The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 2) – Wisecrack Edition
The second of a three part series on Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Claire Pickard
Research by: Austin Smidt
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan (Part 2) – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack! Disembodied Jared again, here to continue our epic Philosophy of Christopher Nolan trilogy. In our first installment, Nolan Begins, we covered his interpretations of the Self in his early films, plus Inception. What does it mean to be a Self? How can we trust ourselves and our own thoughts? Today, we’re asking:— if there’s so much conflict already present in the Self, what are the implications for a community full of Selves? If we can’t even handle our own issues, is it possible to avoid conflict with other people, or is violence inevitable? This is the foundational question surrounding Gotham City in the Dark Knight trilogy. So suit up for some time with the Bat Man— and we’re not wearing hockey pads. Welcome to the Philosophy of Christopher Nolan Part 2. And yep, there’s spoilers ahead. Behind the face paint and pointy-eared masks, Gotham is experiencing crisis after crisis that affect the functioning of its social body— the mob is pumping in drugs, the cops are helping the mob, the mob is hiring clowns, and bombs seem to be getting trendier by the minute. Batman may be the focus, but his focus is on the city he loves. In the process of saving Gotham, the films raise questions about the nature of community. How does a society deal with fear and threats? How does the presence of a “Hero” like Batman create or threaten stability? Can society-wide conflict ever be resolved or is it inherently a cyclical process?
To help us understand Nolan’s social philosophy, we’re turning to perpetually stoned looking anthropologist Rene Girard. Girard claims that the concept of “mimesis” is both the foundation of all societies and the foundation of conflict in those societies. Girard’s theory claims that one of the most basic aspects of our relationships with other people is imitation. Imitation can be as simple as copying someone else’s behavior: I see you buying someone a badass necklace , and I think “wow, great idea,” and I decide to go buy a necklace too. Everyone’s happy! But this can become a problem. Girard says that imitation of someone else’s behaviors can, and often does, lead to replicating their desires. That’s where I don’t just want a necklace — I want that necklace, the one you happen to be wearing. This is “mimetic desire,” and it can pretty quickly lead to rivalry, where multiple people share the same desire and so compete over finite resources. Girard claims that our human impulse towards imitation means that eventually more and more people will want that necklace and rivalries will grow and multiply until they are also profoundly impactful on the community itself. When one person succeeds in winning the prize, the other people (or their tribes, or their surviving family members) seek retaliation against the winner. This vengeance is also a form of imitation, and it basically ensures that rivalries and violence will continue and grow. According to Girard, this is the fundamental reason why there is crime, violence, and war in the world. As Batman Begins… begins, this turmoil is already established- obviously because, according to Girard, this cycle goes all the way back to cavemen. But what’s important to note here is that we see individual examples of mimesis occurring and motivating characters, and most importantly, later on, we see that Nolan uses mimetic theory to propose a possible solution to society-wide violence. Mimesis is most relevant in Batman Begins as it relates to the individual, especially in the creation of the Batman identity.
The original instance of this mimesis is one man’s desire for the Waynes’ wealth, which leads to violence. Throughout the film, Nolan foregrounds fear and vengeance as powerful motivators- especially in a city as broken as Gotham. We see this again in Bruce’s imitation of his parents’ killer, Joe Chill in his efforts to extract vengeance. Bruce’s time away from Gotham inspires him to move away from the cycle of vengeance that motivated him to avenge his parents. Instead, he uses imitation as a means of stopping violence. His fear of bats leads him to adopt the identity of a bat, but he uses this imitation as a means to spread the fear to criminals, who now fear a different kind of bat— him.
The League of Shadows wants to press the reset button on conflict by destroying a society altogether, but that’s not really how it works. The problem with their method is that watching people destroy each other doesn’t actually do anything to decrease violence— it inflates it. There’s nothing for people to unite around, so whatever survivors are left after the fire of London or the Black Plague or the microwaving of Gotham are gonna still be really pissed off. So, if the League of Shadows gets it wrong, what does Batman get right? Even while Nolan presents us with the idea that it is difficult, if not impossible, to break away from violence, Bruce spends the majority of Batman Begins struggling to overcome both his fears and his impulse for vengeance. In order to do that, Batman has to transcend the identity of Bruce Wayne and become something else, an image in the collective consciousness that represents justice without personal motivation— he has to become a symbol to be imitated, and it’s this idea of symbols, Girard proposes, that can break society out of violence.
Unlike the more individually-focused themes of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight transitions to the social consequences of the rapid spread of rivalries and fear. After the Mob’s ass-whooping, the city begins to push back against organized crime, and the faces of this effort are Harvey Dent— new District Attorney and Gotham’s “white knight”— and Batman, the…wait for it… Dark Knight. While the Bat fights with batarangs and armored lamborghinis, Dent fights crime using the law as his weapon. The white knight and the dark knight are symbiotic ideas, and they both inspire imitation. While Dent inspires the rest of the city government to aim for a safer Gotham, Batman inspires copycats in poorly-conceived halloween costumes. Still, those copycats are a sign that the idea of Batman inspires hope among the citizens of Gotham. It’s also a sign that those citizens are copying his tactic of replicating fear. Or, at least, trying to.
But the Mob pushes back, as mobs tend to do, and the increasing escalation of conflict between the knights and the criminals leads to Maroni hiring the Joker to kill the Batman.
Part of the danger of the Joker is that he only has power because of how afraid the mob is. Batman’s strategy for fighting crime has created a monster— one that feeds on the mimetic reproduction of fear that Batman relies on. How can you break a cycle that has adapted to your methods of opposing it? Girard tells us that when violence and vengeance become so great that they threaten the existence of the society, the majority of people will quickly set aside their differences in order to sacrifice an individual, the “scapegoat,” whose death can restore temporary peace to the community. Everyone agrees that the whole thing was the scapegoat’s fault, and bam, boom, burned at the metaphorical stake, everyone chills out. But since it is literally impossible for an immense social conflict to be entirely one person’s fault, the “scapegoat” is a lie, and a pretty violent one at that. So peace doesn’t last long, and eventually someone covets thy neighbor’s necklace all over again. Girard says that since humans have an innate impulse towards violence and rivalry, actually stopping those cycles of vengeance is basically impossible, with one exception. We can replace the scapegoat with a Christ-like figure who rejects violence and turns the other cheek, and this could set a new imitative trend of people desiring non-violence. Harvey Dent and his campaign for peace in Gotham appear to fill that role, providing a Christ- figure for the community to emulate.
Even Batman, who can only fight violence with violence, supports a world where Dent replaces him, taking up the mantle of crime-fighting without the need for grappling hooks. But the Joker, a representation of the true violence of mankind, shifts the course of the mimetic rivalry and corrupts our Christ figure with a few oil drums and some sweet talk. Once Harvey Two-Face begins to imitate the Joker, embracing chaos and going after Gordon and the corrupt cops, he becomes subject to the cycles of violence that the white knight was supposed to destroy. So, in order to restore peace to Gotham, we turn to the time-honored tradition of the scapegoat. Gotham picks an individual, blames him for the current social ills— in this case, the crimes committed by Two-Face and The Joker’s presence— and punishes him in order to end the intense rivalries that threaten the existence of the community. They don’t kill Bruce Wayne, but they effectively kill the symbol of the Batman at least for a while. And during the period where Batman is gone, there is a time of relative peace and prosperity in the city. But, the “scapegoat” is always based in a lie. The truth of the situation has to be unconsciously suppressed in order to achieve the desired effect— containing the violent impulses of humanity. However, this lie is unsustainable, and the problem of this lie is the starting point of The Dark Knight Rises. The third film begins in a time of relative tranquility, brought on and sustained by the lie of Harvey Dent’s martyrdom and the scapegoating of Batman. This is acknowledged by Gordon who, just by recognizing the nature of the lie, threatens the stability that depends on it.
But while the Dent Act, made possible by the demonization of Batman, has effectively ended organized crime, there are other kinds of violence still at work in the city— the social and economic inequalities which define the third film. As one form of violence ends, another begins— although it’s hardly fair to say that social inequality is a new phenomenon in Gotham; the Waynes were killed because of their wealth. But the dissolution of the mob means that the divides between the “legitimate” rich and the poor are once again in the spotlight, and violent rivalry is inevitable. Like the Joker, Bane is focused on revealing the violence that already exists in ordinary people. But while the Joker explores the idea of chaos, Bane is interested in the concept of the lie. Which undoes the peace that depended on that lie.
The disruption of the myth of the scapegoat means that the sacrifice of Batman no longer serves its purpose, and his disappearance no longer helps the city. Because Batman sacrificed himself in order to save the city from itself, his return isn’t as simple as hopping into a flying car and catching the bad guy. To inspire the city, he has to metaphorically come back from the dead, which is shown in his ascent out of the Pit. There’s probably a lot of birth symbolism happening as he climbs out of a hole into the sunlight, but what’s way more interesting is this explicit connection to rising from the dead: in the comics, the underground cave has another name… the Lazarus Pit. If you’re not up to date with your New Testament stories, Lazarus is a dude who died, and Jesus brought him back to life. It’s pretty much that simple… he rose from the dead. Coincidence? Probably not, especially since later on, Gordon reads a eulogy from A Tale of Two Cities which describes… you guessed it… the Christ like-sacrifice of one of the main characters. Nolan man, you’re killing it with the literary references.
And this leads us back to Girard’s Christ-figure. He claims that in order to have real lasting peace, to remove our society and ourselves from the cycle of violence, we need to set aside the myth of the scapegoat and embrace a figure who sets an example of selflessness that forms a new mimetic desire to be copied by the masses. But even Girard isn’t sure that this is feasible. If humans are driven by an innate desire for violence, is it realistic to hope for something different? Girard says that even in today’s Christian communities, people don’t really follow Christ’s example. Nolan asks this question throughout the trilogy— is peace actually possible? People battle their inner monsters at the same time that they’re battling the monsters of Gotham, but can either of these ever find true resolution? It might appear that Dent was a fake Christ-figure at the end of The Dark Knight while Batman becomes a legitimate Christ-figure at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. But is this really the case? When Batman takes the bomb out over the ocean, he saves the city from a very visible kind of violence— the radioactive kind— but the peace that follows is also based in part on the lie that Batman sacrificed his life to save the city. He gets a statue, and the city gets a new martyr. But maybe the lie of Batman’s death is outweighed by another truth— that, unlike Dent, he really did fight violence with self-sacrifice, creating the potential for a new kind of mimetic desire. Anyone can copy his motivations, even if atomic bombs are in short supply.
And we see mimesis come full circle in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, who is revealed at the end of the film to be none other than Robin. The fact that Robin is introduced and that Batman left him all of his crime-fighting tools suggests… but doesn’t prove… that peace may not last in Gotham. So how do we maintain stability in our communities? The openness of the ending—- Bruce in Italy, Robin in the Batcave, and Batman all statued up— could lead us in a number of directions, which is exactly Nolan’s point. Is a scapegoat myth or a lie necessary to maintain stability? Can a Christ figure really inspire people to abandon their violent urges? Or can society never exist without conflict, no matter what we do? Is there always a future crisis on the horizon? Ultimately, do the limits of human nature prevent us from achieving lasting peace? Or does the human spirit allow us to overcome whatever obstacles may arise? Nolan’s later films like Interstellar (and Dunkirk) give us a peek into the possibility of how and why we might transcend those limits by constructing new worlds. Tune in next time.
Thanks for watching! Peace!