Why the Bat Must Be Broken and Gotham Must be Destroyed

(this was co-conceptualized with Bo Jimenez, and the plan is that this is the opening volley of a series of essays and pieces on The Dark Night Rises.)

A common reading of The Dark Knight has been as a right-wing text, a text justifying Bush-era paranoia and extremist control, and as a reinforcement of the status quo social order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Even in trailers for The Dark Knight Rises we were given a hint that this new film would at least, in some way, address these concerns as well, and further would bring in the 99% and concepts from the Occupy movements. While Nolan’s Dark Knight saga draw upon ideas of the post-9/11 world and have referents in the real world, I do think that it’s important for us to consider it too as story and discourse on multiple levels, not a direct critique of society. As such, I would like to examine a specific question and where this has brought us thematically, since we can see the saga in its entirety now.
The question has been What does Batman fight for? And that’s what those earlier speculations to TDK addressed. The right, the status quo, the elite, the moneyed, etc. etc. etc. But here’s my answer, and here we go:
The Batman fights for Gotham City. Okay, that sounds like something simple, something basic. Thus we will elaborate. What’s important to note is that the question and answer here reveal that the question isn’t what is Batman fighting for, as that is clear. The question is, what is Gotham City? And in the course of Nolan’s saga we see that Gotham changes, and so do Batman and his fight.
When we find Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins he has just returned to Gotham City. Gotham has deteriorated and whatever it was that the Waynes had contributed to the city had been mired in the crap that the mobsters plunged it into. Bruce is fighting because of the loss of his parents, but this isn’t about family legacy (else he would reveal his name), it is about making the city a better place. And it is, as the discourse of TDK says, being the hero the city needs. Thus we have a symbol of hope who brings down the mob and expels the fear that has been instilled in the populace. Take note that one of his big bads for the first film is Scarecrow, who uses fear. Batman overcomes this fear and in effect, inspires the city to leave behind their fears and take control back from these bad elements.
With TDK we find that the mob is largely crippled and with the crusading Harvey Dent on the scene Gotham is a changing place. Batman feels that he is near hanging up the cape and cowl because someone else can continue the struggle. Gotham does not need him. Enter the Joker and chaos. More than anything the Joker forces people to question their morals, their selves, and how the other people in the city would take care of each other. Hence the big social experiment with the two ships that are asked to destroy each other to survive, or the Joker’s offers in return for killing the accountant/snitch. Batman fights the Joker to give those people on the ships time to prove their mettle. And then he sacrifices his reputation, himself as a symbol, so that the people can continue to believe in something, that something being Harvey Dent.
What happens in the aftermath of TDK is that the right-wing, extreme control side has taken full control. The order that was fought for, the order that comes in response to the maniacal chaos of the Joker, is one that is oppressive, one that has deprived people of rights. It is an order that cannot hold. And thus, with those kinds of internal pressures on the city (and this pressure illustrated in the person of Commissioner Gordon who carries the ravages of the soul on him) coupled with the external anarchic force of Bane, everything collapses. Everything must collapse, everything must be broken.
In TDKR, at the beginning, Batman has nothing to fight for. Gotham is not his Gotham anymore, Gotham itself is lost and built on lies and injustice and oppression. Batman is spiritually broken, as Alfred cannot stop pointing out. And with broken spirit he faces Bane, and is literally broken. With Batman, the city’s guardian, the city’s gargoyle, not there to defend it, the city too falls.
But for things to happen, Batman must be broken, if only so that he can piece together what he is. And Gotham, as a city, is broken and lost and it has given up so much in the name of order, given up so much for said order and safety, that it has forgotten what it gave those things up for in the first place.
Thus we can find that this last installment brings all things full circle. It shows the struggle of the spirit, not in a religious sense, but in the sense of heart and soul and what it is that drives the Batman. He finds that what he must do is be a symbol that upholds the faith of the city in itself, the faith of the people to be better than themselves, to make their city, their world better.
With order gone, with the police force trapped in the darkness, with the world literally crumbling around them, the people are forced to assess what it is they will fight for, and what they believe in. The Batman fights for Gotham, and in TDKR, Gotham fights for its soul. It fights to survive, to become a better place in spite of itself. It fights to overcome its oppression, overcome its complacency. In the end, the police force come out of the darkness and join the fight, running into gunfire and sacrificing themselves for the hope that they might get a chance to be free, to rebuild, and to be great. As such, the Batman, rising from darkness, is a symbol of light and of hope.
He fights for Gotham. What is Gotham? An ever-changing city. Because you cannot fight for a specific law or a specific person. You must fight for an ideal, fight according to a code, and these ideals and codes are always changing too. The enemies change and their methods are always different, but the struggle is “to do good.” That is extremely vague, and something that will always elude simple definitions. But that is the place that Batman inhabits. It can be anything, but for sure it is the kind of thing that a super-hero must fight for.