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Politics and Morals, Myths and Hope: Reading Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 13:55

Born (and Re-Born) in Hell

Just as The Dark Knight Rises clarifies the whole in moral terms, it also makes evident its mythic ambitions beyond the obvious arc of the hero’s journey.

Most tellingly, there are either three or four Batman resurrections in The Dark Knight Rises – depending on how you choose to count.

First is his return after an eight-year hiatus – which in functional and public terms represented his death. Third (or third and fourth) are the separate resurrections of Bruce Wayne (the man) and Batman (the symbol, in the form of Blake) after their apparent demises.

In between is the most physical and direct treatment of the idea, with Batman (nearly) killed, imprisoned and (psychologically) tortured in a below-ground Hell, and finally rising to save Gotham. Aside from Batman taking his sweet time returning to the world of the living, the path is reminiscent of the Apostles’ Creed, in which Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into Hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead ... .”

Superheroes – and especially Superman – have long been seen as Christ figures, and from its title to its returns from the “dead,” The Dark Knight Rises appears to impose that connection on Batman. Aside from the savior similarity, the comparison is knotty – but worth exploring.

Remember that there’s never a point-for-point match between Christ and Christ figures; artists appropriate aspects of the New Testament story that (consciously or not) interest or speak to them. Nolan and his co-writers aren’t equating Batman to Jesus; they’re stripping out central Christian ethos and messages (forgive, turn the other cheek, and the like) to leave elemental power struggles – not just between (intertwined) good and evil, but between salvation and death and between Father and Son.

Let’s start with the problems. Batman is in no way a representation of goodness in a Christian sense. Rather than being sent down from the heavens, he was (figuratively) born at the bottom of a well – the underworld – in Batman Begins. He can be said to have horns. So the parallels are rough, and Batman might more closely resemble some other reborn god (a regular motif in mythology).

But like the fully human and fully divine Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ, the Dark Knight is full of internal conflict between his mortal, human self (Bruce Wayne) and his immortal, symbolic salvation role (Batman). Alfred tempts him early in Rises, suggesting that by keeping Batman (his sacred duty and true identity) in retirement permanently, he could create a life for Bruce Wayne (his earthly shell and mask) – just as Jesus on the cross in Last Temptation dreamed of a simple life as husband and father, the rest of the world be damned.

What Rises, Nolan, and his protagonist do, then, is create a third option. In the process of sparing Gotham from a nuclear blast and finally “killing” Bruce Wayne’s Batman, the two halves are separated and given new, divergent lives. (If the movie’s carefully telegraphed ending seems a cheat, it might be because it feels wrong to you that Jesus – I mean Batman – can have it both ways, particularly given the series’ penchant for binary, polar choices.)

This interpretation is not based solely on The Dark Knight Rises. The movies from the start have encouraged biblical readings.

Consider, for example, this passage from Genesis: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. ... And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.” Ra’s al Ghul’s plan (in Batman Begins and, through a surrogate, The Dark Knight Rises) recalls Yahweh’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and, earlier, humanity except for Noah. Both the Old Testament God and the League of Shadows judge us collectively.

Contrast this with Batman’s idea of justice, which while similarly harsh is individual and – in its formative stages at least – included the word “compassion.” The wicked – and, in theory, only the wicked – are punished under Batman, the flip side to the righteous being promised salvation in the New Testament.

In other words, these Batman movies exploit a tension similar to that between the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible – vengeance versus kindness.

If Batman is the (relatively) kind Christ in this reading, his spiritual father is Ra’s al Ghul, whose fortress not coincidentally sat on a mountain. (In a sense, Batman was then born both in Heaven and Hell, and if you prefer to see Batman more as a demon than akin to Jesus, recall that Lucifer’s story, in one aspect, recalls Christ’s: Both were cast from above to the Earth by the Creator.)

The parent-child relationships here are defined by rejection. Ra’s al Ghul, the God-figure teacher, says that killing is sometimes necessary for justice, a tenet that pupil/son Bruce Wayne rejects. (Yet Bruce also finds fault in the philanthropic philosophy of his biological father – ineffectual and too kind.)

In The Dark Knight Rises, Talia al Ghul is also shown to have been born in Hell – and was in two instances abandoned by her biological father, Bruce’s mentor – while Bane was forged there (the goodness pummeled out of him) and then rejected by God. Yet they, like Job and Christ, persevere in the Father’s work, even though they perceive that He had forsaken them.

Batman, of course, spurns that mission, and there’s a moment in Batman Begins when the very personal (rather than philosophical) animosity between Father and Son is hammered home, as the crooked cop claims to know nothing, “swear to God.” We might call that a very poor choice of words, as Batman is none too fond of God: “Swear to me!”

And (speaking of the Joker), while the Christ figure is most clearly manifested in the first and third movies, some biblical allusions can be found in The Dark Knight. Two-Face, as duality made literal, is himself a fallen angel. You might, in the way Gotham finally turns against its savior and casts him out, hear echoes of Peter’s denial of Jesus.

The JokerAnd recognizing that the chief adversaries in Begins and Rises are Father figures, it’s not hard to see the Joker as one, too. Like God, he just exists – no backstory offered or needed – and his schemes are designed to stress the moral mettle of both Batman and Gotham, as the Old Testament Lord foisted cruel trials on Job and Abraham.

All of the series’ primary villains – Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, Two-Face, and Bane – act as (or aspire to be) God figures, testing people or executing final judgment on individuals or societies. This wasn’t true for Scarecrow until, in The Dark Knight Rises, he presides over the city’s post-revolution court system, offering exile or death.

For all of its darkness, though, Nolan’s trilogy finally rejects those one-and-the-same options as Gotham’s only choices. By the end of Rises, through its resurrections, a freed Bruce Wayne, and a new, untainted incarnation of Batman, it offers a glimmer of hope for society and its people.

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