It is easy to read too much into any movie. Especially when talking about a super hero fantasy, the genre where explosions are much more reliable than philosophical insights. However, for those of us looking for meaning in the world of banality that is Hollywood, the Dark Knight trilogy is as rich as anything else that has come out in the last many years.
Batman Begins was about fear, revenge and of how far justice can go. Through the well-known tale of Bruce Wayne and the tragic death of his parents, it shows how Wayne loses himself in the search for revenge. It also shows how good intentions can easily turn into accepting anarchy – i.e., the League of Shadows ‘burn it down and rebuild later’ idea. Actually, Wayne’s renunciation of the League of Shadows is perhaps the most defining point in Batman’s morality: the idea that justice is not an end on itself but instead a tool to save the innocent. At the end of the day this is a movie about how Batman decides to tame his own anger and how his ‘right wing’ believes are controlled by his empathy for Gotham’s citizens.
The Dark Knight is a more complex movie, which develops the theme of justice by looking at what good and evil are. The Joker is presented as the antitheses of Batman: the enabler of evil, an agent of chaos who is not interested in anything else but to disrupt society for the sake of it. It also adds Harvey Dent, the ‘white knight’ who is in many ways the ‘realistic’ version of Batman himself. The main point of the whole story line here is to show how difficult and imperfect justice is and how that justifies the existence of Batman while at the same time the existence of Batman does not solve the imperfection of justice. The Joker exploits that permanent imperfection by forcing Batman to choose between Dent and Rachel (can be seen as personal interest versus the common good). That moral conundrum is enough to completely destroy Dent: while he understands Batman’s choice he cannot accept Rachel’s death. Dent’s belief in righteousness is gone and he becomes an amoral agent who decides to act purely based on luck (“The only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”) The movie ends with the reinforcement of the power of symbols. Batman sacrifices good standing with society in order to save the legend of Harvey Dent.
The Dark Knight Rises is maybe the less complex movie of the trilogy but still an interesting one. The initial part is dedicated to show how Batman and Gordon are displaced by their own success (‘war heroes in peace time’). Wayne is also paying the price for all the physical damage inflicted by fighting crime for so long. The new villain is Bane, who we learn later is another incarnation of the League of Shadows and their continuous goal of destroying Gotham to ‘cleanse’ the world of its decay. Also new to the plot is the Cat Woman, who is an amoral character that goes back and forth between good and evil based purely on personal interest. She seems to thrive in this peaceful time and in the end she helps to enable the return of evil. That resurgence of evil is enough to bring Batman and Gordon back into action but they struggle to react (a message about the dangers of accommodation). There are several side plots about how different people deal differently with difficulties (Talia al Ghul versus John Blake) and also about how cat woman finally decides to help Batman (even though her amorality seems to persist).
The most interesting side note here is how Bane and Talia implement their destruction plan: by manipulating Gotham’s underclasses into revolting and destroying the current system in the name of ‘social justice’. This was an incredibly surprising move in my opinion, given the recent history of all the ‘Occupy’ movements and the pervasive left wing bias of Hollywood.
At the end of the day however, Dark Knight Rises ends in a similar way to Batman Begins: evil is eliminated, balance is re-established and justice triumphs over chaos. There’s even the usual ‘coming next’ hook with the identification of Blake as Robin.
Overall, I found the trilogy incredibly entertaining. This is really as good as it gets as far as pop culture mixing up with deeper subjects. There’s definitely a right wing overtone (maybe lefty’s see it differently?) but the beauty is mostly in the execution. I just hope we can get something else this good in the near future.