But for much of the time on screen, Batman is not doing the reckoning. It is his nemeses who prevail through much of the action, violence and drama of the films — until the Dark Knight becomes master of his fears, darker than the villains he sends to prison or the grave.
Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, is a conflicted multibillionaire who has suffered many tragedies since his early childhood. Pushing himself past his limits, Wayne becomes more than a CEO. He becomes a symbol.
But likewise, the villains as interpreted by the Nolan team have just as rich and tragic a genesis as the Dark Knight. The characters of Scarecrow, the Joker and Bane arose long before "Batman Begins" was released — and they were expertly translated to the screen for modern audiences to appreciate and fear.
Batman’s first Gotham City-based foe in the trilogy is Scarecrow, a brilliant master of terror who uses fear gas to induce violent hallucinations in his opponents. The original character was born in 1941, and has traditionally been depicted wearing a tattered mask. His real name is Dr. Jonathan Crane, a psychologist and, ironically, a psychopath.
Portrayed by Cillian Murphy in the films, Scarecrow manipulates the criminally insane to do his bidding, using fear gas and his other methods to aid Ra’s al Ghul — Batman’s original mentor and eventual nemesis — in a plot to vaporize Gotham City’s water supply into an airborne hallucinogen. Scarecrow is a villain who epitomizes what Bruce Wayne must master to be Batman — fear; and symbolically, Wayne’s fear of bats.
The Joker, perhaps one of the most iconic villains ever on screen, was created in 1940. He is Batman’s most notorious arch villain — a comedic, insane criminal. Much like Scarecrow, he is a master of psychological warfare, spreading chaos and terrorizing Gotham City. The Joker has white skin, green hair and bright red lips stretched into a grin by a scar.
The late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight" brought the Batman series to its pinnacle, drawing audiences in with the allure of genuine terror. Even with his hands around the Joker’s neck, Batman cannot invoke fear in him — and ultimately, the Joker has the last laugh by killing the love of Bruce Wayne’s life.
In the trilogy’s second installment, the Joker’s demise is somewhat ambiguous, and he does not return in the series conclusion; all the more ominous, in my opinion. Ledger’s Joker is a symbol unique to our generation; an interpretation of a character who encapsulates our fear of actual terrorism, giving life to the reality that some people just want to watch the world burn.
Bane is possibly Batman’s most physically and mentally formidable adversary. Bane is a human-weapon, one of few villains capable of contesting Batman. The original Bane wore a wrestler mask and was pumped full of a drug called Venom, a force that both empowers and destroys him.
Portrayed by Tom Hardy, the Bane of "The Dark Knight Trilogy" wears a mask over his face, achieving the same effect of Venom, paradoxically holding him together while also serving as his one great weakness. The mask amplifies Bane’s voice to make him the loudest of Batman’s enemies, as he leads a massive military upheaval in the name of the “people,” trapping Gotham City’s police force underground and igniting revolution, releasing criminals into the streets and inviting all-out anarchy.
Bane was born in Santa Prisca Prison, a deep pit from which only legends rise. Unlike Scarecrow and the Joker, he displays elements of both love and sacrifice in his actions. He is not interested in personal gain or greed. His real agenda is to reshape the world after reducing it to ashes, and it is ultimately his willingness to follow a loved one that brings about his demise.
In the beginning, Bruce Wayne must face a master of fear; in the end, he must face a man with both a dream and a purpose, so that he can save Gotham and earn his life back.
Christopher Nolan has adapted brilliant source material to a set of films that builds on itself in a compelling, satisfying way — not just telling a story about a hero. Instead, "The Dark Knight" tells the truth about the nature of good and evil — that the world is not black and white, but that each side fights in a shroud of darkness, and a truly great hero like Batman is given definition by the quality and complexity of his villains.
Whether it is a ploy by Bane to restructure the world, or by the Joker to unravel it, or by Scarecrow to contaminate it, or a tragic crime by assailants off the page and screen, it is attention to character that unmasks our enemies and gives strength to our heroes.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist