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The Passion of the Batman, part 5

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 13, 2005

Make sure you check out my previous 4 posts on The Passion of the Batman before you jump into this one.  This is part of my ongoing homage to Batman in preparation for the release of Batman Begins on Wednesday.


THE BATMAN AS MESSIAH

Miller employs a variety of
religious imagery and symbolism in the
Dark Knight Returns
in order to add depth to his project. Because he set
out to transform not only the Batman, but also the comic industry, Miller has
woven messianic symbolism throughout his work to under-gird the rebirth of the
comic book genre. The genre must be
“born again” in order to be an adequate form of media for a new
generation. In order to re-forge what
has become a mythic story, he must use images and structures that are deeply
mythic as well.

The Dark Knight Returns consists of
four books-I was unable to find whether this intentionally reflects the existence of four gospels-which effectively recount the origin or “birth” of the Batman, and the later adulthood of Batman, focusing on the last season of the Batman?s life. The Batman?s later childhood and early adulthood are a mystery. His life is oddly reminiscient of the life of Christ as told in the gospels; we only have mention of his “birth,” and of his vigilante “ministry,” passion, and “resurrection.” I will develop this section of my project in intentional correspondence with the broad progression of the gospel narrative(s): starting with the problem of Gotham and its need for a savior, continuing with the Batman?s self-understanding as
the “anointed one.” Next, I will show how the Batman prepares to take up his cross, launching out to subvert the system, which would eventually cause his death. After “dying,” he will go down into hidden caves (sounds rather tomb-like), where the Batman will be reborn.

A Fallen World

Bruce Wayne is effectually forced out a retirement by the increasing moral and societal decay of Gotham City. The world is falling apart-it has fallen-and the Batman is the remedy. On page 12, we
can see someone holding up a sign which reads “we are damned.” The world of Bruce Wayne is damned, and it requires a savior-someone who can restore justice and order.

The salvation which the Batman offers has two facets. The first facet is order which the Batman brings directly. In his battle with Superman, we can read from the Batman?s internal monologue what sort of “salvation” he brings: “My parents…taught me…a different lesson…lying on the street-shaking in deep shock-dying for no reason at
all-they showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.”[1] The Dark Knight Returns, along with its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again (which tells about the Batman?s “second coming”) constantly flirts with fascism. The Batman attempts to utilize his superior abilities and insights to force society into a proper place. This is the salvation he wants to bring.

But there is a secondary type of salvation. This is the salvation which happens when ordinary citizens follow the Batman in his intolerance of evil. On page 90, we see an ordinary shop-owner defending an old woman from a would-be mugger. The world would be a better place, it would seem, if ordinary citizens would watch out for one another, thwarting evil and
injustice wherever we find it.

The Batman as Anointed One

The Batman feels that he is above the law. He seems aware of his high calling. Frank Miller writes: “I think that in order for the character to work, he has to be a force that in certain ways is beyond good and evil. It can?t be judged by the terms we would use to describe something a man would do because we can?t think of him as a man.”[2] And at times, it hardly seems the Batman is a man. On page 87, we read a sort of discussion between the man Bruce Wayne, and a bat (though, it would seem that it is much more than a bat). In this exchange, the reader is able to see into the thinking of the Batman-that he is called by some greater power, or a greater sense of destiny, to do what he
does. He has been set apart-chosen-for the task of redeemer.

Taking up the Cross

Immediately following a section of the story where Bruce Wayne yet again relives his parents? death, we see him struggling with his inner “bat.” In the end, the bat wins. On page 26, we can
see Wayne succumbing to the bat-to his destiny. The use of images here is worth noting. In what is the pivotal page in book one, we see Bruce Wayne gazing out the window, the cross-bars of the window making the unmistakable shape of a cross. Behind the cross is the silhouette of a bat. Bruce Wayne
embraces the cross-embraces his calling. He puts aside his misgivings and embarks upon the adventure that will lead to his “death.” Like Jesus Christ, the Batman?s ministry is initiated with baptism. On page 34, the Batman refers to the rain falling on his chest as a baptism-he is “born again.”

Subverting the System

The Batman?s “ministry” is one of subversion. On page 135, the subversiveness of the Batman?s calling is made clear. Superman, relaying the words of the Batman, says in internal monologue: “?Sure we?re criminals,? you said. ?We?ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.?” It is part of the comic book genre for the superhero to operate outside the law. However, most superheroes have enjoyed a level of social acceptance-being tolerated by the authorities, often working WITH the
authorities. Superman is a perfect example of this. In the Dark Knight Returns, we see Superman working for the United States government to avert nuclear war. Superman and Batman are in stark contrast to one another. On page 190, we see the Batman?s disdain for the boy scout-ish approach of Superman: “You?ve always known just what to say. ?Yes?…to anyone with a badge-or a flag.”

Miller turns convention on its head in this book. Instead of making the Joker or Two Face-or some other criminal-the antagonist, it is Superman who plays that role. Superman embodies the “system” that has enabled the world to fall into chaos. Superman has become part of the problem. In the end of the story, they face off in combat-perhaps one of the great moments in comic history. Geoff Klock writes, “What makes Batman so different from Superman is that his character is formed by confronting a world which refuses to make sense.”[3] Superman is part of the establishment-and the Batman wants to turn the establishment upside-down.
This may be an innovation for the comic book genre, but it isn?t new. After all, the greatest adversaries of Jesus in the gospel accounts are the good guys-the perpetuators of the establishment-the Pharisees. The Pharisees had become pawns of Satan, as
Superman had become a pawn of the US government. In both cases, the messianic figure speaks
judgment and seeks to subvert the system that has become oppressive.

The Death of Bruce Wayne

In the final of four books, The Dark Knight Falls, the Batman stages his own death-dropping dead of a heart attack during combat with Superman (who he almost defeated). After his “death” (which was actually the masterful application of various chemicals that gave the Batman the appearance of death), all of Bruce Wayne?s possessions are either mysteriously destroyed or disappear (by this point everyone knows that Bruce Wayne is the Batman). All traces of Bruce Wayne and his fortune are gone. Bruce Wayne is dead…

The Batman, Immortal

But the Batman lives on. He takes a number of his “disciples”-led by his new Robin, into the caves beneath the rubble of Wayne Mansion (which Alfred, his butler, destroyed after Bruce Wayne died). The Batman spends years underground, apparently, while he trains his small army for the battle ahead, which takes place in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. And
so, the Batman is now immortal-at least through his new followers, the “Sons of Batman.”


[1] Frank
Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (New York: DC Comics,
2002), 192.

[2] Frank Miller, “Frank Miller: Return of the Dark Knight,” The Comics Journal 101. (August 1985), 61.

[3]
Raynolds, 67.

for further reading . . .

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