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.”