Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight Rises

In the third and final film of the trilogy, Batman faces an even greater foe than ever before: the expectations of living up to the Dark Knight.

Unfortunately this is one foe that Batman is unable to conquer, but let’s be fair: the odds were not in his favor.

For me, and many moviegoers and critics, the Dark Knight Rises did not live up to the impossibly-high bar set by its predecessor. While it was still a great film and a crowning achievement, it fell short of what we all hoped it could be. Personally, I don’t think the film was as smart or philosophical as the first two. But the movie was still very reflective, and gives us a lot to think about.

First, it is rare that a superhero sequel takes the events of the previous films as seriously as this one did. Most superhero movies end with the main character getting beaten nearly to death, narrowly escaping and defeating the villain. Then we are to assume that between said battle and the next movie, the superhero has recovered and been brought back to health. You never see Spider-Man or Superman or the X-Men nursing their wounds from the previous movies.

But Batman still suffers the physical pain of his gunshot and fall from the second movie. This is intentional, and incredibly symbolic. Batman’s physical suffering is representative of the emotional turmoil suffered by himself and Gordon at the lie that they told. Gotham itself, though it doesn’t realize it, is suffering as well under the weight of this lie, as forces threaten to come up from beneath the surface (another literal-metaphor) and tear them apart. What this movie dares to admit is exactly what I argued in the last post, that Batman and Gordon’s lie was immoral. And the implications are dire in this film.

Still dealing with the death of Rachel, Bruce Wayne is unable to find life outside of Batman because of Alfred’s lie, and he is unable to be Batman because of his own lie. In a time of peace, both he and Gordon are wasting away. In a sick sort of way, the evil that threatens Gotham becomes their salvation, because they have a chance to be their old selves. Forgetting that their goal all along was to save Gotham, they had both become villains and needed a war to fight to feel needed. And both need to be shaken out of this mindset by tragedy in order to discover themselves.

Bruce Wayne is in something of a funk to start out with in this movie, until a cat-burglar named Selena Kyle steals from him, exciting him to get back in the game. Anne Hathaway plays the best Catwoman I’ve ever seen, (and I’ve seen them all,) who seeks a clean state despite being mixed up with the League of Shadows, the villainous group from the first movie. The group lacks the philosophical drive from the first movie and seems far more driven by revenge. This makes the villains less intriguing from an intellectual standpoint, but Bane is a physical and psychological specimen worthy of Nolan’s movies.

What’s interesting is that Batman almost wants to die. You get that impression as he continuously underestimates Bane, overexerts himself, and basically says so in his conversations with Alfred. In an emotional turn, Michael Caine turns down the charm and turns up the fatherly love for Bruce and begs him to find a life outside of Batman, knowing that he can’t win. Bruce essentially throws Alfred out, and falls right into Bane’s hands. In the best scene in the movie, Bane absolutely destroys Batman. Batman hits Bane over and over and over with all his strength, and Bane doesn’t even try to dodge or deflect the blows. Every few hits from Batman, and Bane retaliates with a deafening blow back, until Batman has fallen, broken mask. In one last effort, Batman comes at Bane once more, and Bane breaks Batman’s back, just as in the comics.

Wow. Breath-taking. Batman is taken to a prison to watch as Gotham is destroyed. Bane plays a psychological game with both Batman and the City. Bane’s psychological terrorism to to give his victims a false hope to make them feel the pain of defeat that much more. For Batman, it is the possibility of escape from the prison through a hole, which only one person has escaped from. For the City, it’s the hope that if they play by Bane’s rules, there is a citizen who holds the detonator which can save the city, but the audience, and the protagonists, know that the bomb will go off at a particular time no matter what.

This movie represents a true hero’s journey. In Batman Begins, we see Bruce become Batman and align himself along certain principles against all odds. In the second movie, we see him forego those principles and end up as less than the hero he started. In this movie we see Batman atoning for these sins, being broken, and, as the title suggests, rising up and becoming the hero he was always supposed to be. Whether its intentional or not, Batman’s journey in this film is not unlike the story of Christ. However, the metaphor is imperfect, since it is Batman’s own doing that causes it all, and there are multiple death/resurrection events in the movie. Batman coming out of the prison can be seen as a Resurrection, as he seems to have conquered his inner demons, but it isn’t until Batman flies away with the bomb that the victory occurs, and we have another apparent death and Resurrection. Nonetheless, we see Batman taking the punishment that is intended for all of Gotham (remember, the League of Shadows originally wants to destroy Gotham for its corruption) on himself and is seemingly killed. Of course, Bruce Wayne emerges at the end, having apparently found a way to live outside of Batman.

I think first and foremost this is a movie about finding a future. Every character here is stuck in the past because of something. For the villains, they seek revenge for their fallen leader from the first film, and hope to follow-through on his plans to destroy Gotham. Catwoman lives in the shadow of her past criminal deeds, wanting badly to move on but finding her past is always haunting her. As already stated, Batman and Gordon find their pasts crippling emotionally and physically, and are beginning to lose hope in any future.

This is a very human theme. There is an inherent human desire to want freedom and forgiveness from the past and have a clean slate for the future. Some don’t believe this is possible, some work their whole lives trying to find it in the wrong places. Some give up the search early and seek revenge for the ways in which they’ve been wronged, thinking that retribution brings peace.

And the best and most hopeful Truth that God has to offer is that, with God, there does not need to be a direct correlation between the past and the future.

On earth, we have causes and effects. We have definitions and equations and facts.

But there’s this beautiful little theme that runs through the book of Jeremiah. In chapter 2, and all throughout prophetic literature, Israel is referred to rather graphically as a whore, a prostitute, a harlot. God is very upset with Israel. However, something happens by chapter 31. Here, God calls them “Virgin Israel”.

This imagery should not be overlooked. A whore becomes a virgin. By our categories of cause and effect, 1+1=2, this is not possible. Those two states-of-being are not ones you can jump around between. By definition, a person who has had sex can no longer be considered a virgin for the rest of their life. It’s a one-and-done kind of thing.

But the message of this book is that, with God, our categories of defining people by their past are out the window. Whores can become virgins. Sinners can become righteous. Cat-burglars can have a clean slate. The Dark Knight Rises is, at its core, a movie about leaving the past behind for a better future. They find their way in this movie through a hard-won battle. And just to clarify, the process that Israel goes through in the Exile (between Jeremiah 2 and 31) is no walk in the park. Becoming a new person is not always easy; but God does insist that it is possible, even if we don’t believe it.

One last thought: Batman’s journey from death to life in the middle of the movie is a hard-earned one, but that is the lesson that Batman learns in this movie? What is it that allows for him to escape from the prison and save the city? It isn’t merely a test of will, and it isn’t just a physical act when he leaps to freedom. The lesson Batman learns in the pit and truly redeems him is one that has intrigued me since I saw the movie. Batman learns to fear death.

How many movies, especially superhero movies, see this as a value in a hero? There are countless classic movie lines about not being afraid of death or overcoming this fear in order to achieve victory. But this movie presents the opposite as truth: it is only by fearing death, by jumping without the rope, that Batman is able to achieve the physical, spiritual, and emotional victory to defeat his enemies and atone for his sins.

The movie begins with a Batman not afraid to die, perhaps even wanting to die, as he can’t stand the stagnant existence he’s found himself in. In the pit, the lesson he has to learn is that the fear of death is what motivates life, and allows for truly super-human action. This is the buried philosophical point of this movie: we ought to fear death if we are to experience life with meaning.

So this is the truth we dialogue with, and it’s an interesting one. My initial reaction is that Christian’s need not fear death. Here are a few reasons why:

(1) We believe in a resurrection  – namely, in some way, death is not the end of the story

(2) Jesus speaks often of laying down one’s life for the sake of him or the sake of another as the most noble task

(3) The sacrament of baptism signifies a type of death in which an old “self” dies and a new “self” rises up out of the water, in line with Christ’s death and resurrection.

(4) The fear of death is often a motivation for committing violence or some other sin – the “kill or be killed” scenario

However, this is only my initial reaction. Because the Bible does seem to regard death as tragic, and affirms life and the prolonging of life. Jesus himself healed many sick, prolonging their lives. He wept over the death of Lazarus and even brought Lazarus back. There is something about death that, even for Jesus, is desirable to avoid.

My favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, has a consistent theme of valuing life and seeing it as precious and fleeting. The very idea that life is brief and transient leads the writer of Ecclesiastes to believe that every moment is to be cherished and not wasted. “It is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.” (Ecc. 9:4). Dogs, in this culture, were not viewed as a man’s best friend, but as filthy, disgusting creatures full of disease. Ecclesiastes seems to say that death should absolutely be avoided, that it should be treated with respect, so that one can learn to live one’s life with intention and joy.

So how do we resolve this tension? As Christians, is there such thing as a healthy fear of death? I think it’s really important that we deal with this question, because we seem to have an inconsistent view of this in the Church, and when someone dies we don’t really know what to say or do about it. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard things like, “At least they’re with Jesus now” or “She’s home now”. And I don’t want wish to argue with either of those sentiments, but I’m not sure they’re a healthy way of dealing with death. That’s probably a question for a counselor, but I can at least argue that it’s not a biblical way of dealing with death. The biblical reaction to death seems to one of sadness. I think the truly biblical affirmation is that any kind of life has immense value to God, even if we can’t see its value. This is how we can reconcile Jesus’ call to die for him and for one another. To die for Christ really does affirm the importance of life, saying that the only thing more important than life is your connection to the One who gives life. And in the second instance, laying down one’s life for another, is an affirmation that both our lives have immense value, and I am choosing to see the value of your life as greater than my own, which is truly a selfless act of love.

Death is tragic. Life is fleeting. The idea of a resurrection after death should not take away our mourning and our sadness at the end of life on earth. We were created to inhabit this earth and to have an abundant life. Eternal life is something that begins here the moment we align ourselves with the eternal God behind it all. We should not feel guilty about our deep sadness about death, or even our deep anxieties about our own death. These are normal, and they are good, for they teach us to treasure each moment of life as a gift, an opportunity to make something, be something, or do something. Batman had to be broken and given something to fight for to find this truth. We’ve had it in front of us the whole time, but sometimes our bad theology about Heaven gets in the way. We ought to look forward to what awaits us in God’s Future, absolutely. But not at the expense of wasting our life now. If we can’t appreciate what we’ve been given right here and right now, how can we be trusted to appreciate a second life? Right now is the time we have and have been given; let’s cherish it, find joy in it, and try to make this place a little more like the one we hope to find after death.


One thought on “Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight Rises

  1. First off, Trump is an idiot. In a revolution who’s usaully the person to get clipped? The rich and the prosperous that’s who. Guys like Trump would be laid out on the streets in a hurry because they have no survival instinct. A revolution would render everything he has (mainly his money) useless.Secondly, I’m not expecting anything huge from Obama even though I voted for him(he is a politician after all). He was simply the lesser of two evils. I personally think the U.S. is doomed and primed for a fall anyway. The candidates kept talking about China taking jobs but completely ignored the fact that China is also taking power. They’re on the come up and they’ll make their presence felt in these next 4 years when they become the most powerful country in the world and the U.S. dollar collapses on itself (because of the federal reserve system).

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