The Symbolic Knight Rises

This post is going to be full of confusing spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.  If you haven’t seen it yet, then I recommend reading Man and His Symbols and Iron John before you do.  There is a substantial chunk of the film that feels right but looks long-winded and ridiculous unless you know why Nolan put it in there, and it’s not just to spend more time tying back to Batman Begins.

Overall, I found this story to be more deep and involving than The Dark Knight, which wore its ideas on its sleeve and had some very nice expository scenes to tell everybody what was going on.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked that and it saved me time writing a post like this, but it also left less room for involvement.  On the other end of the spectrum would be Nolan’s earlier Inception or Ridley Scott’s Prometheus which spend so much time in symbolism that they shut out anybody who doesn’t get it.  The Dark Knight Rises takes a middle ground, and spends a lot of time pointing back at foundational elements to (ideally) help the audience keep up, but at the cost of some jangling discontinuities.

So anyway there’s a lot going on in The Dark Knight Rises and there may be spoliers starting… now.

The most important element which is also really dumb is Bane leaving Gotham and flying halfway around the world to dump Bruce in The Pit.  Nolan back-references to Batman Begins to explain why this is necessary — and Alfred is hinting that Bruce seems to need it — but I’d point to Bly’s Iron John, particularly the chapter on “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief.”  Failure gives a different perspective than success, and Bruce has been stuck in a state of failure since Rachel died and Harvey went nuts — clinical term, that — in The Dark Knight.  When he failed to save them, Bruce’s failure was externalized and he was stuck with nowhere to go with it.  In losing to Bane, Bruce was able to re-internalize his failure and determine to overcome it.  Also not explained: how Bruce Wayne gets back to Gotham.  Answer: it’s a symbolic/literal crossover that you just have to accept a limitation of the format.  Really, everything in going into and coming out of The Pit has more symbolic meaning than rational, literal meaning — and if you’re not okay with this notion, then I’d guess that you weren’t happy with the film.

Fans of the source material may be disappointed that Ra’s al Ghul did, in point of fact, die in Batman Begins and there’s no such thing as an actual “Lazarus Pit” in Nolan’s world. (My response to hearing this complaint: “A what?”)  But Ra’s does show up to make one very clear point: the League of Shadows really should be taken the Jungian sense of the word Shadow — al Ghul lives on in the minds, whether consciously or subconsciously, of all of his followers, inclusive of Bruce Wayne.  It is Inception.

Speaking of subconscious leagues and legions of shadows, Bane is built to be Batman’s shadow.  Both came from the League of Shadows, but weren’t exactly “members in good standing.”  Their physical training is comparable.  Their intellects seem comparable.  They have underground lairs and appear and disappear whenever they feel like it.  Bane’s winter coat suggests a cape. There is a key inversion: Bane’s mask primarily covers his mouth while Batman’s mask specifically doesn’t cover his mouth; Bane’s covers the wounds he took for his love (such as it was), Batman’s covers the wounds he doesn’t want to have inflicted on those he loves (such as they are).  Bane flaunts his disrespect for the people he uses because of his cultivated superiority, Batman suppresses it because he can’t be a vigilante while simultaneously accepting the proximity of innocence to weak ineffectuality.  Bane suffered for fighting for a symbol of innocence that he objectified (and unquestioningly obeyed, but never wholly understood and thus couldn’t respect which is why he opts to disobey the last order he’s given); Batman has to not fall into that same trap.  Hold this thought, we’ll come back to it in just a moment.

But above and beyond all that, Bane stole Bruce’s body — that is, his fingerprints — in order to behave in a way that Bruce wouldn’t, which is exactly how shadow personalities tend to surface.  (See also Naomi Quenk’s Was That Really Me?)  A possible weakness of the literal side of the film is that the obviously fraudulent trades — “hackers taking hostages; it kind of made the news?” — were taken to be reality for the whole of the film.  Yet with the aggressiveness of black-box algorithmic trading, it does raise an interesting question of: How can fraudulent trades be rolled back if they’ve been transacted over 20 times per second for every second of the business day until they’re stopped and challenged?  Presumably this may be part of why it takes a couple of days for trades to actually clear, a point that was missed in the film but that annoys me every time I sell stock.

The aspect of class warfare that the film brought up was timely and relevant and reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s writing in Guards! Guards! where Lord Vetinari very patiently explains:

You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no-one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.

Pratchett takes it up again in Night Watch when Vimes realizes the following key points:

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people… Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.

Overall — and I think Camus mentioned this in The Rebel, only I’ve loaned my copy out and thus can’t confirm — the evil revolutionary will proclaim power to the people, secure in the knowledge that the people will offer the power back simply for the sake of having a leader.  Bane clearly does this in the prison break: he gives a great speech declaring power to the people in the prison (without mentioning that they’re murderous criminals), lets them out, and then asks — to their great applause — who wants to serve him.  Conversely, Batman’s caped crusading supported the order of society which unfortunately featured inhuman people like Daggett and Stryver skimming off the objectified work of others.  The confrontation between the cop who kept his money in his mattress and some yuppie-broker-guy at the exchange calls out the absurdity of societal support for the leisure class (even to the point where the policemen* were being shot and killed in their duty to protect the well-to-do’s lucre).  The confrontation between Miranda and Dagget, followed later by Miranda’s talk about the fire, to say nothing of the Wayne Foundation in its entirety, is a reminder that rich people aren’t categorically inhuman bastards. (Kudos to real-life Lenovo CEO Yang for taking the initiative to redistribute some of the wealth his employees generated under his leadership.)

Selina Kyle (stunning performance by Anne Hathaway) is an important foil on this point: she is the super-realist point of identification and aspiration for “The 99%” in that she doesn’t respect the property rights of the leisure class and wants to see more people disrespecting the property rights of the leisure class, but not so much that chaos ensues and nobody has any security or comfort.  John Blake (amazing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Selina’s inversion, a supporter of the order of things coming to the realization that the order of things and the backwards-looking institutions it establishes must be overcome and transcended.

Remember about Bane suffering for fighting for objectified innocence an how Batman has to not fall into that trap?  The symbolic point of Selina Kyle is to give Bruce Wayne a way to not fall into that trap — or rather, a way to get out of that trap, having been in that trap and fighting for the same not-that-innocent people for a long time.  In a large and vague way, we can see The City as being effectively innocent, but in any detail we find — and this is the point of Commissioner Gordon and capitalizing on the failed symbol in The Dark Knight — that “All have sinned…”  Just as Selina Kyle needs to be disillusioned from her conflation of power and corruption to believe that power can be used for good, Bruce Wayne needs to be disillusioned from his conflation of innocence and goodness and see that there can be goodness in an abject absence of innocence.  By dispelling this illusion and accepting that Selina wants to be good but won’t even try for any social standard of innocent, he’s able to join with her, person-to-person — in a way that Bane would be incapable of, having objectified his idea of the innocent person.

Ultimately, though, the core of this film is about getting little Bruce Wayne to grow up (doubling down on Iron John).  That’s the point of Alfred’s speech where he explained that he didn’t want Bruce Wayne to come back to Gotham for Batman Begins.  And while the conclusion could be read as superficially and annoyingly cliche in the same way that Jolande Jacobi’s case study in Man and His Symbols was (ironic, since Jung said that “To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful”), I think it went through a lot of work to very specifically not be superficial and thus also not be a cliche.  Overall, I found it a strange mix of totally predictable and wholly rewarding.

Postscript:  Blake’s final scene does more than suggest that we’re going to get a spin-off series; it reminds us that just because Bruce Wayne’s heroic journey is over doesn’t mean that the Heroic Journey is over.  Quite the opposite — now there’s more room for somebody else to start on their heroic journey.  The point, however, is that the ending which could be viewed as Hollywood pandering can also be viewed as completion of the symbols Nolan was working with throughout the film.

Addendum July 27: So I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t pay any attention to the nuclear device before.  When I saw it in the film I was too busy seeing Morgan Freeman with clean and abundant energy again to pay attention to what I was seeing.  So let’s wander out on a limb — that is to say, I’ve less confidence about the intentions of these symbols — and take a look at it.

First, let’s look at the core of the reactor: it is spherical.  Campbell says that when we see round things we’re often looking at the representation of a person.  This round thing has enough power for an entire city, but is tucked away and hidden underground.  Despite the availability of security guards for hire, this power opts for obscurity.  You should be seeing parallels to Batman here.  At the beginning of the film, Batman has been retired for 8 years, and this remarkable energy source is left untapped for fear of what it might do.  And like the subconsciousness, it is left underground.

Then along comes Bane and he surfaces what is buried in the subconsciousness and reveals it to a huge set of spectators — Huxley would say people at risk of Herd Poison — and it goes from being a source of power to a source of woe.  And he takes this subconscious matter and drives it all around the city, disguised by a set of trucks.  The trucks represent the Batman costume, driving it around the city represents the attention that Batman pays to the city as a collection of people rather than paying any attention to an individual.  Also relevant here is that in going around the city the reactor is no longer subject to being flooded by the river: water is traditionally/alchemically a feminine element, opposite of the masculine fire, so Bane’s taken the masculine away from where it can be balanced by the feminine. (This elemental alignment was pretty much the subtext of the homunculus in Goethe’s Faust, detailed here — except this author wildly misses the Job allusion in Faust’s final pursuit so don’t read too much into it.)

There’s also the matter of the remote trigger on the bomb.  And the good guys have to go through a big convoluted process to prevent the remote trigger from setting off the bomb, which ends up with Gary crammed in the back of a truck with the bomb and a radio jammer.  Campbell would say that this is creating a sacred space, shutting out the outside world so that the self can introspect.  And it prevents an externally forced outburst, but doesn’t prevent a personal meltdown — which is why the external trigger was an important point despite the tiny amount of time left on the meltdown clock: the ritual and the sacred space and all that do not transform the person into the individual, but rather buy them time to be better positioned for that transition.

When that transition comes, it’s up to Batman to save the city from what his mind hath wrought by flying it out over water and there we go.  But there’s one super-important point left here and that is that the Batwing has “no autopilot,” something that he mentions more to remind the audience than to explain his actions to the people around him.  The audience does need reminded of this after 2.5 hours of blockbuster escapism: there is no substitute for doing the individualizing work of the self individually.  So Bruce takes the nuclear bomb, the totem of fire (masculine) that was also his last great project, away from Gotham, out over the water (feminine) so he can submerge it and not vaporize the city with its unbridled power.  With this union of opposite elements, Bruce Wayne completes his symbolic transformation away from being the adolescent comic-book hero Batman and the audience gets a big explosion to look at.

If you’re paying close attention, then you’ll note that the major masculine powers in the film — Batman, Bane, thermonuclear device — are consistently overpowered by masculine/feminine combinations: Bane and Selina, Bane and Miranda, Batman and Selina, Batman and a lot of water.  (Selina, meanwhile, gets out of one fight with a bunch of men through the clever use of a congressman, and then gets out of another fight with a bunch of men by hitching a ride with Batman.  The masculine/feminine synthesis here feels more coincidental, but it is still present.)  This seems important to me: rather than doubling down on his masculine power, Batman sends Blake to start evacuating the city.  Rather than having any of this thugs sneak-attack Batman, Bane faces him head-on.  There are opportunities here where a sensible and rational person would not rely on a synthesis of symbolic opposites to form to get things done — but this is symbolism… so we can wait for it to all come together nicely, as it is written.

Later Update, August 9: It was pointed out to me that there’s also a lot of air/earth elemental splitting, or cthonic (earth) vs. pneuma (spirit).  All in one place, Bruce’s exit from the cthonic pit is aided by the pneuma of the other prisoners — but the shock of the bats temporarily knocks the breath out of him.  Bane, of course, being oriented towards the power of earth, is wearing a breath-assisting apparatus.  Particularly of note given his objectified love for Talia was her work to repair his breathing apparatus: her externality to him persists even in rehabilitating him enough to continue in his non-developmental goal.  This isn’t to say that teleological goals are bad, but rather that inflexible goals are — and the protagonists are constantly improvising throughout the film to make this point (which also goes back to multiple expositions from Alfred).  Geographically, Bane traps the police underground (cthonic) limiting their air (pneuma) which of course reflects the calcified institutional rules and procedures that Drake finds himself struggling against throughout the film.  And that’s in addition to the hermetic sealing of the city which shows that any institution, even a vigilante like Batman (represented for the time being by the bomb), can stifle actual growth.  Additionally, the “Path of Exile” which drops people — I saw the guys with lines being exiled, did anybody see wealthy women being exiled? — into the icy water (feminine element, may or may not be relevant) would almost certainly knock the air (pneuma again) out of people before they die.  It was also suggested that the Batwing is another air-element in the film, but I had to disagree with added symbolism there: it wasn’t a new creation and Batman’s aerial superiority is pretty much core (as seen in the kidnapping early in The Dark Knight).  That said, Bane did have a lot of earthy-colored Tumbler vehicles from the armory, but was unable to commandeer any fliers.  Was the flier too much of a prototype, or is pneuma control and superiority just plain something that cthonic Bane can’t do?  It’s out on a limb, but something to make a note of.

* – First, I didn’t see Nolan shooting any policewomen.  Second, I feel it’s important to use a humanizing term rather than just referring to them in the objective and thus inhuman form as “police.”  If I knew that one of the sniper’s victims was named Charles, I’d call out “Officer Chuck” to make the loss more human.  The notion that humans are being killed to defend the machines of rich people which skim virtual pennies from the movement of electrons (while evading taxes) is absurd.