At first glance, and perhaps even at second and third glances, it may seem strange to place the names of Søren Kierkegaard and Bruce Wayne in the same sentence. However, Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy of Batman films—Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—explore many of the same themes as the work of the Danish, existentialist philosopher. Nolan’s hero confronts fear, dread, loss, and isolation, human experiences that are among Kierkegaard’s deepest concerns. And, despite the darkness, both Nolan and Kierkegaard end up telling uplifting stories in which the possibility of redemption is always present, even amidst the worst difficulties. Bruce Wayne achieves a kind of redemption, or what Kierkegaard would call repetition, as he proceeds through a long and difficult journey marked by despair, faith, and sacrifice.
Very little imagination is required to make a superficial comparison between the characters of Job, the biblical subject of Kierkegaard’s Repetition, and Bruce Wayne. Both are wealthy individuals forced to undergo ordeals at the hands of demonic figures. Satan strips Job of his family, his wealth, and his health. His friends and his wife come to offer criticism, even blaming him for his troubles. In the end, Job receives everything back two-fold. Similarly, Wayne’s parents are murdered by Joe Chill, his mansion is burnt to the ground by Ra’s al Ghul, his great love and oldest friend is slaughtered by the Joker, his fortune is stripped by Talia al Ghul, and his body is broken by Bane. His faithful butler, Alfred, tries to convince him to give up on Batman while Selina Kyle looks to persuade him to abandon Gotham. In the end, Bruce also receives everything back two-fold, but his returns are spiritual rather than material. In Kierkegaard’s terminology, Bruce Wayne achieves a repetition.
What is repetition for Kierkegaard, and how is it achieved? Constantin Constantius, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published Repetition, compares it with the concept of recollection. Recollection and repetition, he says, “are the same movement, except in opposite directions” (131). The concept of recollection is drawn from Greek metaphysics. It refers to our ability through physical experiences of the material world and intellectual effort to recall the eternal, ideal forms that provide a source of meaning to all reality. Recollection is a process of remembering; repetition, in contrast, is the active practice of becoming. Repetition is a future-oriented effort that entails resolutely trusting God, despite our experiences with losses in the past and uncertainties of what is to come. Through repetition, we seek the wholeness of eternity not in memories of the past, but in ethical action that offers hope for restoration of ourselves and the world. (On this complicated and elusive notion in Kierkegaard’s thought, see Mooney 1998; also Jackson 1999, 49 n 44.)
A repetition of this kind occurs when Batman saves Police Commissioner Gordon’s son from the deranged Harvey Dent near the end of The Dark Knight. In the scene, Dent holds a gun to Gordon’s son and forces Gordon to reassure the child with the words, “It’s going to be alright, son.” Dent does not realize, of course, that these words were twice spoken to a young Bruce Wayne in a similar situation: first by his dying father and second by a kind police sergeant, none other than Jim Gordon. Bruce heard these words as a helpless young boy, and he spent seven years training so that the next time he heard them he would be able to do something about the situation; he saves Gordon’s son in a repetition.
For Kierkegaard, however, repetition is both an ethical and a religious phenomenon. While Job, the biblical subject of Repetition, would not have experienced a repetition if he had not acted in a way that was pleasing to God, ultimately it was God who saw to it that Job received everything back twice-over. For true repetition then, human action is required but is not sufficient; faith is required as well.
Nolan’s version of Gotham City de-emphasizes the most fantastic elements of Batman’s comic books, opting to portray a city that seems very much like one to which we might pay a visit. Likewise, while Nolan incorporates philosophical and religious themes into his films, they tend to be existential rather than transcendent in tone.
It might not surprise us, then, to find that Bruce Wayne’s faith is not in God, but in something much more mundane: Gotham City. Or, perhaps to be more precise, Wayne places his faith in the goodness of the people of Gotham City. Two scenes are sufficient to illustrate the point. The first demonstrates a chief difference between Bruce Wayne and the vigilantes of the League of Shadows, the leader of which, Ra’s Al Ghul, deemed Gotham City so corrupt that it warranted complete destruction. In a scene from Batman Begins that conjures up images of Abraham bartering with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, Wayne begs Ra’s Al Ghul for more time to turn Gotham around and cries out that “there are good people here.” In a scene in The Dark Knight, Wayne demonstrates faith in the people of Gotham when the Joker manipulates hostages in an attempt to demonstrate the superficiality of “society’s rules.” The Joker plants explosives on two ferries that are attempting to leave the city. One ferry is filled with convicts, and the other with average citizens. The passengers on each ferry are provided with a trigger to detonate the other boat and told that in a few minutes both ferries will explode unless one ferry destroys the other. When Gordon is notified of the situation he tells Batman in desperation that “every second we take, those people on the ferries get closer to blowing each other up.” But Wayne, as Batman, steadfastly replies, “That won’t happen!” For Wayne, for Job, and as we shall see for Abraham, no amount of personal effort or integrity can bring about a repetition. Getting back what has been lost can only occur by virtue of the object of faith, which Kierkegaard dubs “the absurd” in perhaps his most famous work, Fear and Trembling.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, speaks primarily of two kinds of figures, the knight of faith, exemplified by Abraham, who, in Genesis 22, was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the knight of infinite resignation, a subset of which is the tragic hero. “The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham,” de Silentio writes, “is very obvious. The tragic hero is still within the ethical,” the universal social rules by which we live our lives among others (Fear and Trembling, 59). For the tragic hero, to go beyond that which everyone, everywhere and at all times, should do is a transgression. For the knight of faith though, the particular situation becomes higher than the universal rules by means of paradoxical faith. It is only by means of a direct and individual relation to God through faith, which de Silentio argues leads to “the teleological suspension of the ethical,” that Abraham can be saved. According to the universal, Abraham is a murderer; according to the paradox, he is the father of faith.
But such faith has further ramifications. Both the knight of faith and the knight of infinite resignation fortify themselves against the changes of the finite world by relating to that which is infinite: the tragic hero to the universal and the knight of faith to the object of faith. Were a tragic hero given the command given to Abraham, he would have carried out the sacrifice but would have given up all hope upon beginning to climb the mountain. Abraham, though, never gave up hope. He was ready to sacrifice Isaac, but he was also ready to receive him back with joy. Whereas the knight of infinite resignation gives up the world, the knight of faith receives the world back again by virtue of belief in the absurd.
Images of Abrahamic sacrifice are something of a motif in Nolan’s Batman films. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne lays in wait to shoot his parents’ murderer in front of a huge crowd in broad daylight, but just as he is about to pull the trigger a mob goon shoots the man instead. In The Dark Knight, the Joker threatens to commit a murder every day that Batman’s identity remains a secret; however, just as Wayne steps forward to take responsibility, Harvey Dent declares himself to be the Batman.
Perhaps the most interesting such scene, and the most relevant, occurs at the climax of The Dark Knight, when Batman chooses to take the guilt of Dent’s (now Two-Face) crimes upon himself. This scene recalls the opening pages of Fear and Trembling, where de Silentio offers four imaginative renditions of how the sacrifice of Isaac might have played out were Abraham a knight of infinite resignation rather than a knight of faith. The first rendering is worthy of quotation at length:
Abraham climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac did not understand him. Then Abraham turned away from him for a moment, but when Isaac saw Abraham’s face again, it had changed: his gaze was wild, his whole being was sheer terror. He seized Isaac by the chest, threw him to the ground, and said, “Stupid boy, do you think I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you think it is God’s command? No it is my desire.” Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his anguish: “God in heaven, have mercy on me, God of Abraham, have mercy on me; if I have no father on earth, then you be my father!” But Abraham said softly to himself, “Lord God in heaven, I thank you; it is better that he believes me a monster than that he should lose faith in you.” (11)
The similarities between the film’s climax and de Silentio’s first imaginative construction of the Genesis 22 sacrifice are striking. Here Batman is like the ram in the thicket. Wayne functions as Abraham. Dent has shifted from his role as the ram to become a god-character, a symbol of the goodness of Gotham. And the people of Gotham City have entered the picture in the role of Isaac, those whose faith must be maintained through deception. Gordon declares that when the people learn of Dent’s fall to madness they, “will lose hope.” Batman decides to deceive them in order to maintain their faith. “Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Batman seems to operate under his own faith-inspired teleological suspension of the ethical. He transgresses the rule of law, to which everyone everywhere is subject and according to which he is a criminal, worthy of life in prison. Batman, however, is not interested in following the rules: he is interested in the redemption of Gotham. “I can do those things,” he tells Gordon, “because I’m not a hero—not like Dent. I am whatever Gotham needs me to be.”
But if Batman somehow believes that he operates beyond the ethical, Bruce Wayne suffers mightily from having made this sacrifice. While his actions follow those of de Silentio’s first imaginative construction, the fallout is closer to the second rendition: “From that day henceforth, Abraham was old; he could not forget that God had ordered him to do this. Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened and he saw joy no more” (12). Indeed, while Gotham seems to have improved, this is how we find Bruce Wayne in the opening scenes of the third film, The Dark Knight Rises—aged beyond his years, unable to move beyond the death of his beloved Rachel, and haunted by the deception regarding Harvey Dent. The word that Kierkegaard might use for Wayne’s mindset at this point is despair, which the pseudonym Anti-Climacus describes in The Sickness Unto Death as the desire “to want to be rid of oneself” (147). Alastair Hannay helpfully glosses this explanation by writing that despair, for Anti-Climacus, is “a response to whatever it is about one’s ‘self’ that makes one unhappy being it, its particular defects, its contingent historical situation, the human condition as such, or certain demands implicit in the notion of selfhood” (1997, 332).
It is clear to those around him that Bruce Wayne wants to be rid of himself. Alfred, Wayne’s butler and oldest friend, fears not that Wayne will fail if he returns as Batman, but that Wayne’s despair has finally reached suicidal proportions. And Bane, the villain of the film and a leader in the rejuvenated League of Shadows, even refuses to kill Wayne because, as he says to Wayne, “You do not fear death, you welcome it.” But this moment is the beginning of Wayne’s ultimate repetition. Bane puts Wayne in a prison designed to maximize despair by providing a glimmer of hope—the prison has no ceiling. Wayne has fallen in such a hole before but was taught by his father the meaning of such setbacks. “Why do we fall,” his father asked. “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” And Wayne experienced despair once before, when he languished for years after the death of his parents before attempting to be rid of himself by killing their murderer in front of a large crowd. He found faith and purpose, however, like his father, in working for the redemption of Gotham. Ultimately he became the Batman. Now he must become the Batman once again, but before he can do that he must climb out of this prison. He tries twice, crashing against the wall as a rope saves him from perishing. Then, on the third attempt, he does something absurd; he makes the climb without a rope and, in the most strikingly Kierkegaardian of images, makes a great leap to freedom. It is also a leap to faith. He resolves to trust the cat burglar Selina Kyle even after she betrayed him. And when he is forced to sacrifice the Batman once again, and this time Bruce Wayne with him, all is not lost but gained. His parents’ deaths, which we are told in Batman Begins shocked the city into saving itself, ultimately drove Wayne to become the Batman. Batman’s death provides a similar dramatic example, and his faith in the goodness of the city is rewarded. He resigns everything; however, this time he grasps everything as well. His repetition is complete.
A reading of this kind begs the question, were these themes intentionally incorporated into the films? Ultimately, the question is both unanswerable and largely immaterial, for the mere fact that we can discuss themes such as these in this manner of detail demonstrates that these films provide a level of sophistication and a depth of vision worth talking and thinking about. And that, after all, is the genius of both Kierkegaard and of the biblical stories of Abraham and Job upon which he meditates; they draw us to struggle with great questions and to search out the inadequacy of our easy, pat answers. Those of us with religious sensibilities might chaff at the reduction of faith to finite and fallible humanity, and in my mind we are right to do so. But perhaps then we are asking more of The Dark Knight than he can provide. We still need those old Knights of Faith after all.
Ross Moret is a graduate of Valparaiso University’s MALS program and is currently a doctoral student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. The author expresses his thanks to Sophie Lenarz-Coy Moret and John Moret for their helpful comments on this essay.
Hannay, Alistair. “Kierkegaard and the Variety of Despair.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Jackson, Timothy. Love Disconsoled: Meditations on Christian Charity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Kierkegaard’s Writings, VI. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
_____. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. Walter Lowrie, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941.
Mooney, Edward F. “Repetition: Getting the World Back.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.