The Dark Knight Rises: An Interpretation Along The Jungian Process Of Individuation



[Contains spoilers!]
[For clarifications or criticisms please look at the personal notes at the end of the post]
[I'm assuming some familiarity with Carl Jung's work, if not here is a primer]

It turns out that The Dark Knight Rises is resplendent enough with interesting characters and a plot that encapsulates the Jungian process of individuation with Bruce Wayne's journey being the template for the character conjoining back to the archetype of the Self. Described below is an archetypal analysis of the stages along the process of individuation as portrayed in the movie with the various characters representing (being projections of) the psyche of the Batman/Bruce Wayne ego-entity.

Ego/Persona
A curious feature of modern superhero characters is the question of  "Who made who?" - did the alter ego create the superhero or did the superhero create the alter ego. For example did Bruce Wayne's ego (billionaire, playboy, wounded child) create the Batman's persona (crime fighting hero) or did the Batman's ego create Bruce Wayne as a persona? A not-so-bad analysis is done in this one shot where it is agreed upon that neither is the persona of the other. Bruce Wayne DOES want to be a billionaire-playboy but at the same time wants to be the crime fighting Batman. This is evident from the first movie where he re-appears on the Gotham social scene with two models on either arm and in The Dark Knight with seven. In The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) Miranda Tate mentions that Bruce never attended charity balls, but his pursuit of women shows that he might have accepted his playboy image to a certain level. To conclude, neither the Batman nor Bruce Wayne is the controlling ego but are both a part of the same person - a well integrated balanced personality.

Abandoned Child
Another curious aspect of superhero movies is the archetype of the abandoned child and its projection. Every hero has lost a loved one(s) early in their childhood (Batman - his parents, Superman - his planet Krypton, Spiderman - his uncle Ben, Green Lantern - his father etc) urging the hero to use the rage and pain to do good. These characters, instead of embracing the barren abandoned nature of their psyche project it onto their respective cities (Superman - Metropolis, Batman - Gotham, Green Lantern - Coast City etc) protecting them from villains and the like, playing the role of a protective parent.


The Shadow
The shadow is when things gets interesting in TDKR. Batman's shadow is portrayed by another masked character - Bane. Born of the same spiritual father (Ra's al Ghul) Bane seeks to altogether (metaphorically) eliminate the pained projection of the abandoned child by planning to detonate a "fully primed neutron bomb" in Gotham city. It is characteristic of the shadow to have the same overall goals of the ego only to use methods that have been rejected by it. In the case of Bane his plans includes the building of an army (Batman works alone), expose himself completely (Batman is a symbol) to the press and the people, kill and not be afraid to die himself. Bane is also portrayed as having an emotionless persona (as against Batman's sentimental side) with a strong Extraverted Thinking ("If he's dead, show me his body" - when commissioner Gordon jumps into the sewer) as well as a philosophical bent of thought characteristic of Introverted Intuition ("I was wondering what would break first, your spirit or your body" - before breaking Batman's back) characteristic of an antagonistic ENTJ with many superheroes being portrayed as being ruled by Introverted Sensing (either in an overly conscious or demonically unconscious way, as discussed with Rohit Ramachandran) doesn't allow them to move on from childhood emotional trauma.

Viewing this from Bruce Wayne's perspective, the time he spends in Bane's prison is a stereotypical "dark night"/nigredo experience where the ego has to gain the strength to beat the shadow (climb out of the pit and be physically fit to fight Bane). Bruce Wayne now needed to reach back into that very emotion (fear) which he had triumphantly conquered over (and hence rejected - Bruce Wayne mentions "I'm not afraid of dying") in Batman Begins. Jung explains that integrating with the shadow requires the ego to face all that it has rejected - fear being the motivator that metaphorically characterizes the albedal upward force propelling  Bruce Wayne out of the pit.


Anima
Nolan keeps us guessing here. Who IS the heroine of the movie? Is it Miranda Tate or is it Catwoman (Selina Kyle). For those of us familiar with Batman lore we already know that Miranda Tate (Talia al Ghul) is   Ra's al Ghul's daughter and Nolan doesn't go against the mythology and remains true to her identity. That only leaves Selina Kyle as the anima figure in TDKR.

Selina Kyle has many characteristics of the anima - different goals (she only wants the device that deletes all her records as well as a drive towards freedom, away from Gotham City) but shares Bruce Wayne's sentimentality and compassion. However, she has her own methods (manipulation, thieving, seduction) to achieve her aims - things the Batman never considered (before even having to reject them). Furthermore, symbolic of Bruce Wayne's growth it is Catwoman who finally destroys Bane by shooting him (he forgives her for it of course - they do live happily ever after don't they?) which the Batman grudgingly approves of when he kisses her back at the very end ("Guess we're both suckers then"). On the journey of individuation, when the ego and shadow are in a deadlock, a common participation mystique is when the shadow is overcome or integrated ONLY after encountering the anima and it is her call that gives the ego the strength to finally triumph over the shadow.



Wise Old Man
In usual superhero mythology, the hero is always brought up by a wise old man/woman/couple (Superman - Jonathan and Martha Kent, Spiderman - Uncle Ben and Aunt May etc) where, in spite of a lack of parental figures superheroes have an emotional and moral functioning core (unlike most villains who lack it). In the case of Nolan's Batman that role is played by Alfred, his butler. Although an 'employee' of Bruce Wayne Alfred shows all the love and care that a father would to child but quite mindful that he isn't really Bruce's father. He doesn't hesitate in interfering with Bruce Wayne's matters at what he feels to be the appropriate time ("No. I'm afraid that you want to." - when Bruce asks him if he would fail going up against Bane, burning Racheal's letter in The Dark Knight to save Bruce the pain of rejection from the only person he loved, walking out on him to try to urge him to stop being the Batman etc). He is also always at Batman's side preventing him from slipping into the darkness that always gnaws at his soul (suturing his injuries, researching villains, providing a wiser view on matters, taking care of his fitness and the Wayne estate etc), but never fully aiding him either - aware that it is Bruce Wayne's journey and not his own.


Dark Mother
Miranda Tate's character is one not usually found in superhero movies - The Dark Mother. The dark mother is symbolic of absolute safety, complacency and the temptation of eternal rest away from the harshness of life. In Nolan's trilogy, since childhood Bruce Wayne is fighting a never ending battle against evil with his only hope for a normal life (Rachel Dawes) being killed by The Joker in The Dark Knight and is finally able to lay down his suit after The Joker's arrest. In the beginning of TDKR Bruce Wayne/Batman has not appeared in public for 8 years, characteristic of the emergence of The Dark Mother archetype. It is later revealed that he has been silently working with Miranda Tate to build the fusion reactor which would be his ultimate gift to the world. A curious feature of being under the influence of The Great Mother is feeling safely apart from the world, protected in the mother's womb but looking outside - judging (a depressive episode). In those 8 years Bruce Wayne has shown this characteristic, although not explicitly mentioned his actions of pulling the plug on his fusion project after Dr.Pavlov was kidnapped is indicative of his growing paranoia (in The Dark Knight he trusts the people of Gotham to not blow up the 2 boats). Miranda Tate also served as the one board member in Wayne enterprises that Bruce explicitly trusted and who also initiates sexual relations with him at his lowest point (when Bane's antics in the stock exchange makes him lose all his wealth) - like a mother comforting her wounded son.



The Trickster
The trickster in TDKR is played by Lucious Fox, the sly CEO of Wayne Enterprises. The trickster represents that function of the ego which one believes one has control over but never really does which in the case of Bruce Wayne is Wayne Enterprises. The trickster also aids in the process of individuation by challenging the ego but never in direct opposition (Fox provides the Batman's equipment, financial and political power - 'tricks' necessary for the Batman to operate freely but at the same time weapons when in the wrong hands (Bane takes over the Batman's armory and destroys Bruce's wealth to hand over power to John Dagett)). Many times he acts as a 'partner-in-crime' to the ego/persona but never fully invested in his journey with an attitude of someone going for a ride just for the heck of it.


The Unindividuated Ego
The unindividuated ego is played by commissioner Gordon. He is the hero that could never be. His aims and goals are the same as that of the Batman but he does not do what is really necessary to achieve them. He is willing to play the role of the husband, father and police officer but never to venture beyond that, someone whose every success is directly or indirectly dependent on the Batman's actions (from Gordon's perspective, symbolic of success coming out of a higher calling that has not been addressed yet - beginner's luck). Gordon is aware of the call (allows the Batsignal to operate) but never goes beyond it to take matters into his own hands as a self-actualized individual would (to actively investigate the Batman and find out who or what he is, does not muster up the courage to reveal to Gotham Harvey Dent's crimes). This quote by commissioner Gordon describes himself the best : "There's a point far out there, when the structures fail you. When the rules aren't weapons anymore, they're shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead... Maybe one day you'll have such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I had. Someone willing to... plunge their hands into the filth, so that you can keep yours clean."

Eternal Child
Jung described the Eternal Child as "the man who didn't grow up" - much like John 'Robin' Blake's character in the story. In spite of suffering as a young boy, John holds on to his youthful ideals and becomes a police officer (unlike Bruce Wayne who embraces the darkness to become the Batman). He too feels like Bruce Wayne but has not given up hope of a better future and has faith in the Batman. At the very end of the movie, it is he that as Bruce's spiritual hire inherits the Batman's assets as he too self actualizes (when he throws away the police badge as being ineffective) and is ready to take up the Batman's mantle, but free to mold it to his own liking.



The Self
The archetype of The Self is personified by the neutron bomb/fusion reactor that Bruce Wayne was trying to construct. On saving to fail The Divine Child (Harey Dent in The Dark Knight - the fallen White Knight of Gotham city) Bruce Wayne decides to spend his fortune on developing a prototype nuclear reactor to provide free energy for an entire city. He ceases to focus on his body and mind but rather on the nuclear reactor with additional funds (protective nature of the Dark Mother in whose safe abode delusions of grandeur can be entertained) from Miranda Tate. But just like all archetypes the Self can have a dark side when it becomes corrupted by the Shadow (Bane) and changes into the ticking neutron bomb destined to fulfill Ra's Al Ghul's goal. At the very end of the movie when the Batman self-destructs with the bomb, it is symbolic of the ego finally merging with the Self to create a new third "happier" version of himself - in touch with the Anima (Selina Kyle), exorcises his parents death (gives Selina his mother's necklace), integrates the light and dark aspects of himself (he gives up the Batcave to John Blake and Wayne Manor to Alfred to start afresh) and at the very end gives a warm smile to the one archetype closest to the Self, The Wise Old Man - Alfred

Personal Notes
1. The entire post could just be over interpretation. Christopher Nolan might never have intended it.

2. "Patients suffering delusional episodes often focus their paranoia on an external tormentor. Usually one conforming to Jungian archetypes. In this case, a scarecrow" is a quote (0:33) by The Scarecrow in The Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan does know something about Jungian ideas, or maybe all film makers do. There is also a lot of online literature comparing Nolan's Inception to Jungian active imagination.

3. I've seen TDKR about 7 times now. Yes, Tom Hardy's rendition of Bane is that awesome.

4. Did I already say that Tom Hardy as Bane is awesome?

5. Some mappings between Jungian Archetypes and characters may not be very straightforward. For example

a) Many would argue that Alfred is not the wise old man but rather "Us" in the movie (something Michael Caine himself commemorates in interviews) - an indicative of what a common Gothamite would think if he or she were to know about Bruce Wayne being Batman

b) Alfred-Lucious Fox could be seen together as the "Wise Old Men"

c) Miranda Tate could also be seen as a "Negative Trickster" constantly derailing  (marking the wrong bus as the bomb carrier, providing Bane with information, pretending to be on Batman's ally) the Batman's individuation process

d) John Dagget although having no mention can be seen as a "Negative Wise Old Man" - someone on Wayne Enterprise's board but colluding with The Shadow (Bane)

6. I am just an aficionado of  Jung and am no way qualified for such an analysis. If my analysis is wrong please feel free to mention so in the comments.

Winnicottian State Of Play & The Transitional Object - A Jungian Perspective


Donald Woods Winnicott was a towering figure in the field of Object Relations Theory and came up with creative ideas such as the transitional object and state of play. These theories are highly descriptive of the early stages of development of an adult ego and suggest a process in which new skills are learnt so as to be applied in real life.

Carl Jung made a clear distinction between one's public face (the persona archetype) and the ego-complex (as something closer to its Freudian definition). Modern theorists concur that for a healthy life an ego has to have good levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy, two qualities whose subjective values are largely determined by comparison to other individuals in the outside world. To increase self-esteem and self-efficacy  an individual will have to learn the skills perceived as necessary that will then become a part of their persona, identifying that person with a skill.

Winnicott shows that for there to be healthy learning, a child will go through a phase of uncertainty where the skill/object to be learned/conquered is projected onto a transitional object (eg. In children, a big pink teddy bear might initially be perceived as a threat which would then turn into an object of curiosity and finally into a possession but only when the child feels safe enough to interact with it due to the presence of a parental figure) in a state of play. This similar process can be seen when adults learns various skills as well albeit in the absence of a parental figure, but rather from a sense of trust and confidence in themselves. However, it is a well known fact that an individual's learning ability decreases with age with a peak learning curve seen in early childhood until late teens. Or is that the way it should be?

Jung showed that the child archetype in a prospective role is a representation of future potentialities and psychological maturation. Due to various pressures, as an individual grows up and matures he/she will identify less with the child archetype - disallowing the ego to enter seamlessly into a state of play or to perceive new experiences and skills as transitional objects impairing the rapid assimilation and mastery of new skills and ideas.

In today's fast paced world, in order to survive one needs to constantly be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. These can either be forced onto the individual arising from a sense of fear of being obsolete or can be approached with a sense of play - via one's positive child archetype. These new skills can then leak over onto the persona fueling constant rejuvenation and enrichment of one's public image boosting self-esteem and self-efficacy. Jung posited that the anima/animus archetype is a gateway or guide to the unconscious, but it is the child archetype that can truly act as a guide between the ego and the persona - almost like the opposite face of the anima/animus's golden syzygy.