(this post also appears at Subculture for the Cultured)
(By the way, before this post, let me put in a plug for my friend Johann Roduit, who has submitted an entry to have his thesis illustrated. His entry is entitled, Becoming a Superhero:The Ethics of Human Enhancement and the Ideal Self, and can be found at PhD Comics.)
Welcome back fellow heroes!
Before we go on, this is a piece on The Dark Knight Rises and the ethics surrounding the end of the movie. You’ve seen the movie by now, right? If you, for whatever reason, plan to see this movie without spoilers, you shouldn’t read this. The main ethical dilemma arises at the end of the movie, and that’s what we’re discussing. Still here? Good.
Viewed from a wholly practical point of view, Batman’s final decision in The Dark Knight Rises is as irrational as they come. At first glance he “sacrifices” himself in the classic, desperate hero’s death in order to save the city, so forgetting a few loose ends can be forgiven. But wait, he survives? He’s right there in Italy with Anne Hathaway the whole time? Well, then his action was premature. Did he forget that Bane and Scarecrow are still on the loose? Did he leave the city with no bridge for supplies and no source of law and order beyond a depleted police force? Why did he turn over the persona of Batman, a role he filled after years of training, to an ex-cop with no training or experience outside of the police academy? If Wayne needed to quit being Batman, fine, but he left plenty undone.
But there’s something else here. As Jim Emerson said, “when a movie shows blatant disregard for story logic, it may be a (bat-)signal that it means to be read on some other level. That’s definitely the case here. On the level of plot, it’s as preposterous and irrational as any of its predecessors, maybe more. But Nolan is more interested in implanting thematic ideas — even if he doesn’t do anything with them.” So what other themes are present in Nolan’s story? What common threads can be pulled together to make something that makes sense?
Comparing the struggles of the protagonist and the antagonist yields a helpful parallel. Wayne has spent the last several years as a recluse, and on his dresser are two sets photos, one of his parents and one of his dead love, Rachel Dawes. These two sets of characters led Wayne to withdraw from society and essentially stop his life. Wayne never finished college due to his plan to murder his parents’ murderer, and once his chance to avenge his parents was taken from him, he kept their memory close. But recall Alfred’s hope: that he would see Wayne, living a life far away, in a healthy relationship and maybe even with children. But Wayne could not have that, not so long as the memory of his parents’ death consumed him. Wayne sought to stop his parents’ death retroactively, by becoming a symbol.
Now consider the primary antagonist (major spoiler!): Talia al Ghul (aka Miranda Tate, aka that crazy lady from Inception). She’s trying to blow up Gotham, mostly to fulfill the dreams of her father, Ra’s al Ghul. She changes her identity, sleeps with he hated enemy, and lives the life of deception, only to fulfill her father’s life work: the destruction of Gotham.
Wait, we see a trend. Is this movie about the dreams of the characters’ fathers?
The movie is not the story of Bruce Wayne’s heroic sacrifice: as we’ve already established, for Wayne, there is no sacrifice. This is a story about growing up. Bruce never grew past the night his family died, and his only attempt to grow further through a relationship with Rachel was cut short by her death and Alfred refusing to share the she had chosen someone else. Afterwards, Bruce never formed new, trusting relationships outside of being Batman, and he never developed new interests and skills. Batman wasn’t a means of progress: he was a roadblock to Wayne’s growth. Batman existed to exacerbate the pain of Bruce’s losses over and over again. Wayne became Batman at the cost of becoming an adult.
- Emotionally, nearly the entire trilogy takes place at this moment.
Gaining practical experience and becoming more mature is referred to in ethics as gaining phronesis—moral or practical wisdom. This is why the generosity of adults usually does more good than the generosity of children- because the adult knows how to effectively use charity and good intentions, while the child may do more harm than good. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Aristotle makes a number of specific remarks about phronesis that are the subject of much scholarly debate, but the (related) modern concept is best understood by thinking of what the virtuous morally mature adult has that nice children, including nice adolescents, lack. Both the virtuous adult and the nice child have good intentions, but the child is much more prone to mess things up because he is ignorant of what he needs to know in order to do what he intends.
Which brings us to back to Batman: Batman allowed Wayne to express the remorse of his parents’ death, but stopped his path to gaining more phronesis. Batman then died, so Wayne could live.
As a sort of proof, the scene in which Bruce escapes the well is full of references to Wayne’s father. When Bruce first encountered the bats, it was at the bottom of a well. He was rescued by his father, who both asked him “Why do we fall down? So we can learn to get back up” and told him “Don’t be afraid”, the exact two phrases he needed to escape. So once again, metaphorically, Bruce’s father allows him to escape a prison of his fear. Exiting the well indicated that Wayne finally learned the lessons his father tried to impart years before.
Moreover, Batman also allowed Wayne to do something he was never able to do as Batman, fulfill the legacy of his father. Thomas Wayne was the symbol Batman always strove to be: the first movie specified that Thomas Wayne’s death galvanized the fight against poverty which saved the city from the League of Shadow’s original assault. Batman repeated the act: through his sacrifice, Batman not only repelled the attack of the League twice, but he also became the symbol the city needed: evidenced by a statue in city hall. Batman’s “death” allowed Bruce to do the thing being Batman could never do: live up to the sterling reputation of his father, then move on with life and raise a family.
That’s why this movie is entitled The Dark Knight Rises. Batman finally rises to become the symbol Bruce wanted him to be-by dying. And, of course, Wayne is now able to move past his parents’ death and, as all children must do, leave his parents’ shadow and start a new life. Having emulated his parents’ work as Batman, Bruce is free grow, not as Batman, but as an ordinary hero, living life one day at a time, gaining phronesis and growing towards a happiness and a well being, a “happiness worth striving for” referred to as eudaimonia by many neo-Aristotelian philosophers.
Hence, Batman’s sacrifice at the end of TDKR may have been somewhat premature. But, once all the villains are defeated, Batman also won the fight to free Wayne from the past, a victory both spectacular as well as long, long overdue.