The Dark Knight Isn’t a Hero

By: Vishesh Dewan,

National University of Singapore

As I listened to the Batman Begins theme (Eptesicus) during my morning walk/jog, with the Dark Knight Rising in 3 days, I began to wonder why exactly I have such a vested interest in this movie, or rather Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman movie franchise. I’m endlessly playing Reagan Fabry’s  13 minute long piano cover of the ‘Dark Knight’ on my piano, even reading the batman comics which unfortunately I wasn’t too interested in or exposed to as a kid. Is it because of the goose bump giving, soul-moving musical compositions of Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s phenomenal direction with IMAX cameras, fabulous screenplay and effects, an engaging dynamically realistic storyline or the fantastic performances by the actors? Definitely yes,  but I feel it’s also because the entire story has a subtle, fundamental connection to the lives of ordinary people living out in the ‘real’ world.

 We first come across Bruce Wayne in Batman begins as a boy when he’s playing in his mansion’s garden with his friend, Rachel. It would appear to the commons that he is blessed with the perfect dream life, of being able satisfy any desires or wants without literally having to work a day in his life. Yet, his story is a classic example of how tragedy and turmoil can befall even the wealthiest and mightiest at the drop of a hat. And, through glimpses of Bruce Wayne’s life as he grows into adulthood, we can see he gets more and more detached from his wealth and fame, of which we can find direct evidence in instances, such as when he tells his butler ‘I don’t care about my name’. In fact, I think that (excessive) materialistic wealth can serve to have a disillusioning or disorienting effect on a person, especially if he/she wasn’t the one who created it in the first place through hard work and ingenuity. An itch to find a higher calling, an unquenchable desire to search for meaning; a fundamental human characteristic, according to the Viktor Frankl school of thought, as opposed to the Freudian hedonistic outlook) sets in much earlier on than normal people, which could be just as frustrating as the inaccessibility to resources and dearth of means, be it physical, mental, financial, or social, can be for a person. We see this reflected in Wayne’s character as he returned to his former life after a span of nearly a decade, when he asks his butler ‘So what does a guy like me do with his money and time?’ Bruce Wayne’s life story shows just how superficially materialism can turn out to shape a person’s life sometimes juxtaposed with other more subtle factors, contrary to popular societal notion.

After his parents’ deaths, we see how his remaining childhood is affected through grief and his perceived guilt about being partly responsible for their deaths, transforms him into an angry, vengeful character, still keenly keeping himself updated on the fate of the thief who murdered his parents, after all years having passed by. We see beneath his cultured and seemingly normal appearance the signs of a rash, and a tad juvenile person hell bent on revenge, as seen in the instance when he reveals his plan of shooting his parents’ murderer in a public hearing at a court of law. He is undoubtedly unable to comprehend the clichéd saying ‘Justice isn’t about vengeance’, a deceptively complex idea which ordinary 20 year old youngsters such as me and even mature adults I’m sure would fail to truly understand and appreciate.

After being thoroughly disapproved of by the closest person he had (Rachel) we see a resemblance of defiance awaken within young Bruce Wayne’s character.  A questioning arises of accepted realities, of established ways of the world, of perceived truths. What many of us do tend to do, especially as youngsters growing up in a world which all the ‘grown up’ people never fail to point out is too complex to grasp in entirety. You know, issues like why or how a country could be able to produce more food than it needs and yet lets hundreds of thousands of people starve or go hungry, in the case of my country. In his case it was primarily it was realities such as known criminals thriving openly under the noses of supposed law enforcers, or why criminals are able to prey on the fearful with such ease. We see him walk up to biggest criminal mastermind in the city and tell him that he wasn’t a person who was intimidated by thugs. Sure enough, he was pointed out at being an idiot and ridiculed for his naivety, his lack of careful and meticulous thinking (when he said that he wasn’t afraid because he didn’t have anything to lose), and his inability to understand the workings and ugliness of the world from the exalted position that he occupied in society as a billionaire. He was humiliated by being told mocking accounts of his parents’ cowardice before their deaths, beaten up for good measure and unceremoniously dumped on the filthy porch by henchmen.

Fast forward 7 years, and we see a rugged looking Bruce Wayne breaking arms and legs of his fellow prison mates for ‘practice’ in the harsh living conditions of a Siberian prison.  After running away and becoming a homeless vagabond, we see him taking on to petty thievery in order to feed himself so he wouldn’t starve. We see how he immerses himself deeper into the shady underworld, and start associating himself and partaking in committing felony with more and more dangerous and daring criminals throughout the world. Yet, coming back to the point at which we see him being dragged away to solitary confinement after laying waste to six thugs, we see that, whatever his intentions were initially, that he had , as Ducard elegantly put it, ‘become truly lost’. I think I could relate to the frame of mind he had at this point of his life as although I’m just 20, I’ve already had periods in my life when I agonize over what in the world I was doing with my life for hours at a time in frustration. I do not doubt the fact that I will these moments in my future as well, or rather that anybody else will feel the same at some point in his/her life as well; we are the same species after all. Then something happened to him that I would equate to what we popularly say, ‘catching a break’. He met a man who looked promising as a mentor, a person who could offer and guide him through a path towards something he greatly desired and more importantly which seemed to be tangibly achievable. And Bruce Wayne latched on to that opportunity and utterly devoted his mind, body and soul to man and that path. I refer to, in case you were wondering, learning about the clandestine ways of the League of Shadows.

I’d like to mention here that although Bruce was undertaking what would be like extreme monk like training or something where complete obedience and submission of will and thought to another person  (i.e. the master)were expected, Bruce continued to operate within his own framework of thought and views constructed over the years of personal experience and influence he’d had in his life; so true did he stand by those views that it led him to risk his life pitting himself against the very people who’d trained him and leaving the place after having it set on fire during his bid to escape. In a way, I see this as a lesson for not being afraid to build and standby your own views, be they of any nature, irrespective of whichever prestigious institution, person, etc. you may choose to affiliate yourself with.

I’d like to briefly touch upon the theme of fear that has been stressed upon in a myriad ways throughout the movie, which has undoubtedly been discussed at length in articles in the past. More than the raw, almost surrealistic fear that grips you when you have a gun pressed against your temple by a homicidal psychopath, it’s the subtle and sometimes even unnoticeable self induced fear a person’s mind has the ability to create that can gradually have a stifling or paralysing effect on the person no medicine or antidote can hope to reverse; indeed, when taken to the extreme (as demonstrated by the fictitious fear inducing weaponized hallucinogen in the movie), the paranoia and delusional state it can cause a person to be trapped in. Such fear can be subtle and hard to identify, it could be our fear of our own perceived shortcomings and weaknesses, of personal loss, our character, of perceived societal status or image, our desires, our ambitions, our judgement, of inevitable suffering and pending death, and even sometimes the very thought of failure itself. More than the physical brutality of Bruce Wayne’s training, the mental aspect was undoubtedly of more importance and given more emphasis; each day he had to confront his own personal fears while learning how to manipulate those of others simultaneously; we see that he is only granted membership to the league of shadows only after he showcased his developed mental armory by being able to function and fight after being forced to inhale fear inducing fumes. His training not only helped him achieve instilling a sense of terror in his numerous foes (as batman) that no normal man would be able to accomplish, but helped him when he was poisoned with a highly concentrated version of a fear inducing hallucinogen. The essential point here is that we all have so much more potential within us which we could unleash if we devoted ourselves towards the noble and time worthy cause of coming to terms/ getting grips on our personal fears by actively seeking to confront it and try dispelling it rather than choosing to seek comfort and safe haven from it. On another note, the fact that Bruce is able to endure his training and reach his goal is no small thanks to the emotions of guilt and anger he harbored within himself; besides his natural aptitude, we can see how potent a fuel human emotion can be, such as externally or even self-directed anger, when properly channeled and harnessed in striving towards a significant goal or ideal.

Fast forward one year from the events of the Batman Begins and we see Bruce Wayne doing exactly what most of us try to rationalize or excuse ourselves from, i.e. making a difference or a mark as an individual. The possibility of escalation which was initially suggested by Lieutenant Jim Gordon a year ago is fully realized in this film (it’s the central idea behind the Joker’s ‘Why so Serious’ musical score, along with the elements of anarchy and chaos of course), with both sides of good and evil refusing to blink first. Poignant moments reflecting this theme are Bruce telling his butler in full view of his bruised body that ‘Batman has no limits’. As batman he was tested to his absolute rational limit; he is seen to grow harsher and more violent with criminals as he saw his allies and friends fall one by one (throws Maroni off a small building to break his legs), and by god, if it wasn’t madness and bloodthirstiness in his eyes when he was in the interrogation room with the Joker after realizing that Rachel was in danger of losing her life, then I don’t know what madness and blood thirstiness is. We see this attitude reflected in both the characters in the movie; the Joker in his face to face talk with the Batman says he knows that things could not return to how they were before the Batman made his mark. I quote ‘what would I do without you?! Go back to ripping off mob dealers?? No, no, no!!!’ And Batman himself, who keeps trying to convince himself that he is fighting injustice and crime until a person can come along who can take on the mantle of the city’s foremost champion of the law in a legitimate manner, so he could go back to having a normal life. By normal life of course, he bet it all on Rachel, out of his love for her, but after her death even that possibility of an alternative meaning to life that he hoped for, however minute it seemed, was well and truly taken away from him. Rachel seemed to have seen through his false hope before even he had, when she left him a note before she died, saying that she would be there for him as a friend the day when Gotham no longer needed Batman, but she wondered if that day would come after he wouldn’t need Batman to carry on in life. I feel that Bruce Wayne was trying to use the concept of Batman as a means of obtaining catharsis, some sort of emotional and spiritual cleansing of his troubled and turmoil embroiled past which would leave a sense of accomplishment and a measure of inner peace, but in the end it seems that he grew into using Batman itself as a pseudo catharsis whilst waiting for some external event such as the complete breakdown of organized crime in the city, to occur for attaining the emotional release. Now I am not a psychologist, but does this seem familiar amongst long term drug addicts or substance abusers?

From these observations in the movie, I can hope to draw two lessons, well at least for myself. One, is that perhaps some sort of ceaseless conflict, however small or large it may be and whatever nature it might be, whether physical, or mental or societal, perhaps your relationships, etc. may not necessarily be a bad thing because it may just be the one thing that could keep you functioning properly or keeping your sanity along certain periods of life. And secondly, and this probably is the most affecting points for me personally, is the theme of endurance. Batman, I feel is an epitome of endurance. He is incredibly burdened with his past, and his present keeps piling on the emotional baggage; he is stigmatized as an outlaw publicly, he is seen to be a freak amongst law enforcers, an outsider; the loneliness of his past is amplified in his night time avatar (quote: Batman to Rachel in the first movie “I don’t have the luxury of friends”),  he is forced to let innocent civilians be targeted and killed for not revealing his identity and dropping his cause, he is antagonized by an entire city of people, he is partly responsible for the love of his love being blown up into hundreds of bits and to cap it all, publicly condemned for taking responsibility of deaths of law officers, covering up for the deeds of the mentally broken Harvey Dent. And yet he endures through all of this, after believing (or having being made to believe by the likes of his butler and Harvey Dent) that he was making the right choices, and was doing the right thing, and that it would lead to something better in the long run both for people and for himself. It was never more than just a hope, hanging on by a strong, stretched to the snapping point on more than one occasion. From his example I can infer that perhaps the best a person can do to overcome his (or her, kindly consider me talking about both the sexes while I’m using only a single gender in the following pronouns) past (and even present for that matter) is to try and endure things that come his way as well as he can, possibly by devoting himself to a cause that is worthy or even bigger than him.

The Dark Knight isn’t a hero. Batman is a symbol, a thought, an idea, a legacy who could evoke fear in the hearts of the hardiest wrong doers and reduce them into mewling kittens and simultaneously inspire seemingly ordinary people to be and do things that they’d think were beyond their wildest dreams. And yet, strangely he is so quintessentially humanistic, it’s absolutely vexing how he is able to achieve this.  I say this because he is so full of contradictions and mixed feelings, as we all are. He is seen to firmly believe in his philosophy and mission, yet is seen to be constantly faced with self-doubt throughout . We see he is incapacitated sometimes as is literally carried on by the support, care and love of the likes of Alfred (we see instances such as when Alfred reminds Bruce of his father’s words while Bruce was shell shocked over the burning flames engulfing his house and the danger Gotham was facing “Why do we fall Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up” and when Bruce asks him over his tears ‘You still haven’t given up on me, have you?” he always replies with a grin “Never!”). He is lonely, and torn between having the woman he loves and keeping her away from him for her safety. He is not invulnerable, like Marvel’s ‘The Man of Steel’, and he never hints that he is completely fearless, but realizes that he could make up for his formidable yet limited physical prowess against hordes of criminals by engaging in mind games using ‘theatricality and deception’, brilliant detective work and a little help from state of the art technology. He isn’t a glory seeker, in the typical ‘hero’ sense, because we can see the contradiction between Batman’s public image and his true inner character.  Throughout the Dark Knight, he’s seen as an outlaw, with no concern for public property (the way he blows his way through cars, etc.), as a selfish man who rejects any sort of help from well-meaning civilians seeking to aid him, as a cold and unfeeling character who lets people die just to keep his own identity safe, and finally as a person who broke his own rule of not taking the law into his own hands and killing people, including law enforcers. He is effectively seen as a villain (“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain) towards the end of the movie, but yet, it is at the end that his true character is revealed to the audience who’s had a third person view of his character throughout.  He is actually the foremost champion of law and order, ‘truly incorruptible’ as said by the Joker, a steadfast upholder of justice, a highly sensitive man to the psyches of men and women, an incredibly strong believer in the inherent goodness of mankind, civilian or criminal alike when he himself was immersed neck deep in a world that seemed to be going to the dogs with every passing day, a person who had a great love and had to put the enormous grief of personal loss  behind him for the sake of ungrateful and hateful others, a person who valued friends such as Lucius Fox, Alfred, Rachel), and not to say the least, the ultimate example of self-sacrifice, when he decided to sacrifice his own reputation for the sake of Harvey Dent’s.

The reason why I’m so interested to know what will happen to Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s recreation is simple (I’m refraining from watching it until I can see it in IMAX in Singapore, first week August!!!). The Dark Knight isn’t a hero; he is something much, much more.

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