This article is based on the recent Nolan-directed cinematic interpretation of The Dark Knight — the personification of incorruptible justice, more commonly known as Batman — a dark-clothed righter of wrongs who finds absolution through defeating those who harm others. So where does this all come from? What event in his life triggered this aggression against evil?
The origin of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It begins in a very operatic way, with a boy grieving for his murdered parents. That boy is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire heir and prominent resident of Gotham City, who feels, in part, responsible. From the depths of tragedy, this same man swears to protect the innocent. It sounds very idealistic, but that’s what he represents in a way: a crusade against crime and injustice.
To achieve his goal, he battles also his own fear. There have been various versions of this, yet at some point he finds himself alone in a cave, being attacked by bats. He becomes what he fears most. He feels that his enemies must share his dread. This is the origin of the bat costume that turns Bruce Wayne into Batman. The costume — and the way he acts while wearing it — are meant to be as imposing and intimidating as possible. While Bruce Wayne is light-hearted and irresponsible, Batman is stoic and driven.
Becoming the Dark Knight
Early in his life, Bruce Wayne learns the power of fear. He experiences a tragedy so earth-shattering that it completely changes his perspective on life. A few weeks after being attacked by bats in the garden of his family mansion, he accompanies his parents to the Gotham City Opera House for a performance of the opera Mephisto. The darkly dressed characters leaping around on stage trigger a flashback to the bat attack; he asks his parents to leave. Obliging him, his parents never imagine that they are walking to their deaths. There is nothing complex about it. Thomas Wayne and his wife become victims of a random street mugging.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there’s a strong commentary on the responsibilities of individuals within a society. Thomas Wayne spent much of his wealth on providing a better life for the citizens of Gotham City. He financed a new, cheap transportation system for all, and urged other affluent citizens to help him in his noble cause. Unfortunately, he stood mostly alone as a beacon of hope. His murder showed that even those who stand above morality are as vulnerable as those who disrupt the peace.
In the subsequent years, Bruce Wayne would study and train to the peak of human limits. After swearing a solemn vow to avenge his parents’ death, he traveled the globe and broadened his knowledge. Yet it wasn’t until he confronted his own fear and a sinister mentor showed him that, as a man, he couldn’t achieve his full potential — but as a symbol, he could show criminals true horror. This works because an idea is impenetrable and indestructible. In a way, ideas are bulletproof, for they are only deniable. Yet no one can kill off an idea as long as someone believes it. At the beginning, Batman was only an urban myth and those who believed they saw giant bats were deemed crazy.
At that point, only one person knew Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal alter-ego: his butler Alfred, who had been employed by the Wayne family for decades. He held the strings together. Without him, young Bruce would have given in, and nurtured his anger. Bruce traveled the world, escaping his true identity. He took on lowly jobs, completely bereft of his perspectives; such soul-searching is something that everyone goes through at least once in their lives. Bruce Wayne lived by the adage that one must first understand oneself before one can point at the mistakes that others commit. It’s only fair and reasonable to expect nothing more of others than what one can deliver. As the Dark Knight, he committed to a life dictated by the urgency of fighting crime in a city corrupted by a dysfunctional society of greed.
The Dark Knight, as a crime-fighting persona, was the result of many years of aimless wandering. When Bruce Wayne arrived at the crossroads, he needed to be decisive and consistent. Integrity played a critical role in the shaping of his character. He intended to become a fighter fueled by honor, not rage. It wasn’t his aim to be driven by hatred. And so, representing his own fears, he rambled through the night until Gotham City accepted him as its protector, the Dark Knight.
Being the Dark Knight
Bruce Wayne is the owner of Wayne Enterprises, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate. All his father’s wealth and good intentions were passed onto him the night Thomas Wayne was shot. Since then, Bruce lingered on in despair and hopelessness until, one day, he met a mysterious man. Though helping him find his way, this man ultimately became his fiercest foe. Ra’s Al Ghul, a master in ninja tactics and also a very thoughtful leader, had been planning a dark end for Gotham City. His philosophy consisted of the belief that a great civilization must suffer a downfall to find back a way back to its roots.
In the 70 years since its invention by Bob Kane, the storyline of Batman has gone through many iterations. Yet the initial premise always stayed the same: Bruce Wayne went traveling around the world in search of his true self. He didn’t want to feed his anger and nurture his hatred against injustice. Wayne doesn’t try to garner support for his crusade, but rather aims to accept responsibility for his own crimes.
Apart from Commissioner Gordon, no one believed that Batman was fighting for the good side in the beginning. In the first year or so, Bruce Wayne had to find his place in high society. At night, he made an effort to gain a reputation as the protector of Gotham City.
All his villains represent an opposite of Batman. In the Dark Knight trilogy, there are three distinct villains: Ra’s al Ghul, Joker, and Bane. Two more antagonistic protagonists have a more minor role: Talia al Ghul and Catwoman. Both of them are known villains from the comic world — although Catwoman stands somewhat in the middle. Yet every one of these villains represent a yin to Batman’s yang. He is order, while they are chaos.
He got the chance to do just that when the city suffered under the terror of a lunatic who escaped from the city’s own asylum. This was the first true test for Batman. That foe became known as The Joker, but his name was Jack Napier. It wasn’t until that point — when the police faced a man who took pleasure in watching the world burn — that Batman’s presence was seen as a necessity.
Until then, becoming Batman was merely a way for Bruce Wayne to cope with his guilt. When he donned the black costume and spiked cowl, people thought he was some freak, just like the criminals he battled. While beating the Joker, Batman was accepted as a fighter for justice. Though the Joker caused the death of his beloved childhood friend, Rachel, he stayed strong and focused. Her passing away, however, created a new, terrifying foe that was driven by the same forces that inspired Bruce Wayne once: loss and anger.
Harvey Dent, who was to be the new mayor of Gotham City, mutated into the incalculable Two Face. The fate of his victims depended on the flip of his lucky coin and which side landed on his palm — there was a fifty-fifty percent chance for a potential victim to get away, unharmed. He was not a wholly evil character, yet he lost his humanity in the face of grief. This same grief will lead Bruce Wayne to a new psychological obstacle.
Batman has always been a fan favorite for all the cool technology he gets to use. In his original form, he was the “world’s greatest detective.” In Christopher Nolan’s more reality-grounded trilogy, Batman is more of a crusader in search of redemption. Without giving away spoilers for the The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne does find a peaceful conclusion to his struggle. His battle is one of moral ambiguity, yet it has always been a quest for making the world a better place. The Dark Knight is, indeed, an idealistic superhero who will not only defeat crime, but also the evil within his own soul.
Image source: The Dark Knight Rises