The Christopher Nolan Batman films - 2005's Batman Begins, 2008's The Dark Knight and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises follow the exploits of the titular Batman, the alter ago of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and his attempts to bring justice to a corrupt Gotham City by dressing up as a technologically advanced masked vigilante. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey, or monomyth, tells the same fundamental story: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Campbell, p. 23). This essay will outline how the plot structure of Nolan's Batman films follows the hero's journey, Bruce Wayne/Batman following the template of the monomyth, as well as what makes these films so universal and relevant.
Bruce Wayne, as a hero, must start his journey as an ordinary man; in the film, he is the young, innocent son of a benevolent millionaire doctor, who teaches him the importance of kindness and generosity before being gunned down in cold blood by criminal Joe Chill. This breeds resentment and anger in Bruce, who considers killing Joe at his trial; only the fact that someone else beat him to the punch stops him. After some intervention, and a talk with childhood friend Rachel (played in the first film by Katie Holmes), Bruce decides to abandon his privileged life and dedicate his future to fighting crime. This incident is known as the 'Call to Adventure,' the event or information that is received that starts him into a journey of the unknown (Campbell, p. 41).
After Bruce spends years outside the country, learning martial arts and spending time with criminals, the hero has to be brought into a 'region of supernatural wonder' in which he learns how to become a hero. This is the Crossing of the First Threshold, the point where the hero heads out into an unknown location without any limits or known rules (Campbell, p. 64). The person to bring him into the 'region of supernatural wonder' is Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a representative of the League of Shadows, a criminal organization which brings Bruce into the fold to train him in the art of the ninja. Ducard (later revealed to be the real Ra's Al Ghul, the leader of the League) is the one to awaken Bruce to his potential, and facilitates the call to adventure. Of course, Bruce initially refuses the call, as many heroes who follow the monomyth do.
Along the way, Bruce still has to emotionally connect himself with the journey, and realize the stakes of what is involved. His own emotional stake in the journey deals directly with his affection for Rachel, a childhood friend for whom he has romantic feelings. She is his ties to his lost childhood (shattered when his parents were killed), and is the figure in these films who is constantly asking him (explicitly and implicitly) to give up the mantle of the city's protector and deal with his issues on his own. However, Bruce must simply refuse this call to normalcy as well, as his wealth and his unique determination requires him to step up into this needed position of city protector.
Ducard acts as the Supernatural Aid, the mentor figure who knows everything that Bruce needs to know, and thus struggles to teach it to him despite Bruce's own refusal (Campbel, p. 57). Ducard then begins to hone Bruce's skills for extra-sensory perception, showing Bruce the importance of patience, determination, complete sensory awareness, and the use of fear to defeat one's enemies. In their training, Bruce learns many tools and tricks he uses as Batman, including the gauntlet blades, vanishing dust, and ninja stars (which later become Batarangs). This is the point where Bruce truly believes that he has these responsibilities, and fully commits to the journey of fighting crime.
However, the turning point in his journey comes when he is asked by the League to finish his training by killing a thief in cold blood. This is his first big trial in the movie; his chance to fully embrace his status as a hero. he manages to defeat the villain. Despite the League's perspective that all evil must be defeated with zero tolerance, Bruce believes that there is no need for killing in order to stop crime; to that end, he chooses virtue and defeats the League, killing the image of Ra's, saving Ducard's life while defeating him and putting his training to good use. He takes this victory home to Gotham, secretly celebrating his act of virtue, but knowing he cannot openly admit to his new role of Batman. This is the Belly of the Whale for Bruce, his first moment in which he realizes that he must undergo a metamorphosis to make himself change (Campbell, p. 210).
what does this cultural text teach about maturation?
The films are a cultural milestone, with most people in Western society at least being familiar with Batman, Gotham City, the Joker, Catwoman, Alfred and others. These films speak to a postmodern audience; transporting the 20th century superhero to a 21st century, post-9/11 setting allows the idealistic trappings of superheroes and caped crusaders to be grounded in a kind of hyper-realism. While there are all manner of childlike and fantastical devices and plot points in the films, which allow for children to enjoy it as well, the films mostly speak to people like Bruce - disillusioned people who do not know how to operate or survive in a world that does not care about them, and often actively works against them. In Batman Begins, Bruce learns to stand on his own, without the help of his father, Ducard or other paternal figures. In The Dark Knight, he resigns himself to his duties because he is the only one who can save the city, despite the potential for someone else to take the mantle (Harvey Dent). In The Dark Knight Rises, he finally manages to learn his limitations and rise from his lowest point (with his back broken and left in Bane's prison) to sacrifice himself for the city he loves. With the help of Campbell's monomyth, we learn the steps Batman must make on his journey, and how this becomes such a universal and relatable story despite its comic-book trappings.
Campbell, J. The hero with a thousand faces (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. Print.
Nolan, Christopher (dir.) Batman Begins. Perf. Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes. Warner Bros, 2005. Film.
Nolan, Christopher (dir.) The Dark Knight. Perf. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Echkart. Warner Bros, 2008. Film.
Nolan, Christopher (dir.) The Dark Knight Rises. Perf. Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway. Warner Bros, 2012. Film.