Hope, Despair, and The Dark Knight

When “The Dark Knight” – the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – opened in 2008, I went to see it opening day because, like a lot of guys, I grew up reading Batman comics and was excited to see where the story would go next.  Though that film was technically good , it was also the bleakest movie I think I ever saw.  I actually felt jittery on the inside after it was over because it conveyed palpable feelings of despair.  That was largely due to the character of The  Joker who who didn’t have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.  This wasn’t an evil-in-a-comic-bookish-way villain like Loki in “The Avengers.”  The Joker was like the devil personified, calmly and enjoyably spreading evil wherever he went.  He may have been a movie character, but there was something frighteningly real about him.  “The Dark Knight” received lots of acclaim, especially for Heath Ledger who won a posthumous Oscar for playing The Joker.  My feelings about the film were mixed though, because I like my superhero movies a little more superhero-y.

At the beginning of “The Dark Knight Rises” which I saw this afternoon, I discovered that the character of Bruce Wayne had a similar reaction to everything that happened in the last movie as I did.  It left him so shaken that he’s been a recluse for eight years who’s let his business, his riches, and the few relationships he had disintegrate.  I’m not going into the details of the plot here (you can read my fellow Patheos blogger, Rebecca Cusey’s excellent review for that), but I want to briefly touch on the overarching themes of “The Dark Knight Rises” as opposed to its predecessor.

The journey Bruce Wayne and Batman travel in “The Dark Knight Rises” is ultimately one of redemption.  Bruce is a man whose lost faith in himself, his abilities, and in life itself.  He doesn’t fear death; he would actually welcome it.  As the villain Bane says to him at one point, he doesn’t want to torture his body; he wants to torment his soul because he knows that will bring Bruce the greatest pain and push him over the final edge.  In order to save the day, Bruce has to climb out of his pit of despair.  It’s not an easy journey, but as the title of the movie suggests, that’s where the story is heading.

In addition, whereas the previous movie ended with numerous characters like Commissioner Gordon making bad choices, “The Dark Knight Rises” finds them having to face the repercussions of those choices and admit their own sins.  The quest for redemption is definitely the predominant story arc here, both with returning characters and new ones like Anne Hathaway’s brilliant turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman (I’ve never seen Hathaway as an action heroine, but she charmingly, athletically, and kick-buttingly pulls it off here).  And in contrast to The Joker, the villain Bane is definitely bad news, but he has just the tiniest bit of backstory that actually makes him human.

Instead of leaving me with a feeling of despair at the end, “The Dark Knight Rises” left me feeling hope.   It’s a film about heroism, nobility, and sacrifice in the face of danger, especially for the hero who just wants to do the right thing.

In light of this film, I plan to go back and watch the previous two again at some point because I’m wondering if my feelings about the middle film will change now that I can see it as Act Two in a three-act story.  In storytelling terms, maybe Bruce Wayne had to go through the despair in order to achieve the redemption.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is unfortunately attracting attention today because of the senseless, horrific massacre that took place in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater early this morning.  Our prayers are with all those affected by the violence.

But in terms of the quality of the movie itself, “The Dark Knight Rises” should take you on a worthy hero’s journey.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Mike

    When are we Catholics going to face the elephant is the room? This is one of the most violent films of our time and several critical reviews affirm that reality.

    Violence begets violence. The more that violent imagery has penetrated into every corner of our mass culture, the more episodes of violence occur in our society. How many murders do children see on TV in their lifetimes? Look it up, it is a shocking number. As long as we continue to give in to the base animal desires of tantalization by violent imagery/themes in mass media/culture, this is the harvest we will continue to reap. Blood, gore, over-the-top violence is all over TV, film, video gaming, and print media.

    We’ve developed a lust for it which some sociologists and others have named the “pornography of violence.” This kind of pornography makes victims of the weakest among us and, often, that is the type of person who then acts out in a violent, sociopathic way as did – the shooter – James Holmes is a perfect example of this. Focusing on guns, by some, is merely an attempt to treat the symptom. Addressing and dealing with the pervasiveness of violent imagery, and the appetite for it, in our culture will be an attempt to treat the scourge itself.

    Is Christianity the true religion of peace, of hope, of charity? If so, how can we continue to tolerate such evil messages in our culture?

    • Mitchell

      This is such nonsense.
      The passion of our Blessed Lord is a pretty violent episode, I doubt you would characterize it’s inclusion in the Bible as “pornography of violence”. Evil exists in this world, and will always exist in this world.

      The Batman trilogy does not invert our understanding of good or evil. The point of bad guys is that they show you bad things, and the real bad guys will show you really bad things. The Batman movies do not glory in the evil of their villains, nor is the violence particularly gratuitous. Batman is virtuous because he resists evil the best he can in that world. And he does it at the expense of his friends, loves and parents good name.

      • Mike

        Mitchell –
        Of course there is violence in the Scriptures and in the World. To deny that would be simply idiotic. I am using the over-the-top violence of the newer Batman films as a launching point for my argument. Can you get that?
        You fail to understand my argument that the pervasiveness of violence in our mass culture is gravely dangerous. It is akin to the sexualization of the culture and look what that has been doing to us. Read a little bit about the psychology of advertising and understand how the frequency of imagery imprints itself on the human mind and gets the viewer to “buy into” the message of the imagery. We become not only desensitized to the horror of graphic violence but we indeed develop an apetite for it, which is the dangerous glamour of the pornography of violence.

        • Okie

          Fine, put it another way. Read Homer’s Illiad, or the Canterbury Tales, or the history of the Crusades, or any great work: they are pervaded by violence and sex. They are still, however, Great Books. Batman movies do not revel in gore, the bad guys are frightening (not glorious) and the good guys make sacrifices to save the day. Its like old versions of fairy tales, where things are way more violent. You have been desensitized if you cannot tell the difference between Batman and Boondock Saints.

  • Josh R.

    Possibly the best review I’ve read yet. You really understand the big picture and I respect that.

  • Mary

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand how you can praise the redemptive message of this film and just overlook the gratuitous violence. Do you not care that so many people are gradually desensitized to sadism? To quote a British critic of the movie (Jenny McCartney) “the film begins with a heist carried out by men in sinister clown masks. As each clown completes a task, another shoots him point-blank in the head. The scene ends with a clown – The Joker – stuffing a bomb into a wounded bank employee’s mouth.
    “After the murderous clown heist, things slip downhill. A man’s face is fileted by a knife, and another’s is burned half off. A man’s eye is slammed into a pencil. A bomb can be seen crudely stitched inside another man’s stomach, which subsequently explodes. A trussed-up man is bound to a chair and set alight atop a pile of banknotes.”
    Do you really think this story is an acceptable way to get across a message of redemption? Do you really believe that God looked down and said “I approve! ” ? Don’t you realize that there are many, many people who eat this kind of movie up, not because they’re in a philosophical mood, looking for deep meaning, but because they’re sadistic…..and movies like this just feed their cravings? Why in Heaven’s name would you be so willing to overlook the dark side of this movie in the name of seeing a redemptive message that the vast majority of viewers don’t see? Do you perhaps enjoy all of the sadism too, but feel better about yourself by finding something good in the movie? Would you sing the praises of a gourmet meal that was presented with a course of dung? I’ll bet not.

    • Tony Rossi

      Mary, if you read my review you’ll see I’m not praising the movie you’re describing which was the last Batman movie. In fact I call it one of the most disturbing movies I eversaw.

      What I actually say is that the newest film has a redemptive message. It is very different from the last story. The characters are trying to overcome their past sins. Thankfully they succeed which is the point of my review.

      Also,You’re presumption that I “enjoy sadism” is an unfounded and insulting insinuation. Perhaps you should read things a little closer before you presume to judge another person’s mind, heart and soul.

    • Jeff

      Mary,

      You’re talking about The Dark Knight. Tony is talking about the sequel Dark Knight Rises. Two different movies with two different messages. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t have your facts straight before you lashed out at Tony. I’ll make sure I include you in my prayers today.

  • Pingback: And if the light in you is darkness, how deep will the dark be! A Cultural Reflection on the Latest Mass Killing | Archdiocese of Washington

  • mr bruce

    Excellent write up Tony. Anyone think there’s similarities to the divine comedy here? Fight Club? Bruce must hit rock bottom (literally in the prison) before he can rise up and take on Bane. I thought the theme of redemption throughout the movie really differentiated it from the others. Also thought the occupy movement was described in the movie as well.

  • Martin

    Fantastic review. Totally sums up how I felt about the films.