09 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Hope does not Disappoint

Superhero films offer us a “faithless, modern mythology”, according to Tom Hiddleston, who played the renegade Norse god Loki in this summer’s Avengers Assemble. Writing in the Guardian this April, he observed that “In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out.”

He’s almost right. Superhero films offer a modern mythology, but there’s nothing faithless about them. Modern morality plays, they’re expressions of a world built by Judaeo-Christian tradition, and embody not merely explicitly Christian ideas but also those universal images that J.R.R. Tolkien described in 1931 as having prefigured Christian truth: “The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there,” he said, “while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”

The Norse myths Tolkien so loved, for instance, pointed to Christianity through such images as Odin hanging on the World Ash, or Baldr, the dying god, but it remained for Christianity to fulfil the truths to which they pointed.

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow makes a very modern mistake in Avengers Assemble when she says of Thor and Loki, “These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods.”
“There’s only one God, ma’am,” replies Chris Evans’s Captain America, a recently revived relic of the 1940s, “and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

This isn’t simple religious chauvinism; rather, having some idea of what the word ‘God’ means, Captain America recognises Thor and Loki as mere men writ large.  The ancient Vikings would have understood what he meant; they knew that their gods and the God of the Christians were different not merely in degree but in kind.

Avengers Assemble develops this idea when Loki attacks a crowd of people in Germany and demands they kneel before him, embracing what he sees as their natural state. “In the end,” he says, “you will always kneel”.
“Not to men like you,” says an old man, willing to kneel before the right person but recognising that Loki is as mortal as he is.
“There are no men like me,” replies Loki.
“There are always men like you,” answers the old man, clearly recalling his youth, when so many of his countrymen showed themselves willing to prostrate themselves before the false gods of Hitler, the German state, and the earthly paradise the Nazi regime promised.

It might seem odd for an avowed atheist like Joss Whedon, writer-director of Avengers Assemble, to make such meaningful theological points, but Judaeo-Christian tradition has so formed our world that modern secularism and even atheism stand on Christian foundations. The light of Christian truth, if there is any truth at all in our art, must inevitably shine through.

Interesting though Whedon’s theological asides are, Avengers Assemble is ultimately a light – albeit immensely entertaining – piece of work. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, on the other hand, is far weightier fare, and one which repays repeated viewings.

2005’s Batman Begins shows the young Bruce Wayne falling down a covered well, crashing to the bottom and being terrified by the bats that launch themselves at him. “Why do we fall, Bruce?” his father asks after rescuing him, before answering his own question with the words that define the trilogy: “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

The motif of fall and rise pervades Nolan’s trilogy, reflecting its themes of sacrifice and resurrection and embodying an idea that has been central to the western mind for millennia. The Apostles, in the earliest sermons recorded in Acts, cast the Crucifixion as a prelude to the Resurrection, while Paul, in Romans 5, explained that the price we pay for the Fall is nothing compared to the grace we receive through the Incarnation, a mystery distilled by the Easter Exsultet into the seemingly paradoxical cry, “O truly necessary sin of Adam... O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”

Few mythic figures are more iconic than the scapegoat who bears the price of others’ sins, and as Michael Caine’s Alfred says in Nolan’s second Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s a role for which the Batman is supremely well-suited. “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make – the right choice.”

The Dark Knight concluded with the Batman apparently guaranteeing Gotham City’s future by becoming a scapegoat for murders committed by the city’s deranged district attorney, Harvey Dent. The Batman’s sacrifice enabled others to build a new era of law and order upon Dent’s supposedly pristine reputation, but as this year’s The Dark Knight Rises makes clear, a victory built on a lie – no matter how noble – is a false victory.

Eight years after The Dark Knight, Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon is haunted by the lie which empowered him to clean up Gotham’s streets, and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a broken recluse, haunted by the death of his childhood love. The Batman is but a memory while the dead district attorney is idolised by a city unaware of his dreadful crimes. Gotham may be peaceful but the city's prosperity rests on rotten foundations, and it seems discontent is ready to boil over among the city’s poorest.

When the city’s underclass erupts from its sewers, it becomes clear that the Batman will have to face his greatest challenge, one that drives him to the darkest pit of despair and forces him to face the question of whether his city is worth saving.

The Dark Knight had answered that positively, but The Dark Knight Rises is more ambivalent; Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman points out that ‘innocent’ is a strong word to use for Gotham’s citizens, who seem to have revelled – or at best cowered – in the anarchy unleashed by Tom Hardy’s Bane. “You don’t owe these people any more!,” she says, “You’ve given them everything!”

“Not everything,” replies Batman, determined to save Gotham regardless of whether its people deserve it or not. A more convincing Christ-figure than at the end of The Dark Knight, the Batman is willing to go to his death for the guilty as much as for the innocent.

“Suffering produces endurance,” writes Paul in Romans 5, “and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Batman has always been an adolescent revenge fantasy, but Nolan’s Batman suffers and endures until he learns to hope, transcending his self-imposed mask as an angel of vengeance, and is redeemed. The Dark Knight rises.

– from The Irish Catholic, 2 August 2012

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