Imagining a People (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 4)

Warning: Major spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What then of The Dark Knight Rises, to which I have already alluded so many times?  Although it is not my main interest here, I should not, given our consideration of the “Atonement” at the end of The Dark Knight, omit to mention the Christological resonances which echo throughout the film.  As mentioned above, although The Dark Knight appears to end on the decision to buy peace at the cost of a lie, there remains the possibility that the deception is only temporary, that Batman will rise from his self-imposed “death” to receive public vindication and become the true savior of Gotham.  The very title, The Dark Knight Rises, suggests just such a resurrection motif, and as the film unfolds, this motif is reinforced by so many gestures that it could not be mere coincidence.  Before such resurrection, though, the symbolic death of exile accepted at the end of The Dark Knight must be consummated with a true defeat.  This comes at the hands of a mysterious and inhuman denizen of the underworld who lives in eternal torment, serving only himself after being cast out of the order to which he belonged (in case we didn’t get it, he identifies himself early on in the film as “the Devil.”).  Batman is betrayed into the hands of this enemy by a Judas of sorts.  His back is broken and he is left for dead in a deep pit that is repeatedly referred to as “Hell,” from which he will watch Bane terrorize and destroy his now-unprotected people.  After being told to “Rise,” Batman succeeds in escaping this prison on his third attempt, and returns to Gotham, where he reveals himself in secret to his followers, and then defeats Bane and his cohorts, liberating Gotham from their clutches and receiving his vindication as the city’s savior, not its enemy.  At the end, he disappears into the air, presumed dead by many, though he is not in fact, and he lives on as the city’s symbol, having returned to them hope and the possibility of justice.  Indeed, he leaves behind him a dedicated disciple, who, it is hinted in a Pentecost-like scene (when John/Robin is surrounded by the bats in the cave), will take up his mantle and carry on his legacy. The correspondences are far from perfect—for instance, the first Judas turns out to be an ally in the end, and it is an earlier ally who is revealed as the true Judas after Batman’s return to Gotham; and the “Ascension” at the end functions more like another “Atonement,” since it appears that Batman is in fact giving up his life, rather than merely disappearing to another place.  And there are any number of ways in which Batman is not very Christ-like (though it is notable that all the way to the end, he keeps his “one rule”—even Bane is killed by another, not by him).  Nolan, it seems clear to me, is playing around with the Christological symbolism* to a greater extent than we find in other superhero films, capitalizing on its mythic potential and ability to highlight other themes he wishes to emphasize, but it is not meant to serve as the fundamental locus of meaning even for The Dark Knight Rises. Read More

Judgment and the Crisis of Legitimacy (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 3)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as mention of plot elements from The Dark Knight Rises, though not major spoilers.

I ended the last segment by remarking on the fundamental ambiguity about Batman’s vocation in relation to Gotham—is he still a vigilante, a private avenger, or has he really become somehow a public agent of justice?  As we shall see, this reflects a deeper ambiguity about Gotham itself—is Gotham a community capable of enacting justice, a community which Batman may represent in some way?

It seems like Batman wants to have it both ways.  He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them.  He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted.  He wants to hang up the mask and cape,* but is repeatedly forced to take them up again.   Read More

Pretenses of Loyalty Review

A couple weeks ago I interacted here with John Perry’s remarkable recent book Pretenses of Loyalty, confining myself primarily to engaging with the third and fourth chapters, with their remarkable relevance (unnoticed by Perry) with sixteenth century debates between Richard Hooker and the Puritans.  For those interested in hearing about the rest of the book, my full, more systematic review of the book will appear in four installments over at the blog for the journal Political Theology over the next week or so.  Part 1 has just been posted.

Judgment: Public and Private, Finite and Infinite (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 2)

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Memento, but NOT The Dark Knight Rises)

We ended the first installment asking why Rachel’s admonition to Bruce in Batman Begins that revenge is “never the same” as justice should always hold true.  What if the public system of justice is broken, and only the private individual can set wrongs right?

Here we can turn back to O’Donovan for illumination.  The proper object of judgment, he says, is a “new public context, and in this way judgment is distinct from all actions that have as their object a private or restricted good.”  Harvey (or Wayne at the beginning of the trilogy) might contend that they do have the public good in mind, however much it may appear to be a mere private vendetta.  But in any case, this is not enough for legitimacy: “A political act with political authority occurs where not only the interests of the community are in play, but the agency of the community as well.”  Why is this so important? 

“Political judgment prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces, each construed according to the differing perceptions and emotions of individual agents.  This is necessary because the dissolution of the common world into mutual incomprehension is always possible.  The alternative to public judgment is not no judgment, but private judgments, multitudinous and conflicting, frustrating each other and denying everyone the space of freedom.  ‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25).  A private person acting only on his or her own behalf could not establish a new public context, and so could not perform an act of political judgment.  The private act of vengeance, even if it is intended to serve the common good, is not done ‘on behalf of’ the community.  There was a popular story-line used by more than one author in the heyday of the detective story, which concerned a public-spirited individual resolved, in a spirit of disinterested justice, to settle society’s unpaid debts by killing off its unpunished murderers.  The pleasing paradox in the idea was that the objects of this disinterested justice inevitably became victims rather than executed criminals.  Such informal dealings could never give society what it needs in response to crime, which is judgment.” (23-24)  

This “popular story-line” is of course one construal of Harvey Two-Face’s determination to hunt down the corrupt cops who colluded with the Joker’s schemes.  Such a resort to private judgment, “construed according to the perceptions and emotions of an individual agent,” cannot in the end remain a judgment according to truth, as Nolan is keen to show us. Read More

Judgment According to Truth (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 1)

Warning: This post contains major spoilers from The Dark Knight, though not from The Dark Knight Rises (although certain themes and plot elements from the latter are discussed)

The haunting and acclaimed film The Dark Knight ended with one of the most arresting and morally provocative twists in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre (and for anyone familiar with his films, that is truly saying something).  Confronted with the awful truth that Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, the city’s last best hope for order, justice, and redemption, has in fact succumbed to the Joker’s nihilistic message that the only justice is that which we make for ourselves, Batman makes a heroic decision.  He will take the guilt of Harvey Two-Face’s crimes upon himself.  He will bear the guilt, he will become an outcast.  He will be the Dark Knight so that Harvey can remain the White, and Gotham can sustain the faith she needs to conquer injustice.  A greater sacrifice, perhaps, than bearing physical death for the sake of the city, for Wayne has already poured himself out, given up his own life to pour it into the symbol that is Batman—now he must accept the death of that symbol, as it becomes an image of evil, that the city might be freed from evil.*

It is as profound an image of the Atonement as one can find in recent cinema—the hero becomes guilty in order to make his would-be killers innocent, takes evil upon himself so that his people would not have to bear its curse and stain.  And yet, something is amiss.  For this noble act of self-sacrifice is a lie.  Nolan makes no effort to hide from us this rejection of truth:

“It’s what needs to happen.  Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.  Sometimes people deserve more,” says Batman.  

And so Gordon duly tells his lie.  Tells how Dent was a hero, and how Batman, a vigilante with his own agenda, turned on him in the end and murdered him (the truth precisely in reverse, of course).  Batman becomes an outcast, Dent a hero.  And Dent’s death provides the city a new start.  Upon this murder a new political order is to be forged, justice is at last to be realized.  What neither Harvey nor Batman could bring to pass on the basis of truth is at last to be achieved on the basis of a lie.  The film thus leaves the viewer with sharply divided sympathies, torn with the moral ambiguity of the situation, as so many of Nolan’s films do.  The nobility of Batman’s abnegation stands in irreconcilable tension with the sense that justice founded on falsehood cannot succeed.

It also renders deeply ambiguous the otherwise deafening Christological resonances.  For while Christ takes the guilt of his people, including those who want to kill him, upon himself, and thereby restores the possibility of a community of justice, his judgment is a proclamation of the truth about us and about himself, and the justice that he establishes is a justice dependent upon truth-telling.  While he may appear to be the Sinner, this is only temporary, and with the resurrection he is vindicated as the Righteous One, who does not merely take the guilt of the people upon himself, but buries it forever so that he may share with them his righteousness.  The ending of the Dark Knight, to be sure, does not foreclose the possibility that the scapegoating will be temporary, that the Dark Knight will rise and receive his public vindication, but it certainly leaves us with an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs.**

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