Going Behind the Trauma: Desiring Batman in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy

Posted by matthewhelmers on July 05, 2012 in Dr Matthew Helmers, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , ,

On July 20th, Christopher Nolan’s much acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy will come to its conclusion with the already-in-the-bank blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. So much critical ink has been spilled about the first two installments, from the deployment of gothic anti-hero tropes to the atmospheric return of a grayscale Gotham City watched over by a brooding Wayne Manor, that it hardly seems necessary to preemptively trod these worn paths again. In fact, there is a wonderful interrogation of Heath Ledger’s Joker and the narratives of trauma done by Catherine Spooner on this blogsite [July 2008], as well as a brief assessment of the iconography of the Joker and villainy in March, 2008. So why return to a text that seems to so obviously offer up its analytic relevance to Gothic studies in the very name of its city limits?

Indeed, the first two films play out like an Easter egg hunt for Gothic tropes: the empty manor house, the decadent rich nobleman with a haunted past, the journey to the Orient, a deadly love triangle based around secrets and lies, and a mentor turned villain whose name ‘Ra’s al Ghul’ is homophonic for Raj meaning Hindi royalty and ghoul (king of the ghouls) and Arabic for ‘Demons Head’ in a stunning moment of over-signification (an entire post could be written about the villain, undead, supernatural, Orientalism links in his name alone!). So where amidst this superficially available narrative intertextuality do we find a place for critical understanding not already precluded by the operational metaphors of the film? What could the introduction of the Gothic to a film already self-consciously obsessed with the Gothic possibly gain us?

I’m glad you asked.

It’s the ease of this metaphor that troubles me, how quickly Nolan’s Dark Knight seems to slip into a transparently Gothic understanding. In my Foucauldian fashion, these moments of clarity always throw up greater questions about what technologies of power are facilitating these convergences: what systems of knowledge must be in place in order to make sense of the metaphoric relation between the Gothic and the Dark Knight. To illustrate what I mean here, I want to dip in to the cinematic world of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to examine their central metaphor: Bruce Wayne is Batman.

It seems simple enough, and not too much of a spoiler if you’ve encountered the Batman mythos before (apologies if you havent’!), and yet within its clarity hides complex questions of relationality.  What do I mean when I say that Bruce Wayne is Batman? Are they two separate people who share one body? Are they two identities of one conglomerate subject? Is one the actor and one the persona? Can Batman be other than Bruce Wayne? Can Wayne be other than Batman? Already we have returned to the Gothic grounds of doubleness, doppelgangers, secrets and masks in which the answers to these questions arrange themselves in constellations of performance, persona and split-psyches. So let’s bring these questions into sharper contrast through working through the fraught male-male relations so prevalent in Gothic fiction, in which like the Devil of Gil-Martin in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the other man often appears to me as myself, taking my visage so that I am him, and he is me: Wayne is Batman, Batman is Wayne.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick will famously show how these moments of the other male becoming visually identical to the male protagonist in Gothic fiction evinces Western culture’s growing paranoia over male-male relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. The blurry boundaries between identification with other men, and desire for those men, leads to a violent policing of the border between homosocial and homosexual. This slipperiness between identification and desire also seems to be every introductory film student’s go-to moment of analysis, usually by invoking the tension that seems to arise in a lingering mid-shot that frames the semi-nude male body. The Dark Knight Trilogy provides us plenty of these moments, allowing us the space to gaze upon the muscled physique of Christian Bale’s Wayne:

However, in Nolan’s trilogy, the cinematic conventions of desire seem to move (unfortunately for some) swiftly over the shirtless male figure. We are given Bale’s body, yet unlike the golden-era female whose halting or arresting of cinematic action allows us to understand her as an object of desire, Bale’s shirtlessness harkens back to a 1980’s trope of shirt-removal as the moment of finally ‘getting things done,’ the jump-starting of the cinematic action from its more feminine stillness and reflection. This is not a body that we will be allowed to linger on, but a collection of potential energy soon to be transformed into kinetic via quickly-cutting, blurrily focused fight scenes. If anything, Wayne’s body is held up for us as a plot device.

In mimetic relation to this body stands the body of Batman, carved out of a seemingly skin-tight rubber that must itself mirror the physicality of Wayne’s kinetic-energy pecs and abs:

In this hyperbolic recycling of Wayne’s own body now in an appropriately Gothic black and bronze, desire is again deflected: the suit means business, business means action, action means movement, and movement is antithetical to scopophillia. Yet, for me, something haunts this mimesis, the ghosting logic of the Gothic metaphor in which the proximity of being and wanting place a paranoid question mark over male-male relations. To paraphrase Sedgwick, does Bruce Wayne want to be Batman, or does he simply want Batman?

When we stop following the movie’s tantalizing deflections of the erotic pleasure of looking at men, we reintroduce the (auto-)erotic desire between Batman and Wayne that the film works so hard to gloss over: those moments when we get to look at Wayne looking at Batman and experience that odd admixture of desire and identification:

To think this through, I’m going to unfairly and instrumentally rip Henry James’ concept of ‘going behind’ as the term for the author taking over or, more suggestively, entering the character in order to present what s/he thinks and believes. Wayne routinely goes behind the mask of Batman, being and, I’m suggesting, wanting the unproblematic union of Wayne into Batman. This unmediated relationship between men, the threat of homosexuality according to Sedgwick, is thrown into contrast each time Wayne goes behind Batman. It is therefore in Batman that we get the compensatory performance of manhood, the reassertion of violent vigilante justice and gravelly voice, eschewing the threatening effeminacy of the decadent businessman Bruce Wayne whose own performances of masculinity are framed as inauthentically parodic, as in when he pulls up to his party in a gaudy convertible with two scantily dressed and characteristically mute female supermodels.

If the interiority of Batman is Wayne, so that we spend the movie watching Wayne going behind Batman, then we also witness the movie’s unfolding along traditional origin-narrative lines as a going-behind Wayne. In the exteriorized interiority of the Gothic, in which the landscape evinces the psyche of the character, the tropes of the Gothic multiply around an internal dynamic between the protagonist(s). We can therefore read the hypertellic Gothicness of these films as the externalized symptoms of the disowned erotic potential in Wayne and Batman’s relationship, the rejection of the longed for (auto-)erotic reintegration of the two male protagonists into a singular primal scene.

It is the erotics of trauma that I find most compelling in the trilogy, especially as those erotics turn towards and away from an auto-erotics. The metaphor Bruce Wayne is Batman, read through the paranoid Gothic, attempts to erase the possibilities that Bruce Wayne wants Batman. If we deny the metaphor, and reinvigorate the elided homosexual desire, how does this change our understandings of to the melancholic primal scene so oft-replayed in Nolan’s trilogy, a primal scene that seems to involve numerous screen memories from an alleyway shooting of his parents, to the falling-down into a well, to the destruction of the Gothic house, to the murder of his ‘true love’ Rachel Dawes.  Like Sedgwick, I’m not suggesting the erasure of this tension via another overly simple metaphor that Bruce Wayne is gay for Batman; instead, I am suggesting that the Dark Knight trilogy brilliantly evinces the persistence of the Gothic obsession with the binary in/out as it relates to the desire for a lost (imagined) wholeness. In maintaining this tension, we see how becoming Batman and wanting Batman are already bound up with each other in a way that continually defers the homoerotic potential of two male characters sharing the same body. Is it any wonder than that, like the female member of the Sedgwick’s triangular model of desire, Batman’s love interest Rachel Dawes is nearly as two-dimensional as the furniture in Wayne’s apartment? Or that the trilogy will conclude through the allegorization of Wayne/Batman’s self-love through the introduction of another doppelganger in the form of Kyle/Catwoman?

If this bricolage of Henry James, James Hogg and the Dark Knight seems to hang together only in its flirtatious attachment to Sedgwick’s homosocial hypothesis, I offer as coda that what I have been trying to write about is ‘Gothic’ masculinity. My scare-quotes denote that I’m not suggesting a pernicious teleological trajectory in which the archetype of the Justified Sinner finds its way to Batman via Henry James, but rather that the parameters for thinking these three texts (and thousands more) that we might quarantine into a historical Gothic past might itself be a paranoid moment of identification and desire, projection and incorporation. To say that our Gothic Batman continues the legacy of their Gothic Justified Sinner is to ignore that both Batman and Justified Sinner are already incorporated into a critical trajectory that falls from the present to the past. In this auto-erotic encountering of a past that we want to make present, the ‘going behind’ of the Gothic, we touch the strangeness of that historical moment that is both desired as alien other, and identified with (me-connaissance/méconnaissance) as our own mask.



Batman Begins. Dir. Chistopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Ken Watanabe, 2005.

The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Aaron Eckhart, 2008.

The Dark Knight Rises. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale,  Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman, 2012.

Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ed. John Carey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

James, Henry. “Pref. to Lady Barbarina.” The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. 198-216.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 75-81.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Revised Edition. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 342-352.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1985.

−−−. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. London: Methuen & Co., 1986.

−−−. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1990.

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