Post #1: The Ethics of Nolan's Batman

Post #1: The Ethics of Nolan's Batman

By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday, July 28, 2013

After I saw Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when it came out in 2008, I was struck by a scene that occurs in the second half of the film when Batman successfully captures the Joker for the first time.

Comparisons to Tim Burton’s 1989 directorial effort (titled simply Batman) are inevitable, in part because the two films share the primary antagonist in the Joker. For all that Nolan’s trilogy has been heralded as a gritty re-imagining of Batman mythology, Burton’s film arguably kicked off the trend in superhero films; it received much of its inspiration from Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns, a milestone in “taking the superhero seriously.”

About an hour and thirty minutes into Batman, the Joker stages a street parade ostensibly in honor of Gotham City’s 200th anniversary and invites the city out to party with him via a television announcement. He also gives away free money. (Anyone remember the soundtrack Prince created for this movie? This scene is set to “Trust”, but my personal favorite is “Partyman” that accompanied the fantastic museum desecration scene. Pure awesomeness.) The Joker’s television announcement also draws Bruce Wayne’s attention, who crashes the party as Batman in the neat but ridiculously-named Batwing. (This is a relic of the campy ‘60s TV show, and even Nolan’s film-noirish take didn’t entirely do away with this. Mercifully, in the Nolan trilogy Batman’s motorcycle is not called the Batcycle. But “Batpod”? Really?)

After making a rather disturbing speech about how he will “relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives. But, as my plastic surgeon always says, if you have to go--go with a smile.” He then releases the contents of the rather innocuous-shaped floats (a crying baby, an octopus, a cat, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a clown): Smilex™ gas, which kills anyone who inhales it and gives them the appearance of the Joker himself, complete with white skin, red lips, and a rictus grin.

With a clever use of the Batwing’s scissors (who knew they would come in such handy?), Batman manages to dispose of all of the parade balloons before they do too much damage. He makes another run to take care of the real threat. As he descends on the Joker and his men, Batman flips some switches in the cockpit and we see a Gatling gun and missiles emerge from their compartments. On the ground the Joker catches sight of the Batwing, but instead of taking cover, he laughs as he stands in the middle of the street, his hands beckoning.

    JOKER: Come on, you gruesome son of a bitch. Come to me! Ha-ha-ha! Come on!

As the Batwing soars down the street, a targeting device emerges in the cockpit and Batman takes aim at the Joker and his goons. At the press of a button, missiles and the gatling gun fire, hitting and killing several members of Joker’s gang. Then, for a moment the audience sees what Batman sees: the targeting computer has the Joker directly in its sights (figure 1).

Figure 1: “Now that’s a hell of a gun!”

Figure 1: “Now that’s a hell of a gun!”

The targeting computer beeps affirmation that it’s locked on, and Batman presses a button. The missiles streak towards their target and detonate feet from an unruffled Joker. Gunfire rains around him but miraculously doesn’t hit him. He proceeds to take a gun with an absurdly long barrel (it’s got to be at least five feet) from his waistband, takes aim, and fires. The shot manages to do major damage to the Batwing, which crashes.

I want to compare this scene to a scene in The Dark Knight. At a similar point in the film (not part of the climax, but leading up to it; the one hour and twenty minute mark in this case), District Attorney Harvey Dent is being transported across Gotham City by the police. Harvey has (wrongly) claimed to be Batman, and so the Joker is tricked into attacking the convoy (or is he only pretending to be tricked? You decide).

Meanwhile the real Batman intervenes on his Batpod. He makes a dramatic entrance in front of the semi that the Joker has commandeered, at which the Joker sneers, in a conscious echo of Burton’s Joker, “Oh, you want to play? Come on.”

The Batpod accelerates toward the truck and at the last moment Batman fires grappling hooks attached to cables into the truck’s front bumper and veers off. The henchman sitting next to the Joker remarks, “He missed!”, before the cables flip the semi over. This is a reference to the opening scene of Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), in which Batman fires a grappling hook into a wall beside a clown member of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, who is holding Selina Kyle hostage. The clown similarly remarks, “You missed!”, before the Dark Knight tugs on the wire and a chunk of wall comes loose and knocks the goon unconscious.

As the Joker rolls out of the wreckage of the semi, he confronts the Batpod once again racing towards him. He growls in frustration, firing his gun into the air. Like Nicholson’s Joker he stands in the middle of the street, unafraid of what’s coming (figure 2).

Figure 2: Nolan re-plays Burton.

Figure 2: Nolan re-plays Burton.

There’s no targeting computer this time, but Batman doesn’t need it: he is headed directly for the Joker, and the Joker is relishing the moment. “Come on. I want you to do it, I want you to do it. Come on--hit me! Hit me!”

At the last moment, though, Batman howls in frustration, skidding past the Joker and slamming into the semi.

In this scene Nolan is dialoguing with Burton’s version through the issue of Batman’s ethics. In the Burton film Batman intends to kill the Joker and his men, but his technology fails to end the Joker’s life. He actually does “miss.” By contrast, the ethics of Nolan’s Batman prevent him from killing, even though he flirts with running over his antagonist. Although in the early issues of the Batman comic the Caped Crusader was perfectly willing to dispose of antagonists (in issue #1 a mobster is killed when he topples into a vat of chemicals, to which Batman replies: “A fitting end for his kind!”), his character soon developed the ethical rule that he would not take others’ lives, in part because his own parents were killed by a mugger with a gun. Through re-use of dialogue and mise-en-scène, Nolan cleverly alludes to Burton’s problematic depiction of Batman’s ethics and his own complicating positioning of the same.

But there is another wrinkle in this intertextual debate. The ethics of Nolan’s Batman aren’t without their own issues. During his training in the first film (Batman Begins, 2005) Bruce Wayne is ordered to execute a man who was arrested for stealing. He refuses on the grounds that it would make him no better than the criminals he’s fighting. (He then proceeds to kill countless members of the League of Shadows, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment). This is consistent with his earlier aborted attempt to kill his parents’ murderer; when he realizes what could’ve happened, he throws the gun into the ocean in disgust. But when he faces his villainous mentor Ra’s al Ghul at the climax of the film, he declares that he won’t rescue Ra’s from a runaway train that spells certain death: “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” This has upset critics and fans to no end, but it is consistent with Nolan’s approach. In The Dark Knight the Joker gets Batman to break his “rule” in that he causes the death of Two-Face. In the third and final film (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012) Batman warns the Cat during a brawl, “No guns. No killing.” Later, when she kills Bane, she remarks casually to Batman, “About the whole ‘no guns’ thing? I’m not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do.” It’s no coincidence that she is riding the Batpod when she does this.

The ethical behavior of Nolan’s Batman is complicated, but the trilogy constantly signposts this ambiguity. Burton’s two Batman films never really discuss Batman’s ethical views, even though the hero’s behavior is just as erratic: he tries to save Napier and fails; he ties the Joker to a gargoyle with a grappling hook, ensuring that his antagonist will fall to his death; and he straps a lit stick of dynamite to one of the Red Triangle Circus Gang in Batman Returns. Burton and Nolan’s Batmans share Miller’s gritty DNA, but through the scene I analyzed above Nolan is encouraging us to look a little closer at the issues created by this “more realistic” take on the Batman mythos. While Burton’s Batman exists in an ethical universe that is completely opaque and closed-off to the audience, Nolan makes that universe problematic and draws our attention both to the issues surrounding the behavior of his version of Batman as well as Burton’s lack of engagement.

In the next post, I’ll consider the Schwarzenegger-centric Terminator series that has spanned several films and a television series--all in the same continuity!

Post #2: “I’ll Be Back” to the Future: Past and Present in the ‘Terminator’ series (Part 1)

Post #2: “I’ll Be Back” to the Future: Past and Present in the ‘Terminator’ series (Part 1)