(or, watching Batman with Richard Rohr, Mike Breen, and Mark Stibbe.)
Life is a game played in two halves, not necessarily of equal length, with many people sitting out the second half – and even much of the first – on the bench. The primary goal of the first half is to discover who we are; the primary goal of the second half is to give ourselves back – to God, to our neighbour – in such a way that extends the reach of life: for only our true self is a worthy offering. It would appear that experiencing both love and success is key to discovering who we are (Scripture is full of such stories). But such love and success need to be released from our grip if we are even to start the second half of life, and this is so scary to us that only failure can open us to the purpose of knowing ourselves, to give ourselves back. This is what the Bible describes as dying to self, by which the Christian tradition does not mean obliteration of the self but the transformation of the self by the power that rose Jesus from the dead; that will one day rise us from death; and of which it is possible to experience that future breaking into our present, but only by moving from the end of the first half and into the second. The delight of resurrection life, which can only be known on the other side of death, is that the love and success we dared let go of have not deserted us.
The Dark Knight Rises, the final part in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is a film concerned with the transition from the first half of life to the second.
It is eight years since Bruce Wayne moth-balled the Batman project, having chosen for Batman to take responsibility for the murders committed by Harvey Dent rather than allow the population of Gotham to lose the hope they had placed in their crusading District Attorney before Dent’s tragic turning. Moreover, Wayne has moth-balled a nuclear-fusion project for creating clean renewable energy, into which he had invested half his fortune, having discovered that it could be turned into a nuclear bomb. At the start of the film, Wayne has been living for some years as a recluse, shut off from the world. Having successfully invested his physical, intellectual and financial (and to a lesser degree relational and spiritual) capital into his identity – and I would suggest that Bruce Wayne/Batman is one identity, albeit that this is hidden – his resources are now spent or spurned.
Alongside the Wayne/Batman story, we meet Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Kyle has established herself as a successful cat-burglar, but is now looking for a shot at redemption. To this end she attempts to use her ability in exchange for a clean slate, stealing information in return for the promise of all records tracing back to her identity being wiped from any computer database.
When mercenary terrorist Bane turns up in Gotham, holding the city to nuclear blackmail, Wayne decides to bring back the Batman. He will seek to address the present crisis using the strategies and methods that served him well in the first half of life. His faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who became his surrogate father following the murder of his parents, cautions him against this. Alfred’s dream has always been to see Wayne embark on the second half of life – and to this end, the wise older man is prepared even to lose their relationship. Wayne, however, confronts Bane, who breaks his back – witnessed by Catwoman who, at Batman’s request, had led him to Bane – and transports him to the Pit, a prison designed to break the spirit through feeding despair by holding hope just beyond reach. But while Bane is right in recognising that despair is fed by the tantalising proximity of hope, he fails to realise that hope is fed by touching the pit of despair.
Wayne eventually escapes the Pit, not by relying on the methods that have served him well in the past, but by letting go of security, of the cord that ties us to what we know that we are capable of and what is beyond our reach. Returning to Gotham, he searches out Catwoman and offers her the clean slate she longs for, not as reward for her track-record but as opportunity to give herself to others regardless of what they might do with that gift: the very thing Wayne has had modelled to him by Alfred and now models to Selina Kyle. Kyle is now faced with the dilemma: having discovered her true self, through success that encounters failure, will she hold on to that self for herself, or offer it to and for others?
It is a risk with no guarantee – in their final confrontation we discover that Bane had laid his life down for another, only for them to be unable to respond in the same way; a loss too painful for Bane, who took up the broken pieces of his life to turn them against the world. This, of course, is the same temptation that faced Bruce Wayne – albeit that he had only gone as far as turning away from the world, and not yet against it – the key difference in their lives being the self-sacrificial faithfulness of Wayne’s adopted father, Alfred, and the sacrificing unfaithfulness of Bane’s father-figure (and Wayne’s erstwhile mentor) Ra’s al Ghul. If we are to dare to move beyond the first half of life, we will need not only the downward push of failure but also the faithfulness of a father who is prepared to send us out until we are ready, and actively wait to see us return – as the father does in one of Jesus’ most famous parables, and Alfred does in the cafe in Florence.
The trilogy concludes with Bruce and Selina leaving the first half of their lives behind – the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman half – in order to live the second half. What has been learned, as Batman reveals to Commissioner Gordon before ‘dying,’ is that anyone can be a hero – even the person (Sergeant Gordon) who puts a coat around the shoulders of a young boy who has lost his parents, to reassure him that this is not the end. The mistake of the first half of life is to believe that hope depends on the image of a hero that did not fall. The lesson that sends us into the second half of life is that true hope depends on ordinary people discovering themselves and offering up all of who they are – flawed, failing, even our best intentions having unforeseen consequences that will grieve us – fully, in every situation, to extend the reach of life, to give the gift of life. ‘Life’ is gifted on, to the orphan boys of Gotham City, to detective Blake, to Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred...modelled and entrusted, in hope that they will do the same.
Bruce Wayne is dead. Long live Bruce Wayne...