Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dark Knight Templar

Of course the big story in pop culture this week is the record-breaking opening of The Dark Knight, the second installment in Christopher Nolan's radical re-imagining of the Batman franchise. Being the obsessive-compulsive that I am, I can't help but notice that the film was released at the same time of the year that Sirius rose in the night sky in the ancient world. The iconic poster tagline "Why So Serious?" takes on added significance in that light. Doubly so when you factor in Heath Ledger, the Synchrosphere's first martyr.

For old-school geeks like myself, the "Dark Knight" title has a powerful tug on the heartstrings. It was Frank Miller's own radical re-imagining of the Batman franchise, 1986's The Dark Knight Returns, that lit the fuse that would result in comic books taking over Hollywood.

Miller's work has been strip-mined by Tinseltown since not long after Dark Knight was first published- Robocop stole mercilessly from the landmark graphic novel as did more genre films than you can shake a stick at. Miller's post-superhero work- the nihilistic Sin City and the militaristic muscleporn fantasia, 300, have been adapted by other directors to make blockbuster films, and now Miller is taking the helm for his radical re-imagining of Will Eisner's Spirit. A risky move to be certain; though legendary in comics circles, the Spirit was never a popular character and putting a novice director in charge of a hallucinatory SPX orgy is problematic, at best.

Nolan seems to have studied Miller's work closely, since his backstory for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is liberally borrowed from Miller's backstory for Elektra (see Daredevil #190). We have the same exact scenario- following the death of her father, Elektra goes in search of the mountian retreat of a legendary band of ninjas, led by Stick (played by Terrance Stamp in the Elektra film). It all ends badly and she returns home to ply her trade as a freelancer.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne bonds with Ra's Al Ghul who presents himself as Henri Ducard, second in command of the venerable League of Shadows (based on the "League of Assassins" from the Batman comics). The name "Henri Ducard" caught my ear, since it sounds like a Templar name. And the whole scenario ties into the legends of the Templars and the Assassins, and their surreptitious alliance. Of course, the Assassins and the Templars both sprung up in Norman kingdoms, which only adds fuel to an already raging esoteric fire.

And you don't get any more semiotically loaded than Liam Neeson, who starred in the Templar-themed Kingdom of Heaven, portrayed Crowley fan Alfred Kinsey, voiced the Solar Christ in the Narnia films, and played Qui John the Baptist Jinn in Phantom Menace and on and on and on.

But Nolan might have been looking at other, non-Miller Batman stories for inspiration.

Like this one. In this 1982 story, "The Messiah of the Crimson Sun," Batman faces off with Ra's Al Ghul, who has reinvented himself as a cult leader named Adam. As in Batman Begins, Ra's plans to use the water supply to destroy Gotham City, albeit through different means. In this story, the contaminant will activated by...

"..the source of all life, all strength, all power." The messiah tag is apt, since Ra's is a dying-resurrecting figure who uses the Lazarus Pit (read "El-Osiris Pit") to rise whenever Batman happens to kill him.

Secret societies are part and parcel of the canonical Batman universe (in Secret Sun parlance, "canonical" means pre-1986 comics). Bruce Wayne's rebellion against the League of Shadows in Batman Begins has a direct precedent in Manhunter's rebellion against the Council, the secret society that raised him from the dead following an unfortunate encounter with an elephant. Manhunter, the ingrate, then works to destroy the Council, enlisting Batman in the landmark story, "Gotterdamerung," (Detective Comics #443, Nov. 1974)

Jack Kirby worked on Manhunter in the 1940s and following the character's death in "Gotterdammerung" (meaning "Twilight of the Gods"), created a new Manhunter. This character was a member of a secret society (The Manhunters) much like the League of Shadows, only considerably less evil and more overtly Masonic. The kind of secret society that Bruce Wayne would have stuck around with, probably. Note the cave and disembodied head- both are powerful John the Baptist signifiers.

Cults, secret societies, solar messiahs- quite a heady brew. I'm sure 99.99% of the fans grokking on Nolan's Batman movies have no idea about all of these influences, but being an old-school Batman fan from back in the days of your moms and pops, they smacked me square in the jaw when watching Batman Begins.

But wait- there's more!

17 years after writing "Messiah of the Crimson Sun," Mike W. Barr wrote Batman: Dark Knight Dynasty. Here's a smidge of the wiki synopsis.

Sir Joshua Wainwright, a crusader for the Knights Templar in the year 1222, battles the evil Vandal Savage, who tries to bring a mysterious meteor crashing to Earth. Savage, an immortal, gained his immortality from the meteor, and is trying to bring it back so he may gain even more power. After stopping Savage in this time period by hurling him into the sphere he was using to draw the meteor to Earth, Joshua swears an oath that he and his family will now and forevermore be sworn enemies of Savage and will prevent his mad schemes to protect the future. Unfortunately, Joshua himself is subsequently tried for heresy and burnt at the stake, prompting Savage to wistfully comment that he always wins.

Elseworlds stories are the very apotheosis of non-canon, but a fascinating sync nonetheless. Of course, any curious mind is going to eventually hit upon the Poor Soliders when pondering the "Dark Knight" nickname. It's interesting to note that a bunch of Batman fans start their own secret society called the Sons of Batman in Miller's Dark Knight, and Batsy fakes his own death and literally goes underground with them to start his own League of Shadows at the end of the story. Shades of The Passover Plot, and the Templars' own flight to Scotland following the big 10/13 crackdown.

It's also interesting to note that the plot of Batman Begins borrowed from a story about a solar messiah. Ra's Al Ghul's Templar links in the film also remind us that the Templar cross is actually the symbol of a pre-Christian solar cult, bringing it all full circle in a strange way. And, of course, the recently-arrested Batman actor Christian Bale ("Christ-John-Ba'al") got his big break in the Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun.

What do I take from all of this? I think this is an interesting object lesson in the power of symbols to impose themselves on the creative process. It's fascinating to see the same constellation of symbols- Solar, Templar, Egyptian- swirling around each other in unexpected places. When you work with powerful symbols, they often have a habit of taking control of you and your work. We've seen this over and over again. And one of the reasons the canonical era of comic books is so fascinating was its lack of self-consciousness helped summon all sorts of interesting archetypes and symbols into the culture at large. It's a process we will be continuing to look at closely on the Secret Sun.

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