True tragedy and false hope in The Dark Knight Rises

Josh Larsen

In The Dark Knight Rises, the final Batman film from director Christopher Nolan, I was less interested in Bane vs. Batman than in the battle between two other entities: hope and tragedy.

Tragedy has been the hallmark of this landmark superhero series. The psychic damage caused by the death of parents at a young age – specifically those of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) - permeated the stirring Batman Begins. The stakes were raised in The Dark Knight, in which the psychological scars of a whole host of characters, including Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, gave the proceedings an epic sense of doom that was nothing less than Shakespearean. The Dark Knight was, simply, a masterpiece of the superhero genre.

The Dark Knight Rises is something less, primarily because – and I’ll be as vague as I can from here on out – it ultimately turns the series away from tragedy. What has, for the most part, been an epic tale of power and folly becomes, in the end, endearing. The saga concludes in comfort, which strikes me as an odd place for this particular Batman to be.

Oh, things are gloomy at the start. The movie opens eight years after the events in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is so hobbled from the struggles of that film that he walks with a cane and has barricaded himself in his mansion. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a mercenary bent on Gotham’s destruction and Batman’s death. Given his devious intellect and brute strength – Hardy gives him the bulk of a tank and the quickness of a tiger – both seem like a distinct possibility.

We need to carefully discern between vague hope and resurrection hope in our popular stories. It does Scripture a disservice to mix one with the other.

So far, so good, at least in my mind. There’s just something in me that appreciates a good tragedy. In their bitterness and despair, tragedies can have the sort of honesty that few feel-good flicks are able to muster. Writing about misfortune in The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps I need continual rousing.

The Dark Knight is rousing until its final 30 minutes, when tragedy is set aside for a far more conventional narrative arc, not to mention an alarming amount of franchise care. This is Nolan, so it’s mostly elegantly handled, yet the great tragedy I had come to love for two and three quarter films suddenly disappeared.

I suppose I should take encouragement from a hope that’s so persistent, especially as it reflects that of the Gospel. When our culture’s biggest films express hope – and when audiences embrace them for doing so - it’s evidence that we collectively yearn for something better, that even those without faith ache for a world as God intended it to be.

And yet there is something false about the hope offered by The Dark Knight Rises. It’s false to the series in particular and false, in a wider reading, to the sort of hope that Christians hold dear. The last-minute assurance the movie gives us reminded me of certain portions of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. Discussing contemporary, feel-good ideas about heaven, he writes, “What we have at the moment isn't as the old liturgies used to say, 'the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead,' but a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end. ”

As Christians, we need to carefully discern between vague hope and resurrection hope in our popular stories. It does Scripture a disservice to mix one with the other. Christian hope isn’t simply a happy ending. It isn’t a villain’s death. It’s belief in the prospect of a new creation, one borne of sacrifice, forgiveness and even, at times, earthly defeat.

Resurrection hope can be found in our movies: Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, the Lord of the Rings films and the recent Moonrise Kingdom all come to mind. But this sort of hope isn’t what Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise has done best. In these films, it’s the tragedy that’s true.

What Do You Think?

  • What did you make of The Dark Knight Rises?
  • Do you consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman series a tragedy?
  • What movies offer resurrection hope, as opposed to vague uplift?

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology