How Do We Respond to Violence: Thoughts on The Dark Knight Trilogy

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Mahatma Gandhi

“In defense of our persons and properties under actual violation, we took up arms. When that violence shall be removed, when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, hostilities shall cease on our part also.”
Thomas Jefferson

Last Friday the long awaited conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s game changing superhero trilogy was finally released to theaters full of giddy fans and skeptical critics alike. The Dark Knight Rises does an excellent job bringing the themes and characters full circle.  As a result the grand vision underlining all three of the films arises. Ra’s al Ghul, Bane, Alfred, Bruce Wayne, Celina Kyle, Harvey Dent, Joker, John Blake, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, and Lucius Fox all play a role in creating a broad canvas (probably too broad) that explores the great moral complexities of our time. It is a fantastic, exciting, and thought-provoking trilogy that ultimately struggles with how we should respond to violence and evil, especially in a post-9/11 world. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan have used the super-hero genre to create films that ask questions about justice, power, and the external events that for better or for worse shape who we become.

Batman Begins chronicles Bruce Wayne harnessing his darker side to become a symbol of justice in the dangerous and hellish city of Gotham. What does justice look like to Batman? How should the wicked be punished?  The main antagonist of the film is Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, the group that initially trained Bruce. They are a secret organization that has wiped out depraved civilizations since the beginning of time. The next depraved civilization on their hit list is Gotham City. Batman must fight for a city that he himself knows is depraved, but thinks can ultimately be redeemed. How do we respond to violence? Ras Ah Goul thinks violent retribution is the answer. Bruce Wayne hopes a symbol of justice is. Yet at the end Batman lets Ras Au Goul die. He says, “I’m not going to kill you, but I’m not going to save you.”  By in the end Bruce Wayne has created a symbol that instills criminals with fear.

The Dark Knight starts with Gotham City verging on a sense of order. Batman has slowed organized crime through his use of fear.  There is also District Attorney Harvey Dent, a beacon of light to a city that has had their fair share of corrupt officials. However the villain of the film, The Joker, has no fear of Batman and has no demented lows he won’t stoop too. He is chaos embodied. Does fear produce long lasting peace? How far will and should good men go to stop evil? Batman does not kill or use guns, but will he have to break those to stop the Joker? Is humanity just compiled of freaks and savages? Gordon, Batman, and even Alfred’s response is to lie to cover the brutal truth.

Then The Dark Knight Rises comes along and shows us Gotham better than ever. Except the peace is all based on a lie. An acute description of Gotham’s status is the famous Dickens quote: “It best of times, it was the worst of times”. Is this peace based on a lie long lasting? The terrifying Bane soon appears with utter disregard for human life and a desire to crush any hope Gotham once had. We find out he is the new leader of the League of Shadows. Ra’s al Ghul’s death was only a temporary fix. Bane is even more violent, even more terrifying than his predecessor. Chaos reins. All the protagonists struggle with guilt, fears, and doubt. Their previous responses to violence have been violence, lies, and fear. But they haven’t worked.

One of the bravest aspects of The Dark Knight Rises is its subtle confirmation that the Joker did win at the end of The Dark Knight.  I know some were surprised by The Dark Knight’s triumphant conclusion that celebrated harmony through dishonesty. Both Batman and Gordon believed it was the best they could do at the moment. However it is very clear from the beginning of Rises that it has destroyed both of them. Jim Gordon is eaten alive inside by his lies. His wife and kids left him. Bruce is a weakened recluse unwilling to engage with the world. They are both alone.

In one of Rises best scenes John Blake confronts Gordon and even condemns him for his actions. Yet has Batman done much better? And if Batman has failed then what about the police department? Are they a force of good or have they become “shackles”?

If this sounds like a pretty cynical view of the world and society, it is. By the end of the third film there has been vast amounts of despair, death, disappointment, regret, and violence. However not everything is hopeless. Christopher Nolan displays brief moments of hope in the stunning climax. There is hope and peace found not in violence, vengeance, or revolutions.

Instead it is found in compassion, love, trust, and self-sacrifice.

But is that powerful enough in Nolan’s universe?

Or will violence and fear endlessly continue?

What do you think? What has the trilogy said about violence and peace?

Does it provide any answers or just more questions?

***

          As for the actual third entry in the trilogy The Dark Knight Rises is a very good film. It may not be the best in the trilogy (The Dark Knight), but, contrary to some critics, it is still pretty fantastic. It manages to both complete the trilogy and stand-alone. Batman Begins was an origin story, The Dark Knight was an intense crime drama, and The Dark Knight Rises frames itself as an urban war epic.  It is no surprise that Nolan and his brother were inspired by Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. It is chock full of revolutions, many characters, multiple storylines, and redemption. Consequently Rises is less personal and more quickly paced than either its predecessors. This does not mean it is rushed or underdeveloped, it has a well thought out rhythm and structure. It isn’t perfect by any means and perhaps it isn’t the masterpiece Nolan hoped for, but it is far better than any superhero film that has hit theatres for a long time. In a movie year full of disappointments it is pleasant to discover one that doesn’t.

For a great review of the film (spoilers though) check out What Worked & What Didn’t In ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ 

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