Nolan and Nietzsche, Batman and the Übermensch

The Penman Begins:

Like many others, I recently saw The Dark Knight Rises, which rounded out my viewing of Christopher Nolan's Trilogy. I rather enjoyed it, and also rather enjoyed the many discussions it has engendered. I have seen people writing that it is a character drama which may eventually stand with greats like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. I have seen people claiming Bane was unintelligible and the political thrust of the film was muddled and disjoint. I suspect the truth lies between the extremes of these critiques. However, what I did not see is many people noticing that Nolan's Trilogy is a cinematic interpretation of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, that also happens to be a Batman story.

Nietzsche's notions of "self-mastery", "self-cultivation", "self-direction", and "self-overcoming" are handled, in that order, in the films. In Batman Begins he learns to master himself via training, and demonstrates that self mastery by handling Scarecrow. In The Dark Knight Batman cultivates himself by expanding his arsenal and capabilities; new armor so he can turn his head, new gadgets, and new skills. He demonstrates his self direction by taking a stand squarely opposite the Joker's chaotic destruction, even when his methods put him at odds with advisor and friend Lucius Fox. Finally in The Dark Knight Rises Batman's struggle of self-overcoming is in the form of self doubt and reclusion as Bruce Wayne, and injury, despair, and imprisonment as Batman. The entire arc is Batman ascendant from mere man, philosophically, to more than just a man… to Übermensch.

All the masked villains and heroes serve as symbols of an aspect of Nietzsche's take on existentialism:

  • Batman - The Übermensch, he becomes "more than just a man" to grapple figuratively and literally with good and evil while taking a value and moral stand for Gotham City. He embodies the Kantian Ideal.
  • Ra's al Ghul - Kantian/Modern-Era ethics. Ra's al Ghul opens Batman's eyes to a grander vision of right and wrong, and informs his definition of justice. However, Ra's also deals only in moral absolutes, and has no regard for the human cost of right and wrong.
  • Scarecrow - Existential Dread. Scarecrow is the fear of unbounded personal responsibility inherent in existentialism.
  • Joker - The cruel, indifferent world. A core tenant of existentialism is that the world does not give a shit about you, nor does it matter more than it is valued.
  • Harvey Dent - Theism/Religion. Harvey Dent is held up as "the best of us" - a moral standard for a better tomorrow. However, after a dust-up with post-modern reality (Joker), Twoface mocks righteousness and is a reflection of the capriciousness of the world.
  • Bane - Nihilism. Bane seeks the destruction of Batman's spirit, of Gotham, and of Batman's life.
  • Catwoman - Egoism. Catwoman justifies her near kleptomania in simple personal terms of her own interests "A girls gotta eat"; but is eventually willing to risk herself to pursue an external goal. Thus transforming from naive to enlightened Egoism.

The Big Bat Picture

Following this metaphor, Batman is the moral example Nietzsche, via Nolan, would hold up to the world. Batman is proactive, he intensely develops himself; but for external ends he believes in and is willing to re-commit to those ends despite danger and possible death. In addition to this personal creation and definition of value, goodness and justice, Nietzsche had an important notion of "eternal recurrence". Each film of the trilogy can be seen as an example of the notion of eternal recurrence. Interpretations of what exactly Nietzsche meant with his obliquely described eternal recurrence varies, but I believe it is meant as a thought experiment. Imagine that your life will be lived infinitely many times again, just as it is lived now. Imagine that you will trace the same thoughts, the same actions, the same triumphs and failures. When you imagine this, are your joyous or are you damned? In each film, Batman relives the arc of dawning the cowl and fighting for Gotham - he actively chooses his fate of eternal (well, three times anyway) recurrence. And if I dare say it, by the end of the third one he seemed to adopt a bit of amor fati.

Notable Interactions

Joker and Harvey Dent Joker's painful awakening of Harvey Dent as Twoface is symbolically appropriate for the corrosion of theology and church that post-modernism made visible. The death of note was not Twoface's, but that of the symbol - Harvey Dent. Just as Nietzsche trembled for the ethical vacuum left since "god is dead", Commissioner Gordon propped up the symbolic legacy for an imagined greater good and social order. Thus religion is shown to be a fiction useful to keep the masses in line, false in its core, yet started with the best intentions.

Joker and Batman The dichotomy of Joker forever attempting to break Batman's self-imposed morals, and Batman being inherently unable to kill Joker can be explained beyond just their personal bents. As the outside world, Joker will always be vexing to people and bring disorder and reason to succumb. Batman as the übermensch likewise is unable to reform the nature of the outside world, but he can control his action in response to it.

Ra's al Ghul and Batman Batman's "but I don't have to save you" resolution to Ra's can be read as the development of philosophy beyond Kantian systems. Nietzsche never developed a damning attack on Kant, but practical behavior seems to have buried it anyway. I defy anyone to prove me wrong; let he who is a pure Kantian refuse to cast the first stone - since that would violate a universally applicable moral intent. In other words, other post-modern philosophy never killed Kantian belief, but it seems it didn't have to since it ran too far afoul of pragmatism anyway.

Batman and Bane Bane is a direct assault on the virtues Batman believes in, the lies he was complicit in, and an attempted perversion of the truths he accepted (That Gotham is worth saving). Against this crucible Batman is left with the simple but challenging decision to accept annihilation or to rise; to overcome his own limitations. This great challenge is the challenge of Nietzsche's philosophy; that one must stand without any irrefutable evidence up for what one believes in - even in the face of a very burly Tom Hardy-esque null hypothesis.

The Lesson for the Rest of Us

When seen this way, Batman's struggle is epic even if it is all internal. He is a man who in desperation and curiosity comes into philosophy. He puts concerted effort into developing his thinking and his exploration of the world. He masters but does not fully accept Kantian thinking, and instead develops a personal definition of right and wrong he can stand by. He defends this belief despite existential dread and the slings and arrows of the outside world, although he makes practical concessions. He stands by the best parts of religion, but does not accept it as a dogma. he is steadfast in his belief although he must defend it repeatedly. When faced with Nihilism, he adapts and does not surrender or become passive.

The most practical lesson from this is the "why". The mental challenge of standing and fighting for your beliefs, of rising to be an übermensch, of daring to define value and justice rather than waiting for them to be thrust upon you is great. Worse still is the gnawing doubt when one does; what if I'm wrong? What if nothing matters?

Well, you should rise and rise again. Stand for what you see as the good. Why? Because you're the goddamn batman, that's why.

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