The Evil One is a common character right from The Bible and the epics through Shakespeare and the Gothic novels right down to The Dark Knight Rises. There are infinite personifications of evil in all the arts, each artist trying to outdo the other in their attempt to horrify or terrify the audience. There is evil in real life also – Hitler and Nazis are the embodiment of all evil for Jews. The physical descriptions of these characters always focus on certain deformities or anatomical abnormalities or idiosyncrasies of the Evil guy – the ten heads of Ravan, the body-less Nazgul, the tooth-brush moustachioed Hitler, the artificial respirator powered Darth Vader and now the anaesthesia-injector-mask of Bane.
The character of Bane in the film is a continuation of the canonical style of representing an evil person, more powerful and more invincible than anything imagined. More than the literary (or comic book) representation, the vileness and inhumanity of the character is manifest in the cold-blooded performance of Tom Hardy. In fact, in the entire trilogy, Nolan ensured that the villains were loud and in your face and there was a full exhibition of their intellect, resourcefulness and power juxtaposed with a complete lack of concern for humanity and parts thereof.
The Dark Knight Rises demonstrated evil and the final performance has ensured Tom Hardy’s Bane will be in the Gallery of Horrors of all time villains in cinema history.
But the film also showcased another form of evil.
Italo Calvino edited an anthology of stories called Fantastic Tales. Originally published in Italian, there were editions in all major languages including English. And like all anthologies, one of the richest pieces of writing in an anthology is the introduction, in this case written by Italo Calvino himself. Calvino explains the two styles of writing – the visionary and the everyday. In the visionary style, all elements are made physical and visual (through words of course). There are detailed descriptions of the fantastic, the evil, the terrifying, etc whether they be ghosts, demons, monsters, trolls, vampires, etc. In a visionary style, the supernatural is real and the author makes you see it as if it actually happened. The everyday, however, is different. Here the fantastic is hardly mentioned. Rather it is the everyday images, a curtain fluttering in a window of an unoccupied house or ostentatious furnishings in a house with poor lighting (a common Edgar Allan Poe style), that creates the fantastic, the terrifying, the tension in the gut. There is evil but you can’t see it. You don’t even know for sure, sometimes.
The Dark Knight Rises had another evil hidden by the normality of human life. It was not apparent in the first two films of the trilogy but with the story fitting into place with the third film, this evil entity manifests itself quite clearly – Gotham.
Gotham is a city which has lost its soul. It prefers to worship two-faced frauds as heroes. Rather than chase the terrorists they want the vigilante to be kept out – no vigilante, no crime. And when the city is under siege, everyone looks at the other person to do something. The evil of an apathetic city is far more insidious than the overt violence of Bane or The Joker.
When a city fails its citizens, it destroys hope. It makes everyone cynical, pessimistic. There is no effort or energy left to do anything, to even bother thinking of progress. A villain like Bane can still be fought, vainly of course, but an effort is still made. However, when your neighbours, your councillors, your mayors, your police commissioners, your citizens are happy living a lie, unconcerned with the discontent that it is getting triggered, then you can’t do anything but be sucked into that apathy. That is a bigger evil than the visible enemy.
The scene where Bane crashes into the stock exchange and has certain trades inserted into the exchange records had all the financial whizkids and geeks merrily chirping away. In various forms of stockmarket-speak, the geeks tried to explain to us laymen the intricacies of trading and why technically the scene shown in the film was wrong. At the time of seeing the film, being completely unattached and unsympathetic to stocktrading, I simply ignored the details of the scene and instead had a simple take-out from it – re they have engineered to make Bruce Wayne bankrupt. Right, got it. Move on.
But after seeing the reaction afterwards, I went back to the theme of the apathetic evil city – here is a system which none of us ordinary people have a clue about. Off the millions who would have seen the film, only the 1% who work in NYSE or BSE or LSE etc would have paid attention to the details. The financial system in real life is a black box that takes billions of dollars, money earned by people through their labour, and plays with it in a giant virtual roulette. Investors trying to get clarity or visibility into it are fobbed off using jargon, technical descriptions and mis-representation. This black box is known only to a small number of people. These small number of people are motivated not by the responsibility they have to the people whose money they have taken but rather how much money they can make. And to make money, if it means dumping your responsibilities, then so be it.
The last 5-7 years has seen some of the worst incidents of unethical behaviour in the financial markets. These incidents may or may not have been illegal but they were heartbreaking for millions. More importantly, they led to huge deficit of trust in the profession. From personal experience of meeting a few affected people, the “Investment Banker”, the “Stock Analyst” and the “Fund Manager” are words which sit up there with frauds, loan sharks and Judas.
Whether Nolan genuinely made an error or was it a deliberate distortion of the technicalities, I do not know. But the scene along with the post-film discussion just adds to the terror of the city on its citizens.
But why did Nolan make Gotham evil?
The answer is because Nolan’s Batman is not a vigilante.
Batman as a comic character has many representations. To me each representation is independent and I have, over the years, broadened my mind to ensure that I unload any baggage from past representations. Therefore Bob Kane’s Batman is a completely different personality as compared to Nolan’s Batman.
In the earlier films, Batman was there to save the city. Or so we thought. The city instead called him a murderer and wanted to have nothing with him. So why does Batman come back to save this city in spite of having given everything to it? It took me 2 weeks to understand it (with a little help from some triggers through my other readings like Gorky’s Mother which I started reading on my Kindle.)
When Nelson Mandela came out of prison, instead of immediately ordering all his cohorts to go take revenge on the white Afrikaaners, an act which would have made logical sense to all, he instead started talking in Afrikaans. Then he started playing rugby and wearing the springbok jersey. He did a number of things which were completely unreal for most rational observers. Because, rational observers can never justify living to an ideal. For Mandela, his ideal was a country of multiple tribes coming together to form a single nation. To achieve that he had to do his part. If he faltered, then the very purpose of having ideals would be lost.
Rationality says if there are constraints, optimise; or cut your losses and get out. But idealists don’t get out. They stay there till the end. Most often they lose their lives before they are able to achieve their goals. But a few manage. Mandela managed. Batman managed too.
Batman is not a vigilante. He was a person whose ideal was a crime free city, where there will be no more orphans like him. He was not concerned about whether the people of Gotham were with him or not. It did not matter to him. What mattered was that if he did not carry out his role till the very end, no one, not even the most optimistic of orphan boys, would ever again have any hope. He had to do what he had to do. He had to hit the very soul of the city and awaken it, to restore the sense of citizenship that drives human society.
This huge shift from the traditional Kapow! Thump! stuff of Batman comics is significant. While Nolan does credit re imaginings of Batman by Frank Miller in the ’80s, his and Bale’s final output is a different personality altogether. His villains are different. And his Gotham is different – it’s a human city but it is an evil one.