So. The Dark Knight? Great. Though my wife hated it, I think maybe because she expects her superheroes to triumph in the end and thus found the film too psychologically relentless and unpleasant.
[spoilers to follow]
If you’re deeply familiar with the character, you don’t have the same expectation: Batman is a romantic enemy of the way things are like Zorro is an enemy of the established order, only unhappy and doomed never to triumph, which is to say not at all like Zorro. Because Batman lives in a world where the way things are is not a matter of a few mustache-twirling oppressors.
Some of my favorite Batman stories in recent years have at least tried to raise the question of how Batman, a driven genius, can understand so much and so little all at once about how the world is and how it might be, how he can delude himself that the best thing he can do to make the world better is dress up like a bat-ninja and beat the shit out of criminals. Sam Hamm did a three-parter a long while back that I really liked on this theme, and more recently, Grant Morrison nodded in this direction as well. Nolan is really savvy to this aspect of the character.
Batman Begins took the now-standard twist in the mythos of sending Bruce Wayne around the world to learn the skills that make him Batman and added something crucial: that he himself becomes a criminal for a time, to learn what it’s like. This is clever for the character as a whole, and it grounds him more complicatedly in the fictional subgenre of “rich man who descends into poverty and suffering to discover what it’s like, emerging a crusader”. But it puts new pressure on the Nolanverse version of Batman: how can he pretend for a minute that being Batman is anything more than a weird bit of theater? Answer, as of The Dark Knight: he knows it’s not. He’s got a plan of sorts: use the theatricality of Batman to shock Gotham City back towards being a better place, and then hand it off to good citizens and officials. The film does a great job with arguing that this shock and awe theory of personal action has unintended consequences in the person of the Joker, and that Batman is left helplessly reacting to circumstances spiraling out of his or anyone’s control. That makes the film sound more crudely allegorical and simple in its morality than it is.
Like a lot of fanboys, though, I’m really left wondering where Nolan can go with this version of Batman in a third film. You could imagine something like the last two issues of Miller’s Batman: Year One, with Batman pitted largely against the police. But that doesn’t seem enough. Maybe if the mayor or the political establishment was someone who appeared like a noble, charismatic crusader but was actually completely corrupt. That could be the only way to make the Penguin work as a meaningful character in Nolan’s version of the mythos, I suppose. The more conventionally super-powered characters like Poison Ivy or Mr. Freeze don’t really work. The Riddler would have to be a low-rent Joker in the context of Nolan’s version. Catwoman has been done about as well as she can be in Burton’s rendition, I think.
So here’s an idea: Professor Hugo Strange, specifically the version that appeared in Moench and Gulacy’s storyline “Prey” in Legends of the Dark Knight. Strange is a psychologist with hang-ups of his own who nevertheless brilliantly deduces that Batman must be Bruce Wayne and proceeds to try and screw with Bruce Wayne’s head while impersonating Batman himself during various criminal acts. This puts the focus of a third film back on Batman as a character and Bale as an actor: in The Dark Knight, character and actor are almost wholly reactive, reduced to being the straight man in an endlessly nightmarish sick joke.