Death, Conversion, and Eternal Life
Watching The Dark Knight Trilogy with Saint Augustine
Years ago, I walked down a sticky, darkened aisle and settled into my creaky theater seat for the second night of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. This showing, however, was unlike those other nights I had walked through clouds of buttery fog hanging in the theater. I suspect many others had a similar experience going to see The Dark Knight Rises that evening. Only a few nights prior, the violence on the screen came to life in an Aurora theater. Twenty minutes into the final installment of everyone’s favorite Batman, a body armor-clad gunman flung open the exit door, threw smoke into the crowd, and began shooting. At the time, I was in my own home in Oklahoma watching the events unfold over the news. As I flicked through various news sources, I realized that the events that were once isolated to the screen were now coming to life. Seeing The Dark Knight Rises myself — just a few nights later — marked a dark coming of age moment in my own life. Unlike the two movies that preceded this, the villain was enfleshed in tragedy. The fear that came from beneath Bane’s mask, the anxiety from the terror he cast on the fictional city of Gotham, the devastation of losing Bruce to the pit — these emotions were more present than any movie I had seen before. Nolan’s realist Dark Knight was already a work of art, but tragedy had brought it to life in a way he never could have done.
What was birthed from that dark opening weekend was more real than many works before it, the Batman was made alive in tragedy. Because of this, many began to watch and re-watch the Trilogy, finding commentaries on death, duality, and the substance of true life, which Bruce Wayne’s dualistic character deals with aptly. This makes The Dark Knight Trilogy unique from other superhero films. Wayne doesn’t deal with kitschy issues like “How do I be a normal kid?” or “How do I deal with my brother?” These questions are pertinent to a small crowd, but the Trilogy deals with deeper issues that we all face, the underlying tragedies that are woven into every tragedy. The Church also has a rich history dealing with these problems, but few deal more poetically with them than Saint Augustine of Hippo. In his work Confessions, Augustine writes a long-form prayer reflecting on his life and the nature of God. His younger years were wrought with debauchery and lustful passion yet, as he grows older and becomes a faithful Christian, he begins wrestling with the same themes we find in The Dark Knight — death, conversion, and eternal life. St. Augustine, then, makes the perfect companion for dissecting Christopher Nolan’s seminal work. Each beckons all of us with the same question, “What is reality, and how do we deal with it?”
Batman Begins is the first of the three films, and it immediately stands out. Unlike The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, the villain is not introduced in the first scene yet, when paralleled to the two, the scene from Bruce’s childhood is viewed in a different light. As the villains are introduced, each is consecrated as a villain through theft. In the opening scene of Batman Begins, Bruce steals a small arrowhead from Rachel. Though not readily noticeable without critical analysis, the villain is introduced in the opening scene; in this first film, Bruce wages war against himself. In the next scene, we find Bruce as a criminal in a foreign prison battling “the devil” and his gangsters in the slop. This is already reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son, yet Wayne has no father to return to. The father figure that does appear is Henri Ducard, a mercenary that beckons Bruce to the League of Shadows. Bruce prevails against him and is allowed to begin training and in a short sequence, Ducard taps into Wanye’s deepest fears and forces him to confront and channel his anger wisely. He recognizes what Bruce cannot—the guilt, anger, and fear Bruce carries over his parent’s death are only reactions to his idolization of his father. In Book VIII. vii (17), St. Augustine also battles with his past. He describes putting off his zeal for wisdom and, as Bruce also wars against his fear, Augustine wars against his sexuality,
But I was an unhappy young man, wretched as at the beginning of my adolescence when I prayed you for chastity and said: ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not you.’ I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust which I preferred to satisfy rather than suppress.
Bruce’s relationship to fear can be likened to what St. Augustine calls the “grand struggle in my inner house, which I had vehemently stirred up with my soul in the intimate chamber of my heart.” Throughout his training, we watch Bruce struggle with letting go of his fear, anger, and guilt. Though he wants it to go away, he expresses a very human hesitancy toward letting go of things we know are harmful to us—just as Augustine expresses. Sexuality, for Augustine, ravaged him as Bruce’s fear looms.
When Bruce finally faces his fear at the end of his training, he puts on a mask. From the start, he is trained to divide his identities in order to deal with his deep psychological and emotional turmoil (this makes Scarecrow a prime villain for Batman to face later on: the psychiatrist also becomes fear itself as he dons a mask). When Bruce returns to his estate in Gotham, his right of passage is sealed as he descends into the well he fell into as a child and enters the cave that will become his lair. This descent is symbolically profound when viewed through the eyes of St. Augustine. As Bruce enters the cave, it is narrow and wet — just as a womb. Augustine describes Baptism like so, “to become the servant of your Christ, and an infant born at your font.” This image of birth and baptism is accentuated in light of a later description of Baptism as becoming a soldier of the Lord and throwing off all burdens. As Bruce enters this font, he stands in the face of his fear enfleshed in the bats flocking around him — throwing off all burdens and, upon passing through the birth canal enters into militant servanthood for justice. He inherits this yoke, as we also inherit it in Baptism, from his forefathers.
Loss is a key theme that Nolan explores in Batman Begins. Bruce suffers and reflects upon the loss of his parents, the loss of normalcy in his own life particularly embodied in his relationship to Rachel, and the looming loss of Gotham. To face these losses, just as he was trained to do, Bruce Wayne dons the mask and channels his losses in the pursuit of justice. Bruce, who was orphaned at such a young age, is shown grappling with justice and loss as the embodiment of justice (his parents) disappear. Bruce finds his solace in devoting himself to a higher purpose, justice. He follows the advice of his mentor, “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification, he can be destroyed… But, if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely.” Augustine, however, is oriented elsewhere in the face of loss. He writes,
The woman with whom I habitually slept was torn away from my side because she was a hindrance to my marriage. My heart which was deeply attached was cut and wounded, and left a trail of blood… What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate for the rash soul which nursed the hope that after it had departed from you, it would find something better! Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose.
Augustine, too, finds solace in devotion to a higher purpose, yet his purpose is devoted to that which is so transcendent that it may not be taken into his own hands to attain it. He recalls the prophet Isaiah at the end of his chapter, “Run, I will carry you, and I will see you through to the end, and there I will carry you” (Isa. 46:4). St. Augustine’s hope is found in that which the Lord may carry him into through Christ, whereas Bruce seeks the Batman to carry him into solace and freedom from the burden of justice he carries.
Alfred and Bruce both recognize that the life Wayne is leading is dualistic, but neither seems to acknowledge it’s danger. In fact, in the scene where Alfred addresses Bruce’s injuries from fighting crime, he encourages his double life by helping him to make up excuses. While following Alfred’s advice, Bruce encounters Rachel for the first time after he arrives in Gotham, and tries to convince her that there is more to him than the “billionaire-playboy” Rachel meets. What begins in the first film of The Dark Knight Trilogy is not a simple superhero character, but a look at the raging inner battle of a man tormented by his past. This theme is developed throughout the Trilogy and Bruce’s duality is often center stage to the conflict he is facing. For as long as Batman exists, Bruce endures the “birth pains of conversion” that St. Augustine addresses in Confessions. In Book VIII.x (22), Augustine delves into a similar division within himself that Bruce faces in The Dark Knight Trilogy,
In my own case, as I deliberated about serving my Lord God (Jer. 30:9) which I had long been disposed to do, the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling. It was I. I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling. So I was in conflict with myself and was dissociated from myself… And so it was ‘not I’ that brought this about ‘but sin which dwelt in me’ (Rom. 7:17, 20), sin resulting from the punishment of a more freely chosen sin, because I was a son of Adam.
Augustine intricately links the division of the soul with human nature, for his divided wills are necessarily brought about simply because he is a son of Adam. He is clear to note that we are not of two substances, nor that the two wills are good, “But I affirm that they are both evil… let them no more say that two conflicting minds are derived from two rival substances.” Here, Augustine particularly addresses an ethical question, and his statement is contrary to the two wills which Nolan subverts in Batman Begins. The core of Bruce’s dilemma is a singular outcome, justice, which must be determined by one of two external wills, Batman or the League of Shadows — good or evil: this is reminiscent of the Manichean dualistic philosophy that Augustine argues so vehemently against. By the end of the movie, Nolan begins to highlight Bruce’s own dualistic nature in his conversation with Rachel. The two agree that whenever Gotham doesn’t need Batman any longer, Bruce and Rachel can share a life together. Albeit subtle, these divided wills are further internalized in the next film The Dark Knight Rises, and these particularly identifiable in three main characters: the Joker, Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Harvey Dent/Two-Face.
In the second installment of the trilogy, Christopher Nolan explores duality in the inner self through Batman’s confrontation with the Joker. The Joker is a fitting foil for Batman’s duality in that, for all his wickedness, he is singularly devoted to his identity. Gordon remarks in the third scene “What’s he hiding under all that make-up?” The Joker is firmly planted within his singular identity as the Joker, and Nolan never ventures to give him a true origin story. In contrast, Bruce Wayne/Batman’s origin story is utterly complicated, and the predicament is exposed about halfway through the film. When the Joker invades Bruce’s fundraiser, the two identities first converge. On the surface, the tension stems from the situation, but underlying tension is found particularly in how Bruce/Batman will handle the predicament. This is further underscored in Rachel’s character, who is acutely aware of Bruce Wayne as the Batman. This scene also demonstrates how Joker tailors his origin story to the person he is speaking with at the time. This confusion and multiplicity of identity, coupled with his singular devotion to being the Joker, exposes Bruce/Batman’s predicament more deeply as he grapples with saving Harvey Dent and Rachel while masking his identity as Savior.
The Dark Knight introduces a new problem for Bruce Wayne/Batman, forcing him to confront his true identity. This point is striking even in the first ten minutes, Bruce’s conversation with Alfred (the insider to both identities) reveals his attitude toward his identity. Alfred cautions, “Know your limits,” to which Bruce replies, “Batman has no limits.” Bruce/Batman rely upon each other’s hidden identities when it’s convenient. Perhaps why Scarecrow rightly quips about Batman having “problems” in the second scene, Nolan more dramatically introduces this issue of duality in the character. The dilemma of The Dark Knight stems from Batman’s ethical boundaries which allow him to remain Bruce Wayne when he takes the mask off. The Joker repeatedly challenges him psychologically and ethically, not with brute force as he’s challenged in the first and the third films. Batman’s interrogation with the Joker is the culmination of the tension that has slowly built within himself, and the problem that the Joker puts forth forces him to choose between his two identities. If Bruce was not already grasping for the opportunity at “normalcy,” then he decisively does so at this moment going to save Rachel. His choice to rescue the woman that truly knows him is not simply a choice toward love, but a deliberate attempt to exit from his life as a vigilante, a common trope in this second film. The tragedy in Rachel’s loss, then, is not reduced to a loss of her life. Rather, it is a loss of Bruce’s innocence and his consecration as the Batman. In the trilogy, this gap is bridged through Batman’s “death” carrying away the bomb and his new life out of Gotham, but at the end of “The Dark Knight,” Bruce’s ability to reify himself away from Batman is impossible. Like Christ, the only way to a new life for Bruce is the death of Batman. Again, this is the tragedy of The Dark Knight that is resolved in The Dark Knight Rises At the 1:38 mark, Nolan reinforces the duality being taken away by picturing Wayne’s face exposed in the Batsuit. It’s significant that this does not occur until after Rachel dies, further exposing the loss that Wayne experiences. His choice has been made for him, and he must remain the Batman or lose Gotham.
Rachel’s loss images a similar character in the life of St. Augustine, his mother, Monica. In the economy of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Rachel embodies purity just as St. Monica does for Augustine in Confessions. In the first movie, Rachel chastises Bruce for his desire to gun down the man who slaughtered his own parents in cold blood, she places within him a sense of Justice that he cannot tap into. Rachel, as a public defender, perfectly embodies justice and as faithful lover to Harvey Dent, perfectly embodies truth. In our economy, St. Monica embodies purity through her holy life. Augustine writes upon his mother’s death, “She was also a servant of your servants: any of them who knew her found much to praise in her, held her in honour and love her; for they felt your presence in her heart witnessed by the fruits of her holy way of life.” Augustine also reflects upon the moment of her death,
I closed her eyes and an overwhelming grief welled into my heart and was about to flow forth in floods of tears. But at the same time under a powerful act of mental control my eyes held back the flood and dried it up… my mother’s dying meant neither that her state was miserable nor that she was suffering extinction. We were confident of this because of the evidence of her virtuous life, her ‘faith unfeigned’ (1 Tim 1:15), and reasons of which we felt certain. (174)
Bruce and Harvey’s devastation at Rachel’s loss is starkly contrasted to Augustine’s account of his own mother. The grief in Bruce and Harvey is something that they each need to become acquainted with, and as we see in the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, neither character is well acquainted with grief. In Augustine, however, there is a sense that even in his bereavement, there is finitude. Augustine has no worries that he will not be able to cope with his loss because what he has experienced is not really a loss, rather, an exercise in hope and patience for eternal life.
The marring of the coin reflects a character shift in Harvey Dent, and it stems from a singular event that he and Rachel both experience. Rachel represents a loss of innocence for him, too, and this loss causes him to split his realities. In the early minutes of the film, the game of a double-headed coin showed that Harvey Dent was morally grounded and ethically singular, but when one side is blackened just as his own face, Dent is now morally chaotic and dualistic in his ethics. He has lost his ability to remain grounded because of loss, trauma, and perhaps, a sense that his groundedness was weak and ineffective. This is foreshadowed earlier when Harvey holds a loaded weapon to the schizophrenic’s head and Batman admonishes him for toying with a man’s life (later revealed as his trick to intimidate). This shows that Harvey always had it within him to truly toy with a man’s life, as Batman’s comment could also apply to Harvey’s use of the gun, use that Batman sees as far too risky for his purposes and morality. Harvey shares a similar singularity to the Joker, as he refuses to do reparative work to his face to not “hide who I truly am.” This further sets Harvey, or “Two-Face” on the road to villainy, as Batman villains (especially apparent in the Nolan films) are repeatedly a foil for Bruce/Batman’s duplicity.
If Batman Begins represents a descent for Bruce Wayne, and The Dark Knight a crucible of his internal self, then The Dark Knight Rises is his salvation. Duality is explored in a more corporal sense in this film, but as the city begins to unite under one ideal, so Bruce is slowly released from his pain in Gotham. Alfred introduces two of the main themes of the final film in his monologue in the bat cave, on Bruce’s pain and tragedy. The two are intimately tied to Gotham, and until Bruce leaves that place Alfred feels he won’t truly move on. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman and Bruce Wayne begin to merge into one character, unlike the previous two films. Practically, Bruce himself has rescinded into the shadows so there is no need to divide the two identities, but his embrace of reclusivity represents a kind of “baptism” that he is undergoing, hidden for a moment but ascending to new life — the life Alfred casts a vision for in the opening scenes of the film. Especially within the early stages of the film, Bruce has his reckoning with this merge of his two lives. The five central characters, Alfred, Blake, Bane, Gordon, and Serina all come to know who Batman really is.
With this in mind, Batman and Bane’s initial encounter takes on new meaning, reminiscent of Bruce’s initial descent to the cave — which itself was reflective of baptismal waters. This idea is reinforced in Batman’s brawl with Bane, he is tossed off the walkway and wrestles with Bane as he’s doused with water from the tunnels. Bane exclaims, “We are initiated!” This carries dual meaning, for the two fighters are both former members of the league of shadows, but Bane also exclaims this as their bodies are soaked in water. Bane is the culmination of Batman’s prior two opponents, and the most formidable at that. Bane contains the singular identity that makes the Joker challenging, yet meets Batman with the brute force of the League of Shadows. Bane knows Batman in a way that he has been unknown by his other enemies. Rather, Bane uses his knowledge to fight Bruce in a way that no other villain has. Just before Bane exiles Bruce to the prison where he was once confined, he breaks into Wayne Industries and steals the equipment that Bruce had worked so hard to hide.
The prison is a crucial point in the narrative and a point that Augustine can offer much commentary on in Confessions, who shows in his whole work that he was well acquainted with lowliness. Bruce’s ascent from the pit is seemingly impossible. Bane has left him so broken that he is unable to stand, and if he were not taken care of by other prisoners he wouldn’t be able to live. However, the prospect of returning to Gotham motivates Bruce to continue on. What allows Bruce to orient himself toward Gotham is his ability to envision memory, particularly memories not his own. For Bruce, he must fling off his brute strength and perform the climb out of the pit as he envisions the memory of a child. Augustine writes of ascension from brute strength to memory in Book X.viii (12),
I will therefore rise above that natural capacity in a step by step ascent to him who made me. I come to the fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasuries of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception. Hidden there is whatever we think about, a process which may increase or diminish or in some way alter the deliverance of the senses and whatever else has been swallowed up and buried in oblivion.
Augustine’s proposition of memory as a journey plays nicely with Nolan’s writing for Bruce to climb out of the pit that is ahead of him. In this sequence, Bruce envisions the child making the climb through other’s memories, but is also propelled by his own. Here, Nolan and Augustine agree — memory is the means by which we make our ascent from the depths. Augustine draws on the idea of memory as a journey further in X.xi (17) wherein to learn is to regain something that was already “pushed into the background, as if in the most secret caverns.” Nolan displays a similar line of thought when Bruce begins to make his ascension out of the pit. While Bruce is propelled by his own individual memories to return to Gotham, he is only able to make the climb because of the memory of another, rather because of a collective memory. Perhaps, Nolan offers a less mystical proposition than what Platonic or Augustinian ideals might have otherwise indicated.
Throughout the film, Nolan is preoccupied with the collective, and this especially reinforced in the sequences that return to Gotham while Bruce is still away in prison. “The Batman” becomes an ideal rather than being confined to a singular person, and this is where Batman takes on a Christological nature. It is through Batman that Gotham finds salvation, but not without first ascribing to the Batman Ideal. Augustine writes on the ascension to God through Christ in Book VII. x (16),
When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being… And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity’, and heard as it were your voice from on high: ‘ I am in the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me int you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’
In his vision, God beckons Augustine to ascend through the Christ Ideal in the same fashion that Christ teaches in John 6:54, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Like the Christological vision that Nolan casts for the Batman, humanity is called upon to enter eternal life through the Christ Ideal necessarily by his death.
Finally, St. Augustine offers counsel for encountering “beauty in lovely physical objects.” He writes, “Yet in the acquisition of all these… one must not depart from you, Lord nor deviate from you, Lord, nor deviate from your law. The life we live in this world has its attractiveness because of a certain measure in its beauty and its harmony with all these inferior objects that are beautiful.” Our encounter with beautiful things, like Nolan’s seminal work in The Dark Knight Trilogy, is, as our father reminds us, inferior to Beauty. Film offers an escape uncomparable to other mediums, and The Dark Knight Trilogy helps us to gain a living perspective from outside of our present tragedy. Its commentaries are more alive than most films before it, and Augustine’s wise counsel can help us to navigate the fearful realism that arises from the narrative of the Dark Knight.
St. Augustine of Hippo, translated by Henry Chadwick. Confessions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005. https://www.amazon.com/Batman-Begins-Christian-Bale/dp/B0014D6PCO/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=batman+begins&qid=1589312857&sr=8-1
The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Knight-Christian-Bale/dp/B001I189MQ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+dark+knight&qid=1589336288&sr=8-1
The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012. https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Knight-Rises-Christian-Bale/dp/B009LRE040/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+dark+knight+rises&qid=1589336319&sr=8-1