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VIDEO ESSAY: THE DARK KNIGHT: NOLAN'S MODERNIZED MYTH

Video
by Nelson Carvajal
July 10, 2012 9:34 AM
8 Comments
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When director Christopher Nolan first conceived of his Batman film trilogy, the challenge was revitalizing a hero who had previously been buried in cinematic fantasy shtick—a de-evolution that started with Tim Burton’s promising Batman and ended with Joel Schumacher’s laughably bad Batman & Robin. And Nolan wasn’t a franchise superhero movie director either. From the get-go, Nolan was an unlikely choice to take over such a mammoth cash cow for Warner Bros. Nolan’s previous films—Following, Memento and Insomnia—were small by comparison with the Batman films but shared the common narrative thread of a protagonist struggling to find moral redemption amidst the chaotic (psychological) forces of each film’s unique environment.  Therefore, the Batman mythos and its dark, enigmatic origin story of a billionaire turned self-made vigilante proved an apt fit for the intellectual Nolan—ultimately helping the director edge out the likes of Boaz Yakin (Remember The Titans), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One) for the job of rebooting the series.

In his first entry, Batman Begins, Nolan’s masterstroke lay in envisioning Gotham City as a modern, real city. Gone were the colorful, circus-like set pieces from earlier Batman films. There weren’t any fantastical lairs or alternate dimensions. Nolan’s Gotham had public transportation, seedy corporate suits, corrupt court systems and even a lower-income housing area only accessible by street bridges. By positioning a beloved comic book superhero in a very accessible and believable environment, Nolan transcended the dated source material and forced audiences to re-evaluate Batman’s role. In other words, it wasn’t so much about what outrageous predicament Batman would have to punch (Pow!) his way out of. It was more of seeing how this new Batman could plausibly function within the day-to-day operations of the modern urban world.

After establishing a parallel “real” society in Batman Begins, Nolan raised the stakes with The Dark Knight. By zeroing in on the very relevant, modern topic of terrorism, Nolan recreated the post-9/11 atmosphere of dread and fear for the citizens of Gotham. In The Dark Knight, Nolan separated the villainous Joker character from his silly, cartoonish origins and recreated the Joker as “an agent of chaos”—a volatile criminal hell-bent on demoralizing the citizens of Gotham. The Joker’s plan was simple: If he could invoke the fear of death at every corner for every Gotham citizen, a radical unbiased social structure based on elemental fear would emerge. Thus, this society would be in constant stasis; the people of Gotham would be united by fear but torn apart by their animalistic instincts to outlive one another.

Putting Batman in the backseat in a Batman film was an important gesture for this movie and for Nolan’s work—as well as a first in the Batman filmography. In The Dark Knight, Batman himself was unusually absent from the screen, allowing for an array of equally compelling characters to come through. By building the film this way, Nolan deconstructed the mythology behind the Batman figure. Specifically, this once indomitable hero from comic book legend now became as vulnerable as anybody else in Gotham (or the real world for that matter).

Still, the fundamentals that Batman stood for as a comic book hero—justice, social order and establishing a sense of collective moral hope for Gotham—were evident in Nolan’s interpretation of the caped crusader (e.g. Batman reconciled both his and Gotham’s disillusionment with faux heroism by taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s murderous rampage in The Dark Knight). More interestingly, Nolan’s modernized Batman redefined the function of the traditional myth. Consider: The comic book Batman’s original Sociological Function was to establish a proper social order by existing outside the parameters of society, as an elite hero. In the comic book and earlier film adaptations, Batman was only accessible to Gotham’s police (via a red telephone or a bat signal in the sky); this exclusivity positioned Batman to exist as an intangible, incorruptible and unbelievably fantastic heroic figure. Yet, in Nolan’s screen narrative, Batman has been dethroned from his once-elusive crime fighter status. In an obscenely modern twist, Nolan looks to argue that order in any society cannot rest solely on an elected or officially prominent figure.

The promotional clips for Nolan’s third and final entry, The Dark Knight Rises, show Batman in the war zone streets, fighting alongside the citizens of Gotham. This is fitting imagery for Nolan’s modernization of this once-romantic comic book myth. The new Batman mythology isn’t meant to serve as adventurous escapism. The new Batman mythology reflects our very modern world, a society desperately trying to restore order amidst all the chaos—without having to always flash a bat signal in the sky.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."

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8 Comments

  • George | August 27, 2012 10:42 AMReply

    Thank you for this review; very helpful. I watched "The Dark Knight" last night as part of preparation to see the final part of the trilogy.
    Since I'm into Greek myths, I was really hoping to find some parallels in the second installment of Nolan's trilogy. Your insight that Batman is noticeably absent from the terrorized Gotham City is quite acute and we see at the end how the investment in Dent's purity proved to be so risky. (As it always is?)
    Any thoughts about archetypes that Nolan is drawing from?
    Thanks.

  • Julius yeung | July 13, 2012 8:25 AMReply

    Batman was ALWays real. Nolan brought that onscreen

  • Clayton | July 11, 2012 11:01 AMReply

    Love this piece. Nelson, you bring up a really important point in the shift to a realistic Gotham City. That whole issue isn't just restricted to former Batman films...it's indicative of something that's always been DC's biggest problem; the inability for its readers to really relate to its heroes. Marvel's always done a much better job of making its heroes seem true-to-life, and DC has built them up to be god-like figures. Nolan did a great thing in planting a real person into a real city and making him the hero.

    As for Mark's largely-inane comments, I think they pretty much speak for themselves. The one I really want to speak to is the terrorism comment. Yes, obviously terrorism was a major theme long before Chris Nolan was born. I think the point Nelson is trying to make here is that the Post 9/11 atmosphere is something that resonates very strongly with the audiences of today. We experienced that particular atrocious act of terrorism first-hand, and that's what makes it a powerful atmosphere in the film. Yes, terrorism was committed before 2001, but most of the attacks of the same scale as 9/11 are relegated to history books for many of us. We learn about them, we understand how awful the actions were, but we didn't experience them. The first-hand knowledge is what makes that atmosphere in The Dark Knight poignant.

    Okay, I lied, I want to speak to one other comment from Mark. I loved Tim Burton's Batman films, they're wonderful movies, and they're true to much about the Batman mythos in their own way. But calling Tim Burton's Gotham City realistic is ludicrous. Since when are real-world cities filled with over-saturated skylines, smoke machine streets, a severe lack of light, and buildings stuck out at exaggerated angles? The idea that Burton has ever created anything BUT wholly stylized settings is absurd.

  • hama | July 11, 2012 5:15 AMReply

    "Have you not seen any films made before the year 2001?"
    and did you, Mark? can you tell how the subject of terrorism was explored in mainstream movies like Die Hard or The Siege? was it as comicbookie as The Joker (in your opinion of course)?
    "To select one example, was it stated explicitly in Tim Burton's "Batman" that Gotham City had no public transport (or do you just assume?)--and why would you care? As I said, "pulling things out of thin air"."
    well, actually you are talking here about yourself Mark. you don't see that in Burton's movies. so it wasn't important for him to show it because he was aiming for something else. but you Mark, assume that there it was and it was important?

    obviously you're the one who think that comic book movies should always look like 90's Batman or Spider-Man. well, thank God things change. unfortunatelly, people don't.

  • brian | July 11, 2012 3:09 AMReply

    Mark V, in your mind it was overrated. You err in the belief that your opinion somehow matters to anyone other than yourself. It would be more appropriate to say that you didn't like the film as much as the majority of people did.

  • Mark V | July 11, 2012 2:23 AMReply

    Paralysis through analysis...and much of what is written is blatantly untrue. It reeks of a Christopher Nolan fanboy inventing things from thin air to justify Nolan's so-called standing as the greatest cinematic architect ever to fashion a film about the "Caped Crusader".

    "Post 9/11 atmosphere"? If I read that cliche one more time...

    So you think that the subject of terrorism and public concerns surrounding terroristic activities weren't explored by filmmakers until the beginning of the 21st century? Have you not seen any films made before the year 2001? The topic of terrorism is no more "relevant" now than it was in the year 1942. Nolan isn't exactly exploring virgin territory.

    For crying out loud, I grew up on reruns of the 1960s version of "Batman". Seriously, there's nothing strikingly original about what Christopher Nolan did with "The Dark Knight". Much of what you talk about, we've seen it all before, either on television or the silver screen. And you know what? Tim Burton did it better with his film version of "Batman"--and not even THAT was the gold standard for superhero films.

    "The Dark Knight" was no less silly than the 1960s "Batman" TV serial (in some ways, sillier). Nobody has explained to me why Nolan has Batman speak in that ridiculous voice. Batman's "disappearing" act? Ludicrous. I'd buy it from Spider-Man or Superman, but not from Batman. Finally, the Joker as presented in "The Dark Knight" (listen--the Joker sounds just like Jimmy Stewart!) is even more cartoonish than he ever was in the 1960s television serial--but unfortunately, nowhere nearly as fun.

    You said:

    "Nolan’s Gotham had public transportation, seedy corporate suits, corrupt court systems and even a lower-income housing area only accessible by street bridges."

    And how is this different from the Gotham City laid out in Tim Burton's "Batman"? To select one example, was it stated explicitly in Tim Burton's "Batman" that Gotham City had no public transport (or do you just assume?)--and why would you care? As I said, "pulling things out of thin air".

    BEBE: the reason why Mister Carvajal doesn't mention "Inception" is because it would neatly contradict the line where he refers to the film's director as the "intellectual Nolan".

    By the way, I didn't loathe "The Dark Knight"--it did offer some entertainment value--but boy oh boy, was it ever overly long for what it was, and is it ever horrendously overrated.

  • No | July 11, 2012 4:04 PM

    "Nobody has explained to me why Nolan has Batman speak in that ridiculous voice. "

    Well, if he spoke in his regular voice, he'd be easily recognized as Bruce Wayne. Also, that "ridiculous voice" is more threatening. After all, he is The Dark Knight.

  • Bebe | July 10, 2012 6:50 PMReply

    Really cool piece, but whither Inception?

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