Fear, Causality, and Hope: The Dominant Themes in Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

Now that The Dark Knight Rises has been in theaters for over a month and many have seen it more than once, it’s time for some reflection. But let’s take this a step further and look at the themes throughout the entire trilogy. This isn’t a list to determine which of the three is best, but simply a list exploring the dominant themes of each of Christoper Nolan’s epic Batman films. While some of the themes below may seem simplistic on the surface, the presentation and depth of each theme are much more complex. Beginning with Batman Begins, the dominant theme is fear, followed by causality in The Dark Knight and hope in The Dark Knight Rises.

(Obviously this list will be filled with spoilers so stop reading if you haven’t seen Nolan’s Batman trilogy).

Batman Begins: Theme – Fear

Fear seems obvious with a villain like the Scarecrow or the method of intended destruction of Gotham at the hands of the League of Shadows, but it’s a bit more in depth across the entire film. In fact, the obviousness of the theme is why it works. This particular chapter isn’t about an introspective look at Bruce Wayne, it’s the setup of Batman. The introspection comes later.

1. Bruce Wayne’s fear of bats.

After falling down an old well, young Bruce is exposed to the bats that live beneath Wayne Manor. They immediately drive fear into his heart. This fear is further evidenced when he asks his parents to leave the opera during the performance of Mefistofele because the actors dressed like bats frighten him. The guilt he feels surrounding his parents’ murder immediately following the opera ultimately defines him and, more importantly, becomes a catalyst for the creation of Batman.

2. Bruce Wanye’s desire to strike fear into his enemies.

Alfred: “Why bats Master Wayne?”

Bruce: “Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies share my dread.”

By attempting to share his fear, Wayne hopes that fear will give him power. One of the strongest aspects of fear is the strength that it takes from its victims. This is Wayne’s ultimate goal—that fear of Batman will break down the barriers and strength of his adversaries.

3. Scarecrow and the spreading of fear through drugs and hallucinations.

Thanks to the aid of Ra’s al Guhl, Scarecrow is able to release his fear gas across the entire section of the Narrows in Gotham. Since Scarecrow’s menace is based on fear, this accomplishment is pretty much his bread and butter (although it’s short lived and Scarecrow is laughingly dispatched).

4. Ra’s al Ghul and his intent to destroy Gotham through fear and panic.

Wayne: “But really, you are going to release Crane’s poison on the entire city.”

Ducard: “Then watch Gotham tear itself apart through fear.”

By utilizing Scarecrow’s fear gas, the League of Shadows will provoke the citizens of Gotham to destroy the city. In their twisted minds, the League avoids responsibility by merely providing the catalyst and keeping their hands clean of the ensuing destruction.

The Dark Knight: Theme – Causality/ Duality

The Dark Knight is thematically the richest movie of Nolan’s trilogy. It establishes that the character of Batman has radically changed Gotham, the way criminals operate, the hope of the citizens, and has altered the way the city’s police do their job. Gotham relies on Batman. The film looks at what Batman ultimately means for Gotham.

1. The presence of Batman (cause) has made the mob more centralized and operate during the day (effect).

In the following clip, the Joker lays out what has happened in the time between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in terms of respect for Batman. The fear that Batman injected into criminals has forced the mob to conduct business when Batman isn’t a threat.

2. Batman’s actions in the city (cause) have inspired the chaos and intentions of the Joker (effect).

Because Batman has established himself as the brutal hand of the police, and the muscle outside of the law, criminals have upped their game. We’re warned about this at the end of Batman Begins, and the Joker is a perfect example. When the police stand by and let Batman do his thing, the criminals (including the Joker) have learned that the game has changed.

3. The Joker’s war on Batman and Harvey Dent (cause) lead to the destruction of hope (effect).

The Joker manipulated and (despite claims of anarchy) expertly planned the downfall of Harvey Dent. By killing citizens of Gotham and forcing Batman to surrender, the Joker removes Batman from his position as an icon of hope in the city. Suddenly, Gotham is forced to rely on a police force that doesn’t understand the enemy at hand.

4. The death of Rachel Dawes (cause) at the Joker’s hands brings about the downfall of Dent (effect).

Succumbed to complete grief, Dent is driven mad with anger at those he believes are responsible. He places his blame on the Joker, Batman, and Gordon. Gordon’s vengeful actions against those who helped the Joker capture Rachel solidify that the White Knight of Gotham has fallen.

5. Dent’s violent actions and deadly intentions from his grief and anger (cause) destroy the heroic symbol of Batman (effect).

Despite Gordon’s speech at the end of the film proclaiming him a hero, Batman’s choice to accept the murder of Dent in order to maintain the White Knight’s legacy directly brings about the destruction of the hero that is Batman.

6. Batman’s existence has led to the necessity of the Joker helping the mob. Batman and the Joker metaphorically represent two sides of the same coin. This duality is again perfectly clear in the two sides of Dent/Two-Face.

The Dark Knight Rises: Theme – Hope

While at first glance it may not seem to be the most obvious, the entire film circles around the idea of hope. Whether through the film’s characters, their actions, or spoken desires, hope is far and away the most common denominator. Whether it’s Bane’s false promises or the orphan’s chalk drawings of the Bat symbol, hope is a powerful motivator in The Dark Knight Rises.

1. Alfred hopes to see Bruce move on and have a life of his own.

Seeing Wayne as a recluse troubles Alfred. He watched Batman/Wayne rescue Gotham from the grips of the Joker, and lose the woman he loved, Rachel, amidst the chaos. After all this time, Alfred hoped that Wayne would move through his loss as well as the end of the Batman persona and finally begin to live a regular life. He tells Bruce of the journey he took to a cafe during his seven year absence in Batman Begins, and how he would sit and hope to see Bruce with a wife living happily in anonymity.

2. John Blake hopes for the return of Batman.

As the meticulous plans of Bane begin to come to fruition, Blake goes to Wayne to divulge that he knows he’s Batman. He hopes that if Batman returns, Bane can be stopped.

3. Bruce hopes to die as Batman and doesn’t fear death.

Finally accepting that his time as Batman isn’t over yet, Wayne begins to take up the mantle once more. Although he doesn’t say it directly, we’re led to believe that Wayne hopes to go out in a blaze of glory as Batman, dying heroically. “I’m not afraid that you’ll fail, I’m afraid you want to,” says Alfred to Wayne.

4. Bane wants to give (false) hope to the citizens and city of Gotham.

After trapping the police underground and eliminating the one chance of someone (Dr. Pavel) deactivating the bomb, Bane tells the citizens of Gotham at the stadium that one of them holds the detonator to the bomb. If they take back the city from the rich and powerful, they will be the salvation and hope for a failed Gotham.

5. The prison doctor hopes Bruce will rise.

While Wayne is trapped in the Pit while his city is under siege, the prison’s doctor does his best to help repair the damage inflicted on Wayne by Bane. His efforts include fixing his damaged back and helping fix his spirit and mental state. His ultimate hope is that Wayne will regain his strength and rise from the pit, just as the young child did.

6. Batman hopes to save Gotham city from the siege and Bane.

Watching his city be attacked from within and tear itself apart, Batman hopes to rise from the Pit, travel back in secrecy to Gotham, and save it with the help of Lucius Fox.

7. Miranda/Talia hopes to fulfill her father’s destiny and original plan of destroying Gotham.

After Batman nearly defeats Bane, it is revealed that Miranda Tate (aka Talia al Ghul) is Bane’s accomplice through all of this and it is her hope to complete her father’s mission in destroying Gotham. When the bomb detonates, the destruction of Gotham will be complete and her hopes to repay her father and Bane’s help during life will be complete.

8. Selina hopes that Batman/Bruce will survive the battle.

As Batman requests her help one last time, Selina/Catwoman tells Batman that he doesn’t owe the city anything more. She hopes that Wayne/Batman will survive the fight. After the main battle, when the bomb will detonate shortly, the situation is at its most dire moment. Batman needs to sacrifice himself to save Gotham (Wayne’s hope) and Selina kisses him farewell.

9. Gordon hopes for the survival of Gotham, more so, that the symbol of Batman will prevail.

Seeing Batman fly off into the early morning with the bomb in tow, Gordan hopes that Batman (knowing that Batman is Wayne) and Gotham will survive. His ultimate hope is that Batman will succeed and the legacy/symbol of Batman will live on.

10. Hope is ultimately realized for Gotham, Blake, Gordon, Alfred, Bruce, and Selina.

Gotham is saved by the apparent sacrifice of the Batman. Blake’s hope is restored after casting away his job as a police detective, when Wayne gives the mantle of the Batman and his resources to Blake. Gordon sees the commemoration of Batman’s statue and is given the surprise to see that the Bat Signal is fixed as a sign that Batman will return. Alfred finally has his dreams and hopes realized after Wayne’s funeral when he travels to the aforementioned cafe and sees Bruce with Selina, smiling and happy.

(One bit of plot hypothesis . . . I think that Batman/Wayne ultimately planned to sacrifice himself with the bomb at the end. However, when Catwoman/Selina kisses Batman before he leaves, he changes his mind, considering that maybe once his role as Batman is complete, he can hope to have a happy life. This is when he decides to fake his death through the aid of the auto-pilot on the Bat.)

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  1. I feel like a really important theme that persisted in the last two films related to how we operate as Americans contribute to our downfall. Characters in all three films use prejudice and ignorance to make dumb decisions. I love how in “The Dark Knight”, stereotypes are challenged in the scene related to the boat full of prisoners. In the Dark Knight Rises, Foley is one of many characters who make self-serving and bad decisions from a place of ignorance.

  2. Thanks for commenting Karen. I agree that there are other themes at play within the films, but I was primarily interested in what I felt were the most dominant in each film.

    Which specific character decisions are you thinking of?

    Foley isn’t a great character IMO. He is very one dimensional and his reversal at the end of the film to lead the police into battle felt forced. Ultimately his death didn’t resonate because he just didn’t feel to be that important overall, merely a symbolic leader for the police (I think Blake was more a leader).

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  4. I do agree that Foley was a particularly one-dimensional character. He does serve Karen’s point, though, by being an extension of other characters in the movie. I’m thinking of Gordon’s partner in ‘Batman Begins’, a cop who did low-level mob work. Or Coleman Reese in ‘The Dark Knight’, who thought he knew how to serve Gotham better than Batman/the BPD/Harvey Dent (and thought he could get a paycheck out of it). These are all minor characters who serve as examples of Gotham’s collective spirit.

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