Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan bent on exploring justice

July 20, 2012

By Dan Lybarger

Because The Dark Knight (2008) made more than $1 billion at the international box office, it’s hard to believe that the film’s director and co-writer Christopher Nolan was once considered a risky choice.

Nolan’s second feature-length movie Memento (2000) was considered so uncommercial that the film’s backer, Newmarket, wound up distributing the movie itself. Even art house distributors like Miramax found its reverse chronology too challenging for the average viewer.

Average viewers, though, bought enough tickets in the United States alone so that the film’s box office was five times its $5 million production budget.

Nolan’s third Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, might seem far removed from Memento, much less Nolan’s $6,000 debut Following (1998), but it winds up exploring the same ideas he has been examining in his previous films, even if they haven’t featured masked combatants, car chases or explosions.

The difference between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the vindictive amnesiac from Memento, is that Wayne, in his own imperfect way, tries to avenge the murder of his civic-minded parents by capturing criminals and helping upright Gotham City cops like Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) with their investigations.

Shelby, on the other hand, single-mindedly pursues his wife’s killer even though he doesn’t remember how she was murdered or even if she was murdered. At the beginning of Memento, he seems justifiably angry, but at the end of the film he becomes pathetic and dangerous because his anger does nothing to bring the killer to justice and may be hurting others in the process.
Shelby’s not the only Nolan protagonist who wrongly thinks that vengeance and justice are synonymous. When a Nolan character uses extralegal means to settle a score or punish a crime, the results can be tragic.

In The Prestige (2006), rival magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) sabotage each other’s tricks and wind up harming each other and those close to them.

Similarly, in Insomnia (2002), veteran cop Will Dormer (Al Pacino) risks failure in bringing an obvious murderer to justice because his habit of using tainted or false evidence is catching up with him. His inability to sleep (because Alaska’s summertime sun just won’t go away) only makes his plight worse.

In corrupt Gotham City, Bruce Wayne’s vigilantism might seem justified. But the only things separating Batman from the bad guys are restraint and compassion (the caped crusader breaks bones but avoids killing his opponents). In Batman Begins (2005), Wayne almost joins the occult group The League of Shadows but splits with them because their solution to Gotham City’s ills is to destroy the entire city in order to save it.

In Nolan’s world, vindictiveness and self-righteousness can turn heroes into villains in the blink of an eye, or in idealistic prosecutor Harvey Dent’s case, a ghastly facial injury did the trick. Dent (Aaron Eckhart), instead of trying to stop the homicidal Joker (Heath Ledger), spends his final moments in The Dark Knight going after the cops and city officials whom he believes betrayed him. He winds up becoming just as mercurial and dangerous as the villain he tried to prosecute.

The new primary villain in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane, is somewhat disappointing. While Tom Hardy has given terrifying performances in movies like Bronson, Nolan and his brother and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan aren’t sure what to do with him. Bane is angry, but it’s obvious he’s more of a nihilist than an anarchist.

Bane is not as mercurial or unpredictable as the Joker, and his agenda isn’t as lethally rigid as that of the League of Shadows leader Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). At least Nolan is smart enough to give Bane access to Batman’s bag of tricks, forcing the caped crusader to radically change strategy.

Good intentions fail to make anybody heroic in a Nolan film. At the beginning of The Dark Knight, Batman has inspired like-minded vigilantes who don’t have his cool high tech toys or his sense about when it’s appropriate to leap into danger. It’s no wonder that Bruce Wayne frequently has second thoughts about being Gotham City’s self-appointed guardian.
Even the “real” Batman has trouble figuring out what to do about his anger.

In the early portions of The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne spends eight years as a recluse in Wayne Manor because he can’t figure out what to do with himself now that the Joker is gone. When he confronts cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) at a costume ball, she asks the unmasked Batman who he’s supposed to be. He flippantly, replies, “Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.” He’s only partly joking.

Nolan loves showing off the scars and welts on Wayne’s body, so there’s a major cost to being Batman. One reason Nolan’s movies often play better on a second or third viewing is that there are many revealing but brief scenes that viewers miss.
In Memento, alert audience members can spot Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) hiding pencils and pens around her house so that Leonard can’t write down what’s about to happen. In that moment, we learn that she knows more about Leonard’s condition than she has previously revealed.

For me, the moment that encapsulates The Dark Knight isn’t the massive explosion that destroys Gotham City’s main hospital. During the end of the first act, Bruce Wayne holds a gala fundraiser for Dent because his able prosecutions could mean that Batman can hang up his cape.

In a sequence that takes probably three seconds at most, Wayne slips away from his guests and pours out all the contents of his Champagne glass. Because Batman might be needed at any moment, Wayne can’t enjoy a drink and risk letting his faculties become impaired. The Joker is still running free. Wayne’s childhood crush Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) may miss this incident, but Nolan drops a powerful hint that Wayne’s real drug is his alter ego.

Thanks to scenes like these, Nolan’s relentless questioning of what justice really entails continues even if he probably has catering budgets that exceed the costs of his first three films combined. Like Bruce Wayne, he usually avoids spending all that cash thoughtlessly.


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