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By Gordon! Is Commissioner Gordon the Central Character of Nolan’s Batman?

We have to save Dent! I… have to save Dent!

- Commissioner Gordon, at the climax of The Dark Knight

It was Joss Whedon himself – the man now helming The Avengers – who once argued that the problem in bringing DC adaptations to the screen was that the traditional line-up was somewhat difficult for the audience to relate to and engage with (as compared to identifying with the X-Men’s status as social outcasts or Peter Parker’s nerdy little troubles):

Because, with that one big exception (Batman), DC’s heroes are from a different era. They’re from the era when they were creating gods.

And the thing that made [rival publisher] Marvel Comics extraordinary was that they created people. Their characters didn’t living in mythical cities, they lived in New York. They absolutely were a part of the world. Peter Parker’s character (Spider-Man) was a tortured adolescent.

DC’s characters, like Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern, were all very much removed from humanity. Batman was the only character they had who was so rooted in pain, that had that same gift that the Marvel characters had, which was that gift of humanity that we can relate to.

Of course, he cites Batman as the excpetion, but you can’t help but wonder just how easy it is to relate a billionaire playboy who is focused on avenging the loss of his parents to the exclusion of all else. The wonderful thing that Christopher Nolan has done with the Batman mythos is to render it so wonderfully accessible. And perhaps he’s done that by making James Gordon, as wonderfully played by Gary Oldman, the centre of his saga.

Gordon lights up the movie...

Yes, Batman Begins offered us perhaps the most psychologically complex portrait of Bruce Wayne ever – it gave us a pass inside his head and explained why exactly a fully-grown billionaire would take to dressing like a giant flying rodent – but I don’t think that Nolan has really attempted to offer Wayne as a character easily to identify with. You could argue that being rich and suave doesn’t immediately render a character difficult for the audience to relate to, James Bond finds his appeal resting on the fantasy aspect of such a lifestyle – even if we can only imagine what it’s like to live that life, we can fantasise about it.

But Bruce Wayne – at least here – isn’t a figure of fantasy, he’s genuinely tragic. He’s a character heading for a horrible ending that everyone around him can see coming a mile off. Even if being Batman doesn’t actually kill him, he’ll never be fulfilled. He’ll never have done enough to allow himself to quit and to live the high-flying billionaire lifestyle. Nobody in the audience in their right mind would wish to be Bruce Wayne or Batman. Indeed, he’s a frighteningly obsessive creature – every bit as distorted as the monsters that he pursues. Even in the more recent deconstructions of the James Bond movies, there’s still a heavy scent of fantasy around the iconic British spy – we all wish we were that smooth and skilled and charming.

Instead, Nolan positions James Gordon as the human heart of the tale. Commissioner Gordon has always been a key part of the Batman mythos – various incarnations have played up and played down his role, moving him from key player to supporting cast member and back and forth. In Tim Burton’s Batman he was a fringe character at best; in Batman: The Animated Series he was frequently used as a plot device (father of Batgirl, provider of exposition). In these two films, he offers the street-level perspective of what is occurring in Gotham.

He’s a family man, living a life that Bruce could never allow himself to have. He’s married and has two kids. He is trying to make Gotham better, which is an uphill struggle to say the least. After a brief introduction to him comforting a young Bruce after the death of his parents, we see Gordon’s time as a beat cop, turning down a “taste” – the bribes that the local police seem to take for granted.

Batman is surrounded by a supporting cast of enablers. Alfred gleeful enables Batman’s criminal crusade, supporting Bruce wholeheartedly and faithfully in the endeavor he has chosen for himself – even if that means the loss of Bruce. Gordon makes the riskier choice. Knowing next to nothing of Bruce Wayne and his history (indeed, whether or not Gordon knows the identity of Batman varies from continuity to continuity), Gordon entrusts him to clean-up the city.

The job involves a lot of paperwork...

It’s Gordon who creates the Bat Signal at the end of Batman Begins, which he uses to “remind” the city that Batman is out there. As the head of the MCD, it’s Gordon who gleefully ignores the “official policy” to “arrest the vigilante known as Batman on sight”. He acknowledges the debt that Gotham owes Batman, but his decision is an incredibly risky one. Indeed, it’s Gordon who finds himself at the centre of The Dark Knight‘s meditations on lawful authority and moral decency – quite rightly at one point his wife blames Batman for all that has happened, but this ignores the fact that Gordon has allowed the vigilante to operate unchecked.

And, in fairness to the character, Nolan and his writers don’t paint Gordon as in anyway unaware of the magnitude of his actions. Even at the end of the first film, foreshadowing the more radical “freaks” who would emerge in the sequel, Gordon observes that his support of Batman will have consequences – “escalation” is how he labels it. It would have been easy to have Gordon blindly accept the help offered by the Caped Crusader only to later find himself swamped with the iconic selection of villains, but the film demonstrates that Gordon is fully aware that his decision will bring with it repurcussions.

Indeed, one of my favourite aspects of The Dark Knight is – even in a film overflowing with complex characters and motivations – is how Gordon seems to bring himself to task for what he’s done. It becomes clear towards the end of the film that he holds himself accountable. As he squares off with Maroni outside Dent’s hospital room, he observes that the gangster “let the clown out of the box” – the obvious implication being that he let the bat out of the cage. Harvey Dent was the “white knight” who could have saved Gotham – and arguably without the bloodshed that Batman has brought – and Gordon feels responsible for his loss. Notice how Gordon’s first priority after Dent’s accident becomes securing Dent himself and how his primary concern during the hostage stand-off is that Dent may be a hostage of the Joker (the reality is far darker).

I adore the bit where Gordon draws his weapon on Batman, a conscious rejection of the hero. Even when Batman asks for five minutes to attempt to save the hostages, it is Gordon who only gives him two – the stand-off with the SWAT team is entirely down to Gordon’s waivering faith in the Dark Knight (which is itself restored at the finale). It’s not “we” who have to save Dent because we’re responsible for what happened, it’s “I”. The responsibility for everything that has changed lies not with Batman – arguably similar to the way the Joker absolves himself of responsibility with the whole “a dog chasing cars” bit – but with the person “who let him off the lead” so to speak.

Gary Oldman really doesn’t get enough credit in the role, which is a damn shame (even though is role is bigger in the original than the sequel). His version of Commissioner Gordon is undoubtedly the most complex and tragic iteration of the character who has ever emerged – the man who effectively opened Pandora’s Box and let the genie out of the bottle. He’s the most human of characters in the series, and I really look forward to seeing how exactly he develops in Batman 3.

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4 Responses

  1. I honestly thought all three supporting actors in TDK: Oldman, Ledger and Eckhart deserved Academy Award nominations, as unrealistic as that was.

    I get the feeling that at the end of the third Batman (and Nolan’s take on the series) that Gordon will be the last man standing. Batman may be the muscle of Gotham, but Gordon will always be the heart.

    • Yep. I’m fascinated to see where the character goes – I sense that, while he will likely be supporting, he’ll play yet another key role in the final part of the trilogy. And it’s great to see Nolan simply make use of batman’s phenomenal supporting cast. Just because they don’t wear costumes doesn’t render them unimportant.

  2. Great write-up, and I do think that one of the best moves that Nolan made with these films is bringing in Oldman for this role.

  3. I always felt that Gordon was the only true hero in The Dark Knight – a normal man who works within the confines of the justice system to bring justice.

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