Wealth & Poverty Review Christian Theology in The Dark Knight Rises (spoiler alert)

I finally got the chance to see The Dark Knight Rises (in IMAX). It’s not at all a stretch to argue, as Andrew Klavan has done, that this is a fundamentally conservative film:

The movie is a bold apologia for free-market capitalism; a graphic depiction of the tyranny and violence inherent in every radical leftist movement from the French Revolution to Occupy Wall Street; and a tribute to those who find redemption in the harsh circumstances of their lives rather than allow those circumstances to mire them in resentment.

The politics in the film seem almost “snatched from the headlines” of recent Occupy Wall Street silliness. Thuggish protesters are mostly thuggish protestors. Cops are basically good guys.

The more interesting story, however, is how overtly Christian the film is, in the structural and symbolic sense. The Dark Knight (one of my all-time favorite movies) had some of this, what with the Man of Sorrows taking the blame for the sin of others, so that his Gotham might live in peace.

But The Dark Knight Rises is jam-packed with Christian and specifically Christological symbolism. And unlike most Hollywood fare, The Dark Knight Rises affirms that symbolism. These elements seem more fundamental to the film than the political elements.

Even at the surface, it’s a pretty Christian-friendly film. A Catholic boys’ home is an important part of the story. It is run by a nice, normal priest — the kind familiar to most Catholics but as rare as iridium in Hollywood productions. But the Christian themes go much farther than merely allowing a decent Christian or two in character roles. I do not know anything about the religious views of the Nolan brothers, or of Christopher Nolan’s wife and production partner, Emma Thomas. But there is absolutely no way that these theological elements are an accident.

When I got home from the theater, I went to the Internet to find some gripping, obsessive analysis of the theological symbolism in the film, but mostly came up empty.

I’m surprised and disappointed. I like to read such analyses, but don’t much like to write them. Since so little has been done along these lines, however, we have to start somewhere. I can’t do it justice, and I’ve only seen the film once. Still, I offer this quick reference to the Christian theological themes in The Dark Knight Rises, in the hope that someone else will develop it more fully.

In The Dark Knight, Batman took the blame for the murder of Harvey Dent, so that Gotham would have a noble hero. Seven years later, at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, crime is almost vanquished from Gotham. But it is built on a noble lie, and that lie is unsustainable.

  1. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a villain who simply “wants to watch the world burn.” Chaos for chaos’s sake. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane (Tom Hardy) is not merely a terrorist. He is the accuser. He is the (presumed) son of Ra’s al Ghul (“Demon’s head” — though we learn late in the movie that he is actually the protector of Ra’s al Ghul’s child), and comes to pronounce death and judgment on the people of Gotham for their “corruption.” Although he was reportedly excommunicated from League of Shadows, Bane is the apotheosis of the League’s merciless and punitive “true justice.”
  2. Selena Kyle/Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) is the struggling and double-minded sinner who seeks a “clean slate” in which all of her sins can be erased so she can start anew. The “clean slate” takes the form of a computer program that can scrub international crime databases of one’s criminal record.
  3. There is a strikingly literal descent into the pit for Batman–no doubt a parallel to the bat-infested pit into which the young Bruce Wayne fell as a child, and from which he was rescued by his father. Besides this descent into “hell,” there is also a literal ascent in which the captives are freed. The same is true only slightly less literally for the thousands of Gotham police officers.
  4. There is a Judas character, a trusted friend who betrays Batman at a moment of vulnerability.
  5. The one theme I’ve anticipated since I first saw The Dark Knight is a substitutionary sacrifice: Batman would ultimately sacrifice his life for the people of Gotham. He even disappears in a cloud, albeit a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion.
  6. Significantly, Commissioner Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) reads the closing line of A Tale of Two Cities at Bruce Wayne’s funeral: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some reviewers have noted the role of Dickens’ novel in The Dark Knight Rises, but don’t seem to connect the Dickens passage (and so Batman) to another Man who spoke similar words and laid down his life for others. I’m quite certain that the this is no accident, even if most reviewers have missed it.
  7. Another Christian theme I did not anticipate is that the Nolans would find a way to include a sort of resurrection to new life. The two aspects of the main protagonist–Batman and Bruce Wayne–provided a satisfying way to do this. And since it was Batman/Bruce Wayne who gave Selena Kyle/Catwoman her clean slate, it was appropriate that she too should enjoy new life with Wayne.
  8. This is more subtle, but with all the Christological imagery, it’s tempting to see in the outstretched arms/wings of the Batman symbol emblazoned on the city’s only remaining bridge to safety a reflection of another pair of outstretched arms on another “bridge” to safety.
  9. Finally, the film is called The Dark Knight Rises. Hello people! How has all this eluded so many reviewers? Is this the result of ignorance or intentional neglect?

Many reviewers have treated The Dark Knight Rises as less a work of genius than The Dark Knight. I disagree. The film is a magnificent conclusion to one of the greatest comic book adaptations in history.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.