This consideration of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy contains mild spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.
Halfway through Batman Begins, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family’s loyal butler, points out to Bruce (Christian Bale) that his anti-social behavior and strange injuries will invite comment, and suggests that he find a way to live a public life to minimize prying. “What does someone like me do?” Bruce asks him. “Drive sports cars. Date movie stars. Buy things that are not for sale. Who knows, Master Wayne?” Alfred tells him. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, complete this weekend with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, has been an extended meditation on the power of symbols, the juxtaposition between fascism and anarchy, and recovery from trauma. But it’s also intermittently a story about what billionaires are for and what they do, a question The Dark Knight Rises seems to want some credit for posing, but not responsibility for actually answering.
Nolan’s vision of Gotham has always been sharply divided: we see billionaires and the very poor, but with the exception of the prisoners on the Joker’s barges or the ticketholders to the football game that Bane bombs, and the police themselves, there is no visible middle class in the city. The poor and the criminals who prey on them are often literally an underclass. In Batman Begins, district attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) drives Bruce below an underpass to confront crime boss Carmine Falcone, telling him “They talk about the depression as if it’s over, and it’s not.” Poverty goes unseen because it is physically subterranean. In The Dark Knight Rises, an orphan who lives at the same boys home where Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young police officer who maintains his faith in Batman even as Gotham has reviled the vigilante as a criminal, grew up tells Blake that the boys who age out of the program, which has cut back on services because the Wayne Foundation’s funding has dried up, are disappearing into the sewers because “they say there’s work down there.”
While the trilogy is clear that threats to Gotham rise from that underworld, Nolan also appears significantly pessimistic about the ability of charity to permanently ameliorate the conditions that contribute to crime. “Gotham’s been good to our family. But people less fortunate than us are suffering,” Bruce’s father tells him as the family rides the monorail to their fateful night at the opera. “So we built a new, cheap public transportation system to unite the city.” That same monorail becomes the delivery weapon for Ra’s al Ghul’s weapons later in Batman Begins. In that same movie, Alfred reflects on the elder Wayne’s strategy after Bruce decides to return to Gotham, noting that “In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combatting poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.” When Bruce wants to know if the strategy worked, Alfred tells him “In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.” When Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent have dinner during The Dark Knight, Bruce promises Dent that “you’ll never need another cent,” after Wayne throws Dent a fundraiser. But it’s not enough to secure the fortunes of a promising politician if he goes bad. Reform is a process, not a dinner party. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce is bitterly critical of the approaches of those who emulated his father, complaining that the proceeds of a charity function sponsored by the investor Miranda Tate will only go to pay for a lavish spread, rather than reaching their intended recipients. “It’s about feeding the ego of whatever society hag put it on,” he tells her.