The League of Shadows:
The Path to Dark Enlightenment
Nowadays, any opinion regarding Batman cannot ignore the prime importance of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
The British director indeed had the ability to adapt Frank Miller’s comics better than they had been before, and above all, he managed to turn an imaginary hero into something more complex and worthy of attention. Being one of a kind, Batman raises a few cultural and political issues which are not taken into consideration in most of the other superhero sagas.
Nolan’s movies have such a degree of complexity that the protagonist of the trilogy does not play as prominent role as would normally be expected. In fact, Batman finds himself in a wide plot in which the powerful enemies that he fights against often play a central role, both in the story and in Bruce Wayne’s character development. The League of Shadows particularly deserves to be looked at more carefully, since it is from his encounter with this secret group that the incorruptible symbol of Batman is born, and who in the end will find the strength to fulfill his destiny.
In the first chapter of the trilogy, Bruce Wayne is a man adrift, devoured by remorse and anger as a result of the deaths of his parents. He decides to live on the margins of society, living like a criminal without ever actually becoming one. His search for answers leads him to Asia, on the slopes of mountains that resemble the Himalayas, the home of the legendary hidden occult center of Agartha.
Throughout the Nolan movies, prison plays a key role in the main character’s development. As shown in Batman Begins, it is in the darkness of a cell that Bruce Wayne meets with a mysterious man who offers him the opportunity to find a way out. We will find out later that his real name is Ra’s al Ghul, or “Demon’s Head,” leader of the League of Shadows, a warrior community that aims to wipe out corruption and decay from the face of the Earth by any means in order to inaugurate a new cycle of civilization.
The reference to the Classical allegory of Plato’s cave in this incident is evident. The protagonist has to come out of the shadows to genuinely know himself and be in full possession of his faculties. “The will is everything. If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely,” he is taught. It is, indeed, thanks to the martial arts and meditation that the League of Shadows makes a perfect war machine out of Bruce Wayne. He learns how to master his physical strength, but most especially how to regulate his deepest fears. Through a path of awakening, which references the practices known to the famous League of Assassins of medieval Persia, Bruce increasingly becomes a differentiated man, an awakened one.
His break with Ra’s al Ghul and the League happens at a time when he must demonstrate his absolute loyalty to them, causing the destruction of their castle but saving the life of his master. The first movie focuses entirely on the League of Shadows, and the presence of Ra’s al Ghul lingers throughout the film until the very end, when Batman is confronted by him yet again, and must choose whether or not to kill his former mentor in the name of his own sense of justice.
But things are not that simple, and the hero, despite being “super,” is not the classic perfect man. The dark side of Batman emerges in the second movie, when a serious crisis threatens to “destroy” all his certainties. This time it is a challenge from the Joker, again in prison, which is the decisive moment. Is it another reference to Plato’s allegory? It may be that the interrogation in prison, which is first depicted in the dark and then in the light, symbolizes a moment of passage that is confirmed by the fatal choice Batman is forced to make between saving the life of Harvey Dent or Rachel. This time, it is not the villain’s fate which is at stake, but, in the deepest possible way, that of Batman himself. The Joker mocks him:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these . . . these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
It is no wonder that the second chapter marks this moment of crisis, and the subsequent collapse of the Batman myth.
Finding himself in the position of questioning all his principles, the hero of the saga is shattered before his lies and the failures of his choices. This is how Dent becomes the symbol and the hero of the city while, as the Joker predicted, Batman is abandoned and condemned by all.
The whole story of Batman reaches its fulfillment only in the third chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, where the hero is facing a new terrible threat, this time represented by Bane and his army of loyal soldiers. Bruce Wayne is no longer the man he was in the past; he has been worn down by events, crippled by the weight of his mistakes. A veil of decay and darkness has fallen over his family’s villa.
The dark hero returns to fight only when the threat of Bane is revealed in all its danger, and the clash with this mighty enemy, played by Tom Hardy in a state of grace, turns into a disaster for the protagonist. Batman is severely beaten because of his lack of preparation and is imprisoned in an underground jail, in a mysterious location in the Middle East. The antihero explains the hard lesson Bruce is to be taught: “I am the League of Shadows, and I’m here to fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny! . . . You think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, moulded by it.” Batman has not yet fully attained his true self, so he must plunge into the darkness to rise yet again.
The symbols of prison and shadow return again. More so than in the rest of the trilogy, the allegory of Plato’s cave comes to play a key role in the rest of the story. Meanwhile, it turns out that Bane has replaced the deceased Ra’s al Ghul, becoming the new leader of the League of Shadows. While a populist government, with some resemblance to the councils of the Bolsheviks, imposes itself on Gotham, the League of Shadows prepares for the complete destruction of the metropolis. The catastrophic project, the overthrow of an era, has not ended, and is being carried on by the daughter of Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul.
Bruce Wayne is literally broken. He fails to rise to the occasion, and he helplessly witnesses the imminent destruction of the city he tried to protect. Then, in a kind of déjà-vu that recalls their meeting at the beginning of the first film, Ra’s al Ghul appears to his disciple, triggering the hero’s liberation from the darkness he has fallen into: “You, yourself, fought the decadence of Gotham for years with all your strength, all your resources, all your moral authority, and the only victory you achieved was a lie. Now you understand Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.”
For the final time, the League of Shadows pushes Bruce to take full possession of himself. Plato’s allegory, which relates to truth and how it is revealed to the world, is evident in the movie through the actions taken by the differentiated man. As Heidegger says, the one who comes out of the darkness and sees the light of truth must then return to the cave to attempt to awaken those who are still imprisoned. The risk is very high in this deadly struggle. Bruce Wayne becomes a disciple once again in the crucial moments of the story, and it is Batman who comes to light after Bruce is awakened.
The League of Shadows, along with Ra’s al Ghul, and Batman are two sides of the same coin. They represent two approaches to the essential truth and how one approaches the principles of justice and regeneration. Whereas Ra’s al Ghul and Bane represent in some way the “Left-hand Path,” which seeks to make use of all appropriate means to create the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new civilization. “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural,” Bruce was told in Batman Begins. As it is depicted in the first chapter of the trilogy, this secret group has its headquarters in a sort of Agartha, isolated from the world, but its agents are everywhere. On the other hand, Batman represents the “Right-hand Path,” being rigidly faithful to the principles of justice and solidarity.
The way the League of Shadows operates symbolizes, in some way, the attitude of the disaffected, those who know that nothing will change if you rely on a corrupted humanity that indulges in every form of baseness. Batman yet retains hope for this civilization that he is attempting to save, and yet this hope becomes his greatest weakness. But beyond this, the end of the trilogy is somehow a disruption of the strained claim to authenticity that he has made throughout the whole saga, which results in a “lie” that enables Gotham to be saved from itself.
As clarified by Heidegger in his interpretation of Plato’s doctrine of aletheia, truth presupposes and includes falsity. A man seeking for truth fits into in this circle of concealment and revelation. Darkness and light are therefore two sides of the same reality, which finds its final and incorruptible expression in the defining of a symbol, and of an immortal idea.
Absolutely well-written piece.
One of the most memorable moments of Batman Begins remains the scene at Wayne Manor where Ra’s Al-Ghul explains why the League of Shadows chose to propagate certain economic memes which were designed to deliberately produce a crisis in the location which they had targeted.
An element of what Al-Ghul talks about which has to be considered is ‘rebalancing’. By deliberately propagating economic memes which would reduce the stature of Gotham if they were adopted (and as Al-Ghul explains – they were adopted), the League of Shadows was hoping to enable alternative metropolitan centres to fill the void in the wake of the crisis.
From that wide viewpoint, Al-Ghul would (correctly) see Wayne’s insistence on specifically putting Gotham first and continuing to let it “limp along ever since”, as being completely narrow and parochial.
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