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Still Another Cinematic Christ

August 15, 2012


In one way or another, all religions deal with the problem of evil, both how to explain it and how to solve it. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all life is suffering and that the only way out is through the extinction of egotistic desire, that “blowing out of the candle,” designated by the Sanskrit word nirvana. All of Buddhist practice, theory and doctrine are devoted to the attainment of this blissful state. Manichaeism and Gnosticism—ancient theories still very much alive today—teach that evil is a powerful force that does battle with good down through the ages. Usually, but not always, Gnostics tend to identify the good principle with the spiritual and the evil principle with matter. A variant on the Manichaean philosophy is represented in the “Star Wars” films, which feature an ongoing struggle between the dark and light sides of the “Force.” Judaism understands evil as the result of a departure from God’s command and tends to see the solution, therefore, as a more faithful following of the divine law. 

All four of these approaches are operative in our culture, though often in disguised form. But the most dominant is still, despite the increasing secularism of our time, the Christian proposal, namely, that the problem of evil is solved only through an act of self-emptying love on the part of a savior. The Gospels are certainly interested in the teachings of Jesus, but they are primarily concerned with the strange act that took place at the end of his life, a sacrifice by which the sins of the world were taken away. Throughout his public career, Jesus provoked opposition, for his words and deeds put him at odds with the standard manner of thinking and acting. This opposition came to a climax when Jesus, around the year 30, entered the Holy City of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Betrayal, denial, stupidity, violence, cruelty, institutional injustice, and just plain hatred massively came at him. Read the still compelling Passion Narratives in any of the Gospels for the details. The culmination of this assault was his execution at the hands of the Roman occupying power. They nailed him to a cross, employing a peculiarly brutal method of torture that the Romans had perfected. In the face of all of this punishing darkness, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Like an animal offered in the Temple, Jesus took upon himself the sins and dysfunction of others, and by his self-emptying love, took them away. The efficacy of this move was ratified three days later when the now-risen Jesus, still bearing his wounds, said to his frightened and guilt-ridden disciples, “Shalom” (Peace). What the first Christians felt—and you can sense it on practically every page of the New Testament—is that Jesus, through that terrible cross, had deflected evil from them, suffered so that they wouldn’t have to suffer. 

I went into this in some detail in order to make explicit what is so often implicit in the popular culture, especially in the West. Consciously or not, the archetype of Christ the Savior still haunts the imaginations of our writers, critics, philosophers, and especially our filmmakers. The most recent instance of this is the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” 

As this third film in the Batman trilogy opens, we find Bruce Wayne a broken man, both physically and psychologically, still bearing the terrible wounds of his struggle with evil some eight years before. After initial hesitation, he resolves to don his Batsuit and re-enter the lists, since a new and especially menacing figure, Bane, has emerged to threaten Wayne’s beloved Gotham City. A graduate of the same quasi-monastic school of fighters that had shaped the Dark Knight, Bane is not only physically overpowering but also morally bankrupt, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his destructive ends. Having been facially disfigured as a young man, he also sports a mechanized mouthpiece that makes him sound like a combination of Darth Vader and Sean Connery. In a word, he is a particularly effective symbol of the evil that darkens the human heart. As the culmination of his assault on Gotham City, Bane has arranged for the detonation of a neutron bomb. Much of the drama of the second half of the film is generated by Batman’s race against time to deal with both Bane and his bomb. 

At this juncture, I have to issue a spoiler alert. To make my point, I have to give away the end of the movie. Things are so desperate that the only way for the city to be saved is for Batman to use his specialized plane to tow the nuclear device out to sea. Since there is no autopilot on the vehicle, Batman will have to sacrifice himself in order to protect Gotham. Only an act of love, even love unto death, will avert cataclysmic suffering, and Batman is willing to perform that act. 

The solution to suffering proposed by this film is not a shift in consciousness, not the extinction of desire, not the correct following of the law, and not a direct confrontation with evil. It is, instead, a heroic act of love on the part of a savior willing to take upon himself the dysfunction that he fights. And this makes Batman, unavoidably, an icon of Christ.