09/15/2012 06:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Considering The Dark Knight Trilogy

"The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming."

Harvey Dent
The Dark Knight

Summer is nearly over and the summer movie season is winding down to its customary clunker of a conclusion. The two films expected to achieve popular dominance, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, both did. But tragedy intervened from the start to blunt the latter film's commercial impact -- it was on a near record opening weekend trajectory when madness struck (though having passed a billion dollars in global box office over Labor Day can hardly be a disappointment) -- and blur its cultural impact.

There are, of course, major spoilers ahead, so please be aware.

Consideration of The Dark Knight Rises and the trilogy of films it completes, has been obscured by the horrific shootings at its midnight debut in Aurora, Colorado. Naturally, our culture worried and kvetched endlessly and, in the end (which always comes when a tragedy is milked to its limit), did nothing about the tragedy, as I suggested would be the case at the time in The Dark Knight Shootings: "All It Takes Is A Little Push."

Arguably the key scene in The Dark Knight Trilogy. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne returns after seven years away from Gotham traveling the world, determined to become an incorruptible and intimidating symbol.

The Avengers is a fun and very entertaining film, a marketing triumph for Marvel's audacious plan to launch multiple superhero franchises and grow them not only for their own sake but for the ultimate goal of launching a superhero super-group. While it's amusing to spend time with the gang as they prepare to save New York from alien retribution/invasion, especially as they squabble like a '60s or '70s rock supergroup, the story is pretty lightweight. There are moments with this estimable cast, but anyone looking for much in the way of depth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to rely on the first Iron Man movie and last year's Captain America.

In contrast to this, The Dark Knight Rises completes an epic journey into, yes, darkness, personal, social, and political. (With more than a dash of Bond in this 50th year of the film franchise, as it happens.) And in the end, it was darkest, as Harvey Dent proclaimed in The Dark Knight, just before the dawn. Just not for him.

The Dark Knight showed that a comic book movie could be not only big, but epic. That it could thoughtfully engage major themes and concerns in society while providing a thoroughly satisfying entertainment experience. (Though clearly no easy answers on the big questions.) And that it could be one of the most popular films ever while doing it.

The Dark Knight is one of my favorite films, arguably the key film of the past decade. The Dark Knight Rises, powered by Hans Zimmer's massive score, is busier, juggling multiple threads, but ends as a very satisfying and provocative conclusion to the trilogy.

The Dark Knight Trilogy, which engages many aspects of contemporary culture, has one overarching storyline: Bruce Wayne's efforts to prevent the destruction of New York City.

Each of the Nolan Batman films revolves around provocateurs and terrorists out to destroy Gotham, i.e., New York City, by bringing out its contradictions and, in the first and final films, finally wiping its people off the map. This is a New York far past the peak we see in the early '60s heyday period of Mad Men.

New York has been deemed too corrupt and decadent to continue to exist by a highly sophisticated terrorist network. The League of Shadows is not Al Qaeda, but in its ascetic, bone-deep disdain for the lush life of Gotham -- more clearly than ever an analogue for Manhattan with all the scenes filmed there -- it has some similar concerns.

When we meet the League in Batman Begins, it's based in a mountain fastness. Nepal in South Asia rather than Afghanistan in Central Asia. Islam is not a factor but some vague sort of Eastern spiritualism is in the wind. Seemingly wrecked by its defeat at Batman's hands at the end of the first film, it is a factor in the second film only by virtue of having helped create the context for the Joker to flourish.

Yet he, too, wants to destroy Gotham. By manipulating it into destroying itself. (The films tell us nothing of the Joker's background, as he turns its mystery into a running gag. "Wanna know how I got these scars?" Which does not rule out a League role in his creation.)

Bruce Wayne is one of the most famous of fictional super-rich guys. But Wayne sure doesn't seem to like his class all that much. In The Dark Knight Rises, he excoriates a big society do he attends as he ends his tenure as a recluse and dashes out again investigating, saying that the money raised for charity is really just to fund self-aggrandizement. The people are "phonies," the contributions a tax write-off to fuel partying, the events nothing more than celebrations of the ego rather than sincere efforts to help make a difference.

Wayne intrigues for many reasons, not the least of which that he employs his fortune to make a difference. There's no poking around the edges of things, indulging in lightweight philanthropy, or simple indulgence while concentrating on racking up the profits.

In fact, Wayne only returned to Gotham, and his life as "billionaire Bruce Wayne," in the first film as a means to an end. He's very single-minded. There's no poking around the edges of things, indulging in lightweight philanthropy, or simple indulgence while concentrating on racking up the profits.

Indeed, Wayne never appears in the trilogy as a figure particularly interested in his role as billionaire capitalist. After his seven-year sojourn away from Gotham, depicted in the first film, he returns to begin his fight to change Gotham by taking on its rampant crime and corruption.

He creates the public persona of Bruce Wayne in a calculated manner, just as he creates the Batman. The eccentric playboy billionaire is every bit the fictional creation that the caped crusader is. Perhaps more so, because Wayne seems much less interested in it.

After all, he relied on family butler/confidante Alfred for the concept of "Bruce Wayne." He certainly didn't turn to Alfred to come up with the Batman.

Notwithstanding its somewhat corrosive view of the very rich, the trilogy doesn't see see liberalism, noblesse oblige variant or otherwise, as an effective answer, either. Nor does it embrace Occupy-style social revolt, viewing it rather sardonically as something prone to manipulation, as well as another form of self-aggrandizement. Which, given the evaporation of the Occupy movement, may lend it more weight than it deserves. But Nolan understands the power of the idea, if not its brief and shaky manifestation in the real world last year.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes a landmark movie trilogy.

As for liberalism, the trilogy presents it as a failure, albeit one that was only incompletely tried. Bruce Wayne's father was a sort of New Deal liberal, spending massively on anti-poverty projects and building an extensive cheap public transit system to link the city together before being murdered by a poor man turned to crime.

Wayne's opponent for most of the The Dark Knight Rises, before his true enemy is revealed, Bane, manipulates populist sentiment to build his power as a warlord.

This is why Bane is able, utilizing Occupy rhetoric, to emerge so successfully as Gotham's war lord with his coup.

But he is no liberator, he's a destroyer.

While Bane undoubtedly despises the gullibility and greed of his new Gotham followers, though not his dedicated soldiers, he especially despises the capitalists of Gotham. Told during a daring raid that there is no money for him to steal in the stock exchange, he asks his yuppie interlocutor: "Then why are you here?" One especially unfortunate tycoon learns all too late that paying Bane and his mercenaries to aid in his bid to take over Wayne Enterprises leads only to disaster, as Bane asks him disdainfully if he really imagined that the money gave him power over Bane shortly before crushing his skull.

In addition to engaging, albeit in comic book style, questions of economic crisis and class central to the current American experience, the trilogy engages the changes wrought in the wake of 9/11.

The Dark Knight presents its own version of a "Total Information Awareness" system. Developed in secret by Bruce Wayne as a means of spying on anyone in Gotham, to the horror of Lucius Fox, it's a thinly veiled metaphorical representation for the surveillance society envisioned by the Bush/Cheney Administration after 9/11.

Lucius Fox is appalled to see some of an earlier invention of his used for the purpose of spying on everyone in Gotham, insisting that is too much power to be concentrated in anyone's hands. Wayne, insisting that it must be used to find the Joker, tells him that is why he has left the power in Fox's hands. In the end, with the Joker found and stopped, Wayne allows Fox, who has vowed to resign in protest once the Joker is found, to destroy the system.

And there is the cynical deal to preserve a semblance of public idealism and pass convenient new anti-crime legislation.

The Joker succeeded in bringing Harvey Dent, Gotham's "white knight" district attorney, down to his level, successfully driving him insane and turning him into a ruthless murderer. But Batman and Police Commissioner James Gordon contrive to sweep all that under the rug and place the blame for Dent's actions on Batman.

Dent's unblemished reputation is used to pass sweeping anti-crime legislation which, though the third film is vague about this, apparently does away with some criminal defenses previously in use. But the film makes the subversive point that, although the crime rate is substantially lowered, the corruption of Gotham continues and opportunity for all is not increased.

The trilogy showcases the danger, and at times the necessity, of elements of the surveillance state. But the films argue that it only can stand on a temporary basis. On any permanent basis, it breeds fascism.

Batman Begins rebooted a franchise that had become drenched in camp.

As for the public myth, it turns out to be corrosive. Not only for Gordon -- on whom it eats away, helping wreck his family -- but for the city as well. The law that the myth enables makes it possible to crater the crime rate, but the city is nearly as corrupt and inequitable as before.

It's certainly bad for Bruce Wayne/Batman as well. Saddened by the loss of childhood sweetheart/crusading prosecutor Rachel Dawes, whom he believes, in another myth, had chosen him over Dent, he becomes a recluse, paying little attention to his business or his life. This is especially so after his one stab at renewed world-changing, a cheap clean energy system from nuclear fusion, becomes untenable. His body significantly damaged from his nocturnal pursuits -- remember, Batman has no superpowers, only the technological edge afforded him by great wealth, and can't afford to lose even one fight -- he is something of an emotional and physical wreck as The Dark Knight Rises begins.

And as always, he is a most problematic hero/anti-hero. He's not a solution for society's problems, he's a last resort.

Bruce Wayne, after all, is a vigilante, in the checkered tradition of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, which emerged amidst the chaos of the California Gold Rush, and many others long before the term "vigilante" was used. And Wayne is a vigilante with a difference; he is a masked vigilante. Right up until the conclusion of the trilogy, he is a masked man in all aspects of his life.

Rachel Dawes, well-played by Katie Holmes in the first picture and also well-played by Maggie Gyllenhall in the second, tells him at the end of Batman Begins that her fundamental problem with him is "your mask." Bruce protests that the Batman mask doesn't represent who he is, but Rachel tells him his real mask is the face she's looking at.

"The man I loved, the man who vanished - he never came back at all."

By the final film, he seems all too aware of this. It's part of his despair.

He tells Selina Kyle, who clearly intrigues him from the moment he catches her robbing him, that she is more than she appears to be just as he told Rachel that he was more than he appeared to be midway through the first film, when Rachel encountered him in eccentric playboy mode, having just joined his Euromodel playmates in an impromptu hotel restaurant swim.

Bruce Wayne's key mentor turns out to be the architect of the destruction of Gotham City (read: New York).

Christian Bale, as goes almost without saying, is not merely good in the role, he's definitive. The stepson of Gloria Steinem is excellent as Batman, as Bruce Wayne, and as the man wondering who he really is behind the "Bruce Wayne" persona he created as cover.

When he catches up with Selina at the society function and tells her she has a lot of cheek looking like a cat burglar since she is one, she has a pointed question for him:

"Who are you pretending to be?"

"Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire."

Anne Hathaway is a revelation in the role of Selina Kyle. Hathaway's casting had struck me as a mistake. A fine actress, she seemed too much the goody two-shoes for a character who is, after all, the sexy sociopath known as Catwoman. (Though she's never called that in the trilogy.)

So I was very pleasantly surprised to have gotten her totally wrong. Hathaway shines in every scene. She's like a dangerous Audrey Hepburn: Smart, witty, sexy, convincing in action scenes, a slinky black-clad black belt.

She and Bale have terrific chemistry together.

Wayne and Kyle are both damaged but vibrant souls. An alliance between the two is natural.

"To them, you're just a freak. Like me! They need you right now. But when they don't ... They'll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals. Their 'code.' It's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show ya. When the chips are down, these, uh, these 'civilized' people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."

The Joker to Batman
The Dark Knight

The Joker was right about how readily Gothamites would believe that Batman was just bad news. And he while he was premature about how quickly they would turn inward and on one another, he wasn't that far off, as we see in the third film. But it took the combined efforts of the villain Bane and the ultimate villain, his beloved Talia al Ghul, daughter of Wayne's mentor-turned nemesis Ra's al Ghul, to force the issue.

(Incidentally, I never thought that Jack Nicholson could be topped as the Joker, but Heath Ledger delivered a performance for the ages.)

The Dark Knight is filled with post-9/11 iconography.

The League of Shadows may have had nothing directly to do with creating the Joker, but its efforts and Batman's reaction to those efforts helped create the context for him. Each pushed Gotham further down the path to destruction that each sought.

The Joker is an anarchic agent of chaos. As Alfred tells Wayne, who has trouble grasping what the Joker is about: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

The Joker is not the ideologist that Ra's, Talia, and Bane are, but his intentions for Gotham/New York are the same.

Ra"s al Ghul, Arabic for "Demon's Head," lays out the rationale for his agenda late in the game in Batman Begins just before sacking Wayne Manor and leaving Wayne to burn to death.

"The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years," he says. "We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats. Burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance."

Bruce Wayne protests: "Gotham isn't beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here."

But Ra's is implacable: "You are defending a city so corrupt that we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.

"When I found you in that jail you were lost. But I believed in you. I took away your fear. And I showed you a path. You were my greatest student.

"No one can save Gotham. When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural. Tomorrow, the world will watch in horror as its greatest city destroys itself. The movement back to harmony will be unstoppable this time."

Liam Neeson, who has a spectral return in The Dark Knight Rises, gave a strong boost and wicked twist to the first film in the trilogy, appearing first as Wayne's benevolent and extremely challenging mentor Henri Ducard before being revealed as the real Ra's al Ghul. The film cunningly made use of Neeson's movie reputation as a warm mentor before he switched into a ruthless mode which has since served him well in his late-blooming career turn as an action star.

In The Dark Knight, Batman interrogates the Joker, who reveals far more than expected.

That's just another example of the mostly excellent casting that has helped propel this trilogy.

There are no fewer than six actors from Nolan's stunning 2010 film Inception in the trilogy. Michael Caine is heartfelt in all three as the faithful SAS veteran-turned-butler/confidante Alfred Pennyworth. Tom Hardy is an intelligent and powerful Bane in the finale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a scene-stealer in the finale as a young cop-turned-detective whose given name turns out, at the last, to be Robin. Ken Watanabe, a cunning billionaire in Inception, is suitably mysterioso as the faux Ra's in the first and third films. Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, aptly named as the femme fatale of the subconscious Mal in Inception, is suitably warm and impressive as the seeming ally in business and world-changing and potential wife who is actually our arch-villain. Cillian Murphy, Inception's sympathetic mark, is the nefarious shrink-turned entertaining psychopath of all three films.

Inception, which followed in the footsteps of The Matrix and the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Total Recall in the mind-frak scifi mystery adventure sweepstakes boasted a team not unlike that of the Impossible Missions Force.

But Mission Impossible isn't nearly the impactful influence on Inception, and on The Dark Knight Rises and the trilogy as a whole, that the James Bond series is.

Incidentally, you can see some related pieces here in the Bond 50 Archive.

Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy have the globe-spanning scope of Bond, not to mention the panoramic action sequences. Morgan Freeman's great Lucius Fox makes a bantering armorer for secret agent Bale, who lacks only a proper wristwatch. And Gary Oldman, at last Oscar nominated for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Michael Caine combine to approximate M as supportive police commissioner and judgmental family retainer, respectively.

The climax of The Dark Knight Rises may involve the millionth ticking-time-bomb-with-a-red-LED-display you've seen, but dang if Bond fan Nolan doesn't make that sequence thrilling. Almost as thrilling as in Goldfinger, when it was new.

The opening sequence, of the villains taking the CIA plane in mid-air is very Bondian. All that's missing is the sinuous title sequence and, of course, 007 himself.

Bane is a Bond villain. Tom Hardy even sounds rather like a weird mixture of Sean Connery and Ian McKellen strained through a high tech mixmaster. And the true villain of the picture is even more Bondian than Bane.

Both of the villains are not unlike those in The World Is Not Enough.

In fact, they are very much like them.

The big plot twist in The Dark Knight Rises is quite like that of The World Is Not Enough, the last Bond film of the '90s. In that film, the third of the four mostly excellent Pierce Brosnan Bonds, 007 finds a provocative and sophisticated love interest in the form of a very rich and powerful, not to mention lovely, woman.

Memorably played by Sophie Marceau, a French actress in the analogue to Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight Rises, she is Elektra King, the Anglo-Azeri daughter of a British merchant buccaneer who married into a Caucasus family and controlled a vast oil fortune in Western Asia before being murdered in MI6 headquarters and leaving it all to her. Victim of a youthful kidnaping by a powerful anarchist and terrorist named Renard who is incapable of feeling pain due to a bullet left in his head by an MI6 assassin which will ultimately kill him, she turns out to be not victim but puppeteer.

While Bond believes until very late in the game that it is Renard's plot to destroy Istanbul with a stolen Russian nuclear weapon, it is actually Elektra's. In addition to yielding her the sheer joy of destroying the ancient metropolis at the very crossroads between Europe and Asia, the action will also render her oil holdings vastly more valuable, and grant her a huge role in world energy politics.

Bond's associate Tanner says of the anarchist Renard: "His only goal is chaos." Much like that of the Joker. But he is really more like Bane, a willing sacrifice in service of the larger agenda of the woman he hopelessly loves.

The downbeat ending to The Dark Knight sets up the rather bleak circumstances in which we find Bruce Wayne, who has abandoned Batman, at the beginning of the third picture.

Batman Begins began a trend of very successful reboots, which include Casino Royale, Star Trek, and X-Men: First Class.

The Dark Knight took comic book movies into the box office stratosphere.

And now The Dark Knight Rises brings down the curtain on what is clearly one of the most impressive movie trilogies.

I have several favorite trilogies, from Godfather (1972, 1974, 1990), Terminator (1984, 1991, 2003), Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983), Star Trek (1982, 1984, 1986), and Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989) to The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2003, 2005).

Unlike as many as half of them, The Dark Knight Trilogy has no weak entries. I've watched all three films this month, and each has great strengths and works very well. In fact, I've alternated in recent days about which I like best, with each film laying that claim at various times.

Is it the best? At the moment, I might say yes. But more time has to pass to make that assessment.

One of the great ironies of the horrific Colorado shootings is that Batman, wait for it, doesn't use guns. Like the Doctor in Doctor Who, Bruce Wayne/Batman abhors guns. He uses his intelligence, his technology, and his strength and martial arts skills to prevail.

Bruce Wayne became Batman because his parents were shot to death in front of his horrified young eyes. After nearly killing his parents' murderer with a gun in Batman Begins, only to see him gunned down before his eyes by a mob hit woman posing as a journalist, he journeys through the global underworld learning how to live on the edge and how to fight, ultimately acquiring tremendous martial arts and ninja skills training in the Himalayas.

In fact, in The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne tells his instant frenemy Selina Kyle that his rule is hard and fast: "No guns."

How ironic that a madman would choose the conclusion of this trilogy to gun down happy fans in a movie theater.

Batman also bends over backwards to avoid killing his adversaries -- "We're on to your rules," mob boss Maroni tells him in The Dark Knight -- while of course having no compunctions about knocking them into the next time zone.

In the end of this most compelling of film trilogies, Batman knocks himself into the next time zone, even as many expected and believed in his death. This was perhaps the most delicious twist in the trilogy, with audience expectations primed for ultra-downbeat disaster.

There is a motif, in Dark Knight and Inception, of flipping a personal talisman to determine fate. Harvey Dent has his "lucky" two-headed coin; Dom Cobb has his spinning top.

But not much is really left to chance, either in those storylines or in the trilogy itself. Dent's lucky coin is "lucky" indeed; it's a two-headed affair enabling him to manipulate bets. And Nolan and company certainly didn't leave much to chance in fashioning their films.

For in the end, Bruce Wayne/Batman does save the day. He even wins through to a new life. But he doesn't do it as a lone vigilante. He does it as the leader of a team. A very unusual team, a very inspired team, a team that few could assemble. But a team, nonetheless.

Alone, he would certainly have failed. Working together, he, and they, succeeded, in spectacular fashion. As does this trilogy.

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