Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

Aspects of the Knight II — Gotham as Failed City-State

“Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years… Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance… You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.”

Ra’s al Ghul asserts Gotham City’s inefficacy and impotence to his former protegé Bruce Wayne while his agents begin their operation to terrorize and destroy the city. The scene evokes two warlords, verbally sparring over disputed territory: on one side stands the legacy of Wayne, bypassing (and even scorning) the official authorities of Gotham but also adamantly maintaining the city “isn’t beyond saving… There are good people here”; on the other, (allegedly) a far older and more violent cult of cyclical destruction, who believe they are a necessary evil akin to “a purging fire” that is “inevitable and natural” (Batman Begins).

B_23Their conflict eventually comes to actual blows, but the fact that the fate of millions hangs on the outcome of this single conversation confirms, at the very least, that something is truly rotten in Gotham City. What kind of society gives rise to a figure such as the Batman, and attracts the deadly attention of an international terrorist organization? And why does the audience implicitly authorize the Batman’s use of force in the fictional Gotham, where they would likely condemn such actions in any real-world American city?

Max Weber (1864-1920) contends in his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919) that the monopoly on the use of legitimate force is the defining characteristic of “the state.” Though this argument is ethically problematic given that, without modification, it essentially boils down to “might makes right,” it has since been used as a key criterion of the “failed” state — that is, a government that has failed in many or all of its basic responsibilities and whose legitimacy is therefore called into question. Though the criteria and even the term itself have evolved over the 20th century, modern definitions of the failed (or “fragile”) state still prominently include “the monopoly on the use of legitimate force” (Fund for Peace). Further, the concept has expanded to accommodate the existence of failed governments at a regional or municipal level — including, in our case, failed cities.

In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham is a failed city-state according the Fragile States Index published by Fund for Peace. The failures of Gotham’s “legitimate” government have fractured the city into several warring factions — the primary combatants being the Falcone crime syndicate, the League of Shadows, and the Batman. As in the real world, the ordinary citizens, elected officials, and law enforcement of Gotham align themselves with every faction, but often have little real power in any of them. Though many of the FSI’s “Indicators” apply to Gotham, a few are especially relevant:

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Gotham’s slum — “the Narrows”

Economic Decline: Early on, Bruce’s father Thomas tells us “the city has been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times” (Batman Begins). Roughly two minutes later in the film, both he and Bruce’s mother Martha are dead at the hands of Joe Chill, an impoverished, desperate gunman. Six minutes (read: fourteen years) later, assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes lectures Bruce on how little has changed since his parents’ death:

“Look beyond your own pain, Bruce. This city is rotting. They talk about the depression as if it’s history, and it’s not. Things are worse than ever down here. [Carmine] Falcone floods our streets with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day” (Batman Begins).

The film uses Chicago’s multilevel streets to great effect here, as Rachel drives she and Bruce down to a lower street where poverty and vice are painfully evident. Fund For Peace lists “growth of hidden economies, including the drug trade, smuggling, and capital flight” as one of the warning signs of a fragile state; this indicator will become even more important in The Dark Knight Rises (FFP).

State Legitimacy asks, “Are federal and/or local officials considered to be corrupt?” and “Does the government have the confidence of the people?” (FFP). In Gotham, corruption is the status quo. Judges accept bribes from convicted felons, even to the point of becoming an accessory to murder; police detectives steal from street merchants and moonlight as low-level enforcers for the mob; prominent psychiatrists perjure themselves for money and torment their patients to ensure the secrecy of drug trafficking operations. As for public confidence, Police Detective James Gordon quips, “In a town this bent, who’s there to rat to anyway?” (His partner is the mob enforcer mentioned above.) Near the film’s climax, when Dr. Crane’s fear toxin has poisoned the streets and Arkham Asylum’s inmates run free among the general populace, even a little boy (representative here of Gotham’s poorer classes) recognizes it is the Batman, and not the GCPD, who will set things right: “Batman will save us. He’ll come” (Batman Begins).

BD-10844RFinally, and most importantly, External Intervention. As applied to nations, this typically refers to aid received from other countries or organizations in the form of economic assistance or military support. In Gotham, though, it is the Batman who intervenes: he is “an external actor… responsible for many government functions and not at the behest of the government” (FFP). The Batman stops crimes in progress, he secures evidence against the perpetrators, and presses the police department and the district attorney’s office to prosecute; in short, he enables Gotham’s judicial systems to function as they are intended. He is also the only one capable of combating Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, who have “infiltrated every level of [Gotham’s] infrastructure” — especially, it seems, the city’s SWAT teams and riot police (Batman Begins). The legal authorities of Gotham are helpless against these invaders, while the Batman is not; in fact, he is the only one protecting whatever tenuous sovereignty Gotham’s legitimate government still holds. These factors seem to indicate that the “state” of Gotham City has effectively defaulted its monopoly on the use of force to the Batman, a state of affairs confirmed by the film’s final scene, in which Jim Gordon signals for the Batman from the roof of GCPD Headquarters.

Returning to the question of “audience authorization” — I believe most viewers would point to the above reasons for our implicit approval of the Batman’s actions, even if unable to employ the specific vocabulary; Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index simply gives us a framework for trying to explain Batman’s origins. Interestingly, the FSI seems to also strengthen the notion that Batman, more so than any other comic book hero, is as much a product of his environment as he is of his own personal trauma.

What the FSI clearly does not do, however, is give us any readings on the morality of donning cape and cowl and slugging it out with Gotham’s lawless underworld. “Legitimate” is already a slippery enough term without lighting the Bat-Signal. In subsequent posts I will examine Batman’s code of ethics, especially compared to Gotham’s police and judicial authorities.


Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

“CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual (2014 Reprint).” CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual. Fund for Peace, 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. http://library.fundforpeace.org/cfsir1418

Weber, Max. “From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Bahasa Melayu Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction, by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills.” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. (Open Library). Oxford University Press, 1946. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6498314M/From_Max_Weber_Essays_in_sociology.

Aspects of the Knight

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you… then you become something else entirely.”

“Which is?”

“Legend, Mr. Wayne.”

Uttered within the first five minutes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, these lines neatly summarize one of the enduring tensions through 75 years of Batman comics, films, and TV shows, as well as the pivotal question of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: In appointing himself protector of Gotham, how can Bruce Wayne rid the city of the evil that took his parents’ lives and yet remain a symbol of hope — without becoming merely a police-sanctioned thug, an extrajudicial killer, or even the harbinger of permanent martial law?

Where is the line between the vigilante and the legend?

Batman has always been a character of contrasts. Bruce Wayne is the playboy billionaire “Prince of Gotham,” the hot topic on every gossip talk-show and in every tabloid by day; by night, he is a “weird figure of the dark” that preys upon the criminal underworld as the mysterious, terrible Bat-Man (Detective Comics 1937 #33). Known and unknown; light and dark; hope and fear; these contrasts have kept the character vital through the decades.

Batman's origin story in Detective Comics (1937) #33
The very first rendition of Batman’s origin story in Detective Comics (1937) #33

But the duality in Ra’s al Ghul’s words to Bruce Wayne — the merely mortal vigilante versus the immortal legend — has nowhere been illuminated more clearly than in Christopher Nolan’s films Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The tension between these two figures, these aspects of the Batman, drives Bruce Wayne’s saga while elucidating his relevance: his is the dramatization of an ordinary human being’s search for an ethical, meaningful response to a world plagued by apathy, senseless tragedy and willful acts of evil.

The word vigilante derives from the Spanish for “one who is vigilant”; a guard, or watchman. In modern parlance it describes an individual who pursues and punishes wrongdoers without legal authority to do so. Vigilantes, bounty hunters, and lynch mobs all cast long shadows over American history and fiction, from the fanciful (such as Zorro) to the pseudo-historical (Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok and other mercenary lawmen of the late 1800’s) to the completely real and despicably violent legacy of white supremacy in the American South.

Much of Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman can be traced to Zorro, the dashing pulp hero of the early 20th century, and the Scarlet Pimpernel before him; DC Comics writers have often acknowledged this lineage by writing that Thomas and Martha Wayne took their son Bruce to see The Mark of Zorro (1940) on the night of their murder.

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Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

On this basis, “vigilante” means at least this much: he or she takes action against injustice (real or perceived) where legal authorities can not or will not, employing some degree of violence. Contextually speaking, a vigilante may also violate alleged criminals’ due process and be subject to legal action themselves.

Though comic writers’ characterization of him has differed wildly over the years, the Batman always fits these criteria neatly. He relies on martial arts training, detective work and technological superiority to bring his personal vision of justice to Gotham’s criminal underworld. The vigilante ignores due process, violates suspects’ civil rights, and in Nolan’s trilogy he resorts to increasingly unethical methods as his campaign against Gotham’s organized crime escalates. This Batman forever lingers in the shadow of his parents’ death, locked in an ultimately futile struggle to prevent others from suffering similar pain and loss. According to Brooker, this crime-fighter extracts “a merely personal catharsis from beating up petty thugs like the one who killed his parents, rather than attempt[ing] to alter the society which produced those criminals” (27).

The other aspect of the Batman is less tangible. Until now we’ve referred to him on Ra’s al Ghul’s terms: a legend, “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.” While this also quite accurately describes the character, it isn’t necessarily very helpful for our purposes. If Bruce Wayne was interested in fame or notoriety, he’d announce on national television that he is the Batman. And yet if he desired complete anonymity, he would not have chosen such a distinct and theatrical guise.

In terms of setting up Bruce Wayne’s vision of this legend in the making, the following scene seems most relevant:

 This aspect of the Batman, the symbol, strives to save a city strangled by its own lawlessness and corruption, to inspire in its citizens a revival of the civic engagement and altruism he learned from his parents before their murder at the hands of an impoverished, desperate mugger. This Batman believes without reservation that the people of Gotham City are basically good; they just need “dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy” (Batman Begins). The symbol is “incorruptible, everlasting,” hiding behind anonymity to imply that “Batman could be anybody” (Batman Begins; The Dark Knight Rises). The symbol’s function is to transcend the individual’s limitations — “as a man… [he] can be ignored… destroyed” — while dramatizing the individual’s will to act against injustice (Batman Begins).

Following the films’ lead, I will continue to refer to these alternate personas of the Batman as “the vigilante” and “the symbol.” Both address separate and sometimes conflicting concerns of their unifying alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, but they also rely on each other; frequently, the vigilante creates the dramatic examples on which the symbol thrives, while the symbol inspires Gotham’s law enforcement officers and public officials to pursue the city’s crime syndicates more actively, despite fear of reprisals.

And though these two Batmen seem to mesh fairly well in Batman Begins, the vigilante becomes increasingly problematic and unethical in The Dark Knight, damaging the Batman’s symbolic power almost beyond repair. As a result, one of the primary aims of the trilogy’s finale The Dark Knight Rises is the restoration of Batman as an icon of individual commitment to moral action; after abandoning the vigilante’s questionable motives and methods, the Batman returns to the role he devised for himself early in the first film: a hyperbolic, theatrical display of the “ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right” (The Dark Knight).

Whether Bruce Wayne, the billionaire “Prince of Gotham” counts as an “ordinary citizen” is also a question we must address, especially with The Dark Knight Rises, which incorporates contemporary American perceptions of economic inequality and class warfare into its narrative. Can anybody be Batman? Of course not. But we should also be careful of applying a purely Marxist lens to a film (and character) whose background and ambitions are significantly broader than merely a reprised version of A Tale of Two Cities with Batman thrown into the melee.

Over the course of many posts I will examine Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with a focus on not only the tensions between “symbol” and “vigilante,” but also the ways in which these aspects of the Dark Knight intersect with issues such as corruption, mass surveillance, terrorism, and class warfare.


Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Finger, Bill, and Bob Kane. “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom.” Detective Comics 1.33 (1939). Print.

Miller, Frank, and Klaus Janson. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York, N.Y.: DC Comics, 2002. Print.

The Dark Knight. Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.

The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Home Video, 2012. DVD.