Matthew Wilson examines the themes and visual nods that Christopher Nolan et al wove into the infamous Dark Knight Trilogy.
Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is praised the world over for its intense realism in a comic book setting, it’s layered and iconic characters, it’s faithfulness to the source material while still building its own universe. But while it deserves all this praise, people rarely talk about what’s lying under the surface and the themes that the trilogy touches upon. Now there are all kinds of themes that Nolan uses, control using fear, the order of chaos, the pain of man, but one I’ve noticed that’s carried through all three films is the use of Fire.
In Batman Begins, Bruce unintentionally starts this theme by burning down Ra’s Al Ghul’s home in the mountains, an accident brought on by his own morality. This is retaliated by Ra’s when he burns down Wayne Manor, getting his own revenge by fighting fire with fire. You have to wonder how big of an impact the destruction of Wayne Manor had on events to come, if Bruce still had access to the house and the Batcave would he have been able to keep Rachel in hiding instead of being in a secure but still easily accessible penthouse apartment.
Begins only touches on the theme of fire, mainly it’s used for Ra’s mission to metaphorically set Gotham alight and watch it burn itself to the ground, much like Rome did, and see the strong survive, making the city a better place. However it’s Batman that stops Ra’s and prevents the city from burning.
In The Dark Knight, fire plays a far more important part, the Joker, being the destructive maniac that he is, uses fire to show his means to an end. His mantra in life is “Everything burns”, fire is perhaps the most destructive force on Earth and Joker wields it like holding a pencil, he burns his money because he has no use for it, nobody should have any use for money. Remove the money, remove any unfairness in society, in order to make things fair, the system needs to be upset and to be upset; one must introduce a little anarchy.
It’s here where, in a two for one hit, Joker’s fire introduces the anarchy in the form of Harvey Dent. It’s the fire that scares Harvey, leaving one half of his face burnt to hell, but that was only a physical wound anyone can heal from, when you combine that with the fire that ultimately killed Rachel and you have the makings of a man who feels the heat and needs to let it out. It’s an internal fire that almost burns Gotham out but again Batman comes in time to put it out, taking the blame for Harvey’s murders he stops the fire of corruption from spreading.
However, as seen in The Dark Knight Rises, the fire wasn’t fully put out, it still lingers on in the hearts of Gordon, Alfred and Bruce, there’s still embers there waiting for the right trigger to set them off again. That trigger comes in the form of Bane. Bane is very much like Joker in that he uses fire as a weapon but he’s using Ra’s’ metaphorical fire, fanning the flames of Dent’s corruption to fulfil Ra’s’ dream of burning Gotham from the inside-out. Bane speaks of The Fire Rising, a metaphor for the social collapse of Gotham, leading to its destruction and then its revival. And yet again, Batman manages to stop the fire from spreading, going so far in this final film to take the full heat, costing him his life.
All three of these villains use fire to try and burn Gotham and all three of them are foiled by the Batman, you have to consider the Phoenix metaphor because that’s what all three were trying to do, they were trying to burn Gotham out so that it would come out stronger – maybe Joker wasn’t doing this fully but he was trying to create a fair world and a fair world is a strong one. However each time they fail it’s because of Batman, making you think that if the fires don’t strengthen Gotham, maybe they strengthen Batman. Maybe he’s the Phoenix.
That analogy works because at the end of all three films Batman has become something more, in Begins he’s gone from menace to public saviour, in Knight, he becomes the unsung hero, taking the blame for the crimes of others and letting everyone think he’s the villain. And then finally in Rises, Batman lets the fire consume him, letting him become the sacrificial hero, as good and as strong as he could be.
It’s also worth note that fire gives off light, the very thing Batman avoids since he’s a creature of shadow, but as Bane says, light gives man hope. By accepting the light Batman faces his weakness and gets stronger because of it.
There are literally essays that could be written on The Dark Knight Trilogy but I hoped I’ve touched upon a little part of it that some people might not have known about. Or at the very least gave you an excuse to revisit these films – not that you need one. The way Nolan crafted this trilogy to have this recurring motif that doesn’t even become a major part of the story until the final chapter and yet still appear in all three films is incredible, the fire might be rising but it’s just illuminating this trilogy all the more.