Blog | More Than A Symbol – Jesus: The True and Better Batman, Part II | J.D. Bale
[SPOILER WARNING: Dark Knight Rises is about substitutionary atonement. No but really, SPOILER WARNING]
Near the end of Dark Knight Rises a somber Jim Gordon preaches the last thoughts of Sydney Carton over a gravestone in the Wayne family cemetery.
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out… I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that [country] which I shall see no more… I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence… 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.”
I recognized the lines immediately, and reacted as I had when I first finished A Tale of Two Cities:
Since when was this a story about Jesus?
I grew up with Batman being more of a role model than my own dad. In all the years I spent reading stories about The World’s Greatest Detective, none ever came close to depicting my favorite vigilante as a saint, much less a messiah. Yet, with each new entry in the Dark Knight Trilogy it became increasingly clear that the mythology was evolving in that direction.
Traditionally Batman is a crime fighter. His parents are murdered by criminals so he spends his life fighting criminals. He is the protector of Gotham City and its people. He is an Old Testament judge—a Samson or a Gideon. In the Christopher Nolan’s treatment, fighting criminals is not enough. Bruce Wayne wants to attack the heart issue that breeds every kind of evil in his city.
A key scene in Batman Begins identifies the nature of this conflict. After years of wandering through the wilderness on a pilgrimage of sorts, not-yet-Batman explains his plan. “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol — as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Bruce Wayne believes that the “evil of his time” is Apathy. Gotham is a mess because the wealthy are careless and neglect the needs of the downcast. The neglected become “criminals” in order to survive. Those responsible for protecting the innocent are apathetic toward their plight and manipulate the Law for their own benefit.
In short, Gotham is a city without love– brotherly or otherwise.
So Batman, in love with his city and hoping to redeem it, seeks to awaken its citizens to Truth and Justice. He is not only a judge/protector, but a priest and prophet—a literal “Caped Crusader,” evangelizing with his fists, one punch at a time.
Bruce Wayne’s plan doesn’t have quite the effect he anticipated. So, much like the prophet Samuel, Batman sets out to become a king-maker. He anoints Harvey Dent to become the embodiment of his ideals and lead Gotham to salvation. Harvey Dent is worthy because he worships the same gods that Batman does—Truth and Justice. But he is still just a man, and much like Samuel’s chosen kings (Saul and David), Harvey Dent fails. The Dark Knight makes it clear that one man is not enough to change the city. Leadership is not the issue.
Again, Batman’s plan is not working out, and as the third film opens, the would-be messiah is having a crisis of faith. Loving the city is not enough. Even when Bruce Wayne forsakes the Truth and lies to preserve the false idol he had created in Harvey Dent, the city doesn’t change. The illusion of prosperity looms larger, but the reality of corruption goes even deeper. Somehow he made it worse for trying.
Batman finally realizes that if the city is ever going to be fixed, he is going to have to do it himself. The city needs one man to be High Priest and King. When Batman attempts to become that man he is betrayed, broken, and abandoned—cast down into “Hell.” Again he fails. Gotham couldn’t be saved. It wouldn’t be saved.
In his fall he comes to know real despair—hopelessness. But then he remembers what his father taught him, and the head knowledge finally sinks into his heart. “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Batman realizes that the people will never stop “falling down.” It’s just what people do. They don’t need the inspiration of an incorruptible symbol. They need an example of a man who gets up when he falls down.
The Dark Knight Rises concludes with the fulfillment of that vision. Batman overcomes all odds and sacrifices himself for a people that scorned him for nearly a decade. Even as he dies he preaches his message: “A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hasn’t ended.”
That is the “good news” of The Dark Knight Trilogy. “I climbed out of a pit of despair so that I could help you. Be like me. Help each other in learning to persevere. That is how you guys can save Gotham.”
Thanks for the statue. Wish me well as I enjoy Europe with Anne Hathaway. The End.
But it’s not the end. As inspiring as his final* act was, it didn’t change the city. Batman didn’t save Gotham, he just stopped one act of terrorism. Inspiration doesn’t kill apathy, it just punches it in the face. Sure, for a while his example might remind people of what they are capable of… on a good day. But it doesn’t change the fact that on most days people still suck.
The story ends on a high note, a fantasy fit for comic books and summer blockbusters. But if you apply the message to the real world, the message is a lie.
Batman is not the messiah. The world needs more than an inspiring example. They need Jesus.
Jesus is the True and Better Batman. According to Christopher Nolan, they had a lot in common. Both devoted their lives to figuring out how to save their people. Both preached a message and lived it out. Both endured many trials for the ones they loved.
But Jesus is better than Batman not only because he actually exists, but because he really died (sorry Dan Brown, no escaping with Mary) and then picked himself up.
The Gospel says that Jesus knows His people can’t be inspired to save themselves, so he does the work for them.
Jesus has a City of His own, and sometimes it looks too much like Gotham (Revelation 3:15-16, Zaphaniah 1:12-13, and 2 Timothy 4:3-4 for starters). It is filled with unwise, corrupt, and apathetic criminals who have nothing to gain from Justice.
But Jesus loves to save His city and justify its people. It starts with preaching and leading by example. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2)– Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die (Revelation 3:12). Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
And when the preaching isn’t enough to inspire His people to righteousness, Jesus takes on the punishment that all his beloved criminals deserve. He doesn’t just rescue them from their sins, He atones for them:
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:23-25
Jesus, not Batman, is the Crusading Judge, Wise Prophet, Holiest of Holy High Priests, and Glorious King– all in one. He is the Messiah.
He loves His people and is faithful when they are not.
And as His people, we are inspired by the symbol of The Cross not because it offers a false hope that we can ever do anything similar, but because it reassures us that even when we fall, Jesus is ready to save. Even in Gotham we have hope because of what Jesus has already done.
Why do we fall? So that God can be glorified in empowering Jesus to pick us up.
Finally, Jesus is the True and Better Batman because His plan was in place from The Beginning.
And it worked on the first try.