Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and the Myth of the Hero

A few weeks ago, my soon-to-be wife and I went out to a local mall to catch the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. I’d mostly looked forward to the flick, but only “mostly”–I didn’t enjoy the same rush of breathless anticipation I saw many others experience. I largely avoided most discussion of the movie, as I didn’t want either the storyline or the experience to be ruined, but I went in with hopes higher than I perhaps should have, for a very simple reason: I hoped watching the final installment and seeing the full story would cast new light and understanding on the second installment, The Dark Knight, which I’d found problematic for several reasons.

Sequels are notoriously difficult movies to make–it’s the rare sequel that turns out to be better than its predecessor. And where sequels are difficult, second installments in trilogies are nearly impossible. The few shining examples–The Empire Strikes Back, for example–only highlight how difficult it is to make a proper second installment.

The problem is mainly one of structure, and especially when filmmakers have a lucid vision for an actual trilogy–say what you will about George Lucas, but the Star Wars trilogy had a directed vision behind it, and its story was nearly perfectly executed. The challenge of any trilogy’s second film is the continuity it must provide while at the same time sacrificing the story elements that often make first and third installments so successful. First installments have the advantage of setting up a story and a world, and they most often tell a self-contained story while nodding to the larger thematic elements that will carry all three (as in Star Wars). Third installments have the advantage of climax and resolution. They’re the movie where the previously set-up elements pay off, where growth occurs and change happens.

Sequels don’t have those advantages. They, by definition, don’t generally stand on their own. They tend to be bookended by two stories that may not necessarily be better, exactly, but which in general contain the superficial elements that make them appear better. The challenge is to continue the story and to delve more deeply into the thematic elements it involves while at the same time acknowledging that you aren’t really moving toward resolution–only setting up the actions by which the protagonists will, ultimately, find resolution.

The Empire Strikes Back is a fine example of this. It’s the second in the Star Wars trilogy–and the only one not written and directed by Lucas himself; Leigh Brackett and Irvin Kershner did the honors, respectively. It doesn’t have the advantage of being the set-up for the movie, and it leaves very little in the way of resolution. In fact, its arc is that Luke–Lucas’ hero/protagonist–has a vision to visit Yoda to receive Jedi training, and meanwhile his allies are captured by Darth Vader, who uses them to set a trap for Luke. It’s a darker movie than its trilogy brethren, and ends on a more somber note after the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father (and the loss of Luke’s hand).

And now that I’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises, I think there are a lot of similarities between the two. In fact, I think there are a lot of similarities between the movies Lucas and Nolan made, solely by virtue of the fact that they both seem to be telling incarnations of the hero origin story–the monomyth, as Joseph Campbell calls it. And I think that while The Empire Strikes Back is a better sequel in its own franchise, I actually think that the Dark Knight trilogy might just be the finest committed to film, overall, ever, and with the most amazing antagonist:

Batman.

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Irvin Kershner taught the first writing for film class I ever attended. While it was mostly a screenwriting class, and indeed we all wrote pages of screenplay to fulfill its requirements, it was about more than simply screenwriting (the screenwriting course came later, and was taught by Syd Field). Kershner took “Writing for Film” to mean exactly that: writing for purposes of imagery, theme, and tone. We often participated in micro-exercises during which we’d choose an image and describe it in as close and precise a detail as was possible–using only objective, descriptive language.

One of my classmates was working on a horror script in which the protagonist had multiple personality disorder and so was the antagonist as well. Kersh never cottoned to the idea–he thought it didn’t work, in terms of cinema and story. The protagonist, he argued, required an outward manifestation of antagonism, because fighting one’s self wasn’t something that could be well conveyed on the silver screen.

That same year, serendipitously, the Star Wars trilogy was released in a limited-edition DVD that included both the original movies that ran in the theaters as well as the new editions Lucas had digitally altered. I purchased all three almost immediately. A few weeks later, after the class had ended (and after I’d ask Kersh to sign my copy of The Empire Strikes Back), I watched The Empire Strikes Back with Kersh’s commentary.

There is a scene during Empire when Luke is tested. He goes into a cave and there meets Darth Vader. After a brief skirmish, Luke lightsabers off Vader’s head. He stands panting for a moment, staring down at that helmet. As an audience, we first see the helmet, but then there’s a flash as the helmet’s mask disappears to reveal Luke’s own face.

Having just taken that class and having heard Kersh’s argument, it was hysterical to hear him explain “Luke is his own worst enemy!”

I think that’s one of the reasons Empire succeeds like it does. Kersh understood that, though Darth Vader and the Emperor are big bads, the whole story is Luke becoming a hero. Struggling with confidence issues, and then arrogance issues, before finally himself becoming a Jedi.

And I think that’s why Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy succeeds in the way it does, on all the levels it does. I think Nolan was trying to tell a similar monomyth. Down to the characters themselves: where Luke has Obi Wan, Bruce Wayne has Alfred and Lucius. Rachel is Bruce’s Leia, in a way: a woman Luke wants to live up to (before Lucas realized/decided they were siblings).

Those aren’t perfect, obviously, but I think there are some analogues. Most of all, though, thinking of Nolan’s trilogy as a consideration of the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey casts new light on the second installment, The Dark Knight.

It took me a long time to warm to The Dark Knight. I didn’t love the movie at first, and I’m still not sure I do though I do find it compulsively watchable whenever it’s on. Ledger is magnetic as the Joker, for sure, but my problem had always been that there was no “there” there in the Joker. Okay, he wanted chaos. Some men just want to watch the world burn. He wanted some people on boats to blow up some other people on boats.

Blah blah blah.

But seeing the full trilogy made me consider not his motivations but his character’s role in the story. One thing about superheroes is that stories involving them typically reverse the protagonist/antagonist dynamic. In stories, the people who want something are protagonists, and antagonists are the people who work against their getting what they want. In most superhero stories, then, superheroes are antagonists to villains’ protagonists. Superheroes hang around being super until there’s a crime for them to prevent. Most don’t actively want to make the world a better place; they simply want to keep it from getting much worse.

Nolan achieves something much more subtle in his trilogy. His Batman is a combination of protagonist and antagonist, mainly because of the way Nolan deftly wove Thomas Wayne’s ambitions into the story and then passed them on, in some ways, to Bruce. Bruce doesn’t have the ambition or drive of his father to make Gotham a better place; in fact, his ambitions and drives are much darker, as evidenced by his alter-ego. He wants people to fear him, and in so doing wants to try to clean up the city by scaring its shadier elements.

To a degree it works.

The problem, though, is that Batman is Bruce’s demons given form. Batman is Bruce’s deepest fears and angers and hatreds made manifest behind a cape and a cowl.

But looking at the hero’s journey structure, looking at the characters and their roles in the story, more dynamics and conflicts reveal themselves. Bruce stops Ra’s al Ghul from destroying Gotham in Batman Begins, but in so doing has to give up being Bruce Wayne to become Batman. It may not be overstating to propose that in the context of Nolan’s story and structure, Batman is Bruce Wayne’s Darth Vader.

And then there’s the Joker.

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The Joker, in this analogy, becomes Bruce’s Yoda.

Maybe he’s the malevolent version. Maybe he’s Yoda if Yoda had gone Sith instead. But invert the Star Wars story, or at least skew it so it more closely parallels The Dark Knight trilogy: imagine if, after finding Owen and Beru incinerated, Luke had trained extensively to use his Jedi powers to instill fear rather than to fight evil. Imagine if he’d assumed a cape and a cowl . . .

The two trilogies are sort of two sides of the same coin. When the Joker and Batman are in the interrogation room, imagine it as though a more antagonistic Yoda were confronting a Luke who’d harnessed the power of the Sith to fight the Empire. Luke, who thought his power and will were strong enough to use fear and intimidation without himself giving into it, but discovering more and more along the way that that wasn’t the case.

Through the Star Wars trilogy, Luke is constantly tempted to come to the Dark Side. Even in the end, the Emperor is attempting only to anger him, to make him give in to the hatred, to succumb to the Dark Side and use his power to end the Emperor once and for all, and who knows if it might not have actually worked if not for the final moments when, during a moment of redemption, the caped and cowled entity Luke was totally in danger of becoming didn’t save Luke’s life? Bruce Wayne gave in to that anger and hatred and fear.

Which means that the drive of the movie, the arc of the hero and trilogy, is for Bruce to come to terms with his demons and to ultimately reject the identity he himself created. If Bruce begins his journey in fear, searching externally for something, the end of his story must be his finding inner peace and giving up the mantle of the bat.

Which he does. There is both the death and resurrection necessary for the hero’s journey monomyth.

I wonder, too, about the title itself. The title of the final installment is The Dark Knight Rises. The shot that ends it and brings its story into darkness? An image of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character rising on the concealed platform Wayne had built. Gordon-Levitt’s Blake, in fact, seems an anti-parallel to Bruce Wayne: where Bruce Wayne succumbed to darkness and then fought his way to redemption, Blake tried to work within the system until the system failed him, and may now assume the mantle Wayne left behind.

It’s not just a brilliant inversion but also a brilliant treatment of myth.

Well. If it’s true. It may not be. This is all just how I interpreted it, besides as a trio of awesome movies, even if it took me a long time to realize the strength of that notoriously difficult second installment. I think it’s worth noting, though, that understanding the context of the film and its relation to the overall story was what revealed its strengths.


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