Monday, August 11, 2008

The Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne

I have to say I was very impressed by the, well, the sanity with which Bruce Wayne was written/portrayed in Dark Knight. I mean, really; if Batman's not sane, what's the point of pitting him against the Joker at all?

One of the most distressing Bat-trends in the last 20 years has been the revisionist Batman-is-crazy craze. The worst problem is that younger readers seem to be unaware that it's revisionist at all; they think it's just Batman 101: "He dresses up like a bat, of course he's crazy!" The idea that Batman is -- like the scores (hundreds?) of other costumed crime-fighters in the DCU -- not only perfectly sane but impressively so is utterly alien to many of them. I blame Marvel.

It's clear in both Dark Knight and its predecessor, Batman Begins, that Bruce Wayne is a highly rationale person, choosing his M.O. carefully and with a purpose in mind. Dark Knight also makes it clear he's ready-- anxious, even -- to abandon the Batman schtick if it appears that the regular instruments of justice can get and keep the city on an even keel. In fact, as mentioned in previous Dark Knight posts here, that seems to be what everyone in the film is hoping for. Well, everyone except the Joker.

Make no mistake; this is not the revisionist Bruce Wayne who has to be the Batman, and is merely Batman's tool. This is the original, the real Bruce Wayne, who's quite capable, even willing not to be Batman if there's no pressing need for him to be. The fact that this Bruce Wayne is quite willing to sacrifice Batman is made concretely clear at least twice in the film. First, it is not "Batman", but Bruce Wayne who winds up saving the life of Coleman Reese -- the man who could end Batman's career. Christopher Nolan doesn't do things like that by accident. Second, Bruce Wayne risks ending Batman's career by letting his alter ego take the murder rap for Two-Face, instead of favoring Batman's own ability to continue his crime-fighting with public approval.

But, as also mentioned in previous posts, Bruce Wayne's use of the Batman identity creates a moral dilemma for him. It does help get the regular crime situation under control; Dent & Co. almost have it licked and are ready to ermanently break the back of organized crime in Gotham. The dilemma is that the concept of the Batman -- the law-enforcer who colors outside the lines and breaks the rules to accomplish his goals -- also leads to the concept of the Joker -- the law-break who colors outside the lines and breaks the rules to accomplish his goals. Why, it's like something Two-Face would come up with, isn't it?

Batman does solve the ordinary problems, which starts to make him unnecessary; but he also generates extraordinary ones, which starts to make him necessary. Bruce Wayne is darned if he does and darned if he doesn't.

Batman confronts another irony in the Dark Knight: just as the Joker has confirmed for Batman his resolve not to kill, he chooses to take the rap for Two-Face, gaining a reputation as a killer. This is an even bitterer pill for the viewers than for the characters; we "know" Batman doesn't kill and the whole thing is just wrong. Gordon and Wayne's use of the Batman identity causes an escalation in the crime war (as personified by the Joker) that breaks Dent, promotes Gordon, and criminalizes Batman. It's not just an unfairness to the characters; if feels like an unfairness to us, and that's part of the emotional impact of the film.


Rob Pugh said...

Deft analysis, as with the others.

Answer me this though, it's a plot hole I haven't cracked yet [or I'm an idiot, take your pick.]

Why do they have Batman take the rap for Dent? In the chaos it would've been just as easy to lay the blame on the Joker. Am I the only one who sees this? Or am I missing something? It's an interesting dramatic move, but doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

Rob- my opinion is, in part, that Bruce is already accepting that he is part of the problem. Not only is he inspiring criminals like the Joker, but he's inspiring citizen vigilantes, making things even more dangerous. By openly criminalizing himself, he's not only saving Harvey's reputation, but sullying his own, turning him back to his original purpose- someone to fear, not to admire.


Anonymous said...

Bruce saw that having the police believe Batman was a murderer would help in his fighting crime.

Remember when Batman had the one gang boss hanging upside down three stories up? "You won't kill me!" the mob boss said. "Everyone knows the Bat doesn't kill!".

Right there, all of the threats implicit in being a scarey creature of the night disappear. Okay, you might get a broken leg or two, but you'll survive an encounter with the Bat. He has no power over you.

But now, there are bodies. The cops know they were killed by the Bat.

And suddenly, any encounter with him could cost you your life. You'd better tell him what he wants.

I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing.

Nate said...

Nolan truly did use the characters well.

Now if he could only direct a fight scene...

Matthew E said...

A few nights ago I was having a discussion with a friend of mine - not a comic book fan - who insisted that Batman was a) not a hero but an antihero, and b) insane. He claimed, for instance, that Batman would rather maim a criminal before turning him over to the cops than not, given any excuse to do so. I tried to set him straight but I don't think he bought it.

I blame Frank Miller.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite know who to blame.

Symbolically, Batman has to both pay for his sin of using the (who named this?) bat-sonar, and since he used it also has to separate himself from connection with orthodox authorities that might be degraded by easily being able to whistle up illegitimate force. Which of course is not their job: they must use legitimate force.

So a commenter friend of mine basically said, and I think I agree.

I am still pondering the difference between the way Harvey acts, and the way Gordon acts. By the way, thanks for this series, Scipio. But I hope once we've done the Joker, that still won't quite be the end.

Rob Pugh said...

"I am still pondering the difference between the way Harvey acts, and the way Gordon acts."

I think the key is something written here earlier... Gordon is realistically pragmatic and willing to live in the shades of gray. Dent demands everything be black and white, which is one of the reasons he cracks.

Scipio said...

Nate, are you still in town? I could use your help fixing the wireless at the store. Welch and I couldn't get it to work... .

Guys' Guy said...

Scipio...Are you reading the R.I.P. storyline? Curious after reading this entry...what your take is on that storyline? It confuses the hell out of me...especially since the only other shoot of comic that follows along is Robin...even though Nightwing, Detective & Outsiders are supposed to too...but Detective is about Hush, Nightwing is protecting some chick Harvey asked him to...Robin is the only one that even address the fact that Batman is missing and he may be crazy...SO I was curious of your I know I am confused.

Scipio said...

I am. My take? The usual Morrison.

Guys' Guy said...

LOL...Okay good to know I am not going batty...pun intended

Anonymous said...

Quote: "I blame Marvel."

Scipio. You should use that statement more often. Even when they're not to just sounds right.

Anonymous said...

The police were about to close in on the person who kidnapped Gordon & family and killed the cops, right? Batman was running from them at the end of the scene. While everyone's explanation as to why Batman lets his reputation be sullied is great, I assumed he took such drastic action because they needed someone to blame for the murders right then and there.

Batman becoming a scapegoat makes sense in the context of the movie. He was losing public support due to the Joker's crimes, he attacked a SWAT team, the people on the ferries saved themselves without his help... The Gotham police could easily portray him as crazy, and the murders being the culmination of his insanity.

If I were Nolan, I'd bring Dent back in the sequel, and have Gordon's cover-up revealed to the public.

Anonymous said...

A thought I had the other day: at DC it's your virtues that make you decide to be a hero; at Marvel it's your failings that make you decide to be a hero. I have no idea whether that's an original notion; it's probably something Scipio said years ago and has been rolling around in my mind.

Anyway, the "Batman is crazy" thing completely misses the fact that Batman will go to great lengths to save the innocent or even the not-so-innocent. That's not madness, that's altruism and compassion and empathy.

The murder of the Waynes didn't break Bruce Wayne; it forced him to recognize the value of human life, and inspired a desire to keep others from suffering. Contrast with, say, Frank Castiglione (Castle), who saw his family murdered and it made him decide to kill all the killers. Not much respect for life there.

Scip, ever pick up a copy of "Detective Comics 500" (circa 1980)? I think we have there the very first look at Earth-8, in a story where the Phantom Stranger sends the Earth-1 Batman and Robin to another world to try to save Thomas and Martha Wayne. This is a world without a heroic tradition -- no Robin Hoods, no Gilgameshii -- and what's more, the star that Krypton orbits cannot be found in that universe. Anyway, Batman saves the Waynes, but it's nonetheless a formative experience for young Bruce; we are told he will still put on a bat costume someday, but out of gratitude for the mysterious dude who saved his parents, and a desire to save others. I will consider that proof positive that Bruce Wayne is all about respecting life, not working through childhood traumas.

Ken Walden said...

I'm not sure I remember the timeline correctly, but since Joker was already captured at the end of the film it seems he wouldn't work as a scapegoat. I'm assuming part of the crimes blamed on Batman would be Harvey's death or injury?

Also, a lot would depend on whether it was publicly known that the cops that were killed were crooked. That changes Batman from crazy to ruthless in the public eye.

Gene Phillips said...


Why do you say that the concept of Batman overshadowing Bruce Wayne is "revisionist?"

My memory of the seminal Bat-issues (hmm, sounds dirty) is that Batman's war on crime is designated as an unending task, at least from the "Dirigle of Doom" story with the snippet of origin. It's often been compared with the earlier Phantom origin, wherein another costumed guy vows eternal war on evil. The bit about finding the Waynes' killer doesn't even come in at first.

It's true that the specific manifestation of this as Bruce Wayne being only a cover for an almost Platonic Batman is not around in early adventures. Bruce Wayne certainly enjoys being Bruce Wayne in his off-hours, the way a cop enjoys letting his hair down.

But the earliest I can recall Batman being tempted to step down is "Robin Dies at Dawn," and that's because he can't do his duty, not for personal satisfaction.

IMO the argument that Nolan-Batman wants to quit because he's causing more trouble than good is made in only the muddiest of manners.

Anonymous said...

Completely off track of any serious discussion, I've been wondering....

Does Bruce Wayne actually sleep with some (or all) of the many bimbos that decorate his arms?

If so, how does he explain all the bruises, cuts, and old scars? I mean, sure, extreme sports will explain some of it, but unless you suck at them, most extreme sports don't make you look like a professional punching bag all the time.

And if he doesn't sleep with them, shouldn't the tabloids be speculating quite a lot about his sexuality by now? I mean, some of the girls might make up "My Wild Night with Billionaire" stories to sell, but you'd think at least one or two might go to the tabloids complaining that Wayne is really looking for a beard, not a girlfriend.

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