Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Anthropology of the Dark Knight Trilogy

The shepherds interposing themselves between the wolves and the sheep.
G. K. Chesterton said that every great story has a beauty, a dragon which threatens the beauty, and a knight who protects the beauty and slays the dragon. The Dark Knight Trilogy consistently follows the same pattern: there is the City of Gotham, the villains who seek to destroy Gotham, and the heroes who protect Gotham by standing between her and the villains. The Christian story – the greatest story ever told – would put it this way: there are the sheep, the wolves who seek to devour the sheep, and shepherds who tend the sheep and strike the wolves. Great dramas compress time on a stage or in a film so we experience the lifetime consequences of characters' vices and virtues in a single sitting. The best dramas sharpen our intellects to perceive the moral landscape of reality while training our emotions to act virtuously in similar life predicaments. While drama prepares us for life, it is also true that persistent misconceptions in life can dull our perception of drama. A person who misidentifies the characters in a good play may be missing the significance of those parallel characters in the real drama of our common spiritual life.    

This seems sadly the case among some popular Catholic and Protestant commentators in their analysis of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Fr. Robert Barron (of Catholicism fame) likened Batman and the villains as “two sides of the same coin.” In his review of The Dark Knight Rises, Steven Greydanus of the National Catholic Register faulted the film for not having ordinary citizens protest “the oppressors” of Gotham. Greydanus asks: “Are ordinary Gothamites capable of heroism? Or are uniformed heroes (bearing bat symbols or police shields) with weapons on their belts our only hope?” Christian film critic Jeffrey Overstreet lamented the fact that the city can only be saved by “men with good hearts and big guns,” while theologian Jeff Keuss declared: “The world still thinks Judas was right.”

Their analysis is shaped by an anemic worldview in which wolves are not really wolves and the shepherd's staff is used for peaceful walking, rather than protecting. Their peculiar re-writing of Judas's character as a violent, nationalist Zealot is a child of modernist pacifism, not Biblical Christianity. The Judas of scripture was a money-hungry liar who is best represented by the corrupt police of Gotham, not the shepherds who cast him out. In response to this confusion we must be very clear: wolves exist; shepherds are not wolves; sheep are not shepherds; and wolves are not treated with non-violent compassion. Before the demon (Heath Ledger's satanic Joker) possessing Gotham's soul can be exorcized, before the men of Gotham can take back their streets, the corrupted police brotherhood must be reformed. Indeed, Batman should not be condemned for following the model set by Jesus, who taught his shepherds that Judas must be sent out before the unifying priestly prayer is said. The teaching of Christ is not socio-political, but anthropological: the bride of Christ can only be safeguarded by a masculine body in which her shepherds have expelled Judas from their communion.

The Dark Knight Trilogy follows a similar anthropology: Bruce Wayne becomes Batman in order to reform a corrupted police force and purify them of Judas’ presence (Batman Begins). In doing so, Batman learns that he must exorcize the demon in possession of Gotham’s soul – the film here perfectly depicts how demons scream most wildly in their last moments of possession (The Dark Knight). With Judas cast out and the demonic exorcized, Bruce Wayne can only find peace by teaching the shepherds how to fight “as one man” and establishing a safe place where young boys can grow into future shepherds (The Dark Knight Rises). Taken as a whole, The Dark Knight Trilogy is a depiction of Christopher Nolan’s robust anthropology of masculine protective duty. For Nolan, Batman, and Christ, a culture of life cannot exist without first establishing a culture of masculine protection.

The Dark Knight Rises is very clear about where the wolves originate: hell. Their attack comes not through Gotham’s front door but from below. We also learn that there are some forces which ordinary men cannot hope to defeat without the help of “superior air support” from above. Thus The Dark Knight Rises teaches us that the proper response to a direct assault by the powers of hell is not to form a protest movement urging power to the people. Salvation is to align ourselves under uniformed clerics and St. Michael the Archangel – that other winged crusader – to cast Satan and his demons back into the pit from which they came. This is the lesson which the overconfident and disordered shepherds of Gotham, though free of Judas, must learn. In the end, they will not be able to overcome the demonic without entering into the pit of death with their winged crusader and be raised up by him for battle. Israelite males were incorporated into the nation by shedding their blood eight days after birth. Eight years following Batman’s exorcism of the demonic, the male protectors of Gotham enter into a civic covenant through the communal shedding of their blood. Just as Israelite soldiers were expected to abstain from the marital bed the night before battle, the city's protectors must leave the tranquility of domestic life to enter the fight in the streets of Gotham.   

Next Sunday at Mass, let us give thanks to God for the uniformed men who lead us in that sacrifice; and at the prayer for our civic leaders, let us give thanks for those other uniformed men who protect the city and nation.

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