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Christopher Nolan and The Power of Myth – The ‘Dark Knight’ Trilogy

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00With the release of The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, I did something I have never done before. I watched all three films on Blu-ray in one sitting. Even without the extras, it was nearly eight hours, and I loved every minute of it. The experience became more than just watching three great movies though. As I discovered while watching them all together in one sitting like that, I began to see some things about them a little differently.

First of all, I was reminded of just how powerful Christopher Nolan’s vision was. To say that he brought more depth to Batman than anyone before him is only the beginning. With Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), I believe that he created an icon who stands with the classic literary heroes of the ages.

When it was announced that Nolan would be bringing the character into the 21st century, there were some questions. Actually, the choice of Nolan was not the biggest concern. At the time, he was a young director with three highly respected, and modestly successful films to his credit. Whether Nolan was “right” to direct a new Batman movie was not so much the question. The biggest question was whether anyone should be directing a new Batman movie. At the time, the franchise seemed dead.

Batman has been around in one form or another since 1939. Artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger created a character called “The Bat-Man,” for issue number 27 of Detective Comics, in May 1939. Outside of a couple of big-screen serial adventures in the ’40s, Batman’s adventures played out in comic strips and books until 1966, when the Batman television series debuted. The show was unlike anything else on TV, a hilarious pop-art explosion that aired until 1968. Adam West’s portrayal of Batman was so over the top that it seemed like nobody could ever take the superhero seriously again. Batman was relegated to Saturday morning animated kid’s fare for years afterwards.

Frank Miller’s immensely influential four-volume Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) graphic novel series was the first step in restoring Batman to his former haunted glory. With Tim Burton directing, and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Batman (1989) was intended to bring a Dark Knight version of Batman to the big screen. Unfortunately, they hired Michael Keaton for the lead. Keaton was good, but not great. In my opinion, he just did not project the serious angst the character required. The movie made a lot of money though, and spawned three sequels. They got progressively worse, bottoming out with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997). The headline about that one was that Batman and Robin’s costumes had nipples. It should have been called Batman: Nobody Cares Anymore.

Shortly after the Schumacher fiasco, Christopher Nolan began building his reputation as a well-respected director. His films were both thought-provoking, and popular. He directed three features prior to Batman Begins; Following (1998), Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002). I did not see Following until it was released as part of the Criterion Collection last year, but I thought it was excellent, especially for a first time director. I did see Memento when it was released, thanks to the very strong word of mouth it generated. Memento was so good that I needed no encouragement to see Insomnia, and thought it was excellent as well.

Those films made Christopher Nolan a director to watch, although I had no idea something like the phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy would be his next step. With Following, Memento, and Insomnia, we see a clear progression. It is fairly easy to see the director learning his craft in each. His style becomes more and more professional, yet his personal touch remains evident.

I mentioned that I believe Nolan’s Dark Knight stands with the heroes of classic literature, and the one I think he most resembles is Euripides’ Jason, of ancient Greek mythology. Modern audiences are probably most familiar with Jason from the classic Ray Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts (1963). As much as I enjoyed that movie, it is not what I am comparing the trilogy to.

My public school education may not have been in one of top districts in the nation, but I did have the good fortune to be introduced to Greek mythology while in my senior year. As I discovered, there were many aspects to the life of Jason that went beyond the famous Argonauts adventures. While only Chrisopher Nolan can confirm or deny this, I believe that his three Dark Knight films are creative retellings of some of those mythological stories. Just to be clear, this is only my interpretation, but I believe it stands up.

This being a pop-culture article, and not a Master’s thesis, I am going to cut to the heart of what I believe each film’s main point to be. I acknowledge that there are many layers, and other elements in them that unfortunately will go without mention, but the purpose of this article is not to completely dissect each movie.

With that caveat in mind, I see the strongest theme of Batman Begins as being of “the journey.” For The Dark Knight, I very much believe that the duality of man is key. And The Dark Knight Rises has to do with the hero up against seemingly impossible odds. Yes, those are oversimplifications, I know. You may not even agree with them, and that is fine. For this fan though, only the Greek Jason has faced all three of these scenarios.

If one were to break down the films more individually though, and did not look for a single classic hero, but a series of them, then things become a little more obvious. While I would still say that Jason’s return with The Golden Fleece is much like Batman/Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) return in Batman Begins, I would very much be open to a discussion of Homer’s The Odyssey as well.

For The Dark Knight, things become murkier. My feeling that Batman’s actions bring him dangerously close to being as “bad” as The Joker (Heath Ledger) is what leads me to say that the film is “about” the duality of man. Jason faced this as well, but this concept is fleshed out in much more depth by Plato, based on what he learned at the feet of Socrates. The problem with this of course is that Plato is not part of Greek mythology. So that comparison must be set aside as possible fodder for a future discussion.

Four years elapsed between The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, and in the film, we are told that the interim period has been eight years. In real life, Heath Ledger died during that period. Actually, he passed before The Dark Knight was even released, although filming had wrapped. Bane (Tom Hardy) is the super-villain of The Dark Knight Rises, and for much of the movie, it seems as if The Dark Knight is on the ropes, for a number of reasons.

This again reflects the stories of the life of Jason. However, for anyone who has read the “Inferno” poem in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the comparisons are strong. By the way, Jason does make a “cameo” in “Inferno” as well, which somewhat strengthens my thoughts that he is the model in many ways for Nolan’s Dark Knight.

I would argue that The Dark Knight trilogy deserves “masterpiece” consideration. I understand that this is a reach. These are “superhero” movies, with plenty of special effects. They were also hugely popular, which is always a problem. In the eyes of most film snobs, “art” and poor box-office go hand in hand. If a movie is a hit, that is all well and good. But it cannot be both a hit and be artistically valid. I disagree, and believe that it can be both.

By the way, this idea that an artistic film is by definition a film that does poorly at the box-office is relatively new. The Godfather (1972) was one of the biggest hits of the year. There are a number of factors that made that movie so successful, not the least of which was Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Corleone. But when you get right down to it, the underlying story is more than a classic, it is nearly as old as literature itself.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses the timeless themes that have been a part of story-telling since my beloved Greeks. At its core, The Godfather retells the classic fables of the child avenging the death of his father. Don Corleone was not actually killed, but the parallels are certainly there. In much the same way, Nolan’s vision of The Dark Knight is also indebted to the Greeks. To be fair, we know that Nolan did not create The Dark Knight, but he added an enormous amount of depth to the modern day myth with his three films.

In my gushing appreciation for Nolan’s achievements, I have to acknowledge the fact that he did not invent this character. The orphaned boy who tries to make the world right by fighting crime was already in place. What Nolan did do though was to delve into the psychology of the man deeper than anyone ever has. When you spend nearly eight hours on the couch in front of a spectacular looking and sounding trio of films, your mind can wander a bit. I suppose this is fairly obvious by now.

One of the things that I find so gripping about the films was my own identification with the character. No, I do not think of myself as any type of superhero. What I do relate to is the conflicted man inside the suit. What Jason and Homer wrote about so many years ago remains remarkably current, even if the modern version of the hero is dressed like a bat.

While this is not a review of The Dark Knight: The Ultimate Collectors Edition, I would like to mention some of the cool things about it just the same. There are the three films of course, plus a great deal of bonus material, including the complete IMAX sequences from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, all of which are contained on a total of six Blu-ray discs. I loved all the extra material, but the “boy” in me certainly dug the physical extras as well. There is a 48-page book, reproductions of the Tumblr, the Bat-Pod, and the bat vehicles, and even a letter from Christopher Nolan. All of this is housed in a beautiful box-set, which looks great on my movie shelf. The price is surprisingly reasonable for this limited-edition set as well.

I believe that with his trilogy of Dark Knight films, Christopher Nolan created more than “just” the next generation of Batman. To even call them that is a little tough, as they really are so much more. Nolan created a hero who stands with literature’s greatest. Watch them again, and see if you agree.

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