In The Dark Knight series, an elected official suggests that the city intends to arrest Batman. A female cop watching the television turns to a middle-aged detective and says something like, “The man says you’re closing in on the Batman.” The detective says that they’ve got some suspects, balls up a piece of paper and throws the wad up against a bulletin board which has photos of Elvis Presley, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln. They are the political messages of the series in a nutshell:
1. Elvis: Fame is powerful, useful and destructive. Mortal men can become immortal symbols, but they still remain mortal in reality.
2. Bigfoot: Man is also a beast. He walks on two legs, but is he really different than an animal?
3. Lincoln: Sometimes you have to lie, break the law and otherwise enter into temporary evils in order to do good. But it might not work for the long term and it might cost you your life.
The first film focused on the first theme. Bruce Wayne begins to conceive of Batman during his lessons about theatricality from the League of Shadows (so that you become “more than just a man” in the eyes of your opponent). The idea takes further form during his conversation with Alfred about the nature of symbols on the private plane back to America (as a symbol, he can be “incorruptible”). Bruce Wayne would not be able to rescue Gotham City, but some symbol into which Wayne could step might be able to.
Symbols have independent existence from the occupant of the symbol. This is all very 20th century philosophy and we would be surprised if Christopher Nolan did not have a reasonably thorough philosophical education. Modern philosophy is obsessed with symbols, or what they call ‘signifiers.’ This is understandable given the fact that for the most part, academic philosophy in the 20th century tended to give up on truth. What’s left after truth? The symbols that used to convey truth.
Bruce Wayne creates what we now call a personal brand. He creates a brand logo and it is literally written on the sky. Media gladly distribute and magnify the story, enhancing the fame. It’s a reality show. Batman is a Kardashian, but with a little less padding. Criminals are terrified of this image (Batman, I mean), which is inherently terrifying, and comes from a traumatic childhood experience in a cave.