On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.
In the wide open spaces of Batman mythology, Christopher Nolan is famous for playing things a little fast and loose. Depending on who you talk to, this is either a flaw or a feature.
Christian Bale’s growling, gritty vigilante prowls the streets of a Gotham City that feels more like it belongs in the world of a true crime thriller than a comic book, and to get to that point, certain concessions had to be made. Unlike his four color counterpart, Nolan’s Batman is a guy who works absolutely and uncompromisingly alone.
But here’s the thing: Batman was never designed to work completely alone in the first place.
The Nolan trilogy’s refutation of that one principle, and all the flaws that came with it, are never more obvious than in the Joker’s gambit to kill either Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes. The movie’s second big twist plays out something like this:
After finally being taken into police custody, the Joker has his henchmen rig up a devilish no-win trap for Batman involving the “love of his life” (Rachel) and his hope for the city (Dent.) They’re both trapped in different locations rigged to blow on the same timer, and Bruce can only rescue one. Joker offers him two addresses but, inexplicably, switches who is where.
Bruce believes he’s chosen Rachel, but ends up saving Harvey. Meanwhile, the GCPD, believing they’re rescuing Harvey, end up making it to Rachel too late. She dies in the explosion and Dent is left traumatized, scarred — it’s his first real step into his Two-Face persona in this universe — and believing Batman made the wrong choice.
The gambit itself is really part of the bigger thesis The Dark Knight tries to lay out: That one man trying to save a city — whether he wears a mask or does it in broad daylight — is an inherently impossible task. There’s a running gag in which Alfred pointedly reminds Bruce that he’s going to have to learn his limits, to which Bruce smirks and reminds him that Batman has none.
Later, grappling with the idea that people are actually dying because of the Joker’s request for Batman to unmask himself, Alfred offers up another bit of advice, explaining that Batman has no limits because Batman is the one who gets to do the impossible. Making the impossible choice — in this case, letting people die for the greater good — is what the Caped Crusader is all about.
That’s why Joker sets up his trap to begin with. He wants to test Batman’s ability to choose, to test the impossibility of a one-man force for good. He wants to be the chaos that makes the impossible justice moot. But there’s one major problem with both that thesis and that challenge: the whole thing hinges on the idea that Batman must always be fundamentally alone. He’s the one man up against the incalculable odds.
By setting up the death trap as a binary choice, the Joker assumes the only person in the whole of Gotham City competent enough to make it to one or the other on time is Batman — and he’s absolutely right. There’s no explanation given for why the GCPD doesn’t make it to Rachel on time, despite having left the station in the same moment as Bruce and, presumably, having units closer to the scene they could have radioed in. They don’t make it because they’re not Batman, and this is a Batman moment — and in this particular film universe, that’s supposed to be enough.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. The notion of the impossible goal that Bruce grapples with is absolutely part of Batman’s inherent appeal. Watching a guy — a normal human guy, no less — consistently pull off stunts that should never be done, win fights that can’t be won, and come through with plans that should never work is part of what makes Batman so endearing.
But in order to maintain that level of endearment, those moments have to be executed precisely. It’s not that Batman stories always have to be about Bruce pulling some insane stunt off perfectly, and it’s not that Batman stories aren’t allowed to be about Bruce ultimately succumbing to the inevitable and failing. But in either scenario, the logic has to hold up.
In the Harvey/Rachel plot in The Dark Knight, there are two reasons why Bruce fails. One, he’s alone. He’s the only person who can save the day here and there are no other vigilantes, sidekicks or otherwise, who can step in to make things right. Two, Rachel has to die to spark Harvey’s transformation into Two-Face because the plot demands it happen that way. Frankly? Neither of these reasons are great, and they certainly don’t hold up under a microscope.
Over in the comics, Bruce is pushed into impossible life or death situations virtually every day. Two dimensional Batman’s world is a lot more dangerous than three dimensional Batman’s, and most of that danger is a lot bigger. During moments of crisis (or even capital-C Crisis, as the DC Universe employs on the regular) Batman finds his strength and his ability to conquer the impossible — to be the Caped Crusader that’s been captivating fans for nearly eighty years — because he’s not bogged down by the extremely Nolan-verse idea that his validity stems from his isolation.
Batman has friends, and peers like Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman, and so on, who are his equals on just about every count. And in moments when he does start to skew towards that isolation, stories like Bruce Wayne: Fugitive and Officer Down (the latter of which played a small role in inspiring The Dark Knight’s Gordon subplot), those peers can knock him back into place.
Batman should always be allowed to fail. He should repeatedly come up against situations where the outcome seems impossible and sometimes that should be true. But when Bruce’s inability to resolve a conflict boils down to his stubborn lack of community and willful isolation for isolation’s sake, the story stops being about Batman growing and changing and starts being about a petulant boy in a bat mask who refuses to ask for help, even at astronomical cost. The Nolan-verse clearly did not agree with the age old adage that “Batman needs a Robin.” But it certainly would have done well to consider it.