The Dark Knight, Interstellar, the Theory of Everything and the Cinematic Savior
by Will Bowman
Humanizing A Savior
America was founded in the context of the battle between this dogmatic Christian tradition and secularism. The original migrants to America were Protestant reformers concerned with ideal Christian society. Men like Cotton Mathers and John Winthrop were concerned with the ability to practice their Christian denomination freely and without fear of persecution, but they were surely in the Christian tradition. Their ideal society was more tolerant, granted, but only of their own Protestant Christian denominations. No allowance was given to non-Christian alternatives or even, in some circumstances, Catholic. Society wasn't the end all goal all, salvation was. The only reason society needed to be more tolerant was so that true and right Christianity could be practiced for salvation's sake.
As a result of this, many of the founding fathers wanted Jesus Christ forefront in the constitution. They wanted the new nation to be a singularly Christian one, a nation under the banner of Jesus Christ, though a Protestant Christ free of the tyranny of Rome. However, men like Jefferson and Washington--men concerned with not only Christian freedom but freedom for all citizens, religious or not--made themselves more ideologically represented in the constitution than those who wished the Christian seal. Thus from the beginning, despite the overwhelming Christian majority, there was no legal restriction on religion, official or otherwise. The ultimate goal of the constitution, though it included God, was not spiritual salvation, but rather societal, the cooperation and protection of citizens on earth, religious or otherwise. Society was the end all goal all of the constitution, not paradise. And this society-as-God ideology is the quintessence of all secular ideology today.
And since its inception this allowance has manifested in ever-growing religious plurality, less and less stranglehold by the singularly Christian mythos, especially in the 20th century. XXX INSERT PLURALISM STATISTICS. Less and less is Christ the "only way" in the popular ideology. Hollywood has been a locus of this religious liberality, including the centrality of alternative savior figures Humphries titles the "Cinematic Savior," a savior figure which has, more and more, been secularized across the 20th century.
The earliest films Cinematic Savior films were of Jesus Christ, single-shot passion plays and, eventually, full on cinema recreations of the Gospel. This was a fairly typical Jesus with a romantic twinge. He oozed straight--or almost so--out of the gospels, or at least the popular American imagination of them. Blonde hair, white skin, a Will Riker beard, this period featured very white, very mystical Jesus such as De Bois' in The Greatest Story Ever Told. These films departed little from the Gospels, and the filmmakers seemed more concerned with maintaining the mysticism present in the gospels than telling a compelling Jesus story. Jesus is shown always in white, from a low angle, and always in bright light coming near to halo-status. Jesus' divinity is emphasized. We have little access into Jesus mind and, if present, any self-doubt or questioning about his mission, purpose, or identity. The films are always meant to be heroic. In this stage, Jesus is still the traditional religious savior, by quite a stretch, and the Cinematic Savior is still very, very close to Him as well.
But slowly modernity enveloped this tradition. Films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar and Jesus of Montreal eroded both the psychological and historical credibility of the popular American perception of Christ. In the late 19th century, Jesus became, on film, a self-doubting, psychologically disturbed and vulnerable character. With access to his thoughts, his mission became muddled, his Godhood turned questionable, and He even became, in some films, what Christ could not be in the traditional Christian view, a sinner. In this stage, viewers became more and more acquainted with His faults, doubts, and, ultimately, His humanity.
Parallel to to this, the Christ figure also took the form of the Western, the first non-canonical genre with an obvious Christ complex. The cowboy was a modern, secular Christ figure. The protagonist is the hard-grit, no-emotion hyper-man with a pair of colts but, in the end, a heart of self-sacrifice and gold. He wasn't held to the dogma of the literal retelling and could take whatever attributes American audiences considered Holy and Good. Attributes which, in this case, included self-sufficiency, strength, detachment to the world, but, in the end, a dogged commitment to defense of the underprivileged and oppressed, some attributes which were shared by Jesus himself. Think John Wayne and films like Shane and The Magnificent Seven. Westerns were the first step in the secularization of the Christ myth in film, a trajectory which as continued on into today.
Today, there is little similarity between Jesus Christ and the Cinematic Savior as preached on screen. Modern Jesus films are hyper sensationalized spectacles like The Passion of the Christ or the new HBO series Son of God. Little of the modern American mythos is imbued into these films, and no matter how "moving" and "true to Jesus' suffering" the Passion is, nobody would expect that Jesus to save anybody today. The historical Jesus is no longer a legend or myth on film. It is a story, nothing more, a story to be molded and told from interesting or unique angles, but with little true potency for American transcendence. All modern salvific qualities have been ripped from Him and transferred to secular mythical and legendary forms.
Instead, what we're left with our new Cinematic Savior. He appears across multiple genres including superhero, sci-fi, drama, and more. But the qualities he displays are becoming more and more common. He is secular and very, very human. He is typically not a religious figure. On the contrary, he is now often non-religious, skeptical, or even downright atheistic. He is often sarcastic even bordering on sardonic. He's funny, always in a witty, clever, dry and sarcastic way, using this ironic humor to deflect others from seeing his deep-seated suffering and pain. Rather than the mystical, self-confident, stoic and morally sure God-man of the Gospels, the Cinematic Savior is crippled or self-doubting, psychologically or physically disturbed. But still, he must have power, and in the rejection of all things once considered heroic and sacred--faith, physical strength, and even pure reason--he regains control through his mind, heart and the products thereof: knowledge, technology, science, and love. Ultimately, today's cinematic savior is a man of the mind and heart, and all the products thereof. A man of mind, not Mind. A man of heart, not Heart. And this is the Cinematic Savior present in The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, Theory of Everything, and countless other modern popular films.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Now, as many other interpreters have guessed, I agree that it's highly unlikely Nolan sat down and planned to create a Christ allegory out of the Batman legend. Bloggers and fans debate his religious views, but he keeps his personal life very quiet, but there's little evidence to believe Nolan is himself a Christian of any sorts (Religion and Political Views). That being said, Christopher Nolan was raised Catholic, and it's quite possible he has unconsciously imbued his film with much of the thematic, visual, and character material from the gospels surrounding him during his childhood. Ernest Ferlita in her essay The Agony of Action in Film notes how even directors who explicitly deny beliefs can imbue their films with religious motifs and ideas (Religion in Film 55). Robert Detwiler says that that the Christ story "supply the best known, most viable body of material for the expression of meaning in Western culture" (Qtd. in Religion in Film 62). The Christ myth is part of our personal and collective subconscious, and, if you believe Joseph Campbell, the essence of storytelling as well. Further, there are plenty of instances of directors experiencing religious heirophanies watching their own films after composition, production, and release. Ingmar Bergmann with The Seventh Seal. Kubrick with 2001 A Space Oddesy. Whatever Nolan's conscious motivations then, it's still entirely possible--plausible, even--that he is capable of creating a film steeped in religious themes without consciously setting out to do so.
That being said, consciously or not, Batman is certainly a Christ figure. Bruce Wayne's stated goal is to bring justice and to save Gotham. His father is a martyred icon of good, and Bruce wants to live up to his father's wishes to help the city's oppressed and underprivileged. In order to do so, he becomes a half-man, half-divine creature in the eyes of his opponents and those he wishes to save. "As a man I can be stopped, killed," Bruce says in Batman Begins. "But as a legend, I can be something more, something elusive XXX" After he trains with Raz Al Ghoul (Jesus in the wilderness?), he dons the legend and proceeds to use his new supra-man power to fight crime, save the innocent, and defy those in power who use their power to control those less than them. In The Dark Knight, like Christ, he takes the fall for those whom he protects. He is crucified by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane holds him above his head, they form a cross). And then he does just that, rises (from "the pit") and saves those who persecuted him and cannot save themselves. In the end, Batman's apotheosis is into a mushroom cloud, and the legend of Batman now alive forever in the minds and hearts of Gotham's citizens (and not to mention statues). There are countless more parallels that could be interpreted between the life of Wayne/Batman and Jesus/Christ. But suffice to say that they are figures of a Christ, even if Nolan didn't intend them to be.
And there are several attributes of Wayne and Batman which are pertinent to the modern Cinematic Savior. First, Wayne shows no attraction to religion in any way, shape, or form. He's certainly not hostile to religion or religious characters; in The Dark Knight Rises, his entire mansion is donated (after his "death") to a Catholic boys home. However, he never speaks of church, God, or divine matters whatsoever. His entire mission is oriented around human justice, as all secular ideology is. The salvation he offers is to a society and is attached to the material city of Gotham. His bad guys--Raz Al Ghoul (Demon's Head), The Joker, and Bane--though they take on many attributes similar with spiritual antagonists of the Gospels and elsewhere, are human and have very human purposes and goals. Batman is a human savior from human enemies, very different from the spiritual salvation offered by Jesus Christ of the gospels and Christ films of the early 20th century.
Next, Wayne is psychologically disturbed throughout all three of the films. He wrestles with his mission, his purpose, and how far he is willing to go in order to achieve that goal, all of which, unlike Jesus of the gospels, we are privy to. "No, Rachel, it's coming," he tells her in The Dark Knight, "A time when Gotham will no longer need Batman." Batman longs for a normal life separate from the legend in which he can live, love, and let others do the work of justice. But in the next film, after Rachel dies, this quickly changes. The Cat tells him he doesn't owe Gotham's citizens anything, he's given them everything. "Not everything," he tells her, implying that his life is the final thing that he will give. Bruce is split between his human desire to live a human life and his legendary mission (self-assigned) to die for Gotham and justice. And when Rachel dies, so does his desire for the former (until he regains it with The Cat, that is, at the end of The Dark Knight Rises). Like with the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ, Bruce's thoughts, doubts, and struggles negate much of the mysticism or divine distance inherent in the original Jesus story, revealing the Savior to be much more disturbed and much more human.
Now, some may argue that this distance is regained when Wayne dons the cape and smoker's voice. Bruce is the man, Batman is the legend, and the point of this differentiation is to retain some of that mysticism in order to terrify, inspire, and instill awe in us and his foes. However, the entire time we watch Batman squiggle through traffic on the Bat-Bike or beat bad guys to a pulp, we still retain knowledge of his finitude and humanity. There's a scene in Batman Begins where Batman, after being gassed and burned by scarecrow in the apartment, lays steaming and beaten on top of a dark, ominous building and radios Alfred for help. "Alfred, help me! Help me!" In the next scene, Alfred is driving him home as he hallucinates about bats and his childhood. With these two scenes, the legend of Batman and the man of Wayne meet and become one, in the first film no less. There is no border between legend and human, between God and man. Inside the cape, behind the body armor, Batman is still Wayne, physically frail, emotionally disturbed, agonized Bruce Wayne, a far distance from the psychological mysticism of Jesus Christ in the gospels.
The next attribute is humor. Unlike the humorously bereft Gospels, humor--particularly sarcasm and irony, the particular flavor of Batman and Wayne's humor--is an essential part of Wayne's character. "My mother told me never to get into cars with strangers," The Cat tells Batman. "This isn't a car." "Why are you any different than me," a vigilante asks him. "I'm not wearing hockey pads," he replies, and the theater laughs and laughs. His and Alfred's interactions are positively turgid with sarcastic banter. And at the root of irony and sarcasm lies skepticism and deference: irony relies not on surface level meaning, but on a subliminal meaning or, in the case of sarcasm, the antithesis of surface-level meaning. Anyone who believed a student who says "I'm having such a good time in class" in a sarcastic tone would be dreadfully mistaken about the purposes of the statement. Using and interpreting ironic humor necessitates a doubt or deception in regards to the stated meaning, requiring the practitioner or listener to invert or reinterpret it in order to arrive at the true meaning. We live in an age of skepticism, where the automatic stance in regards to assertions is not belief, not neutrality, but doubt. And doubt, as we saw with Wayne's previous attribute, is an essential attribute of the modern Cinematic Savior, namely, doubt in regards to himself and all those things which have, in the past, been held as holy, good and potent for salvation.
Batman's humor also functions as a defense mechanism. INSERT EVIDENCE AND PARAGRAPH
But despite Wayne's very-human finitude, he still has immense power, but much of it doesn't come from him. Bruce's father, as we see in Batman Begins created a massive fortune and industry machine through his company. A fortune which Bruce Wayne quickly employs to make himself into Batman. Bruce himself is obviously adroit with money, technology and industry. He is educated, proficient with the toys he uses, and has many scenes in which he uses technology in his quests. In Batman Begins, Alfred and he single-handedly (or double-handedly?) create the bat-suit from spare parts ordered from low-key distributors. Bruce sands, spray paints, and crafts his armor. In The Dark Knight, Bruce uses a dolly-rigged .50 caliber rifle and computer analysis to recreate prints from a shattered bullet. You can't buy those on Ebay. Neither can you buy a massive cellular sonar system designed from a prototype emitter from a single phone. But Bruce Wayne designs one. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Lucius Fox tells him it takes a "better mind than mine" to repair the auto pilot on the Batwing. Bruce repairs it, as is evidenced by his presence at the cafe with Alfred. Without recourse to spiritual power from a God, the physical strength of a Greek myrmidon, or the Old-West 5-shot .50 caliber colt, Bruce Wayne instead resorts to his mind. The secularized Savior draws his power from his mind and the products it (and society) create; namely, his technology. The modern savior no longer relies on God, strength, or Church to save him, his mind is the panacea for the ills of his chosen society to save, an attribute which makes Batman a perfect example of the modern Cinematic Savior.
And Cooper is, in fact, unlikely. Hardly the mystical Jesus of the gospels, he's thoroughly human and conflicted as such. He has a family, a farm (which he hates, like any good middle-aged American would), and he has problems with both. He and his grandpa don't see eye to eye, and he's at odds with the culture of propaganda and conservatism he lives in. He dreams of returning to humans traveling the stars rather than "staring at the dirt," and he's virulently against the modern double-speak and propaganda trying to convince the world that space-travel never happened.
And as with Batman, he's also psychologically split. On the one hand (the purely human hand), he's attached to his filial loves and duties to his family. He loves his daughter and his son. When Professor Brand first asks him to go on the mission he refuses because of his family. And even on the mission, his attachment to his family directly conflicts with the "mission" to deposit the pre-fertilized eggs, abandon the the humans on Earth to their fate, and save the human species. But on the other hand, he wants to do what"s best for that species. He wants off this rock of dust and fertilizer that Earth has become. He wants a better life for the humans, regardless of the pain it may cause his family (hence he leaves even when Murph doesn't want him to). And what does this translate to? On the one hand are his human, biological (as Mann makes very clear in his freeze-fight soliloquies) attachments, and on the other hand is his divine, selfless duty to the group, a conflict which directly translates to both that of Batman and other Jesus figures such as Jesus from The Last Temptation of Christ. The savior is always conflicted between his human desires and his call from God. And in the absence of God or super nature, society is God for all modern Cinematic Saviors, including Cooper.
Cooper is also a skeptic. He expressedly has no place for any sort of supernatural entities or any spiritual world. He tells Murph that ghosts aren't real, hence his surprise at it's reality (though, after "praying" to it all night he discovers it's not a ghost, "It"s gravity;" his skepticism remains intact). He flatly reduces love to social utility, slapping Brandt down with a cup full of sociology when she claims it has some sort of transcendence. He doesn't go to church, if there even is church in the post-dust world, and he makes it very clear to Murph that believing something isn't enough. "You have to record evidence, xxx, present your findings." Cooper is full of doubt toward anything not grounded in science and his physical senses, and it manifests in his conflicted nature about his purpose and how best to save the human race.
And finally, like Batman, Cooper is sarcastic. But while Batman primarily uses irony as a manifestation of his skeptical nature, Cooper uses his sarcasm as a defense mechanism. At every turn, especially with Earth's planetarily conservative residents, he tosses out witty, dry, sometimes-ironic jabs. He tells Murph that grampa believes in ghosts because "he's pretty close to being a ghost himself." His joke about taking Murph to the baseball game as reward for standing up for the lunar landing is an ironic slap to the face. He has a love-hate relationship with the robots, telling one that he will turn him into a "overrated vacuum cleaner" if it doesn't back off. And his cracks don't quit when he takes off. On the ship, after he asks it about Brant and xxx, the Tars tells him he has a discretion setting, to which Cooper replies "But not a poker face, slick." Throughout the entire film, Cooper wears his humor like plate mail. With his friends, he's sincere and kind; however, with those who oppose or insult him, his snarky humor becomes a defense mechanism. This is a perfect example of the defensive nature of modern humor: Cooper is a deeply-troubled, deeply-conflicted man with a strong conflict of desire and, not unlike the robots on the ship, a sarcasm setting of 110 to shield the pain, longing, and doubt he lives with throughout the trip across the universe, a pain which can be seen as he cries and cries at the image of his now-adult daughter finally on the space-message screen.
But despite his humanity, his skepticism, and his overall finitude, Cooper is brilliant. In the pre-blight world, he was a man of his mind: an engineer and a NASA pilot (and they don't let just any average farmer pilot those things). In the modern world, this is also true: he mollifies his agrarian frustrations by chasing down haywire drones and scrapping them for power sources. He fixes and programs harvesters. He obviously knows his way around a black hole: he repeatedly is the provenance of the life-saving plan for the ship and their crew. And like any good father, he wants both of his children to attend college (though Tom doesn't end up doing so). Cooper is an oasis of pre-dust-bowl brilliance, and he uses it to succeed at every turn both on Earth and in a galaxy far, far away. And not only him. The human race relies on its mind to survive and, in the end, escape earth. The entire space station is a creation of the mind, as are the space ships the humans travel on. Further, but for Cooper's adroit mechanical skills and overall proficiency as a pilot and astronaut, the crew would have been black hole fodder in no time. His mind repeatedly solves their problems, and he translates a mathematical formula to Murph. She then solves the equation with her mind, despite that the heart was necessary to transmit the information. Like with Batman, all the practical methods of salvation in Interstellar are through mind and its product technology.
But interestingly enough, Cooper's mind isn't the sole means of salvation. As I mentioned, Cooper is initially skeptical of love as anything more than of social practicality. His arc is learning that love does transcend, and that love has the power to save the human race. However, in the multi-dimensional black hole, Cooper has a pseudo-spiritual experience. When Tars asks him how he will communicate with Murph, he replies,
Love, Tars, love. It's my connection with Murph. I brought myself here. Just like Brandt said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable, it's the key!
And in the end, that's what it is: salvation of humans, by humans. While in the black hole, Cooper realizes that the "they" everyone constantly droned on about through the film isn't really a "they", they're himself.
Cooper: They didn't bring us here at all. We brought ourselves. Don't you get it yet Tars? I brought myself here. We're here to communicate with the 3-dimentional world. We're the bridge. I thought they chose me. They didn't chose me they chose her.
Tars: For what, Cooper?
Cooper: To save the world.
Theory of Everything
However, Hawking does share many attributes of the modern Cinematic Savior and does, in fact, become a savior figure for modern society. Hawking is, as is typical modern man, disturbed and agonized, and he uses his humor to mask this pain. His Motor Neuron disease systematically destroys his body, and he's deprived of his physical ability to express his immense intellect and willpower. "Your thoughts won't change, it's just nobody will be able to hear them," his doctor tells him. As such, he is constantly frustrated by his physical insufficiency and his reliance on others. He hates the wheelchair, calling it "temporary" (which it isn't), and he refuses help outside of Jane's for years. After his tracheotomy, he (again) almost gives up completely. The only reason he continues is the united efforts of his wife and nurse. Hawking is repeatedly frustrated by his physical impotence, and while his humor isn't ironic--it's dry, as typical British humor is--it's certainly defensive. He deflects all this painful emotion and negativity with his wit. "Your mother is very angry with me," he drones to his son in the car as Jane tries to reason him that she needs help. He can't dance, probably as a result of early stage of his disease; he dryly remarks it is a phenomenon he's "happy observing but couldn't imagination taking part in." He contemplates the mathematical probability of sit-com characters finding happiness (while he's certainly not happy), and tells Jane, when she says his name, trying to console him, that "you just missed him, he was here earlier." Hawking is a typical modern: full of doubt, anger, resentment and skepticism, and his humor, throughout the film, is a defensive emanation of that.
And right off the bat, Jane and Stephen's antithetical religious views become a point of tension. Hawking is a downright skeptic; Jane is a Church of England devout. The lights are dim and blue, the slow rhythmic silhouettes of dancing graduate students undulate around the pair of would-be lovers as he tells her cosmology is "a kind of religion for intelligent atheists". When she says she is, on the other other hand, religious, he snarks, "well, someone has to be." He later explains that he has a problem with the whole "celestial dictator premise," and also that a "physicist cannot let his calculations be muddle by belief in a supernatural creator." Throughout the film Hawking's worldview is God vs. physics, both cannot be true. More so than Batman or Cooper in the Nolan films, Hawking's a downright skeptic, rejecting God in His traditional sense and anything indecipherable by his senses and intellect.
That being said, Hawking is also a man of faith, though not in God. And in this Hawking does, in fact, slip into the realm of a cinematic savior and the Theory of Everything into a salvation myth for today's world. Hawking has faith in two things: the mind and love. Jane asks what he worships, to which he replies, "a single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe." Later, Stephen writes in his book, "Who are we? Why are we here? If we know this, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God." Hawking's view of "God" is the universe, and the "mind of god" is the basic physical principles which guide every phenomena in it. And what is the means through which man knows the mind of God? Reason, knowledge, science, essentially, the mind. On the one hand, he rejects blatantly any God (in the "celestial dictator" sense) or super nature, or any sort of authority higher than the human rational capability, but on the other hand affirms the ultimate power of the mind (his mind, in particular) to discover the ultimate mathematical equation to describe, well, everything.
And like with Interstellar, Hawking also has faith in love. "Look what we created," he tells Jane (emphasis added) at the end of the film, looking at their children. Creation is an act of love, and love comes from the heart. In the film Hawking has just disproved the Creation of the universe through science. So what is left? Human creation, human love, human heart. Like in Interstellar, there is no Love, only love. And the ultimate acts of creation, preaches The Theory of Everything, are not divine, but very human.
In the end, the film becomes a myth and moral manifesto for the modern man. Sitting on stage, when asked if, having abandoned God, he has a moral principle which guides him in life, Hawking answers,
It is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates, on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star, in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. But, ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe. And what can be more special than that there is no boundary? And there should be no boundary to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope.
In the end, Hawking serves as a metaphor and moralist for today's existence: we are a race which has, in many ways, been reduced to a physically impotent and existentially itty, bitty life form, pushing ourselves along our frail state in light of a massive, scary universe. But in light of such a nihilistic worldview, "there should be no boundary to human endeavor." There is no boundary to the human heart and mind, even in light of our finitude, and in this he is certainly a modern Savior, and Theory is a perfect Sermon on the Mount for our secularized society.