James Gordon in The Dark Knight

(Welcome to The Dark Knight Legacy, a series of articles that explore Christopher Nolan’s superhero masterpiece in celebration of its 10th anniversary.)

For all The Dark Knight‘s talk of the heroes we deserve as the ones we need right now, not enough credit gets given to the film’s true hero. Batman and Harvey Dent can go to Hero Hell: Lieutenant (and later Commissioner) Jim Gordon is the only one of the film’s three hero figures deserving of the title.

To understand Gordon’s greatness, one must begin with his motivations. Compared to Mssrs Wayne and Dent, the guy’s an angel. Gordon isn’t motivated by vengeance or headlines like his caped and suited counterparts. He just wants to catch the bad guys – because it’s the right thing, and because Gotham needs something better. That he’s regularly obstructed by corrupt officials or cops is a constant thorn in his side, but he never becomes complicit himself, and never stoops to vigilantism. He just gets on with the job, playing the long, patient game of law enforcement and detective work.

Throughout the Dark Knight trilogy, Gordon makes the hard decisions Batman never has to make. As a public figure and part of a system, he has many more variables to weigh than a lone street fighter. There’s corruption in the police force and in the municipal government; legal process and the all-important court of public opinion; not to mention the tsunami of crime that seems to face Gotham every day. Wedged between Batman’s brutish vigilantism and Harvey Dent’s descent into madness, Gordon represents a long-suffering devotion to the hard yards, weathering abuse from all sides but never wearing down.

Partway through the film, Gordon pulls off his most ambitious gambit. It’s a stunt that Batman wouldn’t attempt for another one and a half movies: he fakes his own death. As a tactic in drawing out the Joker and his goons, it’s successful to the point that not even Batman knows about it, but that’s not what makes it such an impressive move. Though faked, his “death” is absolutely real for Gordon’s family, who are put through the entire grief process – what every police family dreads – only to be told it was all faked, and they couldn’t know for their own safety.

That Gordon even has a family puts him a step above Batman and Dent. Those guys are just too unhinged, too consumed by their personal vendettas to work in a positive family unit. Jim’s the only one who’s not only managed to be a hero to Gotham, but to his family, too. Of course, however, while Jim’s return is welcome, it inevitably causes a rift – he lied to his family, after all. That’s a massive amount of emotional stress to go through, and it’s no wonder Jim gets slapped the moment he comes home. But it’s only by going through that horrible personal sacrifice that he’s able to say the words, “We got you, you son of a bitch.”

But then Gordon tops even that in his final act in the film, allowing Batman to take the blame for Two-Face’s crimes. Sure, Batman was the one who got hunted, but as Gordon’s voice-over says, he can take it. Gordon, on the other hand, suffers the emotional repercussions of keeping a horrible secret nobody can ever know, maintaining a horrible lie nobody can ever question – repercussions we feel in Oldman’s performance in The Dark Knight Rises. We don’t think much about Gordon as an emotional creature, but the toll of saving the city’s soul in this way must have been staggering.

Of course, Gordon isn’t capable of saving Gotham alone. Indeed, in the fascism-friendly world of the Batman franchise, Gordon’s adherence to due process and old-fashioned police work is less effective than Batman’s street-level beatdowns. But just as Gordon can’t save Gotham alone, neither can Batman, and thus, Gordon is something of a paragon of teamwork. Batman saves Gordon; Gordon saves Batman. Throughout the film, he’s the glue that binds together Wayne and Dent’s individual crusades, and after Dent’s death, he’s the crucial keystone in building the mythos meant to bring hope to the city. Dent wasn’t a white knight; he’s a hotshot prosecutor out for glory. Gotham’s white knight is the image of Dent constructed after his death – constructed, almost single-handedly, by one James Gordon.

Perhaps more than being a hero for Gotham, Jim Gordon is a rare example of a truly good cop. In an age where law enforcement frequently sets terrible examples, sowing distrust amongst the people they ostensibly serve, a man like Gordon would be a welcome addition to our universe. He’s free of corruption; he cares about his people; he’s modest to a fault; he represents law and order in the most benevolent form of the phrase. You just know Jim Gordon wouldn’t stand for his officers shooting unarmed black kids or tear-gassing civilians or putting kids in cages. His sense of justice is too pure for that.

Jim Gordon is the hero Gotham needs, sure. But more importantly, he’s the hero WE need.

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