Colonel Wayne

The days are counting down until we all get to see Christopher Nolan’s final entry in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. A lot of the online chatter has centered on Bane’s unintelligible dialog in the early trailers, and whether Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character will end up as some version of Robin, Azrael, or whether he’ll pick up the mantle of the Bat himself.

I’d like to focus briefly, however, on why as much as I love the Dark Knight films, I’m kind of looking forward to never having to see Christian Bale under the cowl again.

It actually doesn’t have anything to do with Bale’s awful Batman voice. Well, maybe just a little. What’s wrong with Bale’s Batman voice, you ask? Let me allow Kevin Conroy, voice of Batman from Batman: The Animated Series, answer that question.

I’ve argued before that while Nolan’s Batman films are wonderful, they don’t really have a handle on Batman himself. Nolan “turns Batman into military special forces — not that smart, not really great at detective work, but good at punching. He’ll get in and get out to get his man, usually with an airplane.”

The Batman vs. Bane imagery from the new film looks like Nolan is taking the paramilitary Batman to the next level. He’s moving up from special forces to the brass, out in front of one of two opposing armies.

Batman & Army

Just as a (partially tongue-in-cheek) aside, let’s acknowledge the possibility that there’s reason to question whether Batman is in front of the correct army, or whether Nolan’s promo image carries 1% vs. 99% undertones.

But more importantly, I’m ready to be done with the paramilitary Batman. There’s really only one example I can think of from a comic version of Batman where he stands in front of an army, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

Miller's Dark Knight

Yes, that’s our beloved Mr. Wayne on a horse, leading an army of former gang members to re-establish order in a city rioting during a blackout caused by a Soviet nuclear weapon. There’s a lot going on in that image, and part of what makes it work is the irony of Batman, the most technology-driven hero other than Iron Man, abandoning the Batmobile (and the, um, Bat-tank from an earlier issue) to lead a cavalry charge. In this scene, Batman is the last line of defense when society collapses on itself.

That’s a lot for Nolan’s militaristic hero to live up to, especially when, again, one of the driving themes of the Nolan films is how Batman stands again and again in defense of a society that might not be worthy of his efforts. The climax of The Dark Knight doesn’t revolve around Batman defeating the Joker, but whether ordinary citizens will choose self-sacrifice or destruction. It’s a close thing, but “the city” ultimately declines to eat itself.

In fact, The Dark Knight expresses a belief in the fragility of the populace that I’m not sure the film itself supports. Batman and Gordon cover up Harvey Dent’s crimes because they believe that Gotham will fall apart if they learn that their noble district attorney became a monster, even though people have already survived (and remained fairly civil) after the Arkham Asylum break out, Ra’s al Ghul’s fear gas attack, and the Joker’s terrorism.

I’d really love to see The Dark Knight Rises explore unrest with a little more effort. The League of Shadows were terrorists, the Joker drew his followers from the criminally insane, but where does Bane’s army come from? Who are these people who line up behind him, and what are they fighting? I’m not saying that Nolan has to make Bane’s army sympathetic — Miller’s rioters may be ordinary people, but they’re scared and selfish — but Nolan’s always been interested in bigger things than a traumatized rich kid who puts on a costume and starts fights. If The Dark Knight Rises works, it’ll be because Nolan brings his social thought experiment to a satisfactory conclusion. If it fails, it’ll be because the film finds itself unable to move past Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne’s moral conceptions of the universe.

Either way, Nolan has given Batman fans a lot to be grateful for, and I am.

But I’m ready to see what someone else would do with the Bat. A nice bit of detective work would be lovely.

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