What Christopher Nolan's Batman Teaches us about Fear, Anger and the Rise to Personal Evolution
There have been a number of things said about Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy and, to be honest, none can do the subject matter justice. I believe what Nolan has done with the Batman franchise has the potential to go down in history as the best, if not final, word on the subject for this generation and perhaps others to follow. The Batman is an inexhaustible touchstone for themes of uncertainty, courage, depth psychology, shadow work, esoteric transformation and just plain everyman heroism. Now, some may argue that Bruce Wayne's wealth situates him outside the bounds of being an "everyman," but I disagree. What we see in Bruce Wayne is quite unlike any superhero, save Iron Man’s Tony Stark. He has no superpowers, is from our planet and realm of existence, and all he has are his resources at hand. What sets Wayne apart from Stark, however, is that it isn’t Wayne’s bravado that propels him into action - it is his anger, which hides away the true wound he holds. His fear. With his anger as his mask, Bruce is armed only with the sheer force of will to undergo whatever trials he finds on his way to become who Gotham needs. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne is once and for all transformed beyond his previous incarnations in the Nolan universe and rises beyond the limits this anger places on him.
It takes very little to begin drawing the necessary correlations between Nolan's Batman Trilogy and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The Journey is, indeed, universal and every great story is rife with the various components. Of course, Nolan's story lines within each individual movie follow the Journey well, and that's part of what makes the movies so powerful. However, when looking at them as one contiguous story arc, the thick, bold lines of connection are stronger, deeper and reveal a beauty in Nolan's movie-making that otherwise may be overlooked.
The most obvious, of course, is that the story begins and ends with the League of Shadows and the reign of Ra's al Ghul. This motif fills both his departure and his return. In much the same way as the Lord of the Rings is about the Shire and the growth those four hobbits endure as they leave and then return to the scourge and defeat of Sauroman, Nolan's Batman trilogy begins and ends with the Dark Knight's relationship to that which threatens most - The League of Shadows, the personification of Fear itself.
The League of Shadows is the hinge pin in a global conspiracy for control. Control of history. Control of the future. As Ra's al Ghul alludes, the League has been toppling cities since the days of Constantinople and Rome. Gotham is their most recent target in a long list of crippled societies. In their centuries long struggle, they miss one crucial point: control is born from the womb of fear. Fear that Gotham is out of control. Fear that Gotham is beyond saving. Fear that the people of Gotham will not bend because they have already proven more resilient than the League had calculated in years prior with the murder of Wayne's parents.
This is the irony of the League of Shadows. Their struggle for control reveals their own hidden servitude. They are born from Fear and their own fight for control is the very chain by which they are bound to their master. This Fear is the Fraternal Order into which Bruce Wayne was initiated as a small child, however, in the League's temple, the adult Wayne finds himself at the heart of a beautiful initiation play drawn to perfection in its intent to tap into Bruce's childhood fears from the well. Much like the initiatic orders of Freemasonry and other such fraternal organizations, these initiations are only as powerful as the internal landscape of the initiated. The plays themselves are only outward symbols of inward realities. Sacraments, if you like. And for Bruce Wayne, the sacramental rite of Fear is where he begins his journey as a boy as well as where he finds formal training as a young man. To complete the true Hero's Journey, however, he must learn to ascend beyond that to which he was born and must return, having learned the secret key to rising beyond the Fear.
Then, and only then, will the Dark Knight, indeed, Rise.
When the last installment in the trilogy opens, we see the liberation of Bane, the epitome of brute force, strength, speed, and the present incarnation of the League of Shadows. His unyielding offensive to capture, break, and conquer Batman is incomparable to any foe the Dark Knight has ever faced. Bane's strategy is to break Bruce Wayne by the complete destruction of Gotham, born out of personal vengeance in the name of Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows. This is where, in Campbell's journey, Wayne finds himself ready to break free from the cycle he's been repeating.
According to Campbell, this stage of the Hero's Journey, the Road of Trials, is the first step in initiation, and oftentimes occurs in threes. This is the set or series of tasks a hero must complete to undergo the true transformation to which he has been called. It is, therefore, no surprise that here in the third installment of the saga, we find Bruce Wayne ready to move beyond the limits of his fear by accepting and embracing it, instead of denying its hidden existence while he arms himself with his anger and control, like his League of Shadows brethren. From here, what follows is an absolute and stunning picture of the Hero's Journey. The climax of the movie, and of the entire Trilogy, is when Wayne finds himself returning to the womb - the prison, the cave full of bats, full of fear, full of pain, and he must learn to rise out on his own, without the aid of his father being lowered from the sky as in Batman Begins.
Bruce Wayne, back broken by Bane, is held in Bane's prison for several months as he watches men try to climb out of this hell. In their many attempts, they try to ascend to their freedom by way of a long, well-like opening. The spiraling climb is difficult enough without the addition of an almost inescapable chasm one must jump near the half way point. Legend has it, only one has ever made the jump - a child, born in this hell: the child of Ra's al Ghul. The similarities are unmistakable and the parallels are carried out to their farthest extent: Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghul are more connected, in a spiritual sense, than Wayne has ever before perceived. He, too, is the spiritual child of Ra's al Ghul and must find what it takes to climb out of this, his own hell.
After several attempts, the two old men in the prison explain to him the secret key:
Blind Prisoner: "You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak."
Bruce Wayne: "Why?"
Blind Prisoner: "How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death."
Bruce Wayne: "I do fear death, I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there's no one there to save it."
Blind Prisoner: "Then make the climb."
Bruce Wayne: "How?"
Blind Prisoner: "As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again."
It is at this point, letting go the mask of anger, Wayne is able to embrace his greatest force, his fear, and he is able to make the climb out of prison, death, anger, failure, and hell. His return to Gotham isn't as the Batman that Gotham knows, but as the Dark Knight risen again: The transcended and glorified savior of the people, returning with Justice. His Goddess, the beautiful and coy Selina Kyle, provides the necessary components to aid her God, and The Batman is made complete.
Of course, where would all of this be without the passing on of the Secret Key to the young Detective Blake who had already professed his identification with Bruce Wayne and Batman. His earlier expression of familiarity with the mask of anger was what led to his own private discovery of the true identity of Batman. As a young child, Blake, too, lost his parents and the cycle of spiritual children continues: Ra's al Ghul, Bruce Wayne, John Blake, whose legal name we find out in the end is, indeed, Robin Jonathan Blake.
In its entirety, Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy is, in my opinion, one of the greatest intersections of cinema and psychology. It is powerful and relentless in its demands at introspection and self-discovery. It is rare, in music, that songs are thought of as independent units. They are most often situated within a context of a greater work - the suite, the album, the symphony. So too, The Dark Knight Rises is understood, in its fullness, within the context of the greater Batman story that Nolan sets out to tell. Each film is wonderful and powerful within its own independence. However, they can only be unraveled to their fullest potential when they are understood as one interconnected storyline. A storyline which, in essence, is as old as any myth in history, yet is told as fresh and as accessible as only Christopher Nolan's movie-making can convey.