The Dark Knight Rises: The Mythology of Our Time

I’ve been on a Greek mythology kick this summer.  If the desire to create stories, like those of classical mythology, is universal, what are the myths of today?   I’d argue that superhero stories are the modern equivalent of classical mythology.

They are basic stories and characters that are familiar to almost all of us.  The artist doesn’t invent the characters or their stories, he provides his own twist with his own telling of these familiar stories.  Similarly, Sophocles did not invent the story of Oedipus, Euripedes did not invent the story of Iphigenia, etc… Each play or each telling of an epic poem was like each “re-boot” of the Batman, Spiderman, or Superman sagas — changing the emphasis and minor plot points in order to create a new meaning from a familiar character and story.

Greg has suggested this connection between modern superhero stories and classical mythology by trying to connect current directors and writers with their ancient equivalents.  But I want to take the point even further.  Not only are the modern makers of superhero movies like the playwrights of antiquity, their stories serve the same purpose for us and do so in very similar ways.  Neither the new Batman series nor others attempt to capture realism in their plots.  As real as they make the action and special effects, the plots and characters are obviously unrealistic.  We only accept them because they fit within the genre of a hero story — with their defining flaws, archetype villains, and endurance for suffering and sacrifice.  As ironic and post-modern as we like to think of ourselves, we are as willing to suspend disbelief for hero stories as were the ancients.

In addition, the plots of the Christopher Nolan Batman as well as other superhero sagas are designed to make sense of the world and offer some moral guidance, just as ancient myths did.  (SPOILER ALERT)  The Nolan Batman evokes images of our post 9-11 experience with terror, the need for security, and the price we pay for that need.

In his earlier posts, Greg suggested that the message of Nolan’s Dark Knight is that political and social order may require a lie.  The new movie makes clear that lies have their consequences and are ultimately self-defeating.  And as the earlier Dark Knight films emphasized the need not to be paralyzed by fear, the current movie suggests the opposite danger of being completely without fear.  And in earlier movies we learned that the rich and powerful were fundamentally corrupt, but in the new movie we see that rule by The People is at least as horrifying.  And a final paradox– in previous movies Batman learned that his success requires not trusting others because they are unreliable, but in the current movie we see that success ultimately requires trusting others despite their unreliability.

Perhaps the moral of Nolan’s Batman is also drawn directly from the Greeks.  We know that “Carved into the temple [to Apollo at Delphi] were three phrases: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seautón = “know thyself“) and μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan = “nothing in excess”), and Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη (eggýa pára d’atē = “make a pledge and mischief is nigh”),[10]   I’m not sure Nolan could have summarized the messages of his Batman trilogy more succinctly.

2 Responses to The Dark Knight Rises: The Mythology of Our Time

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Excellent stuff! Especially the connection to the three inscriptions at Delphi.

    I can’t quibble with the statement “the new movie makes clear that lies have their consequences and are ultimately self-defeating.” However, I would want to clarify that in this context, “self-defeating” does not mean futile or unproductive. Or another way of saying that would be that I would stress the qualifier “ultimately.” Yes, all social orders ultimately break down because the hypocrisy they require accumulates over time until they reach a breaking point. That does not mean the social order is itself evil, or that the prudent statesman (here I’m thinking especially of Jim Gordon) is wrong to do as he does. The system is not itself a lie; the lie is not its essence. It is good, and maintaining it is good work, even when it involves choosing “the lesser of two evils.” That’s the point of showing us the evil of what follows when it falls (with all the obvious references to the French Revolution, Occupy Wall Street, etc.) It’s also the point of showing us how Blake (or whatever his name was) comes to realize through his own actions that Gordon was right after all. The “lesser evils” we do to support the system accumulate over time and ultimately pull down the system, but that doesn’t mean the system was evil.

    Oh, and can I say: lots of lazy scriptwriting in this movie, including everything from plot holes to unclear motivations to flat dialogue. Sorry to see that.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Yeah, on Greg’s last point, this movie needed a couple of “have the Protocol Droid’s memory erased” moments that they just didn’t bother to include to cover some plot holes. Overall though it was fun.

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