The Dark Night Trilogy by Christopher Nolan
Nowadays, comic books and movies based on them have become extremely popular all over the world, drawing viewers to cinemas and raising millions at the box office. However, most such films are traditionally considered to be quite superficial, a way to spend an evening without thinking too much about topical issues or existential problems. This is, perhaps, what the overwhelming majority of common viewers think, sometimes praising acting skills of lead actors and actresses, giving due honors to directors and producers, and downloading music from movies that they like.
At the same time, such view of comic book movies is overly simplified as those, who support similar viewpoints, merely miss the deep meaning underlying the plot and fail to notice serious and acute issues raised by directors in a captivating way, mixed with unexpected plot turns and spectacular tricks performed on screen. One of the movies with a deep meaning is The Dark Night Trilogy by Christopher Nolan, consisting of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In fact, Batman is one of the most popular comic book characters and has been the hero of several movies over the decades, yet this trilogy is the most recent attempt at telling the story of a vigilante from Gotham.
The debates surrounding this mysterious superhero mainly focus on his morality, i.e. on the question of whether he should be considered a hero or a vigilante. Besides, there is a supposition that maybe there is nothing heroic about Batman and he should be viewed as an outlaw whose conduct is immoral and deserves condemnation rather than admiration and idolization. Moreover, today many movies about superheroes are considered to be sort of religious movies, even if the religion they convey differs slightly from the one accepted in the real world, and may incorporate features of several religious movements.
Hence, it is essential to answer questions not only concerning Batman as the main character of The Dark Knight Trilogy but also about the nature of the movies, i.e. whether they can be viewed as religious or not. Furthermore, The Dark Knight Trilogy does contain some features of a religious movie even though the religion it promotes has been reinterpreted by the director in his own way. Overall, Batman is a new breed of a contemporary vigilante hero, as well as a representation of a religious-like figure, someone between a messiah, a martyr, a symbol, and even a sort of a new god within the framework of Nolan’s religion.
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Is Batman a Hero or a Vigilante?
The contemporary world in general and society, in particular, have significantly changed over the years, which has influenced all domains of human activity, including art. In the 1940s and up till 1980s, when comics and, subsequently, movies about superheroes were popular with the audience, it was rather easy to draw a demarcation line between heroes, vigilantes, villains, and ordinary human beings caught in the fight of the former. The comic book world was rather black and white and people admired such heroes as Superman while considering such vigilantes as Deadpool and even sometimes Batman a necessary evil to be tolerated.
However, the modern world is not as black and white as it used to be and most people, including heroes and villains depicted in movies massively produced in recent decades, operating in the grey world of morality where purely good and bad choices no longer exist. This shift in human perception of the world and morality as the guiding principle of human conduct has left a visible trace on the art of movie-making, which raises such complicated questions as to whether Batman from recent The Dark Knight Trilogy is a hero, a vigilante, or perhaps a mixture of both. In order to answer this question, it is necessary not only to provide definitions of the two concepts and arguments in favor of both but also to delve into the intricate world of morality evident in the movies and followed by this mysterious figure.
Views on the above deffer among the public, critics, and researchers. Hence, most consider Batman to be a hero who saves the people of Gotham City from the evil that has penetrated all levels of the society, slowly rotting away the foundations of morality, justice, and order (Schmid 160). Others claim that Batman cannot be considered as a “superhero” “because of his lack of extraordinary powers”, but instead he “is something else. Something as American as apple pie. Batman is a vigilante” (O’Neil 203). Finally, there are those who claim that “Batman doesn’t mean any one thing or even a limited set of things – it means nothing, but instead holds open a space for that which cannot be defined” (O’Neil 49).
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Thus, Batman becomes something new and unique, a symbolic representation of a human being fighting crime and evil in his native city, while sacrificing his personal wellbeing. At the same time, methods that Batman employs during the fight seem to be heroic only on screen at the first glance, because if they took place in real life, people would be appalled at the level of destruction and collateral damage. Besides, it is obvious that Batman significantly and essentially differs from Superman who is traditionally considered to be an exemplary hero. However, there is the question of whether this latter fact means that Batman cannot be regarded as a new type of a vigilante hero who has come to save the modern world from the evil it has been plunged into when all other superheroes are missing from the scene and have abandoned common people to suffer.
In order to answer the above question, it seems reasonable to provide definitions of both terms. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a vigilante is “a person who is not a police officer but who tries to catch and punish criminals” and “a self-appointed doer of justice” (Merriam-Webster). In turn, a hero has several meanings, the most applicable of which in the present context is as follows: “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability” (Merriam-Webster). Other possible meanings include “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities” and “one who shows great courage” (Merriam-Webster). Considering these definitions, Batman can be termed as both a vigilante and a hero even though the latter definition is applicable to a lesser extent.
Firstly, Batman can be considered a vigilante since he has started providing justice and fighting criminals out of his own volition and has never been asked to do that. Of course, Detective Gordon sometimes asks for his assistance with a bat-like projector, but Batman is the one who decides which cases he is willing to take and which criminals he is going to persecute and punish. Secondly, he does not avert to using violence, overstepping boundaries of the law, showing obvious disregard for civil rights of others and the authorities, and claiming that the justice system is ineffective and corrupt while acting under the cover of the night, which makes him a vigilante.
Taking into account the above definition of a hero, Batman fits this definition as, firstly, he is a legendary figure even though he has no superpowers. He has created his legendary status himself by turning his alter ego into a well-known symbol. Secondly, he is undeniably courageous and can be admired for his achievements, for instance, for defeating the League of Shadows and Joker. Thus, in line with the dictionary definitions of the two terms, Batman is both a vigilante and a hero, but it seems necessary to discuss this mixed status in more detail, which is done below.
Qualities of a new type of American heroes have been described by Lawrence and Jewett in their 2002 book about the American monomyth, which has significantly affected and summarized understanding of the heroic discourse. Hence, they describe the following circumstances under which any courageous person, including an ordinary citizen and a vigilante, can become an American hero:
A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with the threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisical condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity (Lawrence & Jewett 6).
The American hero described above no longer searches for their place in the world or tries to find some sense in life but instead focuses on redemption, irrespective of whether it is personal redemption or social redemption. Moreover, the American heroic tradition “secularizes the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption that have arisen on American soil, combining elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence & Jewett 6-7). Besides, restoration to the paradise-like condition of society is not an obligatory prerequisite as the most important thing is that the society is corrupted and is “shown in a fallen condition linked to evils within its own leadership” (Lawrence & Jewett 152).
Hence, the American hero arises from the midst of the community that suffers from extreme corruption, disorder, violence, injustice, and decadence, whereby interests of ordinary people cannot be protected by the government system as it has largely failed. Divine and supernatural origin of powers is also not an essential feature of American heroes as vigilante heroes are created out of common people fed up with injustice and corruption, which makes such movies and stories realistic (Lawrence & Jewett 116).
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Furthermore, it seems that most representatives of this new kind are simultaneously vigilantes and heroes who have risen to defend their community from the evil through any means necessary while fighting mostly internal threats and trying to reform the society through creating symbols of hope, justice, and resistance.
Based on the above characteristics, Batman from The Dark Knight Trilogy clearly belongs to the category of these new vigilante heroes, even though he does not always consider himself to be a hero. The matter is that vigilantes are easily forgotten and their personas can be destroyed, which is not what Gotham City needs. Hence, in Batman Begins (2005) a distinction between an ordinary vigilante and Batman is given as follows: “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely. […] A legend, Mr. Wayne” (Nolan).
Hence, a legend is what Batman has become in the trilogy. He performs ordinary functions of a vigilante even though they are devoid of any personal interest since he cannot get vengeance for his parents’ murder. Moreover, his methods comply with those used by vigilantes as he can be violent, brutal, and destructive, yet he never crosses a line into the domain of unjustified cruelty. He hides under the cover of the night, protecting his close people and contributing to the process of a legend creation, but it has been his conscious choice. Gotham City has plunged into the abyss of crime and no law-abiding superhero fighting in the broad daylight without a mask would be able to save it. On the contrary, criminals have to fear the man fighting against them and perceive him to be an unstoppable force, not merely a man.
Nevertheless, contrary to a typical vigilante, Batman has a solid code of honor that may alter and shift but is never breached completely. There is one unbreakable rule in this code, which makes Batman moral: he never kills his enemies. This is his moral stance that he has believed since training with the League of Shadows. When Ducard tells Bruce to kill a farmer to pass a test, he refuses. In fact, Ducard, who turns out to be Ra’s al Ghul, and the entire League are fanatic vigilantes as they believe in “Justice. Crime cannot be tolerated.
Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding” (Nolan). Wayne himself draws a line in his desire to fight injustice when he says that “I will fight men like this, but I will not become an executioner” (Nolan). Irrespective of all events in the three movies, Batman does not cross this line and does his best to preserve his morality no matter how distorted and different from the conventional one it may be. This way, he clearly transcends the notion of a mere vigilante, while never losing this aspect of his identity completely, as it is impossible for any modern hero in a city like Gotham to do that and survive.
Ruling out the possibility of becoming a vigilante only, Wayne believes that he needs to become a symbol as then he “can be incorruptible, […] everlasting. […] Something elemental, something terrifying” (Nolan). While constantly fighting with criminals plaguing the city, giving the innocents a hope for the better, and desperately trying not to lose himself in violence he regularly deals with, so that not to overstep his own boundaries of morality, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, a symbol he has intended to become. This is even noticed by The Joker who says during their final fight: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun” (Nolan).
This incorruptibility and a sincere belief that the city deserves to be saved even from itself are proof that Batman can be considered as a hero. In fact, Batman is the only character of the trilogy who never loses faith in Gotham and its people. Perhaps, “this is this continued hope in the people of his city which sets Nolan’s Batman apart as an appropriate, if flawed, the hero for a postmodern city like Gotham” (Johnson 965). The Dark Knight Trilogy proves that will, faith, and beliefs are the features that set heroes apart from vigilantes.
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However, Batman himself believes that there is no sense in calling him a hero as he is far from being morally superior to other characters. In The Dark Knight (2008), he is truly convinced that Harvey Dent should be called a hero of the city as he operates within the boundaries of the law and does not need to hide his face behind a mask. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Batman believes that, once the city can solve its problems on its own, he should retire even though his retirement is broken by Bane and Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter. In any case, he is a hero that Gotham needs and deserves as succinctly summed up by Detective Gordon at the end of the second movie, when Batman decides to take the blame for all Dent’s crimes so that the latter would remain an uncorrupted idol: “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
So we’ll hunt him because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight” (Nolan). In fact, this description sufficiently summarizes the role Batman assumes in the trilogy. To save Gotham, Batman is ready for anything. He has to push boundaries of morality and disregard the law, and his primary goal is to undermine and defeat villains without intentionally killing them (Johnson 956, 963). Nevertheless, he does his best not to overstep a thin line between being a symbol of fighting injustice and becoming a fanatic he has been saving Gotham from.
Based on the above, it should be emphasized that Batman does have features of a hero, albeit a contemporary hero, created out of an imperfect, but a courageous man willing to defend the innocent at any price. As a true hero, he decides to sacrifice his life at the end of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and receives a glorifying statue in the city hall of Gotham that has finally come to realize that Batman is its true hero. In fact, the type of hero evidently depends on the city that breeds and needs this hero.
Gotham City will never be a perfect paradise-like place where all people live in equality, peace, and justice. It has its faults just like the vigilante hero that defends it at night and repeatedly saves it from destruction. However, it would be reasonable to say that Batman is something larger than only a vigilante hero as he is more deserving of the title of the dark knight, who is one of a kind and incorporates many features. The only thing that can be known for sure is that Batman is loyal to his city and his principles.
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Is The Dark Knight Trilogy a Series of Religious Movies or Not?
The above question of whether Batman is a hero, a vigilante, or something else entirely seems to be relatively easy in comparison with the question about the religiosity of the trilogy. In order to answer the latter question, it is necessary to define religion apart from the conventional understanding accepted and upheld in daily life by society. At the first glance, it seems that movies about heroes and vigilantes can hardly be considered as religious from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition since they do not portray any religious figures, do not advocate for believing in God, and do not promote well-known principles of humility, peacefulness, love, and forgiveness.
In fact, it is quite impossible to imagine Gotham City forgiving the Joker for his atrocious crimes and telling Batman to let him go. However, just like with the notion of hero, this first impression is false as the trilogy does promote certain religiosity and can be deemed religious to some extent. There are two possible ways to look at this issue. The first one supports the idea that the trilogy promotes Nolan’s interpretation of a particular religion complying mostly with Gnosticism, while the second one consists of looking for symbols, metaphors, and similes between Batman and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In fact, heroic movies are traditionally considered to be religious to some extent as “film’s apparent power to touch human hearts ensures continuing optimism, even among the critically sophisticated, about film’s ability to prompt religiously insightful behavior” (Jewett & Lawrence 385). Moreover, heroes are often worshipped by people with divine adoration thanks to their morality and courageous acts (Jewett & Lawrence 384). As mentioned above, heroes also have some features common for religious figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition even though they are rarely historical figures from this tradition. The issue is that they are usually depicted as a vessel of the best and most moral qualities and principles that they inspire others to emulate.
In this respect, Batman is far from being a historical religious hero, yet he possesses some religiously heroic features. Hence, he can be considered a messiah and martyr of his native city. He is frequently beaten, tortured, persecuted, and shunned because of his beliefs, even though it challenges his belief in the hopeful future of Gotham. He fights the evil represented by villains and fanatics of other faiths. Most importantly, he represents the figure of a savior since he is ready to sacrifice his life to save millions of people from death due to the explosion of an atomic bomb in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
At the end of the trilogy, he even receives a temple with a statue where others glorify his sacrifice. Citizens, the majority of them at least, worship the dark knight fighting to protect them and would be ready to follow him. Besides, Batman sincerely believes in the “Thou shalt not kill” principle, which is essential for the religiosity of the film. All these features allow the viewer to assume that the trilogy really has some religious motifs from the Judeo-Christian tradition that are covert and implicit but become evident upon in-depth consideration and thoughtful rather than entertaining watching.
As to the religiosity of The Dark Knight Trilogy, there is a supposition that it conveys principles of Christopher Nolan’s religion, which is called “anti-Gnostic Gnosticism” (Faithful 407). This religion can be traced almost through all pictures of the director, including the three films about Batman, and it is quite unique in terms of its postulates, yet seemingly appealing for the audience, based on the box office of all Nolan’s movies. It is Gnostic in terms of its efforts to induct new believers “into a secret way of seeing the world” (Faithful 407). However, it is anti-Gnostic as this new way of seeing does not presuppose learning the truth or acquiring true knowledge, instead of presenting illusion as the ideal (Faithful 407). These underlying premises of Nolan’s religion are conveyed through his Gospel in the form of his movies.
The world of Batman is hidden from the public as he operates in the shadows, but the movies introduce this secret world to viewers, inducting them into a secret way of seeing the world through a new prism. At the same time, this prism is not that of the truth, but of illusion as Batman himself can be considered a masterful illusion. He is a secret shadow and a symbol, while his true identity has to remain hidden at all costs. Therefore, the new religion promoted by Nolan advocates for believing in the illusion and shunning the truth as something unnecessary and even dangerous.
When the Joker attempts to find out the truth and reveal the true nature of human beings through his nihilistic and anarchistic games. He is positioned as a villain, which supports Nolan’s dedication to illusion as the ultimate ideal. Moreover, the fact that Gotham needs saving is not the truth as well, since it becomes such only when Batman starts believing in it, yet the city does not need to know that it is worth saving, fighting, and dying for. In the end, “Gotham does not need to know the truth”, which is a key premise of Nolan’s anti-Gnostic Gnosticism (Faithful 413).
When Nolan implements his religion into his movies, he tries to convey the “salvific power of a noble illusion” and leaves it to viewers to find out where the truth starts and the lies end and vice versa and whether they need to know that at all (Faithful 414). The above assumptions above the anti-Gnostic Gnosticism are quite novel, but they sound convincing and are justified with evidence from the trilogy under consideration. Therefore, irrespective of the type of religious tradition chosen for the analysis of the trilogy about Batman by Nolan, it becomes apparent that these movies contain religious motifs and can be considered as religious to some extent.
After viewing The Dark Knight Trilogy and analyzing its main character and overall religiosity of the movies, it becomes obvious that the modern world does not need an immaculate superhero with an unbendable moral code and neither does it need a dogmatic religion that would cage people. Instead, it seems that the world needs symbolic vigilante heroes like Batman who are ready to break the law and bend the norms in order to achieve justice and save people. Batman is far from being perfect and his morality is questionable at times, yet he does not waver from his ultimate goal of saving and protecting his native city even when it needs protection from itself.
The world today has many issues and problems and it direly needs some “batmen” who would be incorruptible and immovable in their fight for a better world. A dark knight is necessary to create a society that could breed white nights with noble methods and elevated mortality. However, it is a highly debatable question as to whether the world needs a religion built on the illusion even though most religions seem to be built that way. Overall, Batman may be considered a vigilante hero who has transcended the conventional understanding of this concept and has risen to the status of a symbol and a dark knight from the trilogy of religious movies.