The Dark Knight trilogy: The inconclusive battle for Gotham’s soul

The Dark Knight is now ten years old. Viewed together, the three films invite comparison to the story of Abraham and God’s judgment on Sodom — but something is missing: finality.

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Squint hard enough at almost any popular film, and you can find biblical parallels of one sort or another, often Christological motifs (e.g., death and resurrection).

Such parallels are frequently strained and seldom illuminating. Yet I’m struck by the extent to which Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Dark Knight trilogy (of which the monumental second chapter, The Dark Knight, was released ten years ago this week), watched back-to-back, can be fruitfully considered as an extended comic-book riff on the story of Abraham and God’s judgment on Sodom in the Book of Genesis.

Nolan has said that each film of the Dark Knight trilogy was independently conceived rather than being planned as part of a trilogy, and each film has its own thematic scope. Fear and responsibility are key motifs in Batman Begins. The Dark Knight is dominated by chaos and escalating conflict, while The Dark Knight Rises develops themes of pain and consequences, among others.

Nevertheless, the trilogy is linked by a unifying theme defining the conflict between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne / Batman and the villains who oppose him. The recurring question: Is there hope for Gotham City? Are its people worth saving? Is salvation even possible? Are there good people here, or is there only corruption and amoral self-interest destroying itself?

Judgment on Gotham

Carrying on in his own way the legacy of his philanthropic parents, Bruce seeks to save Gotham, to give it hope, to inspire its people. Like Abraham, he knows the city’s corruptness, but wants to see the city saved and hopes there are enough good people to make it worth saving.

Pitted against Gotham’s Dark Knight are villains who not only take God’s place as judge and executioner, but who see themselves as agents of some ultimate reality or supreme principle — in effect, of whatever takes the place of God in their worldviews.

Unlike Ra’s, the Joker is willing, in his sociopathic way, to inquire into just how good or bad the people of Gotham are. It’s like a demented echo of the depiction of Yahweh in Genesis traveling to Sodom to see for himself if the wickedness of the city is as bad as has been reported.

For Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, chaos rules. For Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, “balance” or “harmony” is the supreme principle. In effect, the same is true, by proxy, for Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, who wants to finish what Ra’s al Ghul started out of love for the latter’s daughter, Talia.

The dialogue between God and Abraham, in which Abraham pleads for the city, is echoed most directly in Batman Begins. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it,” intones Liam Neeson’s Ducard, later to be revealed as Ra’s al Ghul himself, Gotham “has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving. … Gotham must be destroyed.”

Bruce tries, like Abraham, to negotiate: “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.”

How many good people there might be, Bruce doesn’t try to quantify, and there’s no negotiating with Ra’s in any case. The Dark Knight manages to thwart his former mentor’s plans, but judgment has only been deferred, not set aside.