The Masculine Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy"

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

38 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory on the depiction of the male in Hollywood cinema The origin of the crisis

3. The man(l)y face of Batman – The Rise of a Cultural Icon

4. Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy
4.1 Cinematography
4.2 Mis-en-Scene

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely.”

“Which is?”

“A legend, Mr. Wayne.”

(Batman Begins)

The Batman gradually developed into a cultural icon ever since his first appearance in 1939. Today, the comic book hero has transformed into a worldwide “Batman-brand”, a “myth” that has outlasted many other cartoon and comic book characters from the past 74 years. Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego are the protagonists of comics, graphic novels, television shows, movies and the internet. Recently, the popularity of the caped crusader reached another peak with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

The worldwide profit Nolan's trilogy has and still is achieving reveals the broad clientele this depiction of the caped crusader attracts. Audience members, not necessarily obsessed with Batman, huddle into the movie theaters to see a newly invented, darker and more realistic cultural icon. The first installment, Batman Begins, had a worldwide gross of approximately $ 400 million which was a comparably low number in respect to the The Dark Knight which achieved a worldwide gross of $1 billion (ranking 15th in the list of all time worldwide box office results). The third and last movie, The Dark Knight Rises, set an even higher record for the franchise with a total of roughly $1.1 billion (ranking 8th in the list of all time worldwide box office results) (Batman Begins – Boxoffice Mojo). Taking into consideration that between 1943 and 2005 twelve other Batman movies were produced, the franchise surprises by remaining overwhelmingly successful.

At first glance, people highly doubt that commercialized (super-)hero movies have deeper meanings to them than good versus evil, costumes, special gadgets and a protagonist equipped with more muscles and testosterone than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his 1980s action classics. But besides being commercially successful, The Dark Knight trilogy provides more than a caped hero. It accentuates one of the central research aspects of modern cultural studies: gender.

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy cinematically reinvents Batman as the self-referential cultural icon and makes him the agent of the masculine crisis in modern Hollywood.

In order to provide a foundation to the claim of the Dark Knight being an archetype of a modern masculine crisis, this paper breaks away from the superficial conviction that movies, along with their characters, simply consist of fictional and incidental constructs. The development of the cultural studies that originated in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, allows this paper to interpret the movie industry as a set of aesthetic artefacts incorporating formalizations and working with symbolizations (see Whannel). In other words, movies inherit complex codes that reflect cultural aspects in order to reinvent, change or modernize them. Motion pictures do not simply mirror social process, moreover they represent negotiations with society and in return become part of the transformation. Warner Brothers' newest modernization of the Batman character perfectly highlights this cultural connection with its cinematic language and, thus conveying the deeper meaning of the masculine crisis.

This paper begins with the definition of the masculine crisis as it is negotiated through the different masculinities dominating Hollywood in the past 70 years since Batman came to existence. In order to explain how masculine film studies even emerged, the chapter shortly reproduces the beginnings of gender-oriented film studies as a field of contemporary cultural studies. Then follows the description of the various masculinities, which controlled Hollywood productions during the decades to underline the staggering picture of the male contributing to a masculine identity crisis.

The second chapter of this paper reproduces the stages of Batman's history from its beginnings in 1938 until the release of Nolan's Batman Begins underlining the character's role as a cultural signifier. The analyses of the various Batman products, such as comics, movies and TV formats, highlight the miscellaneous Batman masculinities that have led to the current depiction in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

In order to highlight the gender theme of the trilogy, it is important to understand its inherent language and the use of various channels to convey the message of masculine crisis. Therefore, the third chapter of this work provides an analysis of the Dark Knight trilogy in respect to the question how the successful transformation of a commercialized (super-) hero into the spokesperson for the masculine gender is achieved, starting with Nolan's application of cinematography. In order to reinforce the theme of a self-doubting, orphaned superhero with a split personality, low-key transmits the dark uncertainty that scholars such as Hollstein, Prowie and Kappert suggest in their analysis of the modern male. The framing of the shots incorporates the masculine questioning of hierarchy. Furthermore, the speed, length and angle of the camera shots differentiating between the various characters and the masculinities they represent.

Then, an analysis of the mis-en-scene as evidence to support the reinvention of Batman's gender as the cultural representation of struggling masculinity. Properties such as Batarangs and Bat-vehicles underline Batman's symbolism. Also, the Batsuit as the representation of a hard, masculine body protecting the vulnerability of the character beneath as Connell's analysis of the masculine body exemplifies. In addition, the choice of the setting that effectively creates a realistic but subdivided Gotham.

With the help of cinematography and mis-en-scnee, Nolan introduces the variety of masculine characters appearing in the trilogy who function as contrasting representatives of masculinity and consequently highlight or break with the perception of Batman as the only masculine cultural representation. The Joker, as the agent of chaos, questions the rules of society and its prevailing gender conceptions, which is epitomized by him cross dressing as a female nurse. Along with Scare Crow (the opponent who underlines Batman's psychological trauma), Harvey Two-Face and Bane (the superior statue of male physique and elemental force with the deep masculine voice), Nolan incorporates several villains who contribute to and mirror the masculine struggle of Batman and are elaborated on to the Dark Knight's dominating gender related imagery.

.The legitimation to the thesis that Batman is a cultural representative of the male crisis is given in two basic academic explorations, namely The Many Lives of the Batman by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio and Batman Unmasked by Will Brooker. Both research the dialectic of culture between Batman and his audience, political economy with a focus on gender of the commercial context and how Batman can be related to the twilight of idols which is again closely connected to the crisis of the male.

In conclusion, the Dark Knight trilogy highlights that writer and director Christopher Nolan reinvents Batman through self-reflective attributes of the film-making process. Consequently, the heroic cultural icon not only mirrors the problem of a masculine identity crisis in society but has been throughout his existence, until today a part of it and thus maintains his own myth.

2. Theories on the depiction of the male in Hollywood Cinema

The origin of the crisis

In the article “Our Male Identity Crisis: What Will Happen to Men?” published in Psychology Today, Ray B. Williams effectively outlines the male crisis in present society. Besides the economical reasons, such as the decline of College graduating males, he also mentions the cultural representation of the male. He claims that today's men find themselves caught between the opposites of “hard vs. soft” and are therefore “groping in the dark for their identity” (Williams). Williams further explains that “in a post-modern world lacking clear-cut borders […] the portrayal of men and male identity in contemporary western societies is mostly negative” (Williams). Thus, masculinity represents not only a biological factor or psychological state, but much more it is a cultural product. Thereby maleness becomes a property that threatens the subjects to be unable to fit its needs and in return receives a negative connotation (Horlacher, 32). This threat leads to subjective interpretations of male identity and therefore, masculinities are always plural in respect to social, cultural and ethnic models within society (Erhart, 10). This phenomenon of negative male plurality also holds true for popular culture of the media such as TV shows or films. Therefore, the masculine crisis can be described as the struggle of men to find their own identity within the jungle of many masculinities that exist in present society and culture.

In order to highlight how The Dark Knight trilogy represents the masculine identity crisis, it is necessary to take a step back and find out what other masculine images dominated Hollywood before the contemporary uncertainty about the male identity. Therefore, this chapter provides an overview on the scholarly theories and their findings on the various male depictions in Hollywood cinema.

The intrusion of the female gender has severely disordered the security of the male identity as Walter Hollenstein in his work Was vom Manne Uebrig Bleibt claims. Of course there are spheres of influence dominated by men, yet still no social area remains where men's exclusive position are unquestioned and are not shared with women (Hollenstein, 190). Economy, politics and culture opened up to the female gender. In return, the degradation of the male as the dominating gender began (Hollenstein, 191). His point is proven by the development of gender oriented cinematic analysis.

In the 1960s, film scholars such as Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen Joan Mellen began analysing film with the focus on feminist aspects (Liebrand, 10). These complex investigations still provide the foundation for gender-oriented analysis of popular cinema. These scholars set their focus on the feminine stars, the so called icons of that time. However, during the 1970s, the main concern of the gender oriented film studies changed. Academics, such as Laura Mulvey, integrated aspects of psycho analysis into their investigations of movies. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, she uses the psycho analysis as the centre of her argumentation in order to highlight gender implications within the movies. According to her theory, the audience subconsciously picks up on this underlying representation of gender because of its voyeurism. In detail, she claims that everything we see on the silver screen, we recognize as an reflection of ourselves (Mulvey, 53). Yet the self-projection remains a two-edged sword, since it means loss as well as reinforcement of the ego. Thus, movies imply the connections of distance and proximity or division and identification.

Mulvey's argument plays an important role for the claim of a masculine crisis in Hollywood cinema. The tension of a psychological connection between the audience and a movie described in her model, basically summarizes the centre point of masculine studies: instability. Since self-identification is heavily dependent on subjectivity by the viewer, it remains “mobile, fluid, constantly transgressing identities, positions, and roles. Identifications are multiple […] at points even contradictory.”(Cohan, 10). This fluidity is embedded within the changes of masculine depiction of the past 40 years and closely connected to social changes within reality.

Later Steve Neale's analysis Masculinity in Spectacle used Mulvey's essay “as a central, structuring, reference point [..] to look in particular identification, looking, and spectacle as she has discussed them and to pose some questions as to how her remarks apply directly or indirectly to men” (Cohan, 10). He questioned the role of women as the centre point of investigation and demanded a closer look “on the representation of masculinity, both inside and outside the cinema”. (Cohan, 19) For instance he states that especially “male heroes can at times be marked as the object of an erotic gaze” (Cohan, 13). Through this gaze the spectator achieves self-identification with the character. According to him, the male gaze describes much more than only the audience-movie relationship, but also the structure of the film which “is predicated on the pleasure on seeing the male “exist” (that is walk, move, ride or fight) in or through cityscapes, landscapes or, more abstractly, history.” (Willemen, 16) Supporting this is John Ellis' analysis specifying the progress of self-identification by labelling it as “more complex [as it includes] those of hero and heroine, villain, bit-part player, active and passive character. Identification is therefore multiple and fractured” (Ellis, 43). In other words, Neale, Willemen and Ellis highlight the connection between cinematography, mis-en-scene, character constellation, audience and the masculine gender approach that this paper uses to analyse in the Dark Knight trilogy.

These theories provide the foundation for masculine investigations within the field of film studies. The first Batman comic was published in 1938 and Batman Begins, the first part of the trilogy, was released in 2005; this time span is the focus of my evaluation on the male presentation in Hollywood cinema.

During the late 1940s the singing and dancing protagonists controlled the sets of the movie industry. Movies such as Singing in the Rain created and defined themselves through the “star persona of a performer” (Cohan, 61). “In contrast to the more oppressive , often hysterical, depiction of post-war America's restoration of binarized gender roles in film noir, the musical imagined an alternative style of masculinity, one grounded in specactle and spectatorship” (Cohan, 66). In other words these stars satisfied the need of distraction from the cruelty of World War II; a historic event that also strongly influenced the representation of the male in the film noir during the 1950s. He “is often depicted as a struggle for the male protagonist to maintain his heteronormative identity.” (Grant). Women had left the domestic sphere to support the American War effort and as a result the role of the male as the breadwinner slowly faded. In order to maintain the masculine gender identity, the protagonists of film noir are men who “dominate others […] violent […] strong” (Mellen, 3). The masculine facade began to crack and was partly restored through violence. The contrast between the happy protagonists of musical movies who fleet-footedly danced their way through the world of the silver screen and the grumpy, self-righteous and violent film noir anti-heroes already suggested the presence of more than one interpretation of male identity.

The struggle of masculine identity was maintained during 1960s and 1970s cinema. The inconsistent depictions of men remained, sometimes even within the same movie and character. One example is Clint Eastwood's Misty for me. Adam Knee sees Eastwood's debut as a director as the perfect case of “negotiating contemporary discourses about masculinity, in dealing with a changing (and loosening) sense of the way maleness is constructed in social terms.” (Cohan, 87) In his analysis he highlights the self-contradictory character traits of the protagonist David who “is supposed to relinquish a machismo past and become more sensitive to” (Cohan, 100). In other words, the male protagonist of the 1960s and 70s had to reinterpret the role of the tough guy. Thus, the partial continuity established by the film noir male is yet again questioned and becomes even more unstable (Cohan, 100).

In the 1980s, the psycho-analytic aspect by Mulvey and the claim of a male gaze by Neale, eventually led to scholars focusing on the representation and meaning of the male body in Hollywood cinema. Nancy Shui-Yen Cheng's dissertation Getriebene Melancholiker- Helden-Koerper-Action in Hollywood claims that society, in particular masculinity, is strongly influenced by the power of the body as it is depicted in 1980s and early 1990s Hollywood cinema. (Cheng, 12). According to her, the action genre provides the best examples for male body representations due to popularity and its mainly male protagonists. Cheng's point is supported by her valid observation that Hollywood usually follows an “anything goes” policy, but that the action genre maintained a conservative choice of protagonists as they are male and athletic (Cheng, 13). Susan Jeffords describes this dominating male depiction as it peaked in the presidential era of Ronald Reagan in her work Hard Bodies- Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. Besides establishing a connection between a political period, namely a presidential term , her work also highlights the resulting iconisation of actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis (Jeffords, 52). Through the depiction of their hard bodies, they turned into masculine icons that set the standard of how men should look, speak and act; in short how men should be. Thus, the depiction of masculine identity stabilized in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Additonally, Jefford's focus on male body representation and meaning for the masculine gender, helps her to establish an interesting connection to the political landscape and its influence on Hollywood cinema. In return, this connection strengthens the argument of Hollywood movies functional cultural signifiers. With the end of Reagan's presidential term and George Bush taking office, the indestructible, solid depiction of men came to an end. Eventhough, Bush was Reagan's vice president, he was determined to “place his own mark on the presidency” (Jeffords, 91). A shift of the “single-imaged and hard bodied style of the Reagan years to [...] a sort of schizophrenia as Bush tried to balance his inheritance with his own interest.” (Jeffords, 91) took place. In other words, even if there had been a certain stability within the masculine gender depiction in the movies during the 1980s, the new political wind blew over the muscular, tall, at times superior images of the male in Hollywood cinema.

In response to the decline of muscular masculinity in the 1990s, Susan Jeffords adequately describes the increasing depiction of a masculine identity crisis. She argues that George Bush and his politics are marked by “difference”, a phenomenon that was picked up and effectively used by Hollywood in the late 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s (Jeffords, 99). One of the best examples of that time is the movie Batman by Tim Burton. Interestingly enough, Jefford's analysis of the predecessor of the trilogy that is the focus of this paper, highlights the beginning of the crisis of the man. The Batman needs his hard body “to enforce social order but is irrelevant to the character of a “family man.””(Jeffords, 100) In other words, Batman symbolizes the protector of social order but cannot be a part of it. The superhero becomes a threat to his own aspiration, a contradiction; a danger that is also depicted in the Dark Knight as will be shown later. What is left, is a masculine image that is “no real image at all.” (Jeffords, 100)

The outcome of the fall of the hard male was the need for a new male image that would be suitable to the social political agenda of that period. After the 1980s dominating resentful, muscular, unmarried protagonists became undesirable; the new image was more that of a family man (Jeffords, 142). Whereas their predecessors killed everything that got in the way, the new heroes had the will to find a family to be a part of. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone continued to be two of Hollywood's leading actors. Nonetheless, their image had undergone drastic changes as can be seen in movies such as Kindergarten Cop or Termiantor 2 (Jeffords, 143). In order to uphold their own iconic status, they adapted to the demands of a new masculine image in Hollywood. The process of adaptation implies a loss of true identity and leaves the male within a blank space. Hollenstein argues that men try to fill that blank space of identity in three different ways: denial, adaption and traditionalists who cling to old-fashioned ideals of masculinity (Hollenstein, 192). In short, men are not only without an identity, but they are also divided in their attempt to redefine themselves.

Furthermore it is interesting to consider the struggling male of the late 1990s, which Christopher Flock investigates in his thesis A Critical Analysis of Masculinity Portrayals in Film. In reference to the examples of Fight Club and American Beauty, he states that “the male leads ultimately come to reject [socially constructed definitions of masculinity] to remedy for their perceived crisis. […] and embark on a journey that leads them back to conservative male ideals.” (Flock, 23) To put it simply, men are still not content with their role as the family man that has been loaded upon their backs in the beginning of the 1990s and continue to question this identity in various ways.

In review, since the beginning of gender oriented film studies, various theories have highlighted different images of masculinity and observed that throughout the decades various depictions of masculinity dominated Hollywood, at times even concurrently. The simultaneous appearance of various male portrayals, is the proof for an identity crisis of the masculine gender. With the ongoing political changes, especially in the late 1980s, the last stability in form of hard, muscular protagonists has been thrown overboard. The ship of masculinity is unable to find an identity that can navigate it around the iceberg of masculine crisis. Men in Hollywood are no longer bound to one particular image in order to be successful and establish themselves as icons. Moreover, they need to be as adaptable and fluid as masculinity itself in order to create identity in the vaguest sense.

A phenomenon also holding true for the cultural figure Batman as will be shown in the next chapter.

Excerpt out of 38 pages


The Masculine Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy"
University of Hannover  (Philosophisch Fakultaet)
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ISBN (Book)
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Batman, Masculinity, Hollywood, Nolan, Identity Crisis, Movies
Quote paper
Sascha Ranke (Author), 2013, The Masculine Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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