Myth & Movie: Batman and the Power of the Unconscious Mind
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Bruce Wayne’s journey to the Underworld shows us the personal power we can find in the unconscious mind.
SPOILER alert for Batman Begins! Actually, it really helps if you’ve seen the movie. (You’ve seen it—right? Go watch it. It’s on Netflix.)
In the language of symbols, the unconscious mind is often shown as a cave or an underworld. (This includes worlds that exist under water.) It symbolizes everything that exists “below the surface” of our consciousness.
And in mythology, the underworld is often the realm of BIG treasure and wealth.
The god Hades had the nickname “The Wealthy One” and the “Lord of Riches,” not because he was the lord of a realm where everyone went when they died and that’s a lot of freaking people, but because all kinds of good things came out of the dark places of the earth:
“Hades was also the god of the hidden wealth of the earth, from the fertile soil which nourished the seed-grain, to the mined wealth of gold, silver, and other metals.”
The unconscious is where we go when we want to find something that can be of great value to us in daily life. Mining the unconscious can bring to light all kinds of suppressed issues, fears, desires, and gifts that can literally change our experience of the world.
So in myths and stories, when a character goes into a cave or the underworld, I know they’re about to encounter their own unconsciousness . . . where they’ll either be devoured by monsters, or will find some treasure that will change everything for them.
But going to the unconscious is not a walk in the park. That’s why only heroes do it.
So. Bruce Wayne.
He’s got issues.
Pretty much the entire plot of Batman Begins is about Bruce Wayne going to his own unconsciousness, tapping into the power there, and using it to empower himself and the world.
Batman Begins begins with Bruce as a child falling down into an abandoned . . . um . . . vertical mine shaft? Water well? Who digs a shaft like that to a cave? Whatever. He falls down there and disturbs a massive colony of bats, which scare the living piss out of him.
The bats serve as the guardians of the underworld here. Like Cerberus, the three-headed dog whose job it was to scare the living away from the underworld (and to stop the dead from leaving), the bats scare Bruce away from this place.
He is very young—too young to face the monsters of the underworld, which become deeply rooted symbols of fear and powerlessness in his mind.
Especially because he feels his fear of the bats caused the deaths of his parents. If he wasn’t afraid of the bats, he wouldn’t have wanted to leave the Bat Opera (I mean Mefistofele, sorry opera people) early, and his parents wouldn’t have been gunned down.
So his own fears and powerlessness caused the deaths of his parents.
Like I said. Issues.
It turns out the opening scene of the movie was a nightmare. When Bruce wakes up, he’s in a prison. I’m certain Christopher Nolan knew exactly what he was doing with that symbolism.
We go from seeing Bruce feeling powerless and afraid, to seeing him in prison. He’s literally been trapped by that fear all his freaking life.
Then a big scary prison tough guy tells Bruce, “You are in Hell. And I am the Devil!” (Um.)
And Bruce responds, “You’re not the Devil. You’re practice.” (Double um.)
Right away, the dialogue has told us what the entire purpose of the film is: Bruce is going to be dealing with the fears, the devils and monsters, that have kept him feeling powerless all his life. He is intentionally doing this—it’s not something he’s “falling into,” and he’s not “going along for the ride.” He is working to confront his own demons to empower himself; to confront his unconsciousness so it doesn’t control him.
This is all in like the first two minutes of the movie.
Nice work, Mr. Nolan.
When Liam Neeson shows up—sorry, Rat Mustache—(sorry, Raz Arugula)—he explains that he’s part of the League of Shadows, an organization that comes out to play during most of the interesting parts of history to destroy things they have decided have gotten out of hand (such as Rome, back in the day).
I love the name of this organization, because again we’re dealing with aspects of the unconscious, one of which is the shadow. The shadow is a very dark aspect of the ego. It is where we push everything we don’t want to identify with. It’s where your fears go. Everything you don’t want to be is your shadow.
If I work hard to help the refugees in Syria, and am deeply offended by those who say we should not give them a place within our borders . . . that very attitude is something I have disapproved of within myself. It is part of my shadow.
That’s a pretty light example. The shadow gets much, much darker. Have you ever had a thought that just freaked you out and made you ashamed to be human?
Like this: Bill is walking down the street, enjoying the sunshine and thinking about maybe getting some pizza or something, and then he sees Jill, his girlfriend’s best friend who he thinks is just gorgeous. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, for no reason whatsoever, Bill’s mind conjures an image of Jill naked and tied up so that Bill can do whatever he wants to her even if she doesn’t want it—AH! NO BILL NO! BAD BILL! WHERE DID THIS THOUGHT EVEN COME FROM BILL???—Bill shakes himself, immediately ignores the rogue thought, smiles and waves at Jill, and walks on. Yeah, time for pizza.
Does this mean Bill is secretly a terrible person who will inevitably be a rapist?
No. It means Bill has a shadow. It means the darkness inherent in humanity is also present within Bill . . . deep, deep within his unconsciousness.
The shadow is everything Bill does not want to be, do, or experience.
Bill does not align himself with his shadow . . . but sometimes it just pops up to say hello—like a crocodile peeking its eyes over the surface of the water. It’s not the only aspect of the unconscious mind (it’s not the only thing in Bruce’s cave), but it’s there.
Bruce Wayne is going to be dealing with his shadow. He is going to be working with the League of Shadows so that he can become a more whole, powerful person, and even take on the shadow aspect of Gotham (which has pretty much taken over all of Gotham).
That’s so fucking Batman, I can’t even stand it.
The path to the unconscious/underworld is always full of people/creatures who tell the hero to go back. You’re in hostile territory. You won’t make it. You didn’t bring enough batteries for your flashlight—and seriously? Granola bars? Those won’t be enough.
Bruce encounters several of these. First, the people in the village below the League of Shadows’ . . . um, temple? House? Whatever. Those villagers warn Bruce to go back.
Bruce also goes to confront crime boss Falconi, a lord of the underworld in Gotham, who basically tells Bruce he’s a little sissy boy who isn’t cut out for being a hardass. “This is a world you’ll never understand. And you always fear what you don’t understand.”
In case you haven’t guessed, most people don’t make through the underworld/unconscious. Only heroes, or as Ra’s Al Ghul (Ha, see, I can Google with the best of you!) puts it, “legends,” do that.
Liam Neeson tells Bruce, “You have learned to bury your guilt with anger. I will teach you to confront it, and to face the truth . . . . What you really fear is within. You fear your own power. You fear your anger. Now, you must journey within.” (When we shine the light of consciousness on our shadow and have the courage to face it, we can remove its threat. After all, shine a light on a shadow, and it ceases to be a shadow.)
Bruce is, essentially, being schooled by his own shadow.
Unfortunately, the League of Shadows turn out to be not such great guys. (Yeah, totally saw that one coming.) They try to convince Bruce to ally with the darkness, but Bruce has learned to trust his own judgment and make his own decisions. Like our friend Bill, he makes the choice to be a good guy. He learns from the shadow, but he does not ally with it.
As Bruce says, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
I love this movie, because it spends such a long time with Bruce’s training. It doesn’t make light of the Underworld Journey. It shows us just how much preparation is required, how difficult this is going to be.
Bruce has done the work. Now, when he sees a bat—a little sign of his unconscious shadow—flying around in his everyday mansion life (the Wayne mansion symbolizes Bruce’s conscious mind, just as the cave beneath it is his unconscious), he knows he has to face it. It’s almost like the bat has been sent as a kind of messenger; as though it’s summoning him.
The Baddest Assest Batmanest scene ever starts at about 44:00 mins in. Bruce goes down into the cave (he even brings a flashlight, to “shine a light” on the unconscious), and the bats attack him just like they did when he was a child. This time, he summons his courage, the music rises, and he stands up.
Holy. Freaking. Badass. Batman.
I could go on about the archetypal underworld symbolism of the movie. Even when Bruce goes to work with Morgan Freeman to create Batman’s fun gadgets, that takes place underground. All the cool stuff STILL comes from the underworld.
They even mention Jungian archetypes at one point. I fangirled out.
So the point?
Do not underestimate the treasures and personal power you can find if you have the courage to venture into the underworld and confront your own shadow.
Do not underestimate the courage and preparation it will take to do this. It is not an easy journey. It will be scary as hell. Only heroes do it.
Go watch that movie again. It’s on Netflix right now.
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