It’s a familiar story. A hero – the saviour of the world – has to ‘die’, go through hell, and then rise again in order to defeat the ultimate evil. Rallying some behind his cause, he is nonetheless rejected by the majority of a society which once prayed for his arrival. Confounding those close to him by preaching non-violence (well, all right, non-killing) and the forgiveness of past sins, he sets in motion a legacy of hope after appearing risen to his friends. That’s right, Batman fans, welcome to the Gospel According to Christopher Nolan.
In late July, The Dark Knight Rises had one of the most troubling launches in cinematic history, after one of its first US showings was the target of mass-murderer James Holmes, who killed 12 cinema-goers and injured 58 more. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding it, British director Nolan’s third and final Batman film is nonetheless about as perfect an action/adventure film as you could wish for. Brilliantly acted, ingeniously scripted and suitably epic, it somehow manages to hit the same heights as 2008’s The Dark Knight, and arguably raises the bar further. From the star-studded cast to the thrilling action sequences, from the jack-knife plot twists to the jaw-dropping special effects – every element of 2012’s biggest movie is dripping with quality.
At the same time, the film manages to be intelligent, thought-provoking and – unsurprisingly, since its title concerns a messianic resurrection – intriguingly theological. Take it from someone who has often had to strain to find some tenuous faith connection in many an artistic work – The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t subtly veer into God country; within its 164-minute running time it references practically every element of the gospel narrative.
Of course this isn’t a straight retelling of the Passion in superhero costume. Yet the component parts of the cross-and-resurrection story are chopped up and reordered, to create a tale which constantly echoes and hints at the Great Story. So there’s the anticipation of a returning messiah, an exploration of the consequences of sin, and notes of sacrifice, death, resurrection, salvation and redemption – just not necessarily in that order.
The characters, too, take on some aspects of those found in the gospel accounts. Tom Hardy’s brilliantly terrifying villain, Bane, is described as ‘pure evil’ (and provides a worthy adversary for Batman; an impressive feat considering the lingering legacy of Heath Ledger). Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is something of a Mary Magdalene figure. Joseph Gordon- Levitt, who plays Gotham Detective Blake, is the true believer – the disciple who won’t turn his back on Batman when the rest of the city (after the events of the previous film) are calling for his head.
Those two characters’ arcs in particular are littered with touch points to the gospel story. Hathaway’s character, Selina Kyle – never actually called ‘Catwoman’, but given a telling black catsuit and a visor which swivels to the back of her head to create ‘ears – is a criminal who wants a new start.
Early on we discover that she is weighed down and held back by the things that she has done wrong in her life. She is desperate for the ultimate fresh start – an elusive and legendary computer programme called the Clean Slate; yet in searching for it and refusing to accept help she is only wading deeper into trouble. This subplot – her search for redemption from what is effectively sin – is key to the satisfactory conclusion of the main story. If that isn’t a great hook for post-cinematic conversation, I don’t know what is, especially since it emerges that the Clean Slate is in the possession of Bruce Wayne, Batman himself – giving him the ability to wipe Selina’s past transgressions from history.
Blake (Gordon-Levitt), whose real identity and position in the Batman universe are only revealed in the film’s closing moments, is much more of a straight disciple to Bruce Wayne/ Batman’s messiah figure. Coming from similarly tragic origins as Wayne, he feels a deep connection to the troubled billionaire which allows him to perceive his true identity in an echo of Peter in Mark 8:29. Unlike Peter, Blake’s faith never wavers, and by the end of the film he has become the ‘rock’ on which the story’s future will be built.
Through these two characters, we’re not only given a human way in to a story about heroes and monsters, we also see them wrestling with notions of hope, faith, pain, loss, and what redemption really means. That’s why – beyond the obvious messianic connotations – the film makes for such an exciting trigger for faith discussion. There’s no need to make heavy-handed connections between the gospel and the film; so much of the gospel story is already present and related to relatively normal people, like us. At its core, this is a human story about sin, hope, and the massive cost involved in moving between the two.
The Hero's Journey
Like so many other major films, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises constantly trips into the territory of the Great Story. So the obvious question is – why? Why do so many secular film-makers find themselves inadvertently retelling the gospel? One explanation offered by writers is that there simply aren’t that many ways to tell a story; that a myth like this isn’t satisfactory to human ears unless it adheres to certain rules. The plot pattern used in heroic stories such as this one – known as the hero’s journey or monomyth – was coined by American writer Joseph Campbell in 1949, but accurately describes stories that had been told for thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, the story of Jesus fi ts the pattern quite snugly. So what does that tell us? That the gospel is simply the ultimate monomyth (Philip Pullman’s argument in his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ)? Or that it is the very epicentre of story itself – the aftershocks of which are felt in every major work of fiction penned before and after it?
Here’s why I lean towards the latter explanation: when a monomyth really works, when it really connects with its audience, it doesn’t just provoke an intellectual reaction, or simply an emotional one. There is a sense of spiritual connection which suggests that this moment is an echo of something bigger and more important.
When the ‘rise’ of this film’s title takes place, as salvation begins to appear on the horizon, we feel elated. Not because the guy in the sleek suit with the cool toys goes to war against evil, but because through his sacrifi ce, justice and redemption are unfurled. Such things have a primal resonance; it’s why we feel a rush when we’re plunged into the finale of the film; it’s why we see truth when we read the Gospels. There is some deep-down part of us – some might crudely label it the God-shaped-hole – which knows that this is good, and real, if elusive.
The film isn’t perfect; Nolan pulls his final punch and gives the story an ending it doesn’t quite need; but it’s still the best night I’ve had at the cinema for a long time. Not only was it a great spectacle, but watching The Dark Knight Rises reminded me just how compelling, exciting and satisfying the story of Jesus is. It also challenged me that his story – of how he died, went through hell, then rose again and defeated the ultimate evil – is never as thrilling, epic or resonant when I retell it as it deserves to be. Our story is every bit as sensational as The Dark Knight Rises; we need to believe that as we share it.