A Theological Light in a Very Dark Knight
I have been noticeably silent on the tragic shooting that took place in Colorado this week. Not because I have no thoughts on the matter, but because the scale of its absurdity and senselessness is silencing. I do have some thoughts to share, some critical questions to raise, and the perennial rebuke of our insufficient degree of gun control in this country, but I will save that for a later time. I just can’t respond to that right now.
That this tragedy took place within the context of a screening of Christopher Nolan’s final Batman-trilogy installment, The Dark Knight Rises, makes what I’m about to mention in brief somewhat awkward. A much lesser tragedy than the horrific murder and injury of so many is the fact that this film will likely be haunted by the memory of this shooting, just as the previous Nolan episode, The Dark Knight, bore and continues to bear the specter of Heath Ledger’s premature death. For these reasons and the general ethos of the films themselves, the Dark Knight Trilogy, as it is commonly called, can be a series as grim as the darkness that cloaks the Batman’s interventions into the lives of Gotham’s citizens.
Nevertheless, I am convinced, perhaps more with this series than any other popular series (with the possible exception of the Star Wars saga), that there are richly theological themes latently — and, at times, more overtly — present throughout the episodic narratives.
The pinnacle of this insight emerges in the second installment, The Dark Knight (its own bat-version of the Empire Strikes Back). More so than with the first and last episodes, The Dark Knight echoes back to us the darkest and most startling aspects of our human finitude, frailty, original sin, ethical questioning, messianic impulses, and the nature of grace. I am convinced that these and other theological themes persist in The Dark Knight Rises, maybe even in more overt ways, despite the fact that some very legitimate critiques about the film’s length, plot, and character-development can reasonably be leveled.
The Dark Knight Rises is not at all a perfect film, it isn’t even the best of the Nolan trilogy, but it is one of the best movies to hit the screen this summer. I agree with the New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis, in the detailed assessment — for better or worse — that is offered of the film. Known for exploiting films’ weaknesses, the NYT arts section is rarely so laudatory. My favorite source for film reviews, The New Yorker, has not yet published a full review of The Dark Knight Rises yet, so we’ll have to wait and see that the report is on that front.
I will continue to mull over the incipient theological themes presented, if not thoroughly fleshed-out, in the Dark Knight Triology. Not every theologian agrees with me (as duly noted in a rather lively and entertaining discussion hosted on my personal Facebook page wall), but enough do to bolster my instinct that returning to Nolan’s earlier installments alongside The Dark Knight Rises might positively reveal a starting point for contemporary theological reflection that could get young people and not-so-young-people alike to take seriously the role and place of theological inquiry in a popular way and within a public square.
There is something deeply touching, deeply disturbing, deeply engaging about these films, for fans and non-fans alike. How do we express the existential “why” might best be the task of contemporary theologians and ethicists. In any event, a note of gratitude is owed to Christopher Nolan and those who put this trilogy project together, you’ve certainly given us more than fifty shades of something to think about this summer!