Imitation, Violence and the Body in The Dark Knight Rises

“What is the meaning of it Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”[1]

1. Holmes’ Two Bodies

With the Aurora shooting casting a dark shadow over the film, no discussion of The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) can avoid addressing James Holmes’ act of meaningless, horrific violence. It is not the kind of critique the movie deserves but one that it needs right now. Many critics have raised the question whether Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise in particular and Hollywood’s culture of stylized violence is at least partly to blame for the shooting. Oliver Gettell summarizes the varying opinions of six critics on the subject.[2] While all the critics given voice in this article agree that there is no straight-forward connection between TDKR and the shooting, there remains an uneasiness as to the question why such a thing happened at a premiere of this particular film. Dana Stevens expresses this uneasiness adequately:

I can’t stop asking … why there? I can’t get away from the fact that this act of violence took place — with, from the look of it, considerable advance planning — at an opening-night midnight showing of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ a movie that (like the rest of the trilogy it concludes) envisions modernity as a lawless dystopia where just such a thing might happen.

Ty Burr from the Boston Globe comes closer towards an explanation by pointing out that

“[h]is [Nolan’s] movies don’t explain our confused world, but they mirror that confusion with cathartic skill, in a way that can feel absolutely right if you don’t know how to find the words for yourself. They’re hardly political, but they reflect a helplessness we feel about politics and society — about our lives — that resonates with force.[3]

Burr seems to suggest that Holmes found this reflection of his own helplessness in the character of The Joker in The Dark Knight (TDK), one of the darkest and most destructive characters on the big screen in recent years. This is corroborated by the fact that Holmes dyed his hair to resemble the Joker and allegedly identified himself to the police as the Joker just prior to his arrest.

Does this mean that The Dark Knight franchise is to blame after all? I would like to suggest that the answer is an emphatic no, because, unlike Burr, I strongly believe that Nolan’s trilogy actually explains our confused world. The Joker’s and possibly Holmes’ nihilist world view, captured adequately by Alfred in TDK by the phrase “some men just want to watch the world burn”, is not the film’s world view. Rather, the trilogy’s ethical framework qualifies the destructive nature of The Joker. I will argue in the following that René Girard’s anthropological mimetic theory has the power to reveal the authoritative moral voice in The Dark Knight movies and thus also helps us in coming to terms with the role of the Joker.

But before we can turn our attention to such a reading of the films, one final point about Holmes must be mentioned. If there is a connection between TDK and the shooting it is one of misreading. No author, be it of books, films, songs etc., has control over the way his or her work is being read. The most prominent example is probably the case of The Christian Bible: a text whose authorial intention has been generally understood as one of peace, has been forced into violent moulds over the two millennia of its existence. Mark Twain at the very beginning of Huckleberry Finn also describes the problem adequately. Tom Sawyer wants to form a gang of robbers with the intent to kill people because he has read it in books. The children are then harmlessly playing at being robbers with only Huck Finn being disappointed that they are not really killing anyone. This type of misreading is however probably most famously the premise of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The madness of Don Quixote is to believe that the books of chivalry are real and to enact the deeds of fictive knights. In general authors can suggest authoritative readings but are never in full control of their works. As good art depicts human realities from its loftiest heights to its darkest abysses, there is always the possibility of a wilful misidentification with the destructive forces critically examined.

Whatever the reasons for Holmes’ rampage may be, it is likely that in his horrific enactment of his “god fantasy” common to all homicidal maniacs, he envisioned himself as the nihilistic, glamorous screen Joker. This was the symbolic body he chose for himself to transcend the miserable limits of his own real body in his shooting rampage. His confusion of the imaginary and the real had horrific consequences for his victims. Holmes’ symbolic body has been shattered to bits by the harsh realities of his act, reducing him to the scared, lonely, apathetic and insecure person the court cameras showed us earlier in the week.

2. Batman’s Two Bodies

As I have pointed out elsewhere with respect to TDK[4] René Girard’s mimetic theory can enrich our understanding of the trilogy’s ethics. Before turning to the films, therefore, I shall provide a brief introduction to the theory.[5]

According to Girard desire is imitative (mimetic). In plain words, I want something because someone else also wants it. Imitative desire can lead to friendship due to shared interests but also to conflict – just think of the classic love triangle for example. At the very dawn of its existence, humanity faced a conflict of all against all due to an escalation of conflictive imitative desire. The result would have been a struggle of all against all with the possible result of the extinction of humanity in its very cradle. At this moment, however, the very first enactment of the scapegoat mechanism occurred. The violent, unanimous mob unleashed all their violence onto one single victim. The latter was made responsible for the crisis in society. With the death of the victim peace returned to society because all the violence was exhausted. This for Girard marks the beginning of archaic religion. The victim, because it restored peace to society, was subsequently recognized as a god in disguise and divinized. The process was repeated in rituals throughout the centuries with the continued expulsion of ritual or real scapegoats.

The Gospels, so Girard, uncover this mechanism and reveal the structural innocence of the victim. The expulsion can only take place as long as the crowds believe in the guilt of their victim. Jesus is portrayed as innocent in the Gospels and it is clear that the crowd wrongfully tries to expel him. Violence as cultural renewal is identified with Satan and the demonic itself. As an effect of the Gospels, violence throughout the centuries has gradually lost its power to restore peace. Modernity is for Girard a crisis of imitative desire out of control, where our choice lies between violence without end, or the complete renunciation of violence – precisely because we can no longer believe that violent expulsion leads to cultural renewal.

The Dark Knight trilogy can be read as a filmic representation of Girard’s theory. Already in Batman Begins Ra’s Al Ghul explains to Bruce Wayne the function of the league of shadows in the terms of cyclical expulsion: culture is renewed through the violent expulsion of Gotham as a collective scapegoat. At the end of Batman Begins Jim Gordon introduces conflictive imitation as a dark premonition to TDK, when he confronts Batman with the fact that the Joker is imitating his penchant for the theatrical.

The Joker is thus portrayed as the mirror image of Batman’s own vigilante justice. On one of the Joker’s trucks we can read that “Slaughter is the best medicine” but in the world drenched with the Gospel revelation of the inefficiency of cultural renewal through violence, all that remains is the Joker’s nihilistic slaughter. The shooting rampages of both Breivik and Holmes can be viewed in this context, with the difference that Breivik still believed in the power of violence to bring about his deranged right-wing utopia, whereas for Holmes, imitating the Joker, violence has become its own goal. In a sense the cycle stops at the stage of violence. Gotham is only saved at the end of TDK through the scapegoating of Batman and the deification of Harvey Dent which follows to the last detail the script of the scapegoat mechanism.

The final instalment of the trilogy continues to struggle with the paradoxes of violent expulsion. But whereas in Batman Begins the legend of the Dark Knight is founded on Bruce becoming more than a man, in TDKR the inverse is the case: it is about the hominization of Bruce Wayne. In TDKR Bruce Wayne is portrayed as suffering from the bodily strains of trying to be more than a man. It is to be remembered that the myth of Batman too is portrayed as being generated by the scapegoat mechanism – the first time the bat symbol is projected into the Gotham sky, it is generated by a mafia thug strapped to the flood light.

At the beginning of TDKR Gotham is basking in the peace brought by the scapegoat mechanism. But since that peace is based on an illusion, the victims are multiplying at the margins of Gotham’s structural violence, both in Blackgate Penitentiary (a jab at America’s overcrowded prisons) and literally underground in the sewers. Bane too is the product of the scapegoat mechanism as he emerges from the prison based in a more ancient part of the world, where a dog-eat-dog, all against all atmosphere of violence shapes his destructive world view.

It is Bane who reveals the secret of Gordon’s lie to the people. Robbed of their pseudo-peace of the scapegoat mechanism, Gotham is returned to the anarchic state of all against all preceding the scapegoat expulsion. The nuclear bomb, which gradually disintegrates, serves as a metaphor for the violent disintegration of society in its all against all state. It also forms the film’s criticism of the “occupy” movement. While recognizing its legitimate denunciation of an unjust system, the revolutionary alternative is portrayed as anarchically destructive in TDKR.

While Gotham is thus nearing its demise, Wayne’s hominization continues in prison where he has to learn to become afraid of death again, i.e. to accept his very human limitations again. The fear of death is represented as the highest motivation for the human spirit, much in line with what Martin Heidegger called the “being unto death”.

The ambivalent ending of TDKR, however, counterbalances the being unto death with the “being unto life”. By apparently fixing the autopilot of “the Bat” and ejecting himself from it, Batman refuses to sacrifice himself for a decadent city but instead chooses to become human again and reach out to other human beings. As is revealed in a conversation with John Blake, his inability for real human contact plays an important role in the genesis of batman. The real triumph of the trilogy is this humanizing event of Bruce Wayne, of his entering into a genuine relation with another human being.

The alternative reading is that Batman dies in his act of saving Gotham. That’s what its citizens certainly believe. By commemorating Batman with a monument they show that they have learnt nothing about their own conflictive nature. What they have done is simply having exchanged one expelled and deified victim (Harvey Dent) with another (Batman). This also allows the Batman myth to continue with John Robin Blake following in Wayne’s footsteps. The structures of the police force have become too confining for him as he confesses to Gordon. He will become the next boundless vigilante bringing forth the next evil imitative double – just as Talia had been Wayne’s last imitative double, driven only by revenge for her father’s death whom she didn’t even like.

With this beautifully ambiguous ending Nolan hands over the responsibility to the audience and asks us to rise to the challenge between the cycle of violence and a fragile humanness in need of other fragile humans. It is indeed rare to find such a nuanced presentation of the human condition in today’s Hollywood mainstream cinema. Despite participating in the Hollywood-culture of hyper-violence, The Dark Knight trilogy also shows us a way out of it.


[1] “The Cardboard Box”, The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, p. 1130.



[5] For a more detailed overview of the theory go to:

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