BH Interview: ‘Gotham’ Examines the Dark Knight’s Spiritual Side
Paul Asay doesn't think director Christopher Nolan actively incorporated elements of Christianity into the auteur's Batman movie trilogy. But Asay still sees serious parallels between the franchise's flawed but morally upright Knight and those who embrace Christianity.
Big Hollywood checked in with Asay, author of the new book "God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach Us About God and Ourselves," to learn why he sees a connection between a pop culture legend and those who seek a higher purpose through the Lord.
Big Hollywood: Talk about the origin of the book ... is this topic something that's been on your mind for years, or did something help trigger the connection between Batman and Christianity?
Paul Asay: It’s funny, actually: When I first started toying with the idea of a book linking superheroes with spirituality, I wasn’t thinking much about Batman at all.
I write reviews for an online Christian publication (pluggedin.com), and over the last several years I’ve seen and reviewed—from a Christian point of view, obviously -- scads of superhero movies. And I’ve often been struck with how positive so many of those movies are: They’re wonderful, colorful good-versus-evil stories in which the hero sometimes makes almost Christ-like sacrifices to save the day.
I’m certainly not the first guy to see those kinds of parallels between comic-book superheroes and Jesus—other very good books have been written on that very subject. But given how many were turning up on screen, I thought it might be fun to examine these superheroes through how we see them in the movies—guys like Superman, Spider-Man Thor and the like.
But Batman—arguably the most popular superhero out there—didn’t snugly fit into that superhero trope. He wasn’t really a “super” superhero—no super strength or speed or magic. And frankly, he sometimes didn’t feel all that “good.” I mean, look at the guy: If we saw someone like that on a darkened street, we’d be more likely to run away than say, “now, that’s the way a hero should look.”
Batman’s a pretty bleak, pretty flawed hero in some ways, and he’s been like that ever since his creation in1939. He’s no messiah figure. He’s murkier, more complex. And as such, I realized that Batman was in a lot of ways more like us—you and me—than the demigods he hangs with. He is, bluntly, pretty messed up. But he’s still trying to follow a calling he doesn’t quite understand and trying to do what’s right in a world that’s gone wrong. And that’s, really, what Christianity’s about: Our faith is full of messed-up people trying—often imperfectly—to follow God and live out the purposes he has for us.
BH: If you met someone at a cocktail party and had to very briefly sum up why the Batman films relate to your faith what would you tell them?
PA: I think it really comes down to the fact that, with Batman, nothing’s ever easy. He can’t fly away if he gets into trouble. He doesn’t turn into an indestructible green monster when he gets angry. He’s a self-made superhero, and as such he’s quite vulnerable. But he never shirks his duties, never takes a night off. It’s like he’s propelled by a strange but powerful calling—one to right the wrongs of Gotham and make the world, as much as he can, a better place.
I think God calls us all to do that, frankly. We’re called to make a difference. We’re called to fight and defend what we believe in. But it ain’t easy. Or, at least, it’s not easy for me. I get discouraged, like Batman does. I wonder whether we can really make a difference or whether it’s all for naught, like Batman does. I doubt and I struggle and, sometimes, my biggest enemy is myself. So I look at a character like Batman and he reminds me that, however dark things look and however futile our miniscule efforts appear, there’s a reason to fight the good fight. There’s a reason to try to make a difference. Batman, more than anything for me, reminds me that even when we don’t feel very super or very heroic, God has called us to help a hurting world. And we need to do our very best, every day, to heed that call.
BH: Have you reached out to any of the writers connected to Batman through the years? if not, what kind of questions would you ask them?
PA: I’d love to get a sense from them on who they think Batman is: Behind all the masks, is he more Bruce Wayne? More Dark Knight? Are both of them, essentially, fabrications, and underneath you have the same little boy who lost his parents? Is he to you, dear writer, a hero?
I’d suspect that almost all of them have a slightly different view of who Batman really is. I bet Batman’s a hard guy to get to know—even when you’re literally putting words in his mouth. And I think Batman himself would be kinda pleased about that, given his desire to be secretive and shadowy. He’s not really just a comic-book character anymore, but a cultural archetype—bigger than any single writer or artist. It’s part of his draw, this inscrutability of his. We don’t know who he is, and I doubt even he fully knows who he is. And that, again, makes him a wee bit like us. We’re all full of surprises. Sometimes we surprise even ourselves.
BH: Do you think Christopher Nolan and his creative team work through similar issues (either consciously or subconsciously) as they worked on their three Bat films?
PA: I’m not sure if they’d couch it in the overtly spiritual terms that I would, but there’s got to be an element of that, don’t you think? I mean, any time you’re playing with such massive concepts of good and evil, or when you draw up a character like the Joker who argues that things like “morality” and “purpose” really have no place in the world, you’re dealing with questions of faith.
In "Batman Begins," when you see Bruce Wayne refuse to behead a thief and murderer—much to the chagrin of his mentor—he’s making a statement, I think, that there’s an overarching morality that transcends mere human law and rule.
In "The Dark Knight," when Batman tells the Joker that people are “good”—better than he gives them credit for, anyway--that’s a spiritual statement. When you look at most of the enemies Batman’s faced over Nolan’s films, you see there’s a sense of relativism, of Darwinian pragmatism that runs through them: “Why shouldn’t I do what I please?” And Batman’s always there to answer, “Because it’s wrong.”
In Nolan’s movies, Batman sees wrong and right as literal realities, literal truths. And the only way you can get to that sense of wrong and right, I believe, is eventually through the crux of faith. Belief in good and evil, wrong and right requires a belief--even a subconscious belief--in a greater intelligence that somehow placed that sense of wrong and right within us. Again, I don’t know anything about Nolan’s religion or lack thereof. But I do believe God can work in some pretty unexpected places. I don’t think it’s possible for us to completely shake His influence on us. His fingerprints are always there.
BH: Do movies matter? Do you think even if filmgoers don't read your book they'll still pick up some of the themes you touch upon in "Gotham?"
PA: I think they will if they’re looking for them. But I think Nolan’s work, like the best sorts of literature and art and movies, really speak to us all in different ways.
BH: What reaction has surprised you the most about your book so far?
PA: I think the most pleasant surprise has been how much my dad liked it. He wasn’t so thrilled with superheroes when I was growing up, and as I related in my book, he pretty much kicked ‘em out of the house for a while. He had just become a new Christian and, in his enthusiasm, he was worried that those superheroes—whom I dearly loved--might distract me from Jesus, the only hero worth having. We have a great relationship and have long since made peace with the whole superhero debacle, but even we’ve never seen exactly eye to eye when it comes to religion: There’ve been times when I’ve tried to show him “God’s fingerprints” in various stories or movies and he just wasn’t having any of it. But after he finished the book, he told me, “I think I understand what you’ve been trying to tell me all these years.” It made the whole book worthwhile for me.
BH: What do you expect from "The Dark Knight Rises" in connection to what you've processed from the first two Nolan films?
PA: Frankly, I don’t know what to expect. Nolan could introduce Adam West as the real Batman and pound all my little theses into the ground, for all I know. But from what I see in the trailers, I’m pretty optimistic that some of what I talk about in the book may be augmented.
We know this is the end of the road, as far as Nolan’s Batman saga goes. We know that Batman’s set to face Bane, who nearly destroyed Batman the first time they met in print. In the trailers, we hear Catwoman—a pragmatist if ever there was one—tell Batman, “You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.” And Batman then say, “Not everything. Not yet.” My guess is we’ll see Batman more human, yet more heroic, than we’ve seen him yet. And I’m kinda secretly hoping someone will ask me to write “God on the Streets of Gotham, Part 2.”
BH: In recent years, church groups have rallied around smaller films with strong spiritual themes ("Fireproof," "Courageous"). Do you think that should happen with every new Batman release?
PA: Goodness, no. I think it’d be hard for the Christian subculture to wrap its arms around movies as murky and as dark as these, and I’d hate for pastors to tell their congregants to run out and see films where folks could be potentially shish-ka-bobbed with pencils. Just because I wrote a book about ‘em doesn’t mean I think every Christian should go.
But if Christians do go—and we know many have and many will—there are some deep, intriguing and I think inspirational lessons to be found. I don’t think Nolan ever intended his Dark Knight trilogy to be some sort of Christian parable. But can Christians find some good here? Some reflections of their faith? Even a bit of inspiration? You bet.
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