As Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy comes to a close with The Dark Knight Rises I’m struck by how influential the films have been on my thinking not just about filmmaking, but also morality and the pursuit of social goods. Through the ensemble of characters, Nolan explores various responses to injustice. Our of their clashes and collaborations, Nolan puts forth a complex and compelling narrative of a city in chaos and the flawed people charged to bring balance. Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman, is the crucial part of this moral tale. His presence alone gives Bruce Wayne and us hope that Gotham can be saved.
Gordon is the one righteous man in Gotham. As a beat cop in Batman Begins, he encounters young Bruce Wayne after the murder of his parents. It’s such a small, but beautiful scene. Gordon tries to offer comfort, letting Bruce grieve instead of promising justice. Surrounded by the corruption in Gotham, Gordon is the one good cop in town. Gordon is pragmatic; always looking for ways to seek justice, serve others, and survive when everything is against you. His partner, a literally dirty cop, wonders why he won’t join in on the graft. Gordon responds, “I’m no rat. In a town this bad, who’s there to rat to.” You feel the weight of injustice on him, but his commitment to do something and do it well makes him well placed for a new era in Gotham.
After devising his plan to become Batman, Bruce Wayne starts building a team to take on the mob. Lt. Jim Gordon is the second member (Alfred being the first) and Batman takes great risk in approaching him. Gordon knows it’s money, entrenched power, and fear really blocking the justice system. Batman delivers Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) to Gordon while providing leverage to Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) to secure a conviction. Yet, the dangers facing Gotham are much bigger than organized crime. Seeing that Batman can make good on his promises, Gordon becomes his number 2 in defeating Ra’s Al Ghul. Batman Begins felt so fresh because of how rooted in reality it was. Superheroes can do more than regular men, but even Batman can use a regular guy like Gordon to save the day.
Gordon and Batman interact as equals. At the close of the film, Gordon says, “I never said thank you.” Batman’s response of “And you’ll never have to” speaks not only of his self-lessness, but also the debt he owes Gordon for restoring some order to Gotham. Batman has power and resources at his disposal, but Gordon has the experience, wisdom, and foresight that Bruce Wayne lacks. Gordon sees the good in Batman’s dramatic action, but also the danger of escalation. Despite what lies ahead, the relationship between Gordon and Batman is the brightest hope for Gotham City.
With The Dark Knight Nolan takes everything to the next level and pushes his characters to the limits of their virtue. With Lt. Gordon, we find him promoted and running the Major Crimes Unit. Gordon remains the bright spot of the GCPD, but in assembling his own team he has to use what’s available. Harvey Dent accuses Gordon of hypocrisy, using cops he’s investigated for corruption to fight it. Gordon’s pragmatism remains, “I can’t afford to be idealistic. If I didn’t work with cops you investigated while you were making a name for yourself at IAI, I would be working alone.” Despite having his doubts about his team, Gordon would like to believe his leadership is enough to make MCU effective.
The Joker exploits the weak infrastructure of Gotham to create chaos. With Gordon, he uses Gordon’s pragmatism against him. The dirty cops Dent warned about are key players in capturing Dent and Rachel Dawes. During interrogation, The Joker raises Gordon’s flaw: his trust in his team.
Lt. James Gordon: Harvey Dent never made it home.
The Joker: Of course not.
Lt. James Gordon: What have you done with him?
The Joker: Me? I was right here. [holds up his arms in handcuffs]
The Joker: Who did you leave him with? Your people? Assuming, of course, they are still *your* people, and not Maroni’s. Does it depress you, Commissioner? To know just how alone you really are? Does it make you feel responsible for Harvey Dent’s current predicament?
Despite being a good cop and leader, Gordon cannot contain or transform the others around him. That’s the tragedy of his character and of The Dark Knight. In the hands of The Joker, the goodness in the characters becomes a lethal weakness. Two-Face expresses their collective despair “We tried to be decent men in an indecent time.” In order to salvage something of their efforts, Batman and Gordon cover up Harvey’s rampage and preserve the reforms they started against organized crime.
Rises Spoilers Ahead