Hope, Despair, and The Dark Knight

Hope, Despair, and The Dark Knight July 20, 2012

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.

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