Growing up, my favorite superhero was Batman. He had no superpowers like Spiderman, and wasn’t an alien like Superman. He didn’t have mutations like the X-men. He was just a human guy with a mission (and a ton of money). I had a reasonably mild childhood so I would yearn for the highs of heroic films and storylines and Batman’s storyline seemed the closest I could get, absent puberty-induced mutations.
Director Christopher Nolan has described the recent Batman trilogy in three words: Fear, Chaos, and Pain.
- In Batman Begins, the story is about fear: billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne working through his childhood trauma to become the hero known as Batman who fights against the Scarecrow.
- In The Dark Knight, the story is chaos: it’s chaos: everyone from Batman to the Mob to the Police against the Joker’s anarchist schemes preying on human weakness.
- In The Dark Knight Rises, the new story is Pain: Batman is suffering the effects from the chaos of 8 years ago and still in pain over the loss of his love. His nemesis is Bane who breaks Batman and tortures him.
So the hero’s journey for Bruce Wayne in the Nolan trilogy can be mapped like this:
- Fear: Wayne falls down a cavern on his family’s property and is terrified by bats. He gets scared at a show and they leave early, causing his family to be murdered in front of him. Wayne later almost tries to shoot their killer in a courtroom (he’s beaten to it by someone else).
- Batman: Wayne trains with Ra’s Al Ghul and confronts his fear of the past. He inaugurates his battles in Gotham against the Scarecrow who uses fear as a weapon and Ra’s Al Ghul who tries to turn Gotham into a fear-based apocalyptic set.
- Chaos: In the years since, Batman upends the Mob’s stranglehold on Gotham and the city sees Harvey Dent as the best possible chance to turn the city around. The Mob turns to the Joker to stop Batman who does so in chaotic ways, ending with a disfiguring of Dent who goes insane himself.
- Exile: The second movie ends with Batman taking responsibility for killing Dent and it is revealed in the third movie that Batman never came back after that night Dent died (by then eight years prior). Gotham has cleaned up its act pretty well but still struggles forward. Wayne becomes a recluse in his mansion.
- Pain: Batman’s back is broken by Bane and he is thrown in a pit to suffer physical pain and watch on a TV how his beloved city is taken over by Bane. One cinematic change is that in the comics, Bane’s mask gave him a steroid that amplified his strength. and fighting ability. In the movie, it has an anesthetic that relieves Bane’s constant pain. The entirety of Gotham
- Freedom: The third movie has a scene where Alfred recounts his dream for Bruce Wayne: that Wayne disappears and Alfred only sees him and his family from a distance at a diner. The movie ends with Wayne in exactly that place: with a relationship and without the weight of the cowl on his shoulders. Free from his personal vindictive narrative and free from pain, fear, and chaos. Free of the rope.
At every turn, Wayne had to overcome the effects of his initial trauma: the murder of his parents in front of him. Nolan highlighted the effects of fear, chaos, and pain in Wayne the individual and the effects on a city full of fragile but resilient people.
In a cinematic way, Nolan articulates how pervasive trauma is in a person’s life. Even with Alfred as a counselor and guide, even with all the money in the world, Wayne keeps re-experiencing his childhood trauma. Every time he scares a criminal with his voice or presence, he is reliving his childhood fear. Every time he makes them crazy wondering what dark corner Batman will appear from, he is reliving his childhood chaos. Every time he pummels a criminal within an inch of their life, he is reliving his childhood pain. Batman relives the childhood trauma and indeed is traumatized again and again in his quest to save his city and his friends.
This trilogy was a great looking glass into the ways how we relive our own childhood traumas. How we are traumatized again every time we bully that person because we were bullied; we terrorize people who are different because we were terrorized; we instill uncertainty in others because we ourselves are uncertain. How anti-gay pastors are dealing with their own orientation. How anti-corruption politicians are corrupt themselves. We can call this hypocrisy, but in many everyday cases, it’s the choosing of the rush of reliving the trauma that they’ve experienced rather than the slow growth towards wholeness. Fascinating.
The hero’s journey isn’t what we do with our current situation and how we persevere. The hero’s journey, exemplified by Bruce Wayne, is what we do with our past. Do we relive it and re-adapt it to the present situation, perpetuating cycles of violence, pain, fear, and chaos? By choosing to address the past, we may not live cinematic popcorn-eating lives of high crescendos.
But by dealing with our past through counseling, friendship, and our faith, we will have a different present than we might have had and will have obtained a gift at an earlier age and at a lower personal cost than Bruce Wayne did: the gift of Freedom.
And that’s the one superpower that no superhero ever achieves.