A flawed yet captivating caped crusader

In the wake of the horrific cineplex slaughter in Colorado by a deranged Joker wannabe at the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, I confess I was a bit nervous when I went to see the film three days later.  

I’m glad I went, however. The Batman trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan, is an inspired hat trick of movie making. I say that even as I wonder about our love of superheroes. They seem more appropriate as the stuff of children’s daydreams, but today they make for boffo box office. Maybe they speak to some powerlessness we feel, or maybe we just want our gods to be made in our image rather than the other way around. In any case, Nolan has taken this rather childish predilection and made it something a bit more adult.  

His Batman not only has more psychological depth, but his films spend a great deal of time mulling over what makes a hero, and whether the end justifies the means.  

Dark Knight Rises
Christian Bale stars as Bruce Wayne in a scene from the movie "The Dark Knight Rises." CNS photo

Perhaps the most tortured of the three films is “The Dark Knight,” in which Heath Ledger’s character the Joker becomes an agent of chaos, a figure as devoid of rational explanation as the devil himself. The Joker seems intent on mocking the ideals of men, forcing them to make ghastly choices that are intended to leave them morally shattered. He robs and kills for the sheer pleasure of it, incinerating a pile of money to show his total disdain for what motivates most of the residents of Gotham.  

His most appropriate epitaph comes from Alfred the butler, who tells Bruce Wayne that some men just like to see the world burn.  

“Dark Knight Rises,” the third film, is in some ways the completion of the first film, “Batman Begins.” (A spoiler alert is probably in order here.) Various story threads that are dropped in the second film return in the third film. What occupies both the first and third films is a mysterious and ancient organization called the League of Shadows.  

The League is a kind of Manichean Ninja Troop, bent on leveling by fire and sword those societies it judges irredeemably decadent so that new life can spring up. It is judge, jury and executioner, and its followers speak with the passion of fanatics who most definitely believe that the end justifies the means: Batman’s nemesis in the third film is Bane, a kind of a cross between Lenin and Hulk Hogan. Even the rhetoric pits the mob against the decadent wealthy, with show trials out of revolutionary France or Russia. Bane is a stand-in for every ideologue who seduces a following with a vision of a world in which weakness and corruption are forcibly eradicated.  

Nolan’s Batman seems at times weak, even hamstrung, in the face of such remorseless focus. He is a flawed superhero who wants to be a symbol for others, yet is forced to make choices, sometimes wrong choices. Struggling to maintain some sense of idealism as he bams and pows his way to justice, he is the ambiguous post-modern man: capable of great violence and great doubt, eager to get rid of bad guys, but forever caught in 50 shades of moral grayness. 

As Christians, of course, we would argue that we have the original superhero. Yet in the fantasy world that so many of us inhabit, both our good guys and our bad guys are far removed from a God-man who willingly submits to death, like a sheep to the slaughter, so that we may live.  

We wonder why there is so much “bad religion” these days, but the core Gospel message is radically at odds with the values of the society we inhabit.  

Turning the other cheek seems infinitely less thrilling than a caped crusader who does not so much conquer death as is immune to death. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.