Gothic Aesthetics and Conventions in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2013)

A piece written for the Gothic Texts and Contexts Module. 05.12.2019

Gothic Aesthetics and Conventions in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2013)

The character of Batman has had multiple narrativizations since his creation by Detective Comics in 1939 (1), presented through almost every conceivable medium. The Caped Crusader might be “the most complex character ever to appear in comic books and graphic novels” (2), but is he seen as gothic? Using Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, I will be looking at the gothic conventions and aesthetics used in the films.

Although Nolan’s films have been seen to “disassociate from gothic impressionism” (3), The Dark Knight Trilogy uses many different gothic tropes to present Batman, particularly in the architecture of Gotham cityscape. The city presents dark alleyways, poverty filled and crime-ridden streets to emphasise the “pervasive presence of fear, the unknown, and the uncanny” (4). Plus, Wayne Manor in Batman Begins is a highly gothic, Victorian, and extravagant mansion (figure 1), fitting in with older gothic conventions, such as the setting in Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ (5).

Unlike previous Batman films, the city was modernised and urbanised, however still reflecting the “dark and chaotic environment where criminality flourishes” (6). Nolan creates gothic in the urban space through mise-en-scène, most noticeably in “the decadence of the metropolis and corruption of its citizens” (7), characterised by the heavy contrast between the lower and upper classes, the poverty and dirt in the streets, bland colours and shadows contrasted by the luxury of Wayne Manor and other business areas in the city, shown in bright colours and luminosity. The drab colours and the dark mise-en-scène highlight the heavy gothic impressionism in the films, which follow many other gothic film and TV conventions (8).

Another major gothic trope in every version of Batman is his alter ego – described as the “internalisation of evil” (9), existing in order to “undermine and disturb the human identity” (10). Doubles are a classic marker of gothic in film. The characteristics of Batman are “fragmented”, resulting in a doubled nature of the self (11). The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman is a complicated one in Nolan’s trilogy, presented as two very different personas but also working together to protect the other’s image. For example, Bruce uses his public persona as a scandalous celebrity as a distraction and, through his company ‘Wayne Enterprises’, a means of supporting his nightly activities. In gothic literature, the double becomes “the harbinger of death” (12) as it psychologically kills or represses the self. This is evident in Nolan’s trilogy as one of his alter egos takes over on multiple occasions, such as in Batman Begins, where love interest Rachel Dawes insinuates that his dark alter ego has taken over, and that Bruce himself can return – “Maybe someday, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I’ll see him again.” (13). Again in The Dark Knight Rises, after Batman’s exile in the previous film, Bruce Wayne’s ego has returned, after the 8-year disappearance of the caped crusader.

The mythology associated with Batman is mostly about “the pressing of gothic fear into the service of heroic justice” (14). Although the Dark Knight is only human, his persona is constructed with monstrous properties – criminals react as if they encounter a monster as he “knowingly assumes the appearance and behaviour of a hostile supernatural creature” (15). The aesthetic of Batman’s suit impersonates a monster, with the long black cape and obvious references to a giant bat (figure 2) showing the intent to terrorise criminals in an almost vampiric way by “sucking” on their fears (16). This was influenced by Spring-Heeled Jack (17) and Dracula (18) in particular, copying his dark aesthetic.

Although a ‘hero’, Batman is associated with typical gothic monsters as he is able to scare both the characters and the audience because of his “indeterminacy and resistance to categorisation” (19), and because of his non-human aesthetic (20), meaning he can be as frightening as if he were truly a monster.

One of the most famous outcomes of the trilogy is Heath Ledger’s performance as ‘The Joker’ in The Dark Knight, which completely changed the idea of the character, from “humour and gimmicks” to a “prince of terror” and madness (21). Madmen are important characters in gothic fiction (22), and The Joker’s lack of sanity and moral boundaries bear similarities to “tyrannical gothic villains”, who disregard social rules and are only satisfied when they have filled their criminal appetites (23). The character plays a large role as terrorist and political insurgent in the film, following the real-life domestic paranoia of terrorism at the time. This implies that the gothic has always been an indicator of the “anxieties plaguing a certain culture at a particular moment” (24). He is seen as a gothic figure because he is said to “embody the horrors and nightmares of the unconscious” (25), as well as provide a mass of contradictions that “tap into our own fears” (26). The Joker becomes a monster because he represents every fear that the public have in the contemporary climate, presenting himself as a macabre, anarchist, anonymous enigma, only intent on destruction and chaos (27).

Although The Dark Knight Trilogy cannot officially be classed as gothic because of the lack of monstrous creatures (28), the films include a wide range of gothic conventions, aesthetics, and characters. Because of the films’ realistic perspective, they are seen as lesser in terms of gothic, but in my opinion, because the city and the characters are easily identifiable (29), it makes the terror seem closer to home.


Footnotes

1. Sanna, Antonio. Batman: Gothic Conventions and Terror. Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies, Volume 2.2 (2015). P 33.
2. Jensen, Randall. ‘Batman’s Promise.’ In Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008). P1
3. Sanna, p33
4. Ibid, p34
5. Walpole, Horrace. The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
6. Sanna, p36
7. Ibid, p36
8. Ibid, p37
9. Smith, Anthony. Gothic Literature. (Edinburgh: Edingburgh University Press, 2007). p94
10. Barooee, Morteza and Ghandeharion, Azra. From Gothic Fiction to Video Games: Batman: Arkham Knight the Gothic Hero. (2017). p2
11. Hopkins, Lisa. Screening the Gothic. (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2005. pXI
12. Smith, p94
13. Batman Begins, dir by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros., 2005).
14. Fisher, Mark. Gothic Oedipus: subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Volume 2.2.
15. Sanna, p38
16. Ibid, p38
17. Grand, Alex. ‘Spring-Heeled Jack: The Original Batman?’ com.
18. Stoker, Bram. Dracula. (Westminster: Penguin Books, 2004).
19. Hervey, Benjamin. Late Victorian Horror Fiction. PhD diss., University of Oxford. (2002). p8
20. Moers, Ellen. 2004. ‘Female Gothic.’ In Vol. 1 of Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. by Fred Botting and Dale Townshend. (London: Routledge, 2004). p134
21. Prie, David. ‘The Princes of Darkness’ In Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. (London: British Film Institute, 2013). p131
22. Ghandeharion & Barooee, p5
23. Sanna, p40
24. Bruhm, Steven. ‘The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.’ In The Cambridge Companion To Gothic Fiction, ed. by Jerrold Hogle. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002). p260
Ghandeharion & Barooee, p9
25. Prie, p132
26. Ibid, p131
27. Sanna, p38
28. Ibid, p36


Bibliography

Barooee, Morteza and Ghandeharion, Azra. From Gothic Fiction to Video Games: Batman: Arkham Knight the Gothic Hero. (2017) pp 1-10.

Bruhm, Steven. ‘The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.’ In The Cambridge Companion To Gothic Fiction, ed. by Jerrold Hogle. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002). pp259-76.

Fisher, Mark. Gothic Oedipus: subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. Volume 2.2.<http://imagetext.english.ufl.edu/archives/v2_2/fisher/> [accessed 2.12.19]

Grand, Alex. ‘Spring-Heeled Jack: The Original Batman?’ ComicBookHistorians.com, 23 March 2019.

<https://comicbookhistorians.com/spring-heeled-jack-the-original-batman-by-alex-grand-2/> [accessed 4.12.19]

Hervey, Benjamin. Late Victorian Horror Fiction. PhD diss., University of Oxford. (2002).

Hopkins, Lisa. Screening the Gothic. (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2005).

Jensen, Randall. ‘Batman’s Promise.’ In Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. by Mark D. White and Robert Arp. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008) pp 85-100.

Moers, Ellen. 2004. ‘Female Gothic.’ In Vol. 1 of Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. by Fred Botting and Dale Townshend. (London: Routledge, 2004). pp123-44.

Prie, David. ‘The Princes of Darkness’ In Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. (London: British Film Institute, 2013). Pp 126-132.

Sanna, Antonio. Batman: Gothic Conventions and Terror. Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies, Volume 2.2 (2015). Pp 33-45. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316156571_Batman_Gothic_Convention_and_Terror> [accessed 28.11.2019]


Smith, Anthony. Gothic Literature. (Edinburgh: Edingburgh University Press, 2007).

Batman Begins, dir by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros., 2005).

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. (Westminster: Penguin Books, 2004).

The Dark Knight, dir by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros., 2008).

The Dark Knight Rises, dir by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros., 2012).

Walpole, Horrace. The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).