Theological Dialogue: Batman Begins

I had the enormous privilege of getting to watch the entire Dark Knight Trilogy in IMAX on opening night of The Dark Knight Rises last week. Truly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can therefore not resist the urge to do a post of each of these movies, that, though being movies about Batman, are philosophically rich, and some of my favorite movies of all time.

I’m tempted to say that this is my favorite of the entire trilogy. No, it did not have the spine-tingling, award-winning performance of Heath Ledger like The Dark Knight. No, it didn’t have the hour-long visual spectacle of a conclusion like The Dark Knight Rises. But, from start to finish, this movie is perfection. It accomplishes everything it intends to, reintroduces a timeless character in a fresh and believable way, has charm and wit to spare, high emotion, and a timeless philosophical debate at its heart.

This is not the Batman of the 1960’s, with Adam West and onomatopoeias. It’s not the gotchic Batman of the 1990’s with Michael Keaton, or the campy wise-cracking Batman with villains who make puns out of their names for 90 minutes. Christian Bale, under the direction and scripting of the Nolans, creates a Bruce Wayne/Batman that is deeply realistic, motivated by a philosophically rich understanding of justice, and who experiences the kind of character development that makes the conclusion so satisfying.

Christopher Nolan gave one-word descriptions for the theme of each of his Batman films. The word for Batman Begins is “Fear”. The heart of the movie’s tension is in the use of fear. The League of Shadows, and the villain Scarecrow, use fear as means of making Gotham tear itself apart. Batman uses fear as a weapon as well, to give criminals something to be afraid of themselves. One of Batman’s greatest tools is deception, darkness and misdirection. People fear what they don’t understand, and Batman exploits this weakness amongst the depraved of Gotham.

While fear may be the primary the primary weapon of both the villains and the heroes, it is not the primary theme of the movie. “Fear” is not why the good guys and bad guys are fighting. Ultimately, this movie comes down to a fundamental disagreement about ethics. The villain, Ra’s Al Ghul, head of the League of Shadows, operates under a utilitarian ethic. This is most basically understood in the phrase “the ends justify the means”. This moral philosophy separates the actor and the action. Motivations, intentions, good-naturedness do not play a role here. The action that should be taken is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is why the character Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows are “immortal”, in a sense. It is not about who they are, or which person takes the role of Ra’s Al Ghul (translated “the Demon’s Head”), it is the ethic they embody that allows them to, for centuries, to execute their version of justice, which is to destroy civilizations that get out of control. Ra’s claims that the League has toppled Rome at the height of its depravity, among other nations throughout centuries. It is now Gotham’s turn. In their eyes, it is better to simply destroy the city, even if it means the loss of innocent lives. The ends, a world without corrupt Gotham, justifies the means, the destruction of an entire city and all its inhabitants.

Batman operates under a different ethic. During his training by the League of Shadows, Bruce is asked to kill a captured criminal, without knowing his crime and without “due process”. In the best line in the movie, Ra’s tells Bruce, “Compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share”, and Bruce/Batman replies, “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.” Batman operates from a more Kantian ethic, which determines morality from the means rather than the ends. A common phrase you could associate with this would be something like, “It’s the principle of the matter!” Kantian ethics operate on moral principles, not situational circumstances.

What this movie ultimately asks, then, is: “Do the needs of the many outweigh the rights of the few?” This is not a debate easily settled, but the movie certainly takes its stance. Batman chooses to fight on behalf of the corrupt city, standing up for the scum and the innocent equally, as he believes that he can achieve redemption for Gotham City through more principled means. The redemption of Gotham is the goal to which the whole “Dark Knight Trilogy” aspires. Batman’s primary ethical instinct is that even a city as evil and lost as Gotham is worth saving, and that this saving can only be accomplished through ethical means. Batman has moral rules and principles, like not killing, that govern his behavior.

The story of this film then, beyond being an action movie with a superhero, is that true goodness and justice is principled, based on intentions and motives, rather than outcomes. The question for us, then, is does this story match up with the Christian story?

My first instinct, and another reason I love this movie, is that it does. In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to take moral principles from the Old Testament and hone in on the motives and intentions that drive the actions. These are the statements where Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said… but I say to you….” Old Testament principles against killing are intensified, such that Jesus says it is just as wrong if a person harbors hate; hate being a motivator for murder. The Old Testament law against adultery is extended against the mere act of lusting, which is the motivation for adultery. Jesus clearly isn’t primarily concerned with the outward result, but with the inward character. It would seem that Jesus rejects a utilitarian ethic that would separate the person from the action. There is a direct correlation between the two, and Jesus chose to save the world through the actions of one person (himself), sacrificing rather than conquering, loving rather than condemning, and calls those who would be followers to do the same. God is about the formation of people who reflect the primary characteristic of love,and believes that even a depraved, corrupt earth can eventually be saved, and is, indeed, WORTH saving.

To start some interesting discussion, there’s an interesting story in the book of Genesis that shows an early struggle with this idea among the Jewish people. Most people are familiar with God’s destruction of Sodom, but less people are familiar with a story that is reported to us about a discussion between God and Abraham on the matter. While this story takes place before, in Genesis, to match the chronology, scholar Walter Brueggemann, among others, argue that this is a later tradition, meant to be a theological “corrective” to the story of the destruction of Sodom. Without this dialogue, we have an old story about God behaving a lot like the League of Shadows, destroying a city rather than saving it. But this dialogue gives us a different way to view the story, one in which Abraham presents a different view of ethics, and God *agrees* with Abraham. This passage is ripe with potential controversy, as the imagery in it plays out like a courtroom in which Abraham is the accuser, and God the accused, and God relents. This has profound implications on biblical study, intercessory prayer, and the development of theology throughout the Bible. I’m not ready to open this can of worms in a post about Batman, but this is a deeeeeeep text to dive into for discussion. How are we to understand this version of God, rebuked by Abraham for first suggesting a utlilitarian ethic, and persuaded to spare the innocent (Lot and his family are spared in this instance,)  with the words and life of Jesus, who would rather sacrifice himself than see the world destroyed? I think if we have to choose, we choose the image of Jesus, who is the fullness of the image of God. I would speculate that the image of God we are given in Genesis represents a community struggling with a God who is not yet fully revealed, not a clear picture like we have in Jesus. This does not mean this text is worthless. Quite the opposite: we see an evolution/development of theology throughout scripture fully revealed in Jesus. Perhaps the earliest struggle of the ethic of God plays out in this confusing way because we hadn’t quite figured out God yet. Feel free to sound off in the comments about this.

The moral tagline form Batman Begins: “It’s not who we are on the inside, it’s what we do that defines us.” A first read would make this sound like utilitarianism, but it actually unites the action with the person. “What we do” IS “who we are”, and conversely, “what we are” is “what we do”. Batman’s actions to save Gotham rather than destroy it come from a place of belief that compassion is better than hatred, redemption is better than destruction, and salvation is a hard earned battle, but a battle worth fighting. And I believe these are, essentially, Christian themes.

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