Bruce Wayne’s Dark Night of the Soul

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series The Dark Knight Rises

“Why do we fall, Bruce?
So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” — Thomas Wayne

The Hero's Journey, courtesy Nancy Duarte (click to enlarge)

The Hero’s Journey
Courtesy Nancy Duarte (click to enlarge)

As I’ll be discussing in more detail in an upcoming post, The Dark Knight Rises is the final act in Chris Nolan’s epic and now-classic Batman trilogy. Nolan is a master-storyteller, so in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce embarks (unwillingly) on a classic hero’s journey so that he can complete his quest, which is to save Gotham from its own evil.

Using the Hero’s Journey as a lens to watch the film shows us Nolan’s larger vision for what Batman means.

Our Hero, Bruce Wayne

Bruce’s original goal (in Batman Begins) was to become a symbol that could save Gotham. Bruce transformed a symbol of his own fear (of bats) into a symbol of hope for Gotham. But Batman wasn’t supposed to last forever; Bruce saw himself retiring the Batman and making a life with Rachel. As Bruce began to inspire people like Harvey, he saw his end as Batman nearing.

Ironically, we learn in The Dark Knight Rises that Bruce was right. He was almost done being Batman. But not like he expected: when the Joker killed Rachel and corrupted Harvey, Bruce lost hope.

What Bruce didn’t know (thanks to Alfred), was that Rachel had already given up on a life with him. Rachel saw some fatal flaw in Bruce. She didn’t believe that could change, that he could have a life without Batman.

Rachel didn’t believe that Bruce could ever escape from the pit of fear he’d fallen in as a boy.

Did Bruce ever really get out of that well?The Ordinary World: Gotham

In the ordinary world, we meet the hero, encounter the problem and learn he’s insufficient for it.

Bruce retired from BatmanIt’s eight years after The Dark Knight, and the city is virtually crime-free. Bruce has retired from being Batman, and now lives as a recluse in the rebuilt Wayne Manor. (1)

Rachel might have been right. Bruce is still stuck in despair and hopelessness. Not only is he not Batman anymore, but he can’t get past Rachel’s death. He’s become a total recluse, alone in his pain except for Alfred. Miranda Tate Talia recognizes that he’s stuck when she tells him

“You have a practiced apathy Mr. Wayne. But a man who doesn’t care doesn’t spend half his fortune on a plan to save the world. And isn’t so wounded when it fails that he goes into hiding.” — Miranda Tate

Well... not everything. Not yet.

Well… not everything. Not yet.

Is Talia only talking about their failed clean energy project? Or does she see what Bruce’s defeats at the hands of the Joker have done to him?

In the Ordinary World of Gotham, the Batman has cost Bruce everything. He’s totally alone, except for Alfred, who despairs of ever calling Bruce out of his isolation.

When Bane appears in Gotham, Bruce perceives this as his chance to recover what he’s lost. But he’s wrong.

Like Bruce, we expect the “Call to Adventure” (2) to be assuming the Batman mantle again. But it’s not. Ironically, Bruce’s Call is to find a life beyond Batman.

Alfred repeatedly pleas with Bruce to put away the Batman and move on with his life. To leave Gotham and find a life somewhere else.

Bane becomes Batman's unlikely guide.

Bane becomes Batman’s unlikely guide.

Bruce rejects Alfred’s invitation (3) to live beyond Batman, to escape the despair Gotham represents. Instead, he goes to confront Bane, who becomes his unlikely mentor. (4)

Bane leads the League of Shadows, so none of Batman’s theatrics or tricks phase him. Bruce Wayne is a child born in light who uses the darkness as a tool. But Bane is darkness. He describes himself as “evil” and “the devil” and claims to have been born in Hell on Earth. Bane mocks Bruce as he breaks him:

“The shadows have betrayed you. Because they belong to me… You think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted it. I was born in it. Molded by it.” — Bane

Bruce can’t save us from Evil because he hasn’t conquered Evil.

Bane tells Bruce he can’t win because Bruce doesn’t comprehend true despair. Bruce thinks that he has been to Hell and back, but he has yet to face true evil. As Bruce’s surprising mentor, Bane offers to teach Bruce the true meaning of despair, leaving him broken and alone in the prison that is Hell on Earth, to watch as Bane systematically destroys the city Bruce fights to save.

Bruce is forced to watch as Bane systematically destroys Gotham.The Special World: Hell on Earth

In the Special World, the hero meets allies and learns skills he will need to achieve his goal.

In the prison, Bruce only wants to die until he sees what Bane does to Gotham. When he sees his city in peril, Bruce commits to the impossible: he will escape from Hell. (5)

Bruce tries twice to climb from the pit, to no avail. (6) Despite his efforts to heal – which have returned him to arguably better shape than he’s been in for a decade, Bruce cannot escape. The two men charged by Bane to keep him alive urge him to quit trying, explaining to him that no one ever makes the final jump.

When Bruce claims he’s not afraid, the prison’s doctor asserts that is Bruce’s fatal flaw:

You don’t fear death you think this makes you strong it makes you weak… How can you foster the impossible without the most powerful impulse? — Prison Doctor

Seriously. How do you fight this?

How do you fight this?

Bruce doesn’t love life. In the wake of Rachel’s death, Bruce hasn’t loved anything. He’s been waiting for death, eager to embrace it as a long-lost companion. This is why Bruce couldn’t save Rachel, couldn’t truly save Gotham. This is what Rachel knew when she decided to marry Harvey:

Bruce realizes that never truly climbed out of the pit he fell into as a boy.

From within that pit of fear and despair, Bruce used that fear and anger as weapons. Against petty evil like Organized Crime, his weapons worked. Against the chaotic force of the Joker, who understood how silly an angry little boy dressing up to scare people really is, Bruce’s weapons were much less effective.

And against the pit itself, against the incarnation of its Evil that Bane represents, Bruce failed utterly and was broken. How can darkness fight darkness?

To defeat Bane, Bruce needs more than Evil’s tools. He must embrace Hope and Life. (7)

Bruce makes his third climb without the safety rope, makes his jump knowing that if he falls this time, all is lost.

But Bruce doesn’t fall. He rises. Because now he fights for life. He’s finally climbed out of that pit. (8-9)

Armed with his new knowledge, Bruce can escape from Hell.Return to the Ordinary World: Victory

The hero returns to the ordinary world with his new tools or skills. They enable him to achieve his goal.

Batman can now overcome Bane

Batman can now overcome Bane

Bruce returns to Gotham a different person. As he gathers his allies, marshaling them for the final confrontation with Bane (10-11), he’s almost joyful.

When Bane sees the giant Bat burning, he utters a single word:

Impossible.

In the end, we learn that Bane never climbed out of that pit. Bane never conquered despair. For Bane, every day of his life is still in that pit, much like Bruce was before his ordeal. So Bane cannot defeat this new Batman who fights for life, for redemption.

Bane never conquered the Pit, so Bane cannot conquer one who has conquered. Bane knows only Despair, so he cannot conquer Hope.

Bruce stops Bane and is able to save Gotham. But more than that, he redeems the symbol of the Batman. Now Batman has become hope and salvation to Gotham, and the Batman lives on in the person of John Blake. Having faced Death, Bruce is able to leave and have a life with Selina. All that Bruce originally set out to do he has accomplished. (12)

The new Batman can overcome Bane, who has never overcome.Bruce as Jesus: Resurrection

This isn't really what I meant...

This isn’t really what I meant…

Bruce Wayne’s Hero’s Journey mirrors the most famous and important Hero’s Journey of them all: Jesus of Nazareth.

The Dark Knight Rises presents Bruce as an obvious Christ-character. Bruce cannot defeat the forces of evil using the weapons of Evil, anymore than Jesus could defeat the power of Sin and Death by raising armies and conquering. Rather, Bruce had to die, to descend into Hell and rise again before he could truly rescue Gotham from Evil. Similarly, Jesus’ death on the Cross defeated Death itself, and his resurrection welcomes humanity into a new reality free of evil and death.

Also not right.

Also not right.

Bane could not understand how Bruce came back. He could not imagine a world in which Bruce’s hero’s journey was possible. As such, he could not overcome Batman and the Gotham he raised around him to fight back. Similarly, the forces of evil in our world cannot understand the power of God’s Love, the power believers enact when we choose to forgive those who wrong us, to love our enemies and give ourselves up for the good of someone else.

Bruce’s Hero’s Journey enabled him to become a symbol of hope that called the people of Gotham to be better than they had been. We see how Bruce’s return affects several characters sliding into despair – Commissioner Gordon, Foley, Blake and notably Selina Kyle (the subject of my next post). Each of these characters is inspired to choose hope, to stay in Gotham, to fight rather than hide. Similarly, Jesus’ life and death teach those who follow him how to overcome the Death we encounter in our daily lives.

By joining in with Jesus, we learn how to hope for and work towards a better Gotham world.

Bottom Line: In Bruce Wayne’s Hero’s Journey in The Dark Knight Rises, we see a picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and how hope always triumphs in the face of despair.

YOUR TURN: Do you find Batman’s Hero’s Journey compelling? What other stories can you interpret using the Hero’s Journey?
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  • Ben

    This is an excellent excellent breakdown. Kudos.

  • therhoades

    You really unpacked this well and I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Nice work..

  • Appreciate it, guys! Plenty more to come!

  • Caleb M

    THE POWER OF BATMAN COMPELS YOU

  • Lorie Langdon

    Love this character breakdown, JR. I’d never really thought of the antagonist also being the mentor, but I can see in this case that it’s true. It gives me food for thought as I work out the motivation for my current hero. I’d never seen the ‘hero wheel’! I’m printing it out to keep in my writing notebook.

  • Reuben

    JR your summary was very well thought out and so well articulated that I think you should be doing the next Batman movies. I think you are giving Nolan a pass for a 7 to 8 movie by saying that it was better than the dark knight or better than Avengers. My first counter-point would be to say that where this movie fails both times I saw it was in the new characters. The feeling I had when i went into and out of this movie is who is going to replace Harvey Dent? Still wondering…. The thing that made the last movie so great is the fact that we got all these new characters and we did not even miss the old ones. It made us so happy to see these people become apart of Gotham as if we kinda knew they existed even though we didn’t know it. It was seemless brilliant storytelling in movie form. Now flash to this movie. I feel like Nolan wiffed on everybody except Blake. I did like Blake, but Talia or whatever her name is did not make me care about her. I just wanted Mattie Gillenholmes back. Bane ok he was interesting. Not a candle to the Joker and also for the fun of it a far cry from Loki in Avengers. (Sidebar how much better was Loki in Avengers than Thor….crazy amount better). Back to Bane I wanted to feel the way the Joker made me feel. Any time he was not on the screen I felt like I was missing something. ( Where is the scene in this movie where you go now that is cool like the Joker mob scene). He just didn’t fit the bill and was a bust. Now Catwoman where do I begin. A fly by the seat of your pants burglar who has no loyalty to anybody and decides to help save the city. When she came back I knew Nolan had given the reigns of best comicbook movie maker over the Wheedon 2 months earlier than we all thought. All this said I felt like he stepped up his game with characters we all knew except maybe Lucius Fox. Alfred was the best part of the movie end of discussion just brilliant. Batman and Bruce were in rare form as well I just was not on board with this new cast of characters and couldn’t help but think their presence was forced on my movie screen against my will. I really want a rebuttal and until then goodbye. Also I love your comic book movie synopsis I feel like you actually care as much or more than I and I really respect that.

  • I love love love the Hero’s Journey. It’s an awesome writing and analysis tool that’s come in handy time and time again. I hope you enjoy it 🙂

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Reuben!

    I stand by my claim that DKR is a superior film to the Avengers. I compare them to a steak vs. an ice cream bar. Both are delicious and if I can have them both, I’ll take them. But you can’t live on ice cream.

    Nolan’s story is much deeper and richer. I know a lot of people share your complaints about the new characters, but this wasn’t an issue for me. I really enjoyed Miranda, and appreicated that she represented a possible fresh start for Bruce (which made her betrayal all the more awful).

    I loved Bane as the villain. He was huge, imposing and seemed invincible. You’re right that he’s a totally different villain from the Joker, but that’s the point. They were two different kinds of Evil. (Sidebar: the Joker is the most perfect villain of all time. ANY villain compared to him is going to come up lacking. The Joker would OWN Loki so hard before breakfast).

    I’m posting on Catwoman on Monday. Other than Bruce’s arc, hers was the one I found the most compelling, so I’ll be interested in your thoughts on my write-up.

    Anyway, I would LOVE to write Batman films. So thanks for the endorsement. Now to find the right Hollywood person to listen… 😉

  • JR, I absolutely loved this post. First, I am a big fan of Joseph Campbell. I watched all of the Power of Myth Bill Moyers interviews in high school many years ago (my teacher was obsessed with Campbell). I also read Hero With a Thousand Faces.

    I watched the film yesterday and liked it, but part of me was hoping for another DK. DKR did not feel like a superhero film and in that sense I was disappointed. But reading your post this morning gave me a new lens from which to view the entire trilogy. It did not even occur to me to view this from the Journey of the Hero lens. I now have a greater appreciation of the film and plan to see it again this week.

    Reading your post also reminded me of Luke Skywalker’s journey and specifically the cave scene from Empire Strikes Back. Luke was driven by fear and anger in his quest to avenge his father by killing Vader. But what the scene always represented to me was the realization that when anger, fear, and vengeance (as opposed to hope and redemption) is your driving force, your risk becoming the “villain” you purport to defeat (can’t recall Dent’s exact words but something about living long enough to be the villain). When Yoda told Luke that what he’ll find in the cave is “only what you take with you” — he indeed found anger and fear. It was his face underneath Vader’s mask and without conquering his own inner demons, he indeed may have become the Emperor’s apprentice.

    Similarly, Bruce entered Bane’s cave with the same negative emotions Luke possessed when he entered the cave on Dagobah. It was only after he came to terms with himself (as you explained above) and discovered the strength of hope and redemption that he was able to come back and defeat Bane.

    While on the journey of the hero motif (which traditionally has been male-centered), there is also the woman as temptress character embodied in Talia and woman as the life-giver who ends up becoming Selina Kyle, who literally saves his life.

    Anyway, great post. I also just graduated from law school and also loved the issue headers, followed by the explanation of the “rule,” and then the “application” of that rule to the “facts” or events in the movie.

    Can’t wait to read more of your work!

  • Your post inspired me onto my own. I hope you will get a chance to read it. It is really transparent about a struggle I had both physically and mentally. I see my paralells with the Hero’s journey. Not that I quite have grasped whether I am a hero or not. But either way, here is the link
    http://danielleewillis.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/fear-of-dark-nights/

  • Danielle, thanks so much for sharing your own story of redemption. I’m glad the film inspired such hope in you!

  • Thanks for visiting the page, John. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post.

    I’ve been discussing with some other people (and will be writing about it in next couple of weeks) and I’d like your opinion:

    I’m convinced that Chris Nolan’s Batman films stand with the original Star Wars films and LOTR as the only truly great film trilogies (though I’d argue that LOTR isn’t properly a trilogy, more one film split into three parts).

    I can think of no other trilogies that each tell individual stories, but are still thematcially one whole movement. The Indiana Jones films, for instance, don’t get at this at all. Each film is just a great individual adventure.

    Maybe the Godfather films… but III is so much weaker than the other two.

    What do you think?

  • Swanny

    Thanks this helped me a lot

  • Glad to hear it! Thanks for visiting!

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