I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and this holiday season I finally had the chance to re-watch The Dark Knight Rises. As usual with second watches, I was able to pick up a lot of subtexts and richer meanings than I had missed on my first viewing which focussed primarily on Batman, himself, and the inner struggles of Wayne. As the credits rolled this time, I found myself reflecting on the enormity of the character transformation that takes place in the John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
In relatively little screen time, we watch Blake go from a young, by-the-book idealist, to a jaded ex-cop, convinced that laws are no more than shackles. Myself, a recovering idealist, I can attest that this is an earth-shattering paradigm shift. It is a testament to Gordon-Levitt’s amiable stage presence, and the Nolan brothers’ clever writing that this character transformation is so natural and believable. This, of course, got me thinking about the other major cinematic character transformation—you know the one I mean; the transformation we spent 30 years waiting to see come alive on the big screen, only to be bitterly disappointed by its trite and unnatural manifestation. That’s right, I’m talking about Anakin Skywalker.
The Blake/Skywalker comparison firmly in my consciousness, I began considering what it was that made the former so much more believable than the latter. Originally, I planned to plot these transformations along a Good-Evil continuum. I was going to demonstrate how, in fact, Anakin’s change was hardly transformational at all—that is, he goes from being an angsty whiner with a blue light saber, to an angsty whiner with a black suit and a red light saber—while Blake’s transformation is truly ontological—that is, the very foundation of his being shifts from resting on institutionalized law and order, to repudiating that very institution. My continuum would have looked something like this:
But, of course, this is a problematic continuum. While effective for demonstrating Anakin’s move from just left of centre, to far-right, “kitten-eating” evil, the continuum does not work at all for Blake, whose transformation is huge, but who could not really be said to be “evil” despite his ultimate rejection of institutionalized justice. I tried switching the terms on the continuum to Innocence and Experience—which much better represented Blake’s journey—but I found that these terms did not really work for Anakin. Ultimately, these differences are representative of the fact that Nolan and Lucas’ characters inhabit fundamentally different ethical universes. Where Lucas’ world is one of binary opposition between good and evil (and, sadly, Lucas does not leave us with a particularly complex, or interesting version of this world), Nolan’s Batman universe inhabits a sort of post-modern Romantic space. Here, the individual is defined by a Blakean (William Blake, not John) journey from innocence to experience which informs a sort of Derridean ontological conception where our being is determined, not by our relation to some binary opposition like good/evil; but rather by the difference (Derrida’s differance) between where we started from and where we currently are, as well as the difference between who we are and who everyone else is. Thus, John Blake’s transformation cannot be understood in terms of his identity shifting between good and evil; instead, it is a journey from innocence to experience in which his identity is defined in relation to other identities (for example, how it is different from the earlier version of himself; how he is different from Bruce Wayne; how he relates differently to institutionalized justice; etc.).
In the end, I think it is fair to say that Anakin Skywalker becomes evil (or, at least, more evil). The same cannot be said of Blake. Ultimately, Blake is simply different from who he was at the start of the movie. He is certainly less innocent, and more experienced, but the ethical ramifications of this move are ambiguous—like those surrounding the White Knight/Dark Knight moral dilemma of the previous film. This is not the first indication of a post-modern Romanticism (neo-Romanticism?) in Nolan’s work. The entire Batman trilogy (and particularly TDKR) re-treads the big questions of the French Revolution—often considered a breeding ground of Romanticism—and Inception was largely grounded in a sort of Coleridgean conception of Imagination. But a more in-depth discussion of this element of Nolan’s work will have to wait for another post.
In answer to my initial question—what makes Blake’s transformation so much more natural and believable than other cinematic transformations like that of Anakin Skywalkwer?—I suppose I will have to rest on a two-part assertion. First, Blake’s transformation is aided by an exceptionally well-written script and an excellent, likeable performance, while Anakin’s is hindered by poor dialogue and a lukewarm performance. Secondly, because of the different ethical universe that Blake inhabits, he can undergo an enormous ontological shift without having to become “evil.” Ultimately, though a red and black suit may not be too far off for Blake, he is able to end the film sans menacing black suit and red light saber. Certainly, if another film is in the cards (and I have my doubts), questions of good and evil will abound; however, while the characters will struggle with these questions, they are not the categories by which they will be defined.