Waiting for Gotham: Utopian Yearning in The Dark Knight Trilogy

The Dark Knight

The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Utopian Yearnings.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

“Gotham’s time has come. The city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. . . . It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die . . . it must be destroyed.”

With these words in the first act of Batman Begins, we are introduced to Gotham City, and the first installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which remains the most critically acclaimed, popularly loved, and symbolically enduring superhero trilogy to date. But rather than being simply a series about one hero’s crusade against evil, the saga gives us another more complex character: the deeply broken Gotham City—and the question of whether it can ever be saved.

The film’s opening words are from Ra’s Al Guhl, head of the League of Shadows, a ninja cult which claims to “hate evil and serve true justice.” A lost Bruce Wayne has trained with this League, so that he too may “seek the means to fight injustice.” His training culminates with a twofold commission: He must execute a local thief (because “injustice cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgences of society’s understanding.”) and then lead the League back to Gotham City to execute its righteous judgment. Note that the League’s goal is not the typically villainous fare of world domination: Their stand against suffering and injustice is positively humanitarian; they just have some radical interpretations of what must, therefore, be done. But Bruce insists on the power of compassion and refuses to cooperate, fleeing the League in an explosive escape. He returns to Gotham—and with the help of friends like Alfred and WayneTech’s resourceful Lucius Fox—Bruce becomes the Batman, striking fear into the heart of the criminal element, but refusing to become an executioner.

We need these very human stories about what it means to long for hope in a dark world.

Bruce explains his vision to Alfred: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy . . . as a man . . . I can be destroyed; but as a symbol—as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” In Begins, Batman isn’t a soldier; he is a symbol, one meant to ultimately inspire those in the police and legal system to play their role in restoring Gotham. This too is all part of a yearning; Nolan’s world is technically realistic (there are no super-powers) but in its ideas it soars, reaching for the language of myth, of incorruptible ideals, and of inspiration to give light to its own dark world.

In the final act, the League of Shadows returns to exact the reckoning they have longed for: Again the goal is not mere destruction. Ra’s Al Guhl sees Gotham’s existence as a barrier to human flourishing: “Crime, despair, this is not how man was supposed to live.” He sees their work akin to the purging fire that tames a wild forest, through which “the movement back to harmony will be unstoppable.” The yearning is clear: a vision of harmony—a utopian ideal made complete only by Gotham’s destruction.

Yet Bruce, through all the trials he faces, insists that “Gotham isn’t beyond saving,” encouraging Lieutenant Gordon that “we can bring Gotham back.” When the film concludes, with Batman victorious against the League, Gordon tells him that “you really started something . . . hope on the streets.” The hope of which he speaks may not be as specific as the League’s ideal of a world without Gotham, but is surely a yearning, a yearning of the people, on the streets, for something glimpsed but not yet fully seen.

So, Batman Begins sets our scene with a supremely corrupt City, one in which cops collude with criminals and injustice and inequality thrive. It is so fallen that some actively plot for its demise, believing its destruction would benefit mankind. Yet we are also introduced to the possibility of hope; there are honest DAs and noble cops, and together they save Gotham and inspire its people to believe in hope.

While Begins shrouded its locales in shadow and darkness, The Dark Knight brings us, visually at least, into daylight. The shadows of Begins pointed to a City desperately steeped in darkness—marking our introduction to Gotham’s depravity. In contrast, The Dark Knight gives us daylight and with it, hope: We meet Gotham’s White Knight Harvey Dent, an idealistic DA who believes “the night is always darkest before the dawn, and the dawn is coming.” Bruce sees him as “the first legitimate ray of light in decades”; he believes that “Gotham needs a hero with a face” and sees Dent as that hero. When Dent, Gordon, and Batman work to round up hundreds of mobsters, things look promising for Gotham. Yet there are obstacles. Batman must wrestle with his legacy: He has fought injustice and inspired good, but he has also inspired copycat Bat-vigilantes, less competent and less equipped everymen who wear capes but also carry guns. Their courage is noble but they are far from the good that Bruce had hoped to inspire.

Most seriously, a new player has emerged: the unpredictable force of the Joker, an agent of chaos who introduces himself to us by riffing off Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you, simply makes you . . . stranger.” He has no rules, and unlike the League of Shadows, no grand plan for Gotham; as Alfred puts it, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Dark Knight isn’t always subtle, but it certainly is quotable. The Joker’s only aim is deconstruction: He wants show that even the noble Harvey Dent can be corrupted, and he wants to show that the civility of society is a pathetic mask: “Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke . . . they’re only as good as the world allows them to be . . . when the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

So the conflict of the film is thus: Batman and the Joker fighting for the soul of Gotham. Whose estimation is correct? The film is ambiguous, but not aimless. On one hand we see genuine hope and the presence of virtue. In its final act, the Joker constructs a nefarious set-piece: two ships, both rigged with explosives, one filled with prisoners, the other with civilians. Both will explode at midnight, unless one group chooses to destroy the other with the detonator they’ve been given. The Joker believes that human self-interest will ensure destruction (it nearly does) but finds that neither ship is willing to destroy the other. The Joker’s low view of humanity is challenged, as Batman tells him: “This City just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”

Yet on the other hand, we see great depravity. Nolan pulls no punches in depicting the fall of the White Knight Harvey Dent, who becomes the deranged, murderous Two-Face when he loses the woman he loves—his face now half burned off, laying bare his conflict with his inner darkness. Bruce’s dream of Gotham’s ray of light is thus shattered; his utopian yearning rested on a broken individual who could not bear its weight. “The Joker won,” says Gordon, “[he] took the best of us and tore him down. The people will lose hope . . .” Seeing his fallen idol, Bruce makes a bold choice: Batman will take the fall for Dent’s murders, allowing Gotham to maintain its belief in this White Knight and the dawn he promised. It’s a lie of course, but “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” In this self-sacrifice, Batman is seen, in Gordon’s words, to be “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now . . . so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it.” So the yearning for Gotham’s dawn continues, built now on the dubious foundation of the false myth of the White Knight, while its true hero becomes the City’s pariah, in the hope of preserving hope.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the story of Bruce Wayne, but also completes the story of Gotham City. Eight years have passed since Batman took the fall for Dent’s murders, but once again the health of the City is ambiguous. Some optimistically declare a “historic turnaround” and “peace time”; certainly many criminals are off the streets—banished to indefinite incarceration by the parole-denying Harvey Dent Act. This harshly brokered peace seems to belie less of a transformed City and more of one desperately trying to suppress its own demons.

One man will make it his mission to release those demons: The masked man Bane is “Gotham’s reckoning” come to finish the work of the League of Shadows, finally executing its death sentence on Gotham. Bane is ferocious, terrifying, and will push Bruce—who is now a crippled, cape-less recluse—further than ever before.

Batman makes a triumphant return to the spotlight to try to stop Bane—right before Bane breaks Batman’s back. Bruce is left in a giant, insurmountable pit, from which he will watch Gotham as it dies. With Batman broken, Bane turns to Gotham’s other hero, its White Knight. After blowing up the City’s bridges—trapping its police force underground and threatening Gotham with the detonation of an atomic bomb—Bane plays his killing stroke: revealing to Gotham the depressing truth about Dent.

The City is thus plunged into apocalyptic levels of desperation, abandoned by the rest of America and left with no heroes to believe in. Bane believes he is ushering in “the next era of western civilization,” freeing Gotham’s criminals from prison and inciting a revolution where the people take back their city from the elite.

But of course, this is The Dark Knight Rises. Watching the plight of the city he loves, Bruce musters up the physical and emotional strength to emerge from the pit, and returns to Gotham. His return is not subtle (he marks it with a giant flaming bat emblazoned on a bridge) but it is powerful: He frees thousand of trapped cops and then fights with them, on the ground and in the daylight. Where Gotham’s cops used to be weak and corrupt, here they stand courageously against Bane’s army, inspired by the Batman they once vilified. Where Batman once used the darkness as his ally, here he stands, symbolically of course, in the light. In the end, one last sacrifice is required: Batman gives his own life in order to stop Bane’s atomic bomb from destroying Gotham. Then Nolan plays with us again. The film’s coda strongly suggesting that Bruce in fact survived and found new life outside of Gotham and outside of Batman, fulfilling the dream that Alfred had had for Bruce.

Reflecting on the whole story then, we have seen two main utopian yearnings. The first is that of the League of Shadows. Their Utopia is a world without Gotham, a world where mankind can flourish free from its sick corruption. The second is that of Batman, who yearns for Gotham’s new dawn, a day when Batman is no longer needed and people can live in relative peace. These yearnings are utopian in so far as they look toward an imagined new and better state of existence, the light which gives hope and momentum to the shadow of the present.

The League’s self-righteous stand against Gotham reminds one of Genesis 6: an Earth “corrupt and filled with violence,” and God’s regret of what He had made, and the purging flood that follows. However, after that flood, God promises it will never again be this way. What follows in the rest of Scripture is God’s long-suffering mercy and compassion with this fallen world: He now brings about redemption and New Creation, not destruction. Perhaps it is worth asking: As Christians, do we ever fall into despising this world so much that, like the League of Shadows, we long for its destruction? What’s interesting is that the League’s grim assessment of human nature isn’t easily quashed by the evidence: sometimes Gotham does look beyond saving—as does our own world. Yet Bruce’s perseverance in being sure of what he hopes for and certain of what is unseen (Hebrews 11:1) is what allows Gotham to not only survive, but to grow, slowly, into a more beautiful city.

But what is Bruce’s hope rooted in—what exactly does he believe in? God and religion are all but absent from this trilogy, but faith and mythology aren’t. We’ve already seen how Bruce sees Batman as an incorruptible, everlasting symbol meant to inspire the people—one that transcends even himself because “Batman can be anyone.” Then in the prologue to The Dark Knight, a despairing bank clerk cries at the Joker almost prophetically: “What do you believe in?! What do you believe in?!” The Dark Knight Rises seems to offer Gotham’s answer to that question when it opens its prologue with the solemn voice of Commissioner Gordon: “I believed in Harvey Dent.” We are thus recalled to Gotham’s crisis of faith and the tragic truth about the fall of Gotham’s White Knight. Faith can be powerful, inspirational, but it can also be woefully misplaced. And anyone can have it: Alfred warns Bruce of the ferocity of Bane, exalted not simply by his physical might but rather: “[In him] I see the power of belief.”

Belief is powerful, and Bruce’s belief seems to be simply in goodness, either as an abstract concept or something within human nature. Christians would hopefully want to add to the content of that belief, but belief in goodness is a good start. Again, Bruce insists that people need something to believe in, and for a long time he believes that Harvey Dent can be that symbol. Dent can’t live up to it of course, and it is Batman who saves Gotham ultimately. It is Batman who takes on a guilt not his own, gives his life for the city, plunges into a pit of darkness but then emerges, dying to his old life and emerging into the new. So in fact, maybe Gotham does believe in a savior, and some would say that he sounds quite familiar.

Nolan gives us a longing for a bright city, and he gives Gotham a savior too, albeit a complex one. But his trilogy isn’t just interesting because it alludes to Christian notions, but rather because it gives us a human story about what it means to long for hope in a dark world. It shows how mythology and language of the transcendent are necessary for shaking people out of apathy and inspiring them to good. As Christians, we might be encouraged by the richness of symbol in our faith, where God is a Father, a Shepherd, a King; we are part of Creation, but also part of The Fall; we battle with Sin and we long for Life Everlasting. This is not masking a grim reality. This is the true myth which names a profound reality in a world which—like Gotham—often declares hope to be futile.

Lastly, real and personal participation is essential. The saga highlights the power and importance of community—but it also shows the call to costly sacrifice. Batman’s crusade doesn’t just cost him his nights; it tests him physically, psychologically, and emotionally. The woman he loves is killed by the Joker. He takes the blame for Dent’s murders, becoming hated by Gotham when he had only ever labored for its good. In Rises, he is hunted by police and back-broken by Bane, and nearly gives his life in the film’s finale. Bruce’s hope is not glib or cheap, but one fully invested in what it longs for; he is willing to be “whatever Gotham needs me to be” because he values the city and its prosperity more than his own.

Jesus gave His life to save our world, and we too are called to be servants to a world in need, willing to sacrifice as our Savior did, and loving the City more than ourselves (Jer. 29:7). This is of course difficult when only what is success is judged by what one sees instantly: self-promotion is easy and can garner much attention, but quiet, sacrificial labor takes time and may never be seen. Just as Gotham never knew the identity of its caped crusader, are we willing to be relatively unknown by the world if it means being caught up in something that truly endures?

In making Gotham a grounded reality, Nolan encourages us to take it seriously, rather than seeing it as simply an atmospheric backdrop. We can all relate to cities that are broken; whose systems proliferate inequality and oppression. We know that legal systems can be flawed and ineffective, and we know that police forces can be corrupt or misguided. We know crime, and we know terrorism. Gotham City is our city: a broken world looking for something to believe in. False prophets abound: Bane’s upheaval promises social revolution but brings only chaos and destruction. Harvey Dent is well intentioned but can’t bear the weight of the messianic pressure laid upon him. It’s not hard to see contemporary political parallels: so often we’re looking for a leader who we believe could be the hero we need, but we don’t need Nolan to remind us how disappointing leaders—human as they are—can be.

But this truth is a call to wisdom, not despair. If we see Gotham in our world, then we must see Batman too. Not merely a crime-fighting man in a cape, but a symbol, “something incorruptible, everlasting . . .” who fights for the soul of the city and inspires its people to hope. Perhaps if we want to save our city, we need to give up looking for a Harvey Dent-esque hero to save us. Nolan instead teaches us that “Batman can be anyone”: any of us, all of us, can be light to a world that’s all but given up.

Does Nolan conclude with the utopia that Gotham yearned for? We don’t see perfection, but we do see a dawn. Gordon aptly reads from A Tale of Two Cities at Wayne’s funeral:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

We then see one personal utopia, Alfred’s dream of one day sitting in a cafe in Florence to see Bruce also there, happy and not alone—is realized. The scene is so sunny and idealistic it almost feels out of place in this dark saga, but perhaps that’s the point. It’s a brief moment, and there’s space left to wonder if what we’re seeing is real, but perhaps this matters because it is finally a utopia found. Bruce does indeed find rest. It is paradise regained, in a world where peace and happiness were always just a dream. The last shot of the film is Bruce’s protégé of sorts John Blake (legal name Robin—wink, wink) rising on the elevating floor of a newly discovered Batcave. Nolan doesn’t give us a simple, perfect utopia, but he does give us hope. We’re left looking up. We’re yearning.

Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.


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