When The Dark Knight Rises is released on July 21, it will hit theatres as, arguably, the most anticipated film of all time. And for good reason.
DKR is the conclusion to the epic Batman trilogy which has re-energized the iconic superhero franchise thanks in large part to the trilogy’s masterful director, Chris Nolan. Under the guidance of Nolan DKR’s predecessors, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, went on to gross over $1.35 billion.
Yet despite the inclusion of many of the now requisite elements for a summer blockbuster — an A-list cast, massive budget, and high-wire action sequences — the success of these films is also partially attributable to Nolan’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist and psychological angst of the day.
This is most evident in the villains of the films who embody many of the contemporary concerns that Nolan’s audiences were grappling with when the respective films were released.
Batman Begins, released in 2005, shows the metamorphosis of Bruce Wayne as he struggles with the murder of his parents as a young boy and evolves into the crime-fighting vigilante that goes on to protect Gotham. During this process Batman faces two antagonists who each represent different concerns that were widely being harbored when the film was released. Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy) is a sociopathic doctor who utilizes fear in order to accomplish his goals and neutralize enemies. Paradoxically, Ra’s al Guhl (Liam Neeson) lived by a code of moral order, and sought to implement that order on all who had lost it.
Such a dichotomy was evident in the happenings of the time period. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were escalating, and fear lingered as to whether it was possible to quell the alarming amounts of violence and religious strife that persisted in the region. Another terrorist attack on American soil was a real possibility (a month after Begins was released, London’s public transit was attacked, killing 52). The 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry had been decided a mere six months prior to the release of the film with much of the campaign revolving on which candidate could more effectively handle the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and establish order in the region.
Much would change in the three years between Begins and The Dark Knight. The sequel, released in 2008, has Batman forming an alliance with District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in order to stifle organized crime in Gotham — a plight compounded as the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger) tries to plunge Gotham into a state of utter chaos. During the sequence of this movie Harvey Dent is violently disfigured, becoming the villain Two-Face. Dent as Two-Face attempts to radically implement the order that he could not as district attorney.
Here we see echoes of the confusion that surrounded the period. The situation in Iraq had continued to deteriorate, and no weapons of mass destruction had been found, leaving much of the nation angry at the misguidance of our country’s leaders. Katrina struck in late 2005 and became the worst natural disaster in America’s history while also exposing social and racial inequality that many thought no longer existed in our nation. Much of what the American public came to question during Katrina was reflected in Two-Face’s homicidal ponderings of whether fairness under the law was a reality or a fiction that does not apply to some. This disorder and national pain of the day had not been present in our nation since the peak of the Vietnam War, and is reflected the Joker’s attempts at anarchy. Among the Joker’s best lines in the film was “It’s a funny world we live in … Speaking of which, do you wanna know how I got these scars?” While Joker was referring to the scars on his face which formed his perpetual smile, the nation itself was pondering much of the same questions at the time.
Now, four years later the nation has a new set of problems, and, accordingly, a new villain in the Batman franchise.
Bane (Tom Hardy) claims to be “Gotham’s reckoning” intent on inflicting pain to all who stand in his way and oppose his quest on Gotham. Catwoman whispers into billionaire Bruce Wayne’s ear that “the storm is coming … [and] when it hits … you’re all going to wonder how you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” And while it is not yet evident what Bane or Catwoman’s overarching goals in DKR will be, what is clear is that both are at the helm of a violent class struggle. These new characters’ desire to inflict class warfare is reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street protests, the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, and the subsequent polarization of American politics. These events have placed the disparities of our own social structure under examination, an issue Nolan will clearly exploit in his newest Batman incarnation.
The Batman trilogy is more than a summer blockbuster or even superhero series. It has become a retelling of American angst, a depiction of our most striking fears.
And while the Scarecrow, Joker, Bane and Catwoman are all villains that seek to capitalize on our biggest fears and failings as a society, we must remember one thing through all of this: the good guy always wins in the end.