At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Main Problem with Nolan’s Batman

Chalk up another summer for the genre of the superhero film.  The latest—and most anticipated—is the third and, supposedly, final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises.

Being a committed superhero fan from way back, I admit to having something of an emotional interest invested in seeing to it that these cinematic adaptations of iconic comic book characters remain faithful to the traditional lore. 

It is this desire that accounts for why I despised all four chapters of the first Batman franchise just as much as I loved Nolan’s reimagining of the Dark Knight.

I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman on the night that it first opened back in the summer of 1989.  Michael Keaton portrayed the hero and Jack Nicholson his arch nemesis, the infamous “Joker.”  The movie was a phenomenal financial and critical success.


Though the best of the series that it spawned, I hated it.

And I hated it for a variety of reasons.

As of now, there are at least three things that I can recall vividly: Batman killed criminals without hesitation; among the criminals that he killed was “the Clown Prince of crime,” the Joker; and his unfailingly loyal butler, Alfred, took it upon himself to disclose his master’s duel identity to his love interest, Kim Basinger’s Vickie Vale.

For those of you who are in the least familiar with the history of Batman, I needn’t explain any further why a Batman fan would find all of this utterly unacceptable. Besides, inasmuch as it stands in glaring contrast to the 1990’s non-canonical depiction, Christopher Nolan’s conception of Gotham City’s caped crusader illuminates these inadequacies of its predecessor and more.


Bruce Wayne is a mega-billionaire whose parents were gunned down, before his very eyes, by a mugger when he was but a child.  The Waynes’ trusted butler raises him, supplying him with all of the love and emotional support that one would expect from a father.  Still, Bruce is forever traumatized by his parents’ slaying.  He is obsessed with it, and it is this obsession that all but compels him to devote all of his energies into transforming his whole person—mind and body—into the perfect weapon with which to combat evil.

Repeat: Batman is a hero, yes, but he is concerned first and foremost with fighting evil—not inspiring goodness. 

In Batman Begins, Nolan seems to get this.  It is in the first of the trilogy that Bruce Wayne resolves to become Batman so as to serve as a symbol—a symbol of fear: as Batman, he hopes to instill dread into the hearts of the lawless. 


Here, Nolan is consistent with the Batman mythos.  But by the time the most recent film comes to a close, he seems to have forgotten this, for it is here that Batman reveals that all along the idea behind the cape and cowl has been to inspire others to heroism.

Sorry, but this doesn’t wash.

Superman is a figure who is self-consciously committed to inspiring the good in others.  With his bright, flashy colors—and, crucially, bare face—he intends to be a symbol of hope, truth, and justice, a light in an otherwise dim world.  Thus, it is not for nothing that parallels between the Man of Steel and Jesus have been drawn for decades.

In other words, if Bruce Wayne sought to make others heroic through the symbol of The Batman, then he should not have chosen to dress as a creepy, nocturnal creature like a bat!


No, Batman may very well inspire goodness. And he may be pleased that he is able to do so. But this is not what he sets out to do.

He sets out to battle evil.  In fact, this may be too strong a characterization of his intentions, for Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman is just barely a choice.

He is driven to it.

Batman is a hero, but he is a tragic hero.  He doesn’t enjoy his life.  But he can’t have it any other way.  He refrains from killing his rivals, not because he has the least bit of compassion for them—he doesn’t—but because he is perpetually haunted by the fear that unless he draws that line for himself, he will become them.

Nolan brilliantly executes a happy ending for Batman. Yet this is a mistake, for in so doing, he fundamentally transforms the character into something that it isn’t.

We may as well arrange for Romeo and Juliet to go riding off into the sunset together.   






  • JD Moores

    I realize this is probably an article first posted several months back, but as an avid Batman fan, myself, I believe it does the character a disservice by limiting what the character can be. All are entitled to their opinions, of course, but one of the most widely-acknowledged reasons that Batman has arguably been a bigger cultural and commercial draw in every medium than even Superman – the “original” superhero that Batman was created to follow-up – is the way the character and, to some extent, the world he inhabits, lends itself so well to VARYING interpretations. Most so-called “cultural phenomenons” of this sort eventually wind up falling into obscurity the minute they seem to be come parodies of themselves, but Batman went through that phase of self-parody with the Adam West and Burt Ward show of the 60’s (and in the comics, which briefly mirrored the show) and eventually came out stronger than ever. You may not find Tim Burton’s Batman movies very entertaining anymore, let alone respectful of comic book canon, but there’s little question in my mind that without Tim Burton’s movies, in particular, the Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan wouldn’t even exist. Consider that in EVERY visual interpretation of Batman before 1989, his costume, for example, was always either blue and gray or black and gray. Since 1989, ALL movie characterizations have had Batman in an all-black suit – probably because it’s more logical for someone that wants to use shadows to his advantage. As to the criticism that Batman kills, look at the ending of the 1989 Batman movie one more time. Batman and Vicki are barely hanging on to the side of cathedral, God only knows how far up off the ground, and not only are they likely to fall to their deaths, but the bad guy is in the process of getting away to kill even more people. What else could Batman have done? Joker kills himself by not having the helicopter lower him back down to the ledge and instead letting it pull him up even higher as the gargoyle dangles from his ankle, eventually making him lose his grip and fall. If it had been a clear-cut act of murder, where Batman had one or more clear-cut, feasible choice, I’d agree with your assessment, but that’s not the case. In terms of the ending of The Dark Knight Rises betraying the first movie’s definition of the character, I don’t get that, either. I’ll grant that said ending, however uplifting, makes absolutely no sense. Even if Bruce does lie about the autopilot not working, he’s still obviously IN THE BAT as it flies out over the water, and it’s highly improbable, if not impossible, that he could safely eject into the water before the bomb goes off without also being affected by the bomb (i.e., killed) – let alone be able to swim to shore. Actually, the third movie in that trilogy has several logic gaffes (like how a broke Bruce Wayne manages to get from somewhere in the Middle East to a quarantined Gotham City on-foot, with no money, in a matter of days), but the notion that Bruce saying Batman could be anyone is a betrayal of the character as it was originally defined by Nolan is a mistake. Recall taht in Batman Begins, Bruce says, “As a man, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol… I can be incorruptible… I can be everlasting.” In The Dark Knight, he hopes to have inspired the hero that he thinks Harvey Dent is becoming, therefore laying and expanding upon the groundwork for the notion that this “symbol of justice” can and should be just about anybody willing to do what’s necessary. Batman is simply the form that Bruce Wayne’s symbol takes, but a symbol of justice could look like just about anything and, therefore, be just about anyone – and because the symbol isn’t necessarily just one person (which is a concept that the Batman impostors in The Dark Knight seem to realize and embrace), it becomes harder to destroy and to ignore.

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