It feels as though the movie industry—and perhaps America as a whole—is still reeling from the massacre that took place in Aurora, Colo., during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises July 20. And some wonder whether the movie itself might’ve been partly to blame.
The alleged killer—24-year-old James Holmes—called himself “the Joker” shortly after he was apprehended, according to police. His apartment, which had been booby trapped, had a few telltale bits of Batman paraphernalia. Police say they don’t have a motive yet. But if you would allow me a moment of unbridled, unfounded speculation, it sure feels like this guy somehow thought he was, or wanted to be, the Joker. He wanted, much like the Joker we saw in The Dark Knight, to foster panic—to bring chaos and disaster on a city’s innocent population.
Over the next several days, we’ll hear a lot about how very dark Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are. Many pundits will wonder whether the films might’ve been a catalyst for the disaster—not the whole cause, but a factor, giving Holmes that “little push,” as the Joker himself might say.
And these critics may have a point. Nolan’s films are dark and gloomy and gritty. An unsettled mind can latch onto any number of things, and I can see how bad elements in these movies—particularly Heath Ledger’s charismatic portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime—might be attractive and even aspirational to an unhinged few.
But we can’t ignore the fact that Nolan, at the end of the day, made movies about a superhero, not his adversaries. At the core of each one is a story of hope, heroism and redemption.
The Dark Knight Risesis perhaps the most troubling movie yet. But it’s also, I think, the most sincere manifestation of that core—using perhaps the most redemptive story in history.
But be warned: We’re going to go into a few spoilers here … so if you haven’t seen the latest movie, I’d kindly ask you to (ahem) leave until you do. Really. Some of what I’m gonna get into here touch on plot-points you’d rather learn on your own.
Before we get into The Dark Knight Rises in detail, let’s revisit something most of us have said in church at one time or another: The Apostle’s Creed. The Creed is really a brief catalog of basic Christian tenants—cornerstones of the faith. And part of it reads:
“(Jesus) Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven …”
Now, let’s look at Bruce Wayne as The Dark Knight Rises begins. There’s no question the guy has suffered: Batman’s legacy has been beaten and spit upon for the last eight years—not by rogue ruffians, but by Gotham’s power structure. Commissioner Jim Gordon began the persecution himself—at Batman’s instigation—even though he could, as it were, find no fault with him. And in the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, we see Gordon as if he were a more sympathetic shadow of Pontius Pilate, his hands stained with past misdeeds and feeling ever so guilty about it. (Later in the film, idealistic John Blake even chastises Gordon for his filthy hands, largely because he let Batman hang out to dry.)
When Bane trundles into town, Bruce Wayne elects to put on his cape and cowl and become Batman again, even though he’s eight years out of practice. But Alfred senses a bit of fatalism in our favorite superhero. “You’re afraid I’ll fail,” Wayne chastises Alfred. “I’m afraid you want to,” Alfred tells him. And shortly thereafter, Wayne’s loyal butler—Batman’s right hand, his “rock,” if you will—deserts him. The parallel isn’t perfect, but for me Alfred’s departure—so uncharacteristic—feels akin to Peter leaving Jesus’ side. Remember when Alfred told Bruce that he’d “never” give up on him in Batman Begins? Doesn’t that sound reminiscent of Peter telling Jesus that he’d “never” deny him?
But despite Alfred’s desertion, Bruce/Batman plows forward to meet whatever destiny awaits him. He temporarily teams up with Catwoman, and together the two fight their way into the lair of Gotham’s evildoer of the moment, Bane. Everything’s going quite smoothly, until Catwoman springs the trap—leaving Batman to face Bane alone. She betrayed him—not exactly with a kiss, but the betrayal still feels quite Judas-like.
(We’ll not deal with the other person who betrays Batman in an even more Judas-like fashion here; that’ll have to wait for another post.)
And so Batman faces Bane and loses—his back literally broken by the monster. But while Batman didn’t literally die in that moment, he might as well have. He was gone. Beaten. Destroyed. Crucified.
And so he’s buried—not in a tomb, but a literal pit of a prison referred to as “hell.” He lingers in that pit not for three days, but three months. And, as he climbs out of “hell,” the people still trapped below chant, “rise, rise, rise, rise.” It’s so interesting that Nolan uses the word “rise” here, so loaded as it is with spiritual meaning.
Meanwhile, things in Gotham were getting worse and worse. People wondered whether Batman might ever come back, almost as if he was some sort of Messiah—a savior who might rescue them from their persecution and, frankly, even save them from their own awful sins (remember, Bane had turned the city into a lawless free-for-all of a place).
And just when things are looking their bleakest, Batman does come back: He reveals himself to a handful of friends, announces his return with a flaming bat on the side of a building. He’s not in Gotham very long—just long enough to save the city. He hitches an about-to-blow nuclear bomb to his uber-nifty “Bat” plane and flies away, into the heavens beyond, vanishing in a flash of light.
And yet, he doesn’t die. He lives on. Just not in Gotham. Not physically, anyway.
For most of my book God on the Streets of Gotham, I argued that Batman wasn’t as much a Messiah figure as he was one of us. But here, in The Dark Knight Rises, he turns the tables and becomes, in his own bleak, opaque way, a misty reflection of history’s greatest hero. He becomes, indeed, a Christ-like figure, who lived and died and lived again, and in so doing, saved his precious people.
I’ve also said that that Batman’s creators or caretakers probably didn’t envision Batman as a Christian hero. But in The Dark Knight Rises, the parallels are so explicit and so neat that I can’t help but believe that Nolan and his crew put them there for a reason.
But The Dark Knight Rises Christian parallels don’t end here. There’s more to talk about and, if you’re anything like me, it might give you chills. But I’ve gone on long enough for now. It’ll have to wait for the next post.