We are at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy where we also find a reconnection with the beginning. In typical superhero stories the superpowers of the heroes and of the villains can be seen as allegories for mental and psychological strengths. Batman and his opponents on the other hand have no superpowers and therefore Nolan can be more explicit that the battles, although they do fight with their guns and fists, are really battles of their psyches. Batman’s greatest strength lies in he his understanding and mastering of his own fears, which he learned at his training with The league of shadows in the first movie.
“To conquer fear, you must become fear. You must bask in the fear of other men, and men fear most what they cannot see.””
With these insights he can fight the criminals with psychological warfare, he knows his own shadow and can thus embody the criminal’s worst fears – when you enter the darkness you enter the home of the Dark knight and you will lose.
The villains of the three movies, Ra’s Al Ghul, The Joker and Bain, however, all master these aspects. Ra’s Al Ghul was the one who trained Batman, the Joker was unpredictable with his fearlessness and total irrationality, and Bain has a background of his own, so let’s take a closer look at him. While Bruce Wayne was born in a loving and wealthy home and started his journey into the dark after losing his parents, Bain has been molded by darkness. He is nothing other than darkness and has the edge of Batman who also seems to enter the fight for his own ego’s sake.
Bain is Gotham’s shadow, he literarily rules from the underworld, Gotham’s sewers. Anyone who tries to enter and hunt him down finds himself in hell, which is by the way not the place of ultimate pain but rather the place of no hope, and of course Bane’s home. And at a certain point hell gets unleashed and with that all that has been swept under the rug during the last years of successful ridding the streets from criminal elements.
When taking control over Gotham city Bain argues that he is really starting a “people’s” revolution against a corrupt system governed by the rich elite which he is bringing into a people’s court. Nolan touches on many issues of concern in today’s debate, such as the Occupy movement protesting against the one percent but not really knowing what to replace the current system with or sometimes naively thinking that just overthrowing it will solve everything and all will live in harmony. But there will always be someone with power in charge, which is a lesson from e.g. the Russian, Cuban or even the French revolution.
Bain claims to be one of the people, one of the 99 percent, and uses this green (or Kohlberg stage 4/5) rhetoric, but in reality he is just another red warlord using the rigged court and unrest as a demonstration that Gotham really is rotten from within and deserves abolition.
Amongst other themes in the Dark knight rises we also find the theme of meaning and self-sacrifice, and here is a useful lesson to be learned. A meaningful act, in contrast to an egoistic, is when you do something or fill a role not for your own sake but for the sole benefit of others. Meaningfulness in this sense is giving everything without expecting anything back. And sometimes this act can require breaking the law and becoming a vigilante, which would be the post-conventional move if there is a greater good (But what does this say about The league of shadows?).
It is, however, easy to confuse this meaningfulness with self-importance, when you have defined yourself and identified with the role of the hero or savior and find that more important than to actually do good. That’s when the role has become your ego. A useful question is if you could imagine giving the role of the savior for someone else that might do a better job.
And not being afraid to die can mean that you really have conquered all your shadows and fears. But it can also mean that you actually don’t care about and choose not to get attached to anything, perhaps in fear of losing it. Freedom from fear and attachments is not the answer to everything. In order to fight pure darkness and fight for your life, perhaps you need both. And getting them might require to unconditionally loving what you fight for.
Finally, it is interesting to note is that clean energy, and with that a sustainable fossil free future, used as a weapon certainly has made its way into American mainstream popular culture, here in The dark knight rises but also previously in The Avengers and even in Disney/Pixar’s Cars II.