Thursday, January 20, 2011

Christian Motifs in Batman's Mythology

With the latest news out about the up-coming Batman movie making the rounds I thought I'd re-run a piece here I posted shortly after the last Batman film, The Dark Knight, opened. This appeared on another blog I was contributing to at the time the movie was released (that blog is now pretty much defunct). I'd love to get your thoughts on this. . . This is why I am so excited about the next film.
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Unless, you’ve been living in a cave, you know that Batman is back and like never before. The Dark Knight has received critical acclaim and broken just about every record on the books, setting numerous all-time figures:
  • Best midnight opening ($18.4 million) (that doesn’t count the 3am and 6am showings which were slotted after all the midnight showings sold out, which also sold out!)
  • Best opening day / single day gross ($66.4 million)
  • Best opening weekend ($158 million)
  • First movie to make $300 million dollars in 10 days
  • Best IMAX midnight preview ($640,000)
Moreover, this is the first blockbuster movie to ever be filmed on the specially made, high resolution IMAX film (certain action scenes, meaning about half hour of the movie, which runs for 2 ½ hours). The reason for this film "first" is not due to the fact that IMAX technology is new. Rather, the IMAX film requires extremely heavy cameras which are very difficult to use. Director Christopher Nolan didn’t let that stop him, however―he even used them to film fast paced action scenes. The result is breathtaking. 

From whatever angle you come at it―economic, creative, technological―the film has emerged as more than just a movie―it’s a cultural event.

In fact, when I went the first time to go and see the film―a full week after it had opened!―I was disappointed to discover that all the IMAX showings screened in a cavernous theatre were sold out. Next available: 1:20am.  And yes, that’s 1:20am! I learned that the theater simply remained opened all night long, selling out IMAX screenings around the clock. Again, this was more than a week after it had already opened in San Diego where movie theatres abound!

Yet this did not deter me. You see, from as long as I can remember, I have been a Batman fan. When I was really young I enjoyed the campy 1960’s Adam West show. By the time I was in grammar school, I became addicted to the comic books―a passion that led to a growing frustration with the Adam West series. As I grew up, I came to understand that the West show was really a spoof of Batman. Throughout high school, college, and even graduate school I continued to read Batman graphic novels and comics like they were going out of style. These days I don’t really have any free time―but if I did, I must admit, there are a couple of recent ones I would love to work through.

So, suffice it to say, I’ve been anticipating this movie for a very long time. As I’ll explain, it did not disappoint. 

But I want to do more than offer a review of this particular movie. I want to explain why I think Batman endures, highlighting some important points of contact with Catholic theology and philosophy.

Just Another Comic Book Hero?
I realize my affection for this character might sound a little ridiculous to my academic friends who read this blog. Why would a professor of Catholic Theology and Scripture be drawn to this particular superhero? It all just seems a little bit too silly. Isn’t Batman just another man in long underwear like Superman or Captain Marvel?

My appreciation for "the Batman" is especially hard to understand if you’re only familiar with the previous on-screen versions of the character, i.e., the Adam West show or the previous films by Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher. To be honest, for most of us who know him from the comics these versions of the character were so different from the source material that they often felt like stories about an entirely different character! Yet, throughout it all, we fans never gave up hope that something more would come our way. Why? Well, because the character is so interesting he deserved a second chance―not to mention a third, a fourth, and so on.  

Here I want to explain why I think Batman is not just another superhero.  I want to explain what I think is the real appeal of Batman and how this movie finally got it right. The man who ultimately deserves the credit for the successful reboot is Christopher Nolan, the director.

A New Start: Christopher Nolan and the Batman
After the absolutely disastrous Schumacher versions of the Batman movies―the last starring George Clooney (Batman) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze)―everyone was delighted to hear that Warner Bros. had decided to go in a different direction with the franchise. Then word got out that Darren Aronofsky, famous for his bleaker than bleak pictures, was going to take over. Many Batman fans were more than just a little concerned. Initial reports of Aronofsky’s vision for the franchise were dreadful.

Then, all of a sudden, it became known that Christopher Nolan was interested in the project. Nolan was a young director whose first film, Memento (2000), was an instant film classic. The movie told the story of a man who had lost the ability to retain short term memory. To tell his story, Nolan did something ingenious. The movie had two alternating storylines, one presented in black and white and the other in color. The one in color was told starting at the end of the movie and circling back to the beginning. In other words, each scene picked up at the beginning of the last scene. So if the previous scene in color showed the main character walking into a restaurant, the next scene would reveal how he got there. This way the audience identified with the main character, who, arriving at the restaurant, couldn’t remember why he had come there in the first place or even how he had ended up there! At the end of the movie, the audience discovers the initial event that set off the entire plot of the movie.

Momento was a smash hit. It has an incredible 94% rating on rottentomatoes.com, the site that tabulates all reviews published by critics.  Nolan’s second film, Insomnia (2002), starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, was also a huge critical success (92% rating).  

Nolan apparently began to leverage his reputation with Warner Bros., keen to work with him after two huge successes, in an attempt to take the Batman franchise away from Aronofsky.  Many of us fans were rooting for him. Why? Nolan had explained that he was a true Batman fan. In fact, he had always wanted to do a Batman film and he knew how to present the character right. In 2003 he told Variety:
“All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character… He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character.”
It became clear that Nolan didn’t simply see Batman as another project; this was a labor of love. 

Nolan rebooted the whole franchise. His first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), represented the first time the Batman of the comic books really came alive on screen. Of course, like everything else Nolan does, it was great. But what made it great was not its unique take on Batman. It was great because it was Batman. 

What Makes Batman Special
Batman is not just another superhero. As Batman Begins highlighted, unlike Superman or Spiderman, Bruce Wayne has no superpowers. He is just a man. So what is it that made him a superhero? The answer: the example and inheritance of his parents. 

Bruce Wayne’s family helped to build Gotham City, the world’s largest city (modeled, of course, on New York City). Their influence on the city went back as far as anyone could remember. His parents were known for their generosity and virtue. His father was a doctor, known for helping the poor, the destitute and the desperate. While the mob ended up owning the city, Bruce’s parents represented a beacon of hope. Bruce was their only child and the center of their universe. 

Of course, everyone knows the rest of the story. One night the Wayne family went to the theatre. On their way home, they ended up going down a dark alley. There Bruce watched on helplessly as his parents were murdered by a run-of-the-mill mugger (not the Joker, as Tim Burton’s movie suggested), named Joe Chill. It was just another random act of senseless violence.

The event scarred Bruce for life. However, although he could have allowed himself to be swallowed up by despair, something else happened. Instead of indulging himself in a hedonistic lifestyle, wasting away in extravagance as only a rich orphan could, Bruce decided to bring something good out of the tragedy of his parents’ death. Bruce’s parents had given him an example of selflessness and love that could not easily be forgotten. Instead of pitying himself, Bruce came to the conclusion that something had to be done about the injustice that took his beloved parents’ lives. The police department, civic officials, the courts, etc.―they were all in the pocket of organized crime. Something extraordinary had to happen―and he realized that the virtually unlimited wealth left to him by his father enabled him to do what no one else could. 

Bruce ends up becoming a model of temperance and virtue. He learns to master his emotions, channeling his anger. He becomes a model of the Platonic or Aristotelian virtuous individual, overcoming his passions and making proper use of them.   

Young Bruce in prayer (Source: Secret Origins #6, 1986)

In one famous Batman graphic novel, Dark Victoryit is revealed that most of the mansion he lives in alone sits unfurnished. Though he performs public acts of extravagant spendthriftness―often in the form of charitable donations, though also appearing to live a profligate lifestyle―the real Bruce Wayne lives a Spartan existence. 

Self-discipline and virtue―that’s how he will learn to fight crime. 

This is what sets Bruce apart from Superman and other such heroes. He has no superpowers. Every time he goes out in costume, he puts his life on the line. He cannot rely on a “spidey-sense” to alert him of an enemy sneaking up behind him. He has to rely on his training and the habits he has worked to develop. Superman can come bounding in on the bad guys and afford to get caught up in a trap―he can play it by ear. Batman, on the other hand, has to prepare, investigate, study, train, etc.―only then can he face evil. 

This dimension of the Batman character is laid out beautifully in Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins (2005). In one movie Nolan laid out what volumes of comic books have explained about Bruce Wayne’s character and motivation. The success of Batman Begins was due to the fact that it treated the key dimensions of the character neglected by the other theatrical installments: his relationship with his parents and their incredible example of generosity, the impact of the death of his parents, his own self-sacrifice and resolve, his commitment to never take a life (or, put another way, his commitment to preserve life), etc. Most of all, Nolan has helped his audience appreciate not only Batman, but also Bruce Wayne.

“It’s What I Do That Defines Me”
My favorite scene in Batman Begins sums up the whole Batman philosophy. Batman saves the great (unrequited) love of his life, Rachel Dawes, who, like everyone else in Gotham, has been fooled into believing Bruce Wayne is nothing but a shallow, billionaire playboy.  

Earlier in the movie Bruce is about town, ditzy supermodels on either arm, appearing to be little more than a party animal. Unexpectedly he runs into Rachel. He is obviously embarrassed that she has seen him acting like a fool and is clearly disappointed that she has bought his act. He says, “Rachel, this isn’t me. Deep down, I’m more.” Rachel replies, “It isn’t who you are underneath that counts, it’s what you do that defines you.” 

Later, at a climactic moment, Batman saves Rachel’s life. Before jumping back into the fray of the battle, Rachel pleads, “Tell me your name. Tell me who you are. You might die!” Batman replies, “It’s not who I am underneath that counts. It’s what I do that defines me.” 

In fact, as a professor of Catholic theology, I recognized this philosophy. It is called “personalism,” and it was laid out in works such as The Acting Person and Person and Communitybooks written by Karol Wojtyla. Of course, Wojtyla would later change his name to "John Paul II".  In sum, John Paul II explains that we are what we do. You become "good" by doing good. It's nonsensical to say, "Sure, I lie, cheat, and hurt people but deep down I'm a good person." For Wojtyla, what we do defines us.     

But all this was just a prelude to the main event―Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight. 

The Triumph of the Dark Knight
Batman Begins was spectacular, but the Dark Knight far surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations. The casting is, once again, inspired. Michael Caine (Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (Lucias Fox―a character known well to fans of the comics) return as supporting actors and are simply fantastic. Heath Ledger’s Joker is arguably the finest villain ever to appear on the silver screen. Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent / Two Face is also brilliant, as is Gary Oldman’s outstanding performance of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. And, although Ledger’s death has highlighted his contribution, the real star is, once again, Christian Bale, who nails the Batman character as he did in Batman Begins. In my opinion, Christian Bale is to Batman what Christopher Reeves was to Superman―he simply is the Dark Knight. Moreover, he accomplished what most fans never thought possible―he nails both characters: Batman and Bruce Wayne.  

Of course, there is more to the movie than just the casting and the acting. As with all great films, it is the story and character development that makes this movie a true masterpiece. Once again, the excellence of the movie is due to the fact that Nolan truly captures the essence of his characters. This time he highlighted a dimension of Bruce Wayne / Batman that had been entirely ignored by all past moviemakers. 

Here I totally disagree with Roger Ebert, who, in his glowing review of the film writes that Nolan’s Batman has “leaped beyond” the comics. Wrong. This is Batman.

In the Dark Knight, Batman has to make impossible choices. I am not going to give away the whole movie, but, suffice it to say, Bruce Wayne learns that fighting evil means sacrificing everything. Among other things, this means sacrificing the one small satisfying part of being Batman―being known (as Batman) as a hero. Now Bruce discovers that conquering evil means assuming its consequences. The Batman must now bear the darkness of evil himself. 

Not only must he fight crime. To truly defeat evil he must also, in sense, bear the punishments others cannot. In a sense, Batman is forced to become a curse. Thus Batman becomes the “Dark Knight.” Not only is he going to fight evil, he now takes upon his shoulders its burden.   

This is the dimension of Batman that has always fascinated me the most. It is the aspect of the character that I have always felt to be the most misunderstood, though the most important. 

Without sounding sacrilegious, one cannot help but note a sort of Christological image here. Batman becomes, if you will, a curse. His dark costume is much like the black garb of a priest―he takes upon himself the curse of evil and death. 

Now, contrast this with, say, Spiderman, who revels in his hero status. As Peter Parker, he even takes pictures of his heroic actions and gets them plastered on the front page. Bruce Wayne would never do such a thing! Peter Parker is crushed when the public turns against Spiderman. Contrast that with Bruce Wayne. While he at first thinks he must become a “symbol of hope” he soon learns to renounce his own hero-status to help save Gotham.

The Joker and Postmodern Deconstructionism
Of course, the villain, the Joker, is completely consumed with a postmodern, deconstructive attempt to dismantle goodness. For the Joker―like philosophers such as Michel Foucault―behind all moral systems is the will to power. All attempts at goodness are self-seeking. There is no goodness, only selfishness. “Goodness” is really just a ploy to pass an agenda. His is truly what Pope Benedict XVI would call “a dictatorship of relativism.”

Incidentally, the movie explains that, like Bruce Wayne, the Joker’s character was defined by his relationship to his father―a cruel, heartless, abusive man who scarred him for life. While Batman has a deep hope that people in general want to be good, the Joker is intent on somehow proving that all people are―deep down―twisted like himself. 

In the film, family―particularly fathers―have helped define the character of their sons, leaving a legacy of goodness or mayhem, hope or despair. For while the Joker is convinced that goodness is a ruse, Bruce Wayne still hopes in it. It would seem that their relationship to their fathers define their worldview.

When the innocent people in the Joker’s diabolical social experiment are put to the test they end up confirming Batman’s hope for the goodness of humanity. However, it should not go without mentioning that they do not do it without prayer. Confronted with the horror of the Joker’s trap, the film clearly shows people making the sign of the cross. Evil cannot be conquered on human resources alone. It takes prayer. It takes grace. In fact, in one scene of redemption, an ex-con gets up, surprises everyone, and then appears to return to his seat in prayer (folding his hands).

This truth is also illustrated in the downfall of Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent.  “I believe in Harvey Dent”―that’s the campaign slogan of this promising reformer. His is the promise of long-awaited reform. 

For a while, he is successful, exposing corruption and putting away those thought to be untouchable. However, when put to the ultimate test by the Joker, the messianic political figure falls far from grace. The cost of righteousness is too high and he inevitably crumbles. He proves to be an inadequate object of faith. He who thought he could handle anything and be the great reformer is defeated, unable to bear the crushing weight of profound evil.

The Dark Knight’s Dark Night of the Soul
Unlike Dent, Batman, however, realizes that he cannot be an object of faith. Even the Dark Knight goes through his own dark night of the soul. He never expected the cost to be so high. He has no delusions of grandeur. He questions whether or not he is responsible for the crimes of the Joker. He has no illusions about his own frailties―he knows them all too well. Humanity is, after all, still fallen and Bruce Wayne knows he is only a man. He is not a Superman or a mutant X-Man. Nor can he pretend to be a “White Knight”. 

Bruce’s own awareness of his frailty is intrinsically bound up with his decision to become “Batman”. “Why bats, Master Bruce?,” asks Alfred in Batman Begins. “Bats frighten me,” replies Bruce. 

Bruce chooses a symbol of his own fear, his own weakness. In order to fight evil, he must face his own weaknesses. He must confront them, not pretend he is a superman.

Nevertheless, despite his frailty, Bruce becomes the greatest possible human comic book hero. He’s not in it for the glory. His costume is not flashy; in fact, it hides him in the shadows.

Moreover, Bruce Wayne aims at bringing victory out of suffering and tragedy. Batman understands the depths of the consequences of evil. While at first the black of the Batman’s cape and cowl was chosen as a tool to place fear in the heart of criminals, it becomes a symbol of his willingness to take upon himself the darkness of evil. This willingness to take upon himself the burden of evil and become an object of scorn closely resembles something of the Gospel message. He fights evil by bearing it himself.  

Again, this is what sets Batman apart from characters such as Superman. He does not simply swoop in and save the day and, once again, take-off in flight. Batman fights injustice but he also knows that arresting the villain does not simply erase the consequences of evil. He confronts it by bearing its full brunt, with all its consequences. In a sense, he is like Christ who “knew no sin, but has become sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20).  He is a wounded man whose commitment to goodness and stand against injustice means greater and greater sacrifice―but despite the pain of loss he never wavers in his commitment to do the right.  Thus it is that in becoming the Dark Knight, Batman shines brighter than any other superhero.

This deeper message is why, I believe, the Dark Knight is such as huge success. As professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University, a school that teaches college students how to use the media to inspire, this is what I want my students to take away from the film.  The movie, in my opinion, taps into a spiritual hunger. It whets the appetite for the truths I believe are ultimately taught in Christianity. It points beyond itself to a real hero, who conquers evil in a way far more profound than any fictional caped crusader. In many ways it embodies the hope for redemption that can only be truly found in the God-Man and in the greatest story ever told―the Gospel.  

7 comments:

Father Schnippel said...

great take, thanks!

Andrew said...

This is quite good. Using Superman as a foil to Batman is a relevant point, and I think that Nietzsche's Übermensch could even be contrasted to the Dark Knight as the Joker's desire to dominate reflects Nietzschean pessimism as well. Well done, though!

Sister Mary Agnes said...

I never read comic books and didn't like the show when I was growing up in the 70s, but you have convinced me to take the opportunity to watch Christopher Nolan's movies if I ever have the time. It's nice to know there is something in the Mainstream that I can recommend.

Jason A. Staples said...

Good stuff, Michael. You'd probably be jealous to know that I got to see The Dark Knight in IMAX a just under a week before the film came out.

I also love the "it's not who I am underneath that counts. It's what I do that defines me" line. This, I think, strongly approximates a few major points Paul makes in his own letters—and it most certainly approximates much of what Jesus said.

For what it's worth, Memento (also one of my favorite movies) is not Nolan's first film. Nolan had released the super-small-budget Following in 1998. That film gave him the credibility to be able to do Memento. At this point, I think Nolan has to be considered among the top screenwriters/directors of the era, and certainly one of the best ever at incorporating important religious and ethical themes in his movies.

Monty said...

"It’s what I do that defines me...I recognized this philosophy. It is called personalism..."

This also falls under existentialism! How do we distinguish between personalism and existentialism?

Fides Quarens Intellectum said...

Awesome comments on the Batman series. I teach at a Catholic high school and spent a whole week using Superman images as a way to explain Jesus (which I also posted on my blog) and a group of guys said "this is great but....can you do Batman too?" Maybe now I can re-watch the film and formulate some more ideas about the Batman as a symbol for Christ.

BOB said...

"It’s what I do that defines me...I recognized this philosophy. It is called personalism..."

This also falls under existentialism! How do we distinguish between personalism and existentialism?

I think reading Kierkegaard would certainly help. Much of the Dark Knight especially is reminiscent of Kierkegaard's philosophy. For example Dent corresponds to the 'knight of resignation', who is able to relinquish his selfish worldly desires, but lacks the requisite faith to receive God's grace, hence the indifference that manifests in his coin assisted decision making. The 'knight of faith' (Batman) on the other hand, knows his own weakness (sin) and acts through faith in a the grace of a higher power, like Abraham. The Pelagian controversy also hovers in the background of this theme.