The Dark Knight Trilogy: How I Learned To Quit Worrying And Love The Bat (Again)

My relationship with Batman is complicated. But then, that’s the only kind of relationship Batman ever has.

First, some backstory: I was fortunate enough as a child to be raised on comics and science fiction and fairy tales just as much as the literary classics. The first book I ever read on my own, at the age of four, was the Brothers Grimm’s collected works. Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) was the first film I saw in a theater, and my father (a young dad) put Spider-Man comics into the regular bedtime story rotation, along with Disney books, The Giant Jam Sandwich, and Lyle the lovable Manhattan-apartment-dwelling crocodile. And together we watched Batman, the 1960s-era TV series starring Adam West, every time it came on (in syndication). The point of this is that the realm of what others might have called impossibility was my stock in trade. I was entirely comfortable living inside my imagination, especially because I had so few friends at school. I connected with speculative characters easily, not just because they were good and interesting and fully-realized, but in part also because they could not decide I was too strange for them, too Other.

Superman was great, but I liked Clark Kent better. Spider-Man was interesting, but I was an arachnophobe. Wonder Woman was awesome — oh, how I loved her! With her thick, curly, dark hair and invisible plane and badass bracelets, I thought, This is a girl I can hang with. Her being a princess only upped her street cred, as far as I was concerned. She was a strong woman, a role model (at least for the times), and I couldn’t imagine anyone I’d rather go out to tea with than Lynda Carter.

(Click here for a photo gallery of Carter on IMDB to see her awesomeness for yourself. Decades later, she’s still a knockout. I’d have inserted the pictures for you, but they won’t link, and frankly, there were just too many I wanted to put in.)

Carter was probably the first person whose facial features I was able to characterize in a way other than “pretty” or “ugly.” To me, her beautiful face was “sharp,” in the sense of pointed and angular. When I said that to my mom (also a Wonder Woman fan), she looked at me a little strangely, as if she didn’t really understand what I meant, but then seemed to think about it and agree, haltingly. That was the beginning of my conscious ability to describe things in slightly abstract ways.

***

As a young adult, I found I had the same affection for American Maid that my childhood self had nurtured for Wonder Woman. This new heroine was the somewhat angry but mostly annoyed-beyond-reason hybrid of Wonder Woman and Captain America. She was easy to relate to for this early-90s girl who still had to endure, on occasion, being called a “co-ed.”

 

Yes, this one throws her shoe. What of it?

 

When I was in college, I especially enjoyed the way American Maid constantly put Die Fledermaus in his sleazy place. She was speaking my language.

 

Three comic book characters walk into a bar. One of them beats the snot out of her ex with her stiletto. Then they all get a drink. 

 

The relationship — a previous, failed romance — between American Maid and Die Fledermaus was one of my favorite aspects of The Tick Animated Series. Much like the boys one dates in college are part of a bridge between that almost-halfway-decent boyfriend one puts up with in high school because one does not know any better and the truly worthwhile man one eventually marries, Die Fledermaus was part of the Batman bridge, for me, between Adam West and Christian Bale, part of a dissociative-identity progression which included Michael Keaton (cleverly humble and endearing), Val Kilmer (too blond to be brooding, opposite a cloyingly annoyingly breathless Nicole Kidman), and George Clooney (Huh? Who thought that was a good idea?).

And every woman Batman had ever been involved with was bad, bad, bad for him, either because he couldn’t connect with her on a deep level or because he was bad for her. As my friend Dorian once pointed out, unlike other super-heroes, Batman doesn’t have special powers. He has toys and brooding.

I agree. Batman’s money and grief, both the result of his parents, form a clever gravitas because it’s self-perpetuating: he can funnel his energies into his gadgets and into fighting crime vigilante-style, constantly seeking a revenge that will never be complete because there is always crime (hello, Human Condition), constantly seeking an implausible path toward healing a childhood wound that is not going to heal. In the super-hero pantheon, not having special powers might be cause for an inferiority complex, even with all the high-tech accoutrements. Is it any wonder his girlfriends couldn’t stick with him? The only one who could possibly understand him is Catwoman.

And oh, Catwoman, you put Wonder Woman (and by extension, American Maid) to shame. Your own tortured past gives you the kind of intensity that ordinary girls with their ordinary problems just can’t muster (and frankly, probably wouldn’t want to even if they were given the opportunity).

***

(Note: the next bit contains spoilers about The Dark Knight Rises. If you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, you might want to bookmark this post and finish reading it later after you catch up on your pop culture, because I’m going to discuss the ending.)

So Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has concluded. I admit I was hesitant to see the third film. I really enjoyed Batman Begins, thought Christian Bale was brilliant — my favorite Batman so far. And then The Dark Knight? Freaked. Me. Out. Part of it was that the movie was so stunningly adept in its portrayal of the worst parts of humanity; in our society which since 2001 has caught up to and even surpassed much of the rest of civilization by becoming hyper-aware of terrorism, this film was just too real. And Heath Ledger, an actor whom I had always admired and whose death I partly attribute to his being in this film, portrayed mental illness in a deeply authentic way, echoing with unfortunate and intense reverberations the hallmarks of sociopathy and schizophrenia that I have personally witnessed. Watching the film was painful in the same way that having major dental work done is painful: you know it’s probably good for you to do it, but it’s uncomfortable, and you can’t really go anywhere, literally or metaphorically riveted as you are; about halfway through you just focus on getting the experience over with.

So no, I wasn’t super keen on seeing the third film. And then the morning of the day of its official release, we woke up to news reports of the tragedy in Aurora, and all I could say to my husband before he left for work was, “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to wait a little while before going to see this movie.”

“Sure,” he said, “we can do that.” He understood how I felt and was willing to postpone our going, even though stuff like this doesn’t usually affect him in the same way it does anxious little me, and even though he had been really looking forward to going. Over that next week, as much of the country came down from the shock of the massacre and gradually relegated the experience to the news cycle, he asked me periodically whether I was feeling ready to see the movie yet. That next weekend, I decided I could be, largely because he wanted to so much, but I still wasn’t excited about it. I could have easily gone to see The Amazing Spider-Man a second time instead. But we went to see Batman.

I was pleasantly surprised. As I said, I had loved the first Nolan effort at the Caped Crusader, and the third installment was a lot more like it, both texturally and content-wise, than the freaky-scary second film. And unlike some fans, I really liked the ending. Loved it, actually. Bruce Wayne and Selina escaping their personal demons together in Italy, fabulous. I love a happy ending, especially when the people involved so desperately deserve one. (It’s the same reasoning behind my affection for the Epilogue concluding the final Harry Potter novel; give these care-worn, beaten-up, proven-themselves characters a break, will you?)

But the most passionate reason I liked The Dark Knight Rises? It’s a geeky, English-teacher one: the film’s unabashed and reverent homage to one of my all-time favorite novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (There’s a brief post about this connection on slashfilm.com, which you can read by clicking here.)

When DKR came out, critic after critic pointed out the not-so-subtle subtext of the film’s nod to the Occupy Wall Street movement (whose first anniversary, incidentally, happened this week). They pointed out Catwoman’s ferocious style of egalitarianism as a reflection of the struggles of the 99%. Sure, okay, yes. But what is this entire movement except, in some very particular ways, a repetition of the struggles which led to the French Revolution in the first place? Or to any economic revolution? The few have much, while the masses have little: two different — two frighteningly opposite — interpretations of the phrase “strength in numbers.”

I admit that while I was watching the movie, I wasn’t thinking a whole lot about the Occupy movement. I paid attention to Catwoman’s dialogue and to the undercurrent of financial inequality and acknowledged it, but it wasn’t the whole movie for me, the way some reviews had led me to believe it would be. Batman still had his brooding and his woman troubles.

But then, after the Gotham coup, I saw it. In the first scene where we see the makeshift Tribunal, Scarecrow presiding atop a precarious stack of desks and papers in a hall transformed, I saw the Tribunal of the French Revolution in front of which Dickens placed his pseudo-hero Charles Darnay. The visual and metaphorical similarities could not have been more clear. And who is that first character the film brings before the psychotic kangaroo court?

A man named Stryver. A character whose ambition exceeds his ability and whose life fills us with distaste. In T2C, this man is a social-climbing barrister of limited skills; in DKR, he is the personal assistant to one of the bad guys, the one with all the money.

The borrowed names don’t stop there. There’s a character in DKR named Barsad, too, who in T2C is a paid perjurer, a turncoat, a spy, and (as Sydney Carton, one of the finest anti-heroes in literature, calls him) “a sheep of the prisons” in revolutionary France.

But Nolan’s most glaringly beautiful homage to Dickens’ T2C is Bruce Wayne himself, the embodiment of Sydney Carton, a character masterpiece made flesh. Like Sydney, Bruce Wayne sacrifices himself for the sake of others because he comes to realize that the only way to redeem the tragedy of his life is to end it in service to something larger than himself. In so doing, both these characters, like Harry Potter and Aslan the Lion, fulfill the literary Christ-figure archetype.

And the eulogy Commissioner Gordon reads over Bruce Wayne’s burial? Taken straight out of Sydney Carton’s last monologue at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. I admit I was saying it right along with him when I went to see the film, in my quiet movie-theater voice, because it’s also one of the most heartbreakingly redemptive passages I’ve ever read, and I know it by heart.

***

So Batman and I are back together. Chris Nolan won me back over, not just with his and Christian Bale’s version of The Batman, but with his nod to great literature. With what I consider a fitting end to a gritty, gripping trilogy that revitalized what had become a frivolous franchise.

And the potential for a reboot with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robin the Boy Wonder? Yeah, that’ll do.

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15 thoughts on “The Dark Knight Trilogy: How I Learned To Quit Worrying And Love The Bat (Again)

    1. Oh, most definitely! Not that I didn’t love the milquetoasty camp of Chris O’Donnell when I was twenty years old and all, but really. I think O’Donnell was really channeling that kid who played Robin on the 1960s TV show with Adam West.

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  1. Very interesting – I liked DKR, but felt like a lot of it was uninspired. The Two Cities parallel is really interesting, though. I’ve been looking forward to coming back to the film a second time to see it and re-evaluate. That’s an aspect I’ll be excited to add in as part of its metaphor.

    Well-written.

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    1. I think the T2C parallels make the movie for me, truly. I mean, partly I went in with low expectations so anything that I enjoyed about the movie may have been slightly magnified. And I was also just relieved not to be so unutterably anxious while watching it. Getting back to the League of Shadows storyline was a good choice, I think, in that (personal to me) regard.

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  2. Agreed on so many levels. Batman Begins was my favorite because it had the most heart. I still maintain that Batman is one of the most hopeful characters in all of mythology. He goes out every night, hoping to stop others from losing their loved ones like he did.

    I started reading Tale of Two Cities before the movie came out and I must finish it before this year ends. (Cloud Atlas is slowing me down, darnit) But Dickens is fantastic. And when you have a Batman movie end wtih Gary Oldman reciting Dickens? -chills-

    And finally, yes they should have lived. Why should a character who saved the entire city have to die? Let him have peace!

    Again, I’m right there with ya. Thanks for communicating it so well. 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for your post! Definitely finish T2C. It’s SO GOOD. I teach it in my 10th grade classes as a suspense novel. It ends up being their favorite book every year, even though it’s competing with Othello and The Things They Carried and David Sedaris (among other things).

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  3. I love Dickens but haven’t read him in years. Now I really want to read T2C — I enjoyed the latest Batman film and think it really completes the film trilogy, with some nice nods also to Frank Millers The Dark Knight Returns. But yes, interesting to question how a billionaire vigilante could resonate as a hero when America (and much of the world) is wrestling with a modern-day Depression. Then again, Bob Kane debuted Bats in 1939, when you’d think the U.S. had had quite enough of economic ruin…

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    1. I think one of the reasons why Batman/Bruce Wayne the billionaire can be a hero in these times is, in part, because he’s not the stereotypical (and thus anger-provoking) image of the billionaire-against-the-masses. His intention and character, laid bare, count for a lot. His losing his fortune and Alfred probably also helps.

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  4. Andrew D. Arenson

    I don’t have your knowledge of T2C, but the tribunal screamed French Revolution to me.

    I am a sucker for happy endings, though perhaps only when they are reasonable and earned — i.e not everyone gets them, happiness is never complete, and the characters have to put out some effort to get to happiness.

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