Today’s student essay continues the theme of contemporary messiahs, which we started looking at yesterday, and considers another superhero saviour – Batman – who has brought the American Monomyth to our screens. This fabulous essay is written by Ryan Costello, who has just completed his Bachelor of Commerce (majoring in marketing and management) here at the University of Auckland. Ryan originally hails from South Africa, and currently lives on Auckland’s North Shore. Next year, he plans to travel and work abroad, starting in the USA. His future plans include working in Human Resources and Management, and he hopes, ultimately, to start his own business. Ryan took our Bible and Popular Culture course after checking out our glowing reviews from previous years and on the recommendation of friends.
This is a wonderful essay, so we hope you enjoy it.
Gotham City: Batman, the Biblical Messiah and the American Monomyth
The concept of Messiahs links to the idea of an American-Monomyth, which is pop-culture’s modern day example of a secular western hero. Essentially, the monomyth acts as a substitute for Christ’s role, within a world where the idea of Christ is not present. A Messiah, on the other hand, is a Hebrew word associating with Jesus as an “anointed one” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 88). This essay will look at Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight Rises. It will be argued that Batman acts as a Messiah figure within his community of Gotham. This paper will start by discussing the notions of the American Monomyth, and the Biblical Messiah, as well as exploring Batman’s primary similarities to these figures. Then, I will analyse Batman as a leader of Gotham in contrast to the Biblical Messiah, and to the other Messianic figure in the text, Bane. Next, it will discuss how Batman saves Gotham from sin, and compare it to the American Monomyth. Finally, I will look at how Batman suffers and sacrifices himself for the people of Gotham, and contrast it with the Biblical Messiah and sacrificial theme in American Monomyth.
Batman is a modern day version of the Biblical Messiah within the film and incorporates many characteristics of an American Monomyth. The people of Gotham City had spent their days in fear. Fear of the crime that surrounded them. Fear of the new villains that would emerge. They had this fear until Batman (A.K.A. Bruce Wayne) arrived as their saviour from these villains and this crime. Bruce is Batman’s alter-ego who lives a normal life. He is motivated purely by his desire for justice in the city that he loves; which enables him to persist and never give up, regardless of the foe he faces. The idea of a Monomyth is derived from the Biblical Messiah and entails a “lonely, selfless” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 5) hero who saves a “terrorized community” (ibid) and then subsequently disappears. Batman departed from his community of Gotham to “undergo trials and later return to be integrated” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 6) back into the city as a saviour. He did this through training alongside the League of Assassins, just as the angels had ministered to Jesus in Matthew 4:11 (Kozlovic, 2016). Upon Batman’s return, he was “both in the world but not of the world” (Kozlovic 2004: 10). Batman is a Monomyth through being “distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 47). Although Gotham is known for its crime, it experiences some temporary harmony when Batman defeats the evil attempting to take over. Although he engages in violence, it is portrayed as being justified because it is to rid the city of sin. As an audience, we can accept his violence because we understand it is for the greater good of Gotham and that as a Messianic figure he knows how to lead his city (IMatrix Wiki, 2013).
Batman portrayed himself as a leader in Gotham City throughout the film, similar to that of Jesus the Messiah, the American Monomyth and Bane, the main villain in the movie. Batman can be seen to fight with Bane for the role of the Messiah figure in Gotham. “Gotham, take control… take control of your city. Behold, the instrument of your liberation! Identify yourself to the world!” Bane says this which results in him gaining more followers.
Batman’s leadership is also similar to that of the American Monomyth through leading “without paying the price of political relationships or responding to the preferences of the majority” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 48). Just like Jesus, Batman had followers; however, there were also those who despised him and sought to destroy him, even if he was helping them. Three of the main police figures within the film have names which make reference to the Bible. These being Jim Gordon, John Blake, and Peter Foley. These names refer to three of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles in the Bible; John, James, and Peter. These three key figures follow him and always believe in him and his ability to save the people of Gotham from all the evil in the city. In Matthew 14:25-29, Jesus walks on water. This act is similar to when Batman walked on Ice towards Jim Gordon (James), to save him and other police officers. This similarity shows the resemblance the figures of Jesus and Batman have to each other, especially in their leadership qualities. Through this leadership, Batman can defend his city from sin.
Batman challenged the sin of his city when no one else was willing or able to. He is a vigilante who, against the odds, manages to always save the day, yet still experiences persecution from those very people he saves (Kozlovic, 2004). In the Dark Knight Rises, Batman shows himself as someone who does not just forgive others’ sins but also takes the burden of sin away from them. He illustrates this through granting Catwoman her only true desire; to have a clean slate, so that all of her crimes could disappear. Batman did this through deleting her criminal record from the International Crime Database. He forgives her even though she betrayed him (Richards, 2012). He wiped away her sins similar to the way Jesus is said to forgive our sins in 1 John 1:9. Bruce faces temptation to sin through Catwoman telling him to leave the city with her and abandon the effort to save the city. However, he resists this temptation because his purpose is to protect the people of Gotham (Kozlovic, 2000). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days by the devil, to act selfishly with his powers, yet Jesus always resists this temptation as well (Matthew 4:1-11). Through vigilantism Batman can act beyond the law, and can reinstate justice within Gotham City when it faces violence and evil. In Batman, we see “elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002: 6).
Both Batman and Jesus were victorious over evil in their community. However, through Batman’s actions we can see flaws within the American Monomyth. Batman believes his actions are right no matter what they entail, which can raise questions about morality and ethics. He will do whatever it takes to achieve justice, but he is operating in the grey area between what is illegal and legal. He is already acting above the law, but is he above morality? Therefore, this shows that the only perfect Messiah is the Biblical one because Batman could not achieve justice without himself sinning. However, through Batman’s resurrection, he could rectify his wrongs, and bring new hope to his city.
Both Batman and Jesus experience some form of resurrection, which is one of the primary aspects of the Monomythic figure, which associates the Monomyth to Jesus, the Biblical Messiah. Although Bruce never died, his alter-ego Batman was gone for such a long period after being sent to the pit by Bane, that when he reappeared (rises), people viewed him as resurrected at a time when he was needed the most. Catwoman depicts a Mary Magdalene figure in the film after she is the first person to see Bruce after he returns from the pit, which symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, in Mark 16:9 (Babb, 2017; Kozlovic, 2004). There is a theory known as Christus Victor that states that through Jesus dying and being resurrected he was able to be triumphant over evil (Gunton, 1985; Kozlovic, 2004). Batman was only able to defeat Bane after he had experienced resurrection and a “rebirth” (Kozlovic, 2016: 17) of his superhuman-like power. It is almost as if Batman had a divine-like calling to the city, which would not allow him to fail in his mission to save the people of Gotham (Deacy, 1999). Kozlovic, 2016). At one point Batman instructs Gordon to light up his Bat Symbol – portraying him as coming back to life – which then gave Gotham new hope that the city could be saved because their Messiah had returned (Caro, 2012). The Batman symbol acts as a cross-like symbol which the people of Gotham look at for hope (Kozlovic, 2004). Therefore, Batman connects to the sacrificial and resurrection themes of the American Monomyth and from within the New Testament.
Within Christopher Nolan’s film, Batman incorporated many of the themes associated with a modern day Messiah, as he led Gotham to salvation. Although Nolan never mentions Christ, he was able to create religious symbolism through Batman, and the people surrounding him. Batman showed that a saviour can incorporate the ideals of a Messiah while still showing flaws within their ability to live that life. The key idea that was argued was that Batman is a significant Messianic figure to the people of Gotham. This essay began by looking at Batman’s primary characteristic similarities to Jesus, the Biblical Messiah, such as their heroic abilities. Next, it discussed Batman’s leadership in contrast to that of an American Messiah, Jesus, and Bane who led Gotham in an uprising. The idea that Batman could challenge the city’s sinful ways was then explored, through looking at his ability to resist any temptation to sin and to wipe away others’ sins. Lastly, the paper looked at Batman’s experiences with resurrection throughout the film, which has similarities to the Biblical Messiah’s experiences with it.
References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV Version
Babb, I. (2017). Batman: a modern messiah. Retrieved 9 October, 2017, from https://prezi.com/ly6hmvyd9god/batman-a-modern-messiah/
Caro, M.A. (2012). The Dark Knight Rises as a Christian Allegory. Retrieved 2 October, 2017, from https://ethikapolitika.org/2012/08/13/dark-knight-rises-christian-allegory/
Deacy, C.R. (1999). “Screen Christologies: An Evaluation of the Role of Christ-figures in Film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 14(3), 325-337.
Gunton, C. (1985). “Christus Victor” Revisited A Study in Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning. The Journal of Theological Studies, 36(1), 129-145.
IMatrix Wiki. (2013). Batman as Savior Figure. Retrieved 4 October, 2017, from http://imatrix.wikia.com/wiki/Batman_as_Savior_Figure
Kozlovic, A.K. (2016). Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah. Journal of Religion and Film, 6(1), 1-35.
Kozlovic, A.K. (2000). “The Bible is Alive and Well and Living in Popular Films: A Survey of Some Western Cinematic Transfigurations of Holy Writ.” Australian Religion Studies Review, 13(1), 56-71.
Kozlovic, A. K. (2004). The structural characteristics of the cinematic Christ-figure. The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 8(1), 1-29.
Lawrence, J.S. and Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
Richards, J.W. (2012). Christian Theology in The Dark Knight Rises (spoiler alert). Retrieved 2 October, 2017, from http://www.wealthandpoverty.net/2012/08/christian-theology-in-the-dark-knight-rises-spoiler-alert062921.php
Satterthwaite, P.E, Hess, R.S & Wenham, G.J. (1995). The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts. (1 ed.). Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press