I recently saw The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan's rebooted Batman Trilogy. In preparing to watch the film I re-watched the first two films (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). I then wrote a piece for Beams focusing on Batman Begins, looking in particular at the way in which Batman revealed the practice of shadow work. I recommend reading it before reading this piece. I won't go back into that whole argument. I'll just say that in Batman Begins I saw Bruce Wayne embrace his deepest fears (he takes on the symbol of the bat, that which he fears). This is a good metaphor for embracing the shadow.
In this piece I'm going to follow the theological and spiritual threads of the second two films (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises). All three, seen in sequence, I believe point to a very interesting spiritual progression. It's a deepening process of spiritual maturation that I think would serve us well in reflecting on our own spiritual lives.
Please Note: Any discussion of The Dark Knight Rises is overshadowed by the horror that took place in Aurora, Colorado. My review looks at the movie's examination of themes of death and violence but I want to make clear that this discussion does not exist in the ether, insensitive to the tragedy of so many. At the same time, I don't take my words to be profoundly insightful into the vexing question of real life terror and mass murder.
Warning: Spoilers Abound.
The Dark Knight
The second film in a trilogy is very often the best: The Empire Strikes Back being a classic example. (I actually happen to think Godfather II is superior to Godfather I but both films are so genius it doesn't matter all that much). I think this is partly due to the fact that trilogies typically follow a dialectical pattern: thesis, antithesis (negation), and synthesis. The first film builds up and has a freshness about it. The first film typically ends in a qualified victory for the good guys: Star Wars and Batman Begins both qualify in that regard. The second film, building off the first, has the opportunity to be brooding and disturbing. It takes us into the realm of failure and darkness. Generally this is what we like.
The Dark Knight is all that and then some. I believe the film is a masterpiece on many levels: e.g. Nolan's cinematography, the late Heath Ledger's tragically unnerving embodiment of The Joker, and its eerie portrayal of the paranoia of the War on Terror.
But the film's centerpiece is The Joker.
The Joker is the symbolic inverse of Batman. The film very explicitly meditates on this reality. Near the end of the film, Batman saves The Joker from falling off a building to his death (after having thrown him off the building in the first place). Batman catches The Joker with one of his nifty grappling guns. He reels Joker back up the building, The Joker hanging upside down in front of the upright Batman. The camera then takes a disorienting turn trying to get us to see from The Joker's upside point of view. The Joker tells Batman that Batman can't kill Joker because he refuses to break his own morality code around killing. The Joker says he will not kill Batman because "he's too much fun." They are therefore, Joker prophesies, to remain in a never-ending combat.
What does this means in the spiritual journey? Once we have embraced a central part of our shadow, walked into the Light and experienced something of a victory, as Batman/Bruce Wayne does in Batman Begins, then even deeper layers of shadow and the dualities of life bring themselves forward. Dark forces like Chaos rise from who-knows-where. The Joker has no name, no identity. He tells multiple versions of the story about how he got his sinister smile--it's unclear if any of them are true. The Joker exists almost out of space and time, like some creature from the deep.
The Dark Knight asks whether Batman can incorporate Chaos in a transformed way? And if so, how? And if not, what are the consequences? Will Chaos then simply run unchecked and destroy everything?
The Joker has taken Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes hostage. Dent, Gotham's District Attorney, is the White Knight to Batman's Dark/Black Knight. He is the Savior Batman has been hoping for--a man who will stand up to crime without a mask. Rachel is Bruce's great love but Harvey's current partner. Batman has time to save only one of them. Harvey is injured in the rescue with half of his face horribly disfigured by fire.
The Joker then escapes from jail and breaks into Harvey's hospital room and turns a traumatized, enraged Harvey Dent evil. Harvey becomes Two Face--one good, one evil. The Joker claims to not have any great plan--though his planning is quite meticulous and 'logical' (from the point of view of utter insanity). The Joker is ultimately as he says, simply a dog chasing a car--he wouldn't know what to do with it if he caught one. Then he says his famous words: "I am an agent of chaos." As Alfred tells Bruce, "some men just want to watch the world burn."
In the spiritual life, if we look deeply enough we will find our own Joker, our own agent of pure destructive chaos, a part of us that just wants to watch the world burn. Even Mother Theresa talked about the "Hitler inside her."
Two Face/Harvey, on the other hand, still believes there should be justice (a point the nihilistic Joker could care less about). Harvey/Two Face comes to believe that justice can only be served in a cruel world by the impartial cold hand of Fate. In Harvey's case, a coin flip: heads you live, tails you die. Two Face is part Batman, part Joker funneled through an obsession concerning fairness in an unfair world.
Harvey/Two Face goes on a revenge killing spree and takes Commissioner Gordon and his family hostage. He shoots Batman but Batman is eventually able to save Gordon's young son. Batman and Harvey/Two Face plummet over the edge of a roof, down to the ground, killing Harvey/Two Face.
It is at this point that Batman is left with a major dilemma. Commissioner Gordon rightly points out, all the criminals that Harvey Dent has locked up will now go free because of the crimes of Two Face. Batman tells Gordon to lay the blame for Dent's murdering spree and his death on him. Batman will assume the guilt for the good of the whole.
In other words, Batman chooses the path of Kenosis: loving, self-sacrifice. By saving Harvey over Rachel, Batman knows he has, in a way, already killed Harvey's soul before he killed his body. (Gordon admits his own culpability in the deaths as well). Batman seeks his redemption by taking on the sin of Harvey in order that Gotham might continue to believe in Harvey Dent.
Here is St. Paul writing about the loving, self-sacrifice of Christ in his famous Letter to the Philippians:
"Though Christ was in the form of God,
he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped,
but rather emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being found in human likeness."
Batman was until this point in the form of a superhero. He was the good guy. But he did not deem his superhero-hood something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself taking the form of a criminal. And with the sacrifice of Batman, Bruce Wayne has to return, being found in human likeness (a point I'll return to in a moment looking at the third film).
This is the choice one must face along the way. After initial awakening(s), after some initial gift of the light, one has to embrace the darkness out of love. One has to let go of whatever attainments one has. The spiritual aspirant has to willingly choose to enter the brokenness of existence, to consciously take on sin (i.e. alienation).
As Batman is fleeing from the police, Gordon's son ask his father why Batman is being blamed for Dent's crimes, confessing, "He's done nothing wrong". Gordon responds: "He's not the hero we deserve, he's the hero we need. He's more than a hero, he's a Dark Knight."
Batman becomes the scapegoat. He takes on the sin of Gotham. He no longer holds onto his own sense of enlightenment or superhero attainment. He sacrifices himself in order to protect his beloved city.
In the spiritual life this means sacrificing even the image of being an enlightened one, a good guy or gal, ultimately any identity. The 19th century French Roman Catholic mystic Therese of Lisieux towards the end of her short life, lost the way as she had previously understood it. She lost God as she had been taught to experience God. She wrote of her joy in accepting her state of folly. All she cared about was Love. She said that she would ask God to allow her to spend her time in heaven doing good on earth. She was like the Boddhisattva, putting off entrance into the light in order to help those on earth.
Therese was a kind of spiritual Dark Knight. She was more than a heroic saint, she was a Dark Realizer.
The Dark Knight Rises
And on the third day, Jesus rose again.
And on the third movie, Batman rose again.
The Dark Knight Rises has received a great deal of criticism. I happen to think much (though not all) of it is unfair. The movie is by no means perfect but it worked some interesting angles. With a dialectical thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure, a Trilogy's third film is often the weakest (e.g. Return of the Jedi, Godfather III, and Spiderman III...omg wtf was with that one?). The third film typically ends in a too-happy place of synthesis, with everything working out. The Dark Knight Rises struggles with this happy synthesis tendency.
The film takes place eight years from the time of The Dark Knight. The noble lie of the heroic martyr Harvey Dent has allowed Commissioner Gordon and the police to crack down on organized crime and bring in a new era of peace. Batman is long gone, still marked as a criminal. Bruce Wayne has morphed into a recluse, hidden away in Wayne Manor. He is depressed over his role in the death of Rachel. He sees nothing to live for now as Bruce Wayne with the disappearing of Batman.
As St. Paul said of Christ, "He who knew no sin became sin for our sake." So it is with Batman at the beginning of the film. He who knew no evil (especially murder) became evil for Gotham's sake.
Of course Batman's never truly gone so long as Bruce lives. All that would be required for Batman to return is for actual criminals to take power over Gotham, to destroy the nascent peace, thereby calling the 'criminal' Batman to renegade activity against the true criminals. And this is precisely what happens.
A terrifying figure named Bane comes on the scene. Bane manages to get his hands on a nuclear weapon which he promises to detonate if any citizen leaves Gotham. He also buries the entire Gotham City Police force underground and assassinates the Mayor. Bane takes control of the city and declares a new era of justice, overthrowing the rich. The whole process resembles the Left or Red Terrorist phase of The French Revolution (cf, Robspierre, The Committee of Public Safety).
Bane releases the most violent criminals from jail. Kangaroo courts are set up giving the rich the choice of death or exile--exile being walking across the frozen river (which no one survives). Meanwhile, Batman learns that the bomb is actually set to go off in a few months time regardless of circumstances.
Bane then learns Batman's secret identity. Batman is lured into Bane's trap by Catwoman whom Batman mistakingly trusts. Bane breaks Batman's back.
Jesus was buried. He descended into hell. --The Apostles Creed
Bane leaves Bruce (not Batman who he's unmasked) in the hellhole of Bane's former prison. Bruce's back first must heal before he can attempt to escape. The prison has an opening at the top, taunting prisoners, but they have to climb the wall and then make a death-defying jump to reach the top. Only one person before has ever done so. Bruce Wayne seeks to be the second.
It's been argued that the film at this point is replaying Batman Begins, going back over the question of Batman's origins and whether he has the will to fight. I think this is quite wrong. The question is not whether Batman will live--the movie after all is called The Dark Knight Rises. The question rather is whether Bruce will live. If nothing else is clear by this point, it is that Batman, one way or another will truly die at the end of this film. The only question is whether Batman's death will lead to Bruce's demise or whether Batman's annihilation will lead to Bruce's freedom?
We know this because in the hell hole prison Bruce receives sage advice from a fellow prisoner and doctor who helped Bane recover from injuries while in the prison. Bruce tells the doctor he doesn't fear death. This, the wise doctor tells him, is the problem. He must fear death. Remember from Batman Begins, the key is the embracing and befriending fear not its eradication (if you don't catch that, read my earlier piece). If Bruce does not fear death, he is not fearless. Bruce is not utterly courageous by having no fear in the face of death. Rather he has succumbed to total apathy and loss of life. He has nothing to live for so long as he doesn't fear death.
So the question becomes: will Bruce (not Batman) make it out of hell? We know somehow Batman will, but the more important question concerns Bruce. Will he live? And if so, what for?
Contemporary spiritual teacher Adyashanti in his book The End of Your World talks about spiritual awakening as a process of descent first through the mind (thought), then to the heart (the emotions), and then finally into the gut (the will). At each point of the process we must accept what arises and then learn to sacrifice it into God: thought, then emotion, then will.
I see Nolan's Batman Trilogy as following roughly this progression. Batman Begins covers Bruce's awakening to the vision of Batman and embracing his role. The Dark Knight explores Batman's heart and the role of sacrifice. The Dark Knight Rises is about Bruce's and Batman's will. At one point Catwoman says to Batman--"you don't owe them [i.e Gotham] anything, you have given them everything." Batman responds, "No, not everything." We know, ominously, Batman means his life. But again the question hangs: will Batman's death take Bruce down with him or not?
Batman was a spiritual identity that Bruce took on. There was much wisdom in that assumed identity. Batman allowed Bruce to embrace his shadow. Batman called Bruce into kenosis, into the depths of what it means to truly be a Savior (to become sin, to become the opposite of salvation). But Batman must die. Batman is the last vestige of self-will or false-identity left. As the spiritual process descends further into the bodymind, the question of will emerges. Will is the only thing left for Batman to give (but what will or won't it cost Bruce?)
The path of awakening at the mind tends to be about Emptiness and paradoxically then it is often quite a heroic path (fullness/achievement). The path of awakening at the Heart is the way of fullness (embracing emotion) but is consequently a path of deep emptying (kenosis). These are roughly the paths of the first two films in the trilogy. Bruce Wayne, through his persona Batman, has by now experienced both victory and defeat. He has ascended; he has descended.
What is left? What will Bruce choose?
In order to understand this choice point, we need to back up a little.
In the gnostic Gospel of Philip, there is an enigmatic verse which reads: Jesus was resurrected first, then he died.
This order flows contrary to the more accustomed pattern of death then resurrection. In a real sense, Bruce died long ago in Batman Begins. Batman Begins is about how Batman is Resurrected ("he rose up first"). The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises chronicle the death of Batman after his resurrection. In this gnostic text, resurrection means something more like awakening or enlightenment. Batman awakened first, then he died afterwards.
At the end of Batman Begins, Bruce and Rachel Dawes are talking. Bruce asks if they could ever have a life together if he got rid of the mask, by which he means Batman. Rachel correctly points out that Batman is the real identity and Bruce has become the mask. Rachel's penetrating insight that Batman is the real person and Bruce is the persona foreshadows her death at the end of The Dark Knight. Before her death however Rachel left a note with Butler Alfred (for delivery to Bruce) saying that she has chosen to be with Harvey Dent. Rachel is murdered before Bruce reads the note, so Alfred burns the note to spare Bruce the added pain of learning of Rache's choice on top of his grief for her death and his guilt over his perceived role in it.
A key turning point in The Dark Knight Rises occurs when Alfred (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) reveals to Bruce the contents and the existence of the letter. Bruce refuses to live and get on with his life because he still (falsely as it turns out) believes Rachel would have been with him had she not been killed. Alfred takes away that final last vestige of despair and hope that Bruce has left. In Adyashanti's description of the awakening of the gut he talks about a final contraction or knot in the stomach, a last place of self-will. For Bruce this is about the (illusory) life he believes he would have had with Rachel. Alfred gambles by taking away his last bit of humanity left, hoping Bruce will be reconstructed after bottoming out completely. He tells Bruce about the letter.
He rose up first and then he died.
At this point in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce has completely lost his soul and soon Batman will lose his life. Batman rose up first and soon he will die. Bruce in a real emotional and personal sense has already died by the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises but will he (Bruce) resurrect?
How will this all end?
Before answering that question, I need to interrupt the flow here for a second to make an important announcement. Second Spoiler Warning: I'm about to give away the final twist of The Dark Knight Rises. If you haven't seen the film yet, go see it first, and then come back and read the following.
There seem but two options to conclude.
Option 1: Batman dies a physical death causing the simultaneous death of Bruce.
This option would follow more closely the Christ model for Batman.
"Though he was in the form of God
he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather he emptied,
taking on the form of a slave,
being found in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross."
--Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2.
In recent cinematic sci-fi/superhero history this would be the Neo option from The Matrix Trilogy. Neo dies (in a crucifix shape!) at the end of The Matrix Revolutions. Neo's death brings peace between the warring humans and the machines (see the Letter to the Ephesians).
This option would be straightforward and clean. In this case Bruce would have completely submitted himself to Batman, to his awakened identity. Spiritually we see this pattern reflected in the lives of spiritual teachers, particularly gurus, who sacrifice their personal selves (and often their personal sanity and happiness) for their teaching.
This is not however the choice Christopher Nolan takes in The Dark Knight Rises.
He opts instead for another route.
Option 2: Batman dies and Bruce lives.
Bruce fakes Batman's death and goes (as Bruce) into hiding. Or perhaps we should say he does in fact kill Batman--leaving Batman as an iconic savior for the people while extracting himself from the identity. He and Catwoman (Selina Kyle) escape to live as regular people. The movie ends as a kind of romance--the couple are seen living the good life and the screen fades with them heading off to live happily ever after.
Rather than the traditional salvation story offered in The Matrix, we get a more secularized contemporary salvation tale: romance, love, wealth, and personal happiness (eudaimonia, 'the good life"). It's an interesting deconstruction of the more, perhaps expected, path of total death. But I don't think it quite works in the end.
As Br. TJ says comic books have become our society's contemporary canon or perhaps scripture. I certainly think they are the primary vehicle in popular culture for spiritual reflection. What I think this points to is a real ambiguity and difficulty in our understanding and embodiment of spiritual awakening.
The traditional path of total submission at the cost of death has real question marks associated with it in this day and age. I suggest a biography of the late, great, tortured Chogyma Trungpa Rinpoche as a sobering example (pun intended). On the other hand, the rather simplistic happily ever after narrative of The Dark Knight Rises does not help in this regard either. It could be seen to reinforce a contemporary spiritual culture that teaches a kind of individual-only enlightenment that does not cost us any blood. It's a teaching that allows someone fairly well off to continue living a fairly well off life now as a more awake (in some ways) person.
We struggle to know what to do post-enlightenment. I realize there is a certain arrogance of talking post-enlightenment or post-salvation as if it were some process that were ever entirely finished. It isn't. And yet I think there is a value in marking out certain territories in the process of maturation--certain degrees of a process and certain thresholds are crossed if not entirely, completely, or one hundred percent embodied.
This ambiguity is real. We either end up seeking to totally obliterate the ego (The Matrix Revolutions route) or perhaps fall back into its patterns of seeking simply egoic fulfillment (The Dark Knight Rises route). We need more emphasis on ways in which the awakened self and the egoic self can come into creative tension and what might arise from that creative tension. (For some possible beginnings in that direction check out this piece on the Authentic and Unique Selves as well as interviews with Thomas Hubl, and a video on Sacred Economics).
I have no idea how to depict such a teaching in terms of a film adaptation or comic-book style narrative. But if someone were to crack that code, it would be utterly brilliant (and given that Hollywood is going to keep cranking out more superhero films grace may yet appear).
For now, we can only pray.