically standing right next to. Or any of the other pylons between here and Wayne Tower.

BATMAN: Huh, that’s actually a pretty good idea.

GORDON: Or I could just place a quick call to Wayne Tower and tell them to cut the power supply to the tracks.

BATMAN: Huh. Okay, that’s an even better idea. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.

GORDON: It’s okay. You’ve been hit in the head a lot today.

These were not my only problems with Batman Begins: The character of Rachel — although powerfully redeemed in The Dark Knight — was a complete waste in Batman Begins. Batman’s willingness to engage in mass property destruction with seemingly little regard for the consequences or the lives that might be lost was not only disturbing, but also unnecessary and thematically inappropriate. Also, the destruction of Wayne Manor seemed wasteful and pointless.

But there’s also a part of me that feels a trifle Scrooge-like in making these (perfectly legitimate) critiques, because there is so much to love about both these movies. Batman Begins may be a significantly flawed film, but it’s also a very good film. And The Dark Knight, as I have already mentioned, may have one glaring imperfection, but is otherwise one of the best movies ever made.

I am particularly entranced with Nolan’s thematic exploration of the Batman mythos.

For example, the concept of “fear” has always lain at he heart of Batman’s origin. In Detective Comics #33, the original telling of that origin, we can read:

WAYNE: Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black, terrible… a… a…

–as if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window!

WAYNE: A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen… I shall become a BAT!

And thus was born this weird figure of the dark… This avenger of evil. The BATMAN.

And so it was perfectly natural for Batman Begins to put the words “I shall turn fear against those who prey on the fearful” into the mouth of Bruce Wayne. But giving Wayne himself the fear of bats as a young child and then having that fear create the situation that results in the death of his parents is a master-stroke. It allows Nolan to thematically ground Batman’s origin story into a character arc of overcoming and then inverting that fear.

This achievement by itself — taking an existing theme of the character and deepening it — is impressive. But Nolan doubles down again and again by exploring the concept, theme, and use of “fear” from as many angles as possible: Ra’s al Ghul, the Scarecrow, and Carmine Falcone all use fear in different ways. Gotham City itself is described repeatedly as a place of fear. And, of course, the entire plot is driven by fear in its many aspects.

When you create a work of art that explores a theme as deeply and richly as Batman Begins explores the concept of “fear”, the work can take on a life of its own. Beyond whatever statement Nolan himself might have been trying to make, the work itself is so complex and comprehensive in its treatment of the subject that the audience will find its own meanings reflected in the material. Different people will find different aspects of the movie resonating for them in different ways. And this also makes it a movie that’s not just fun to watch again, but rewarding to watch again.

We see a similar thematic exploration and expansion on multiple levels in The Dark Knight. The title itself alludes to this as the movie creates a contrast between the White Knight (Dent) and the Dark Knight (Batman).

Even the rivalry between Batman and the Joker is deepened. There has, of course, always been a sick and twisted dance between the two characters. One doesn’t have to look any farther than the Joker’s death in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to see that. But when Ledger’s Joker says, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” It’s a haunting moment that rings painfully true.

And I think the reason it rings so painfully true is because Nolan has done such a remarkably effective job, throughout the entire film, of establishing this as the confrontation that happens when “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” in the “fight for this city’s soul”.

When Nolan plays these themes — the Joker vs. the Batman; the White Knight vs. the Dark Knight; the corruptible vs. the incorruptible — against each other, the resulting tapestry is woven together into a deeply moving and deeply meaningful narrative.

I’ve already seen The Dark Knight twice. But it’s a movie that I will need to see many more times before I’ll be able to truly appreciate the depth and subtelty of Nolan’s accomplishment. And it will always be a movie that rewards another viewing… no matter how many viewings I’ve given it.

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One Response to “Christopher Nolan’s Batman”

  1. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    Jeff H
    I had at least one other logic problem with Dark Knight (I also spotted Justin’s right away), and that concerns the boat scenes. Why does everyone (with the possible exception of the prisoner who tosses the detonator out the window) play the game on the Joker’s terms in the first place? There’s nothing except for the word of a known madman to indicate which, if any, devices the detonators are *really* connected to, so why doesn’t it occur to *someone* that their detonator might blow up *their own* boat, or both, or something else entirely? This completely dissolves the supposed moral dilemma; it’s safest to just do what the one prisoner did because you have no way of knowing *what* the result will be if you trigger your device.
    Monday, September 01, 2008, 4:37:54 AM


    Justin Alexander
    That’s not a bad interpolation of a possible motivation for Batman’s willingness to do it. (A friend also pointed out that Bruce may taking this one himself as a punishment for letting Rachel die.) But it’s not actually what Batman says in that moment.

    But even if we supply a rationale explaining Batman’s motivation, the cover-up still doesn’t make sense. How did Harvey get killed? What motivation was Batman supposed to have for killing those other people? How did Gordon find out that he killed them? Why was Gordon’s family in that warehouse?

    I’m sure if we try hard enough we can fan-wank our way around at least some of these problems.

    But as thematically satisfying as the conclusion of the movie was, it just failed in terms of logic.
    Wednesday, August 13, 2008, 12:42:26 PM


    longcoat000
    The whole reason why Batman offered to be the “fall guy” for Two-Face’s crimes was alluded to earlier in the film when Batman was interrogating the Joker. The Joker said that Batman had these “rules” he was constrained by, while Joker had none. It was Batman’s own reputation as never killing anyone that allowed the Joker to laugh off all of Batman’s threats, because the only thing the Joker had to lose was his life. By allowing Gordon to pin the murders on Batman, Batman gets the same reputation as the Joker, willing to do anything (up to and including murder) to get what he wants without ever actually having to commit murder.
    Wednesday, August 13, 2008, 12:20:14 PM


    JohnnyDM
    While I think Iron Man and Hulk are good movies, I believe Dark Knight is a great movie — head and shoulders above its predecessors.

    The Watchmen is a highwater mark in the history of the comics medium. I have confidence that Zach will TRY to do the story justice in movie form, but you identify two of the major stumbling blocks to his success.
    Hopefully the clout he garnered with 300 will give him enough pull to minimize interference from the suits. However, the big problem remains: There is simply too much going on in the story to include in a 2 (or 3) hour film. This is one of the major reasons Stephen King hates most of the films based on his books. Last I heard, Zach was going to include the “Tales of the Black Freighter” parrallel storyline in the movie. Previous directors who tried to bring the book to the screen all dropped it entirely due to time constraints. Gilliam said there was too much going on in the main storyline to include the”Tales” and it would only muddy an already complex plot. Fans argue that it is integral to the whole story and it should be included.
    Making it a mini-series or trilogy could solve the length problem, but we know these are not commercially viable options.
    Thursday, August 07, 2008, 10:13:39 AM


    Justin Alexander
    @JohnnyDM: My opinion of the Hulk was not as high as yours, but I think my opinion ended up being slightly slanted because I didn’t see it until 3 days after seeing The Dark Knight. In the context of the The Dark Knight, the Hulk was a solid action movie with some really good performances… but not much more than that.

    But there’s no doubt that we have had a year of sheer riches in terms of superhero movies.

    The only reason I’m holding out strong hope for the Watchmen movie is that it’s being done by the director of 300 — who has said that he plans to take the same methodology of “filming what the comic page shows”. The only question then becomes how effectively the story can be pared down into the 2 hours of a film. (And whether or not he can avoid interference from the corporate suits who “blessed” us with the irrelevant additions to 300.)
    Wednesday, August 06, 2008, 1:16:07 PM


    JohnnyDM
    Being a movie buff and ravenous comic reader since the late seventies I have a tendency to take superhero movies very seriously. Out of love and knowledge of the genre I’ve been known to be quite critical on otherwise good movies. We’ve already seen 3 superhero movies this year. Of the 3 I thought the Hulk was best, followed closely by Iron Man with Hancock a distant third.
    Then there was the Dark Knight. I was blown away. Not only was it way better than the previous 3, it was the best movie of the year and possibly the best superhero movie ever (and I’ve seen them all, even the shelved Corman Fantastic Four). Every aspect of the movie was solid; acting, plot, cinematography, spfx, casting, dialogue, etc.
    Now to be picky:
    Justin, your analysis is dead-on. Even though Batman has no powers, he is known as “the World’s Greatest Detective” (per the byline on the comics) and would thus be a very intelligent person. Taking the rap at the end of the movie seemed entirely unnecessary and just kind of stupid. Maybe this is Nolan’s setup for the next movie where Bats is hunted as a cop-killer. He clearly needs to reinforce his Bat-headpiece.
    My major suspension of disbelief was the “sonar cell phones” and the supercomputer that can see everything. Even if you could turn every phone into a perfectly functioning sonar “pitch-catch” device you could not get the images shown on the computer screen. Then there is the problem of 5 million image streams being viewed on about 50 monitors. Even the most powerful supercomputer could not handle that much simultaneous video data. If we assume there was some filtering software (only show certain images or display images with movement) it would take some considearable coding in such a short amount of time. It did have a definite “cool” factor but I thought it was a little too far fetched.
    Another nit to pick was Gotham General Hospital. The local hospital in the small city I live in is 5 times the size of Gotham General as depicted. Being the main Hospital of (a city the size of) New York it should have been 20 times bigger. Now I understand the size constraints on a building you are going to actually physically blow up for a movie, but it was another instance of disbelief suspension for me.
    These are minor flaws in an otherwise awesome movie. I’ll have to watch it a few times more, but it’s already a contender for the best of its genre.
    On the horizon I can see the frenetic CGI glow of the Watchmen. Arguably the best superhero comic ever written it should be the pinnacle, but it was deemed unfilmable by Hollywood. I’m not holding my breath.
    Tuesday, August 05, 2008, 7:49:44 AM


    Justin Alexander
    I think it can only be called a draw: The Joker’s primary plan for winning the soul of Gotham City failed. His back-up plan succeeded… but nobody will know about it because the truth is going to be covered up.

    On the flip-side, Bruce Wayne saw the chance to win both his own soul and the soul of the city… and, in the end, both are badly compromised. Yes, Dent’s prosecution will be carried forward… but Dent himself is destroyed and the need for Batman may never come to an end.

    You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that they felt the film could’ve ended earlier, but I’m forced to disagree: If the movie were simply an action flick about Batman vs. Joker, then it certainly could have come to a quicker conclusion. But, in point of fact, the stuff with the boats and TWo-Face are not just something tacked onto the film… they are the film.

    The fight for Harvey Dent’s soul, the soul of Gotham City, and the soul of Bruce Wayne are what the film is actually about. And without the ending of the film, you’d be missing that story’s third act.

    It’s too late at night for me to really make my thoughts any more coherent than that. Plus, I really need to see the film again.
    Tuesday, August 05, 2008, 4:45:32 AM


    Arthur
    True, except the boat plan seems to have been a distraction anyway.

    Actually, I didn’t like the boat part, simply because it seemed slightly unnecessary – for me the film seemed to go on a little longer than necessary. It could have wrapped up after the Joker got away from the police, or after he blew up the hospital, and then Two-Face could have carried the third film (I could definitely see the Joker “stepping aside” so that the impact of Two-Face’s crime spree isn’t diluted). As it is they spent most of the movie setting up Two-Face and then disposed of him in half an hour. It seems a waste.

    Also, the point the Joker is trying to make with it has surely *already been made* with the whole hospital ploy? Those baying crowds of members of the general public out to kill an innocent man to protect their relatives in hospital are a pretty big indication that actually people are entirely willing to be shitty to each other for perceived benefit.
    Monday, August 04, 2008, 2:57:58 PM


    Draz
    Arthur — true. But on the other hand, to keep the answer to your question from being too clear-cut or one-sided or obvious, you have the two ships that ended up deciding NOT to blow each other up. That was a HUGE blow to the Joker’s goals and psyche. (The latter because, as Batman finally figures out near the end of the movie, Joker’s true desire is to show that “deep down, everyone’s a monster just like him.”)
    And, in another masterful stroke of plot construction … the ships not blowing each other up could receive the criticism that Batman, the protagonist, didn’t actually have anything to do with it. It wasn’t *because* he believed in peoples’ basic goodness that they didn’t blow each other up. But, ironically, Batman *was* the reason that Joker wasn’t able to blow up both ships anyway. (And if he had done that, he certainly would have tried to spread the lie that the ships blew each other up.)
    Monday, August 04, 2008, 12:07:27 PM


    Arthur
    So, at the end of the day, would you call the outcome of the movie a win for the Joker or Batman?

    Because I’ve seen plenty of people talk about The Dark Knight as being the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Nolan Batman series, and I’m inclined to say they are right. The whole game plan for the side of good in general – and Batman in particular – hinges on Harvey Dent being this clean-as-a-sheet DA who dismantles organised crime in Gotham via entirely above-board means. Nolan goes out of his way, in fact, to present that not only as Gotham’s great hope to be free from organised crime, but also Bruce Wayne’s only chance to ever escape being Batman. By turning Dent into a monster the Joker has not only robbed Gotham of its white knight DA, he’s also forced Batman to remain Batman *forever* (which the Joker explicitly says that he wants), and forced the authorities to set up a cover-up and a witch-hunt which they know to be unjust, effectively making them become corrupt in the name of fighting corruption.
    Monday, August 04, 2008, 4:30:00 AM


    greywulf
    Awesome analysis, and what’s more, spot on. I guess all perfect movies have to be flawed somehow.
    Sunday, August 03, 2008, 5:02:45 PM

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