Batman from Below

Finding social solidarity in Gotham City.

July 23rd, 2012

One of the highly anticipated blockbusters of this summer's movie season is the finale to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises." In Nolan's retelling of the Batman saga, the superhero becomes a remarkably apt vehicle for reflection on the dynamics of contemporary society and an image for sacrificial love. All superheroes are by definition exceptional, whether in terms of strength, intelligence, ability, or some combination of these and other gifts. But in a universe filled with the superstrong (such as Superman and Wonder Woman), superfast (the Flash), and superpowered (the Green Lantern), Batman is remarkable in part because of his lack of super abilities. He is very intelligent, incredibly dedicated, and highly skilled, to be sure. But like Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) of the Marvel universe, one of Batman's greatest tools is his wealth. His superpower is essentially that he is superrich.

Batman and his alter ego, the billionaire playboy orphan Bruce Wayne, thus personify the idea of the privileged 1 percent on multiple levels. Batman is one of the few with the gifts and abilities to fight injustice apart from the regular structures of law enforcement. Bruce Wayne is gifted with wealth and resources inherited from his parents, particularly in the form of Wayne Enterprises. Both of these factors are at play in "The Dark Knight Rises," which depicts the responsibilities shouldered by those with power, and the broader social consequences that result when the (super) wealthy and (super) powerful shirk these responsibilities.

When "The Dark Knight Rises" opens, eight years have passed since the conclusion of the second film, "The Dark Knight." At the close of that film, Batman voluntarily takes on the blame for various crimes actually committed by district attorney Harvey Dent (a.k.a. Twoface), and Batman and Commissioner Gordon conspire to use Dent's death as a symbol to rally the city of Gotham to eliminate organized crime. By many measures the intervening years have been successful. More than 1,000 criminals have been locked up and Batman has disappeared, leaving the city in relatively stable peace and ongoing prosperity.

The villain in the trilogy's finale is Bane, a mercenary with incredible strength of will and body. Bane uses the rhetoric of class conflict to turn the city's inhabitants against the Gotham elite: the authorities, the privileged, and the decadent. Bane becomes, in some ways, a kind of Che Guevara on steroids, and proves to be Batman's equal, if not his better, in his understanding of and ability to manipulate and deceive the masses. It is in this basic conflict between Bane, the representation of unrighteous indignation at the corruption and decadence of Gotham's elite, and Batman, the apotheosis of wealth and privilege, that the film's most striking implications for our world today take shape.

By perpetrating the fraud of Harvey Dent's legacy, Batman has essentially abdicated his responsibility to the people of Gotham. Likewise Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, and his anti-social disposition has reached a critical nadir in this film. This is illustrated most poignantly in an exchange concerning the funding of a home, run by a priest, for the city's orphans. The home no longer has the resources to care for boys over the age of sixteen because the Wayne Foundation has stopped providing funds. Why? As Lucious Fox explains it to Bruce, Wayne Enterprises has to turn a profit in order to have something to donate, and amid Bruce's withdrawal the company has been adrift and profitless. These kinds of moral and social failings give people like Bane the entryway into turning the poor against the rich, the many against the few.

In this way, "The Dark Knight Rises" is in fundamental ways about the profoundly destructive consequences of individuals, whether of the 1 percent or the 99 percent, thinking that they do not have positive social obligations toward their neighbours. These obligations might take the form of comforting a small child in the midst of suffering, as Gordon did to a newly orphaned Bruce Wayne. They might take the form of putting on a uniform and standing up against injustice, as thousands of police officers do in a dramatic way in the film. They might also take the form of allocating significant resources to worthy causes, as Bruce Wayne does in the case of the orphanage or his industrial research.

The Wisdom writer exhorts us: "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act" (Prov. 3:27 NIV). Some of us have greater power than others, and more occasions to do greater good to greater numbers of people. But each one of us has the power (and the corresponding responsibility) to help someone and to do something. This reality is a staple of superhero literature, and is represented perhaps no more memorably than in Uncle Ben's words to Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility." Or in the words of Jesus, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48 NIV).

This moral responsibility is something that Batman must be reminded of in "The Dark Knight Rises," and once he again realizes his calling to serve the people of Gotham the sides are finally set in sharper contrast. Batman recognizes the corruption and moral filth of a city like Gotham, and yet is compelled to do what he can to help those who are suffering and in need. Bane sees the decadence of Gotham, yes, even Western civilization, and desires to watch it burn.

It may seem strange, but on this matter we see the billionaire Bruce Wayne and Mother Teresa to be in accord. As she said, "For our part, what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter, in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich." Bane becomes the demon haunting a society that has forgotten this fundamental lesson, and Batman becomes the only one who can exorcise this scourge on Gotham City. But he can only do so by recognizing and responding to the social solidarity required by love, and by being willing to lay down his life for others, imitating the greatest act of love ever recorded, the humiliation of Jesus Christ: "Becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:8 NIV)

Topics: Arts Media Culture

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is currently visiting professor of business and social ethics at Kuyper College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010).


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