While DC’s latest movie Joker is taking over theaters, I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy. This work of cinematic art was perhaps the height of Batman on film, not just for its quality film-making but also because of its deep philosophic story telling, particularly in the third installment: The Dark Knight Rises.

Some political pundits argue it’s a neocon movie meant to trash Occupy Wall Street. But that’s a shallow reading of the movie. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, it is steeped in the philosophy of Frederick Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Ayn Rand, with lessons about the controversy over Columbus Day.

The Value of Myth Over Truth

"God is dead." -Nietzsche, 1883. "Nietzsche is dead." -God, 1900.One of Nietzsche’s most famous or infamous quotes is, “God is dead.” A shallow reading of this is a confrontational exhortation for atheism. This is incorrect. When Nietzsche declared the death of God, he was merely observing the fact that western civilization was losing faith in the Bible. Although Nietzsche did not like Christianity, he did not view this development as entirely positive.

Nietzsche believed that myths provided an important function for society. In the case of Christian society, heroes and stories ranging from Moses to The Song of Rolland or even God Himself created models to which humans could aspire. They also unite members of a society, removing divisions and factionalism. With the loss of belief in Christianity, Nietzsche feared that western civilization would fall into a self-destructive nihilism if it did not replace its old myths and old values with new ones.

Harvey Dent: Batman’s Chris Columbus

This idea is found in the movie with Harvey Dent (AKA “Two Face”). He was a champion of justice turned evil, pretending to be cracking down on crime while behind the scenes benefiting from his own criminal racket. Ultimately Batman had to kill him, but after his death society wrote the myth of Harvey Dent rather than the reality. He was held up as the hero of justice, statues made of his image, a city holiday made in his honor, etc. People gave speeches praising his legacy. It is an example of writing the legend rather than writing the factual history, something that happens more than we let ourselves believe. The movie portrays this as for the benefit of Gotham City. Indeed, invoking the name of Harvey Dent is attributed to the ability of society to end the rampant crime that so plagued the city even though he was its cause, as though mythologizing the fiction of Harvey Dent was for the greater good than exhorting his true evil story.

It is noteworthy that a secondary protagonist, the chief police inspector, gives a speech honoring Harvey Dent. At first he wished to read a speech revealing the truth of Dent’s corruption. He hesitates, then puts it in his pocket and instead tells the myth once again. He recognizes that the legend is more important than the truth. It is also noteworthy that Bane, the main villain, is the one who ultimately reveals the truth of Harvey Dent. Yes, destroying the myth with truth is a tool of the villain to destroy the society of Gotham City. Quite a contrast from typical movies where the the heroes use truth to defeat the villain’s lies!

This relates to western civilization. It is true that Columbus brutalized natives and brought syphilis to Europe. It is true that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and sired children with one. Etc. There was a time when we were to admire the heroism of great men like these, to admire the legend, like Harvey Dent, ignoring the real history.

This is not unique to western civilization. Genghis Kahn, for one of many world-wide examples, was a genocidal mass murderer / mass rapist who is now the national hero to Mongolia, has an airport named after him, and has historians who praise how he brought peace and commerce to the Steppe. This is because we remember the legend rather than the reality of Genghis Kahn.

Every hero has flaws. Ghandi was a raging bigot who supported Apartheid. President Lincoln believed blacks and whites could not live together and that the best solution to the slavery problem was to send blacks back to Africa. Winston Churchill stated, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” and he wanted to forcibly sterilize some people because “the multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race.” The list goes on and on. The fact is we must remember mythologized version of heroes or else we’d have no heroes at all!

What is unique about western civilization, which Nietzsche warned against, is that its members are today taught to focus on historical flaws, thus destroying their legends, like Bane did to Harvey Dent. Americans should remember primarily Jefferson as a slave owner, Germans should try not to remember Arminius too well, etc.

We see this in action with the annual Columbus Day protests. The myth of Columbus is that he proved the world was round to a backwards Church that taught it was flat, established trading relations with the natives, and brought civilization to the Americas; all that unpleasant genocide came later.

Christopher Columbus saying, "I'm too stupid to do math."Here’s the real story of Columbus. Everyone knew the world was round (just read Dante’s “Inferno” for an example) and had a fairly accurate measure of the distance to sail to Asia. They all knew it was too long to survive the journey to Asia. He screwed up the math converting Arabic measures to his native measures and calculated Asia was 1/4 the distance it really was, so figured his crew wouldn’t die on the journey. In other words, his whole journey was based on incompetence. He became governor of the first European New World colony. In that role he not only brutalized the natives, he executed any Europeans who dared disobey him, even chopped off the nose and sold into slavery a crewman who stole an ear of corn and many other disgusting brutalities. He was so tyrannical that the king of Spain had him removed as governor and brought back to Spain in chains.

The argument against Columbus Day is that it celebrates genocide and these cruelties. This is incorrect. Columbus Day does not celebrate the real Columbus but rather the myth of Columbus. For the 300+ years that Columbus Day has been celebrated, approximately no one was familiar with his atrocities and no one celebrated them. Columbus Day perhaps would be better named Myth of Columbus Day. The real motive of attacking Myth of Columbus Day is not truth but rather the same as Bane: to tear society apart.

Arguably every holiday that celebrates a historic figure actually celebrates the myth of that person, not the reality. Nihilists who want to tear apart some society can, like Bane, simply shatter its myths with truth to destroy the mythological heroes that united that society. Thus in the Nietzschean view, western civilization and Gotham City are both eroded by replacing legends and heroes with the nihilism that Nietzsche feared. That is the first Nietzschean element of the film.

Egalitarian Herd Trumps Rationality

The second Nietzschean element is that people on average use non-rational faculties to guide their behavior, most especially going along with the herd rather than with what is right. People can especially be enticed to do extremely awful things when they believe it will earn them acceptance from the herd. At best it makes people do dumb things, like waste money on expensive clothes in order to “fit in” with the herd. At worst, it can make good people who know better engage in riots, looting, mob justice, etc. This is especially dangerous when an alpha dominant wolf takes dictatorial control of the herd.

This herd mentality was strongly opposed by Nietzsche. He saw that the ideology of equality was an important piece of herd mentality. The creative forces who move societies forward, in Nietzsche’s view, are men who rise above the herd. The herd does not like people who stand above them due to envy and resentment, and that puts these two at odds with each other.

Public beheading during France's Reign of Terror.

This is what Democracy looks like.

Both Nietzsche’s view of the herd and the ideology of equality are portrayed in the movie when the evil villain Bain launches a people’s revolution, imprisons the entire police force, and hands power over Gotham City to the masses of people. A bloody herd revolution ensues, invoking images of the French Revolution: in the name of liberty and equality, blood must flow. Or as Rush sang in The Trees, equality is achieved not by raising up the lowly but rather by means of hatchet, axe, and saw upon the highest. This aspect of egalitarianism, contrary to its own rhetoric, is something Nietzsche also forewarned against. Indeed, it is his primary argument against egalitarianism: that it is not about raising man up but bring him down to the lowest common denominator.

In the movie, the herd of proletarians then proceed to destroy Gotham City. In one case it is by squatting in Bruce Wayne’s mansion, letting it fall into disrepair, being unable to maintain it. In other cases it is mob rule in the streets. Most prominent are the mob trials of politicians and wealthy businessmen. It becomes hard to distinguish Gotham City from the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, the 1960s American Left, or Occupy Wall Street!

In addition to Nietzsche, all this brings to mind the warnings of America’s founders (The Federalist Papers) against democracy, for they believed that the masses of people were too stupid and irrational, too prone to heated mob passions, to be given power. It was their prediction that giving power to the people would result in lynch mobs like seen in the south and like seen in the Gotham City show-trials of this movie.

Rich Herd Poor Herd

Moving beyond the herd we come to the aristocracy for the third Nietzschean element. America’s Republicans have given this movie a shallow reading: despite the fact that the movie was filmed prior to Occupy Wall Street, they view this movie as denouncing Occupy while promoting the productive / wealthy aristocratic class via Bruce Wayne. What these people fail to realize is that conservative heroes are also mocked, just not as much. When Bane attacks Wall Street, the Wall Street traders are called thieves. At a high society party for the rich, Bruce Wayne mocks the shallowness of the attendees, that the party is about being seen and showing off. The wealthy attendees come off as shallow and vain. It’s the herd again, just a much wealthier herd than the one Bane leads!

This reflects Nietzsche’s disdain for the aristocracy of his day. Even though he had a disdain for his contemporary proletarians, he viewed the aristocracy of his day as too bound to material interests, as opposed to the spiritual. Ironic for an atheist. Pursuit of money and sex rather than art and beauty dominated his society’s ruling class. This, in Nietzsche’s view, represented a failed aristocracy. It also describes Gotham City’s elite. And it also describes our own society: the real life Wall Street, rich corporate elites, and DC “grab ’em by the pussy” politicians.

Bruce Wayne has no interest in his fellow millionaires nor personal wealth uber alles. At one point he loses all his wealth, and he does not seem to care too much. Instead, he lives life on his own terms and seeks higher values than the shallow elites that surround him.

Batman: the Real Superman

Zarathustra with Batman's belt and Batman's baterang weapon.

7th century fresco of Zarathustra.

At this point we find the fourth and strongest link with Nietzsche. With the end of Christianity, Nietzsche saw a crossroads. His fear was that western civilization would continue to believe what it did, minus the parts about God. There is much to the Christian religion that is not predicated upon God, and it can (and has) very well exist without God: secular godless Christianity, also known as Social Justice. A form of “Christianity” that seeks to impose perfection on  this world rather than on the mythical afterlife. This was his greatest fear. (After all, a Christian who seeks utopia in an imaginary afterlife is a lot less harmful than one who seeks to create utopia in the corporeal world.) He also believed most people would be unable to move beyond Christianity, and so, once losing their spiritual faith, would land on a secular materialistic “Christianity.” His hope was that enough men would be able to move beyond all this to something better, which he dubbed the overman (sometimes translated as “superman”).

Nietzsche’s overman, like Batman, is his own sovereign who rises above the herd. When the cops try to catch Batman for killing Harvey Dent, he escapes them with ease. In contrast, the bumbling cops are unable to capture Bane, but Batman succeeds. Not the best analogy since Nietzsche meant it in a more spiritual sense than physical, but this is a comic book movie, not pure philosophy. Thus Batman is to some degree Nietzsche’s overman, the superior man who is not bound by the rules of society. More importantly, Batman is not bound by society’s moral laws, something that distinguishes him from fellow superhero Superman. He creates his own values, which allows him not to play by the rules. He has in a way moved “beyond good and evil,” a phrase coined by Nietzsche.

One could argue that the above applies to the comic book supervillains as well, like Bane. That would be partially true. The difference, though, is that of nihilism. The overman (like Batman) sees the beauty in the world to be celebrated and enhanced, can find higher values and pursue them; whereas villains, like Bane and his League of Shadows, blinded by the dangerous philosophy of nihilism, see only ugliness to be destroyed.

The analogies with the overman run deep. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s theory of the overman is portrayed through the character of Zarathustra. He begins as a great man destined to achieve great things. Nietzsche teaches that happiness comes from overcoming challenges, echoing the wise lesson on happiness from Orthodox Judaism’s lessons on wisdom from the Talmud of Babylon. Zarathustra must have a downgoing. That is to say, he must lower himself so that the journey to a goal is that much more difficult, making the end result accomplishment that much more pleasurable.

The Zarathustran downgoing was more spiritual. He went to live life like normal people, experience how they experience the world. And from that, he rose up to flower as the overman. In The Dark Knight Rises this occurs to Batman in a physical sense: Bane brakes his back and drops him into an underground prison in some 3rd world country with the intent of breaking Batman’s will. This is his downgoing. But the exact opposite of Bane’s plan happens. Bruce Wayne, through sheer force of will, heals his back and crawls out of this “inescapable” prison. The dark knight / Zarathustra overcomes his downgoing and rises!

After this rise, Batman then proceeds to subdue the herd that was overrunning Gotham City and defeat the strongest super-villains running the herd. At the climax of the movie, he even appears to sacrifice his own life in order to accomplish the feat of saving the city. He doesn’t actually die, but it is made to appear so. This again echoes Nietzsche, who believed that a death of one’s own choosing was more admirable than a death chosen by Mistress Fate. Even though Batman does not die, the fact that the movie makes you initially believe this gives Batman a very Nietzschean ending.

Ayn Rand

That in sum is Nietzsche 101 and how it relates to The Dark Knight Rises. There is also a final connection with Ayn Rand through the heroes.

Bruce Wayne is a captain of industry, bringing to mind Hank Reardon of Atlas Shrugged. Batman would be nothing without the inventions of another hero of the story: Lucius Fox. Lucius brings to mind Howard Roark the architect of Fountainhead, John Galt the engineer of Atlas Shrugged, and Equality 7-2521 (yes, that’s his actual name) the inventor in the science fiction novella Anthem.

Lucius Fox doesn’t invent these wonderful things due to concern for society. He appears to do it for the love of invention itself, which is a major theme of Ayn Rand’s protagonists. Similarly, Batman does not seem to fight crime due to altruistic motives. At the outset of the movie, crime has been solved in Gotham City. Batman has been retired for years. Bruce Wayne would be his happiest were his motive altruistic, but instead he is in a deep depression. Clearly being Batman for the sake of the adventure and for the sake of overcoming (channeling Nietzsche once again) seems to be his motivation. Although Batman does a great service to the city while risking his life, in the end it was all due to Bruce Wayne’s selfish interests.

This is made clear when Bruce Wayne’s butler asks him to stop being Batman. He fears that Mr. Wayne will be killed. He even threatens to quit as butler, and follows through on the threat when Mr. Wayne insists on continuing as Batman.

This is a theme of Ayn Rand: do not sacrifice a higher value for a lower one, even if others have values opposite of yours. Mr. Wayne valued being Batman even at the risk of his own life more than having his dear friend stay around as butler. Even though it hurt his butler, Mr. Wayne refused to make that sacrifice. That was a supremely selfish act.

Yet had he been altruistic to his butler, Gotham City would have been nuked by Bain. That is the corollary theme of Ayn Rand: rational self interest is not necessarily harmful to others, that it can in fact be a huge benefit to others, like how the self interest of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates has made a very positive impact on the world. Rand’s choice of the word “selfishness” was perhaps a poor one, though I can’t think of a good substitute in the English language. She was not describing a selfishness of living at the expense of others. The villains of her books are also selfish, but selfish in the sense that they prey on others. They raise themselves up by destroying others, the more traditional sense of the word “selfish.” Her heroes pursue self-interest, but not at the expense of others.

In Conclusion…

Perhaps there are even more philosophical themes in this movie that I missed. Regardless, the movie is fun in itself. Who doesn’t like seeing explosions and over-the-top superhero fights? But, the interwoven themes of these two philosophers made it all the more fun to watch by making it more than just a silly action flick but also something to engage the mind. Much more intellectually stimulating than the mindless SJW drivel coming from Marvel! Let’s hope the DC universe keeps up the high bar.