If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely… A legend, Mr. Wayne. — Ras al Guhl
By now it’s undeniable that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy joins the elite ranks of masterpiece cinematic trilogies. Why? What sets these films – and other great trilogies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Godfather – apart from the almost-greats like Rami’s Spiderman, the X-Men films or the Matrix movies?
Nolan’s Batman films tell one big story, building around a core theme and using fictive Gotham to tell mythic stories about contemporary society.
Through Batman, Nolan meditates on the nature of fear, good and evil and hope and despair. So far from being a film tacked on to make another buck, The Dark Knight Rises gives us a story that needs to be told. Without it, the story just isn’t finished.
While each film in Nolan’s trilogy follows a classic three-act structure, the whole trilogy also follows this pattern, which means the final film has the biggest payoff.
As an exercise in story-telling, let’s explore each of the three films and ask how it functions as a single act of the trilogy’s larger storyline. First up, Act I: Batman Begins.
Act I, the Setup, introduces us to all the characters and themes that will be important throughout the story. It establishes the central conflict and fundamentally changes the main characters.
Batman Begins introduces us to a Gotham saturated with corruption. We meet Bruce Wayne, whose parents were murdered in a mugging-gone-wrong when Bruce was just a boy. Bruce tries to avenge his parents, but is thwarted by the organized crime that runs Gotham. The mob is so powerful that the few good citizens – the DA or cops like Jim Gordon – are too scared to try to make a difference. Like everyone else, Bruce is unable to fight the mob, so – unable to avenge his parents – he leaves Gotham searching for answers.
He finds those answers in the League of Shadows, a secret army led by Ras al Gul with one mission: maintaining justice in the world. Bruce trains with them, learns the skills necessary to fight evil. Only on the eve of his initiation into the League does he learn the specifics of their mission:
According to Ras al Gul, Gotham has fallen beyond salvation. It cannot be redeemed. Only by destroying Gotham can the League preserve justice.
Bruce escapes and returns to Gotham. He realizes that for the city to rise up, to cast off its corruption, the ordinary people need a symbol, someone to show them they don’t have to be afraid of evil. Bruce adopts the persona of the Bat, a childhood phobia. Using the Bat-personal and his League of Shadows training, he wants to turn fear back on the criminals.
Bruce’s plan works. Acting as a vigilante, he not only provides Gordon and the DA’s office what they need to arrest Gotham’s top mob boss, his work inspires them to take the risk. Things start to get better in Gotham. People start to get better in Gotham.
The first major turning point in the trilogy‘s arc occurs when Bruce learns that the League of Shadows is still planning to destroy Gotham. (The first major turn in the film’s arc would’ve been Bruce escaping from the League.) The League is working through Arkham psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, who manipulates his patients through a fear toxin and archetypal Scarecrow persona. The League plans to release this toxin into the city and let it tear itself apart.
The Batman stops Scarecrow and kills Ras, saving Gotham. And as Lieutenant Gordon observes, Gotham will never be the same again.