Movie super-heroes are commonly shown to be fearless. In Dark Knight Rises, fearlessness is discussed directly:

Blind Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne:    Why?
Blind Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible 
                without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne:    I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, 
                and there's no one there to save it.
Blind Prisoner: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne:    How?
Blind Prisoner: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

Is the fear of death the most powerful impulse of the spirit for Batman in Dark Knight Rises, or superheroes in other films? Is there a philosophical understanding of fear and in particular fear of death that supports the idea and development of the superhero?

  • Well, the prisoner gave it already, no? The "fear of death" or so to say the "will to live" is a human's most innate motivation. Without it, how could one get the motivation to carry on with anything? – Napoleon Wilson Jul 5 '13 at 7:48
  • From the quoted script, it seems that the greatest fear of Bruce Wayne is the more fear of failing to his mission (protecting Gotham) than the fear of dying. It is a common super movie feature that their dedication/sense of sacrifice is stronger than their fear of death. – Taladris Jun 11 '14 at 16:50

I would argue the answer to this is no; fear of death may be a powerful impulse of the spirit but to say it is the MOST powerful does not satisfy reason (which is the basis of philosophy), and facing the fear of death is not enough to explain the power of the superhero.

  1. A bit of logic… When faced with a statement of absolute (MOST powerful impulse), one only has to find an example where this is not true to disprove it. In the news we hear stories of people who gave their life for others or for a greater cause. History records the stories of martyrs who put a cause above their own lives. Armies are full of soldiers prepared to give their own life in service for their country. We can conclude from this that sometimes other impulses outweigh the impulse to save oneself. In fact, Bruce Wayne is arguably less motivated by fear of his own death than he is by his belief that he is the only one who can save the city.
  2. Nolan’s scene seems to support the statement, but… In this scene, Bruce Wayne increases his fear of death by removing the safety net of the rope, and draws strength from the increased fear, which allows him to succeed (audience cheers and walks away convinced that the prisoner was right). Indeed, if you know you have only one chance to succeed at something, and you believe absolutely in the need to succeed (Wayne felt he was the only one who could save the city, so his survival was imperative), then that fear could increase focus and success. If we follow this to its logical conclusion, however, it suggests that whenever Bruce Wayne/ Batman faces a challenge, he can increase his power by removing his safety nets – weapons, tools, protection. If the fear of one’s death is the most powerful impulse of the spirit, does it follow that increasing the fear increases one’s resolve/strength/power? Would a naked Batman, whose fear would be the greatest, be most powerful?
  3. The philosophical view of fear of death… Ancient philosophers such as Epicurus and Socrates argued that death is nothing and fear of it is illogical (Socrates you may remember was sentenced to death and chose not to escape prison when given the opportunity, instead facing death in line with his views). Nolan’s view is probably closest to Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the fear of a violent death was the most powerful force in human life. This isn’t quite the same as just fearing the end of life. (I am not finding writings by other philosophers that differ much from these views – perhaps someone else will add some other research.)
  4. Philosophy as applied to Batman and superheroes… If fear of death is not the greatest impulse for Bruce Wayne, what is?

    In his book, Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, Tom Morris theorizes that rather than fear of death, our deepest fear is fear of our own power. The superhero faces the fear of embracing his power, and when we humans look up to the superhero, it is not fearlessness in the face of death that we seek to emulate, it is the courage to embrace our own power to achieve the most noble pursuit we are capable of in any given moment. It is the fear of embracing an ideal so absolutely that we would willingly risk our life for it.

    Another interesting read on the subject is Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (Mark D White and Robert Arp). It posits that Batman’s primary motivation is deontological – Bruce Wayne does what he does in promise to his parents. He always keeps his promise, and it is his resolve that his enemies fear most. It is his resolve that is the source of his strength, not his fears. It his resolve that allowed him to climb out of the pit. The book offers a fairly thorough discussion of Batman, his virtuous hatred, his role in the process of justice, his origins and ethics, issues of identity, and his connection to existentialism and Taoism.


Is the fear of death the most powerful impulse of the spirit for Batman in Dark Knight Rises

No. Bruce Wayne ends up showing us his humanity in many ways, including a few of his fears, in this movie. However, considering that he fights and puts himself in harm's way as he does, a fear of death is not one of his fears. Although he trusts the technology behind his gear, and the design behind the technology, a fear of death would hamper his ability to perform his death-defying stunts and acrobatics.

Is the fear of death the most powerful impulse of the spirit superheroes in other films

I suppose that one could argue that Tony Stark is kept alive by the magnet in his chest that he improved and maintains because he has a fear of death, and that the creation of his suit in the first Iron Man movie was also because he feared dying (being killed) in that cave. Of course, he wanted to do a lot of damage on the way out, and he feared that Stark Industry weapons would continue to be used against American troops and innocent civilians... but that's a different fear. However, I don't believe that the Green Lantern is motivated by a fear of death at all. I don't believe Superman in any of his movie incarnations is motivated by a fear of death. I know the Hulk isn't motivated by a fear of death. I suspect that a fear of losing his sense of humor is the most powerful motivating factor in Spiderman's life.

In general, I believe that motivations, or what drives the Individual Superheroes, are as different and individual to each Hero as the Heroes are themselves. I mean, X-Men aren't quite Superheroes in the same sense that Batman, Superman, and Spiderman... but you can definitely say that a fear of death is not in Wolverine's mental bag of tricks.

Is there a philosophical understanding of fear and in particular fear of death that supports the idea and development of the superhero?

Again, it depends on the Superhero. In the case of Green Lantern, the understanding and study of fear is integral to the development of the entire Green Lantern Corps. Fear had it's own color (Yellow) and got a ring, was the motivation behind a Supervillan, etc. Fear in general, and specific fears, don't play as much of a part in many of the Superman movies... although Superman giving up his power to settle down with Lois Lane might have been out of fear of turning her to mush during some Supersex. Probably not though. The development of Doctor Manhattan was not born of a fear of death. He pretty much started out as dead, or believing himself dead. As he once said, reconstituting himself from scattered atoms was the first thing he figured out how to do.

You can say that there is typically a moral message in each Superhero storyline, and that there is a moral struggle each Superhero faces. However, you can't globally say that all superheroes struggle with a fear of death. Some would welcome it at one time or another. I'm sure Bruce Banner wished more than a few times early on that he could die rather than become the Hulk... until he got some kind of handle on it. But with the Hulk, the story is definitely more about Rage and dealing with it properly, than it is about fear and the fear of death.

Edit It is important to note that Bruce Wayne's statement...

I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there's no one there to save it.

... is more a fear of being impotent (in being able to save Gotham) than an actual fear of death. I mean, I realize he says the words "I do fear death, I fear dying here" but taken alone out of context, you miss what it is he actually fears, which is the death of Gotham, not the death of Bruce Wayne or the death of Batman.

  • Specific to Bruce in that pit, he is unable to make the climb with a rope attached. Hence the blind prisoner asks him to lose the rope & fear will find him again. He can move faster than possible & escape. Did fear give him that strength. Your answer seems to suggest NO. Because in an earlier dialogue Bruce says "My body is as ready to escape as my soul" "Fear is while you fail" "I am not scared, I am angry" but he fails – KharoBangdo Jul 9 '13 at 3:48
  • 1
    Also, the climbing out of the pit was the first time in the trilogy where he had NO protection what so ever. He was no longer Batman, no gadgets, no fancy equipments, no suit, no mask. In all the other situations he had some sort of protection or a clever trick up his sleeve. – KharoBangdo Jul 9 '13 at 3:50
  • 1
    @KharoBangdo I am not at all suggesting that fear did not give him that strength. I notice that you purposefully failed to specify exactly what kind of fear, or rather a fear of what, that gave him that strength. Fear of death? Nope. Fear of failure and letting Gotham down? That's closer to the mark. And the questions are specific to a Fear of Death. I believe whole heartedly that Bruce Wayne would accept death as a solution (aka, he appeared to kill off Batman in the end) if it was necessary to achieve his goal. – Bon Gart Jul 9 '13 at 15:52

Yes. There are two distinct types of death. The death of the body and the death of the spirit. Both can be feared and both of these fears are explored in the Dark Knight trilogy especially in Rises. Bruce Wayne does and does not fear death. The blind man tells Bruce that he doesn't fear death supposedly because as a crime fighter he faces a real possibility of dying every night and the only way to continually face all that danger is to jettison that fear. The problem here is if you assume that there is only the fear of bodily death. You see if there is only the fear of bodily death then once you overcome that fear completely, like Bruce Wayne, it gets harder to give it your all because you don't have that internal fear that drives you to give it your complete focus. Bruce responds by explaining that although he doesnt fear bodily death he fears a worst kind of death, the death of his spirit. In other words, the death of his life mission, protecting the people of Gotham. He fears failure. Satisfied with his answer, the blind man tells him to make the climb by getting rid of his safety net, the rope. Without the rope to catch him from a fatal fall if he fails to reach the ledge, he is forcing his will to summon all the inner strength within him because if he doesnt commit 100% he will not only die physically, but spiritually as well because he failed to protect the people of Gotham from certain death. It was his fear of spiritual death that reminded him that no circumstance or inner desperation is going to get in his way from rising up and honoring the reason why he became Batman in the first place, a promise he made to his parents, serving the people of Gotham. We can see that Bruce does indeed fear a spitual death rather than a physical death when he flies the bomb away from the city showing that he is willing to die if it means that his life mission is complete, saving Gotham.

  • Awesome answer, very well put. – Coldblackice Sep 19 '19 at 0:09

Its the fear of fall, fear of getting drenched with loss, its the fear of losing which makes you weak. When one gets lucky in life and receives something for which he has not made any honest efforts, then such a person is the most feared one. On the other hand when a man makes efforts from the inception (like batman when he makes the effort without the rope) then a person gets the will to fight his own fears. Such people are rock steady, hard and stable. They don't get excited with success nor do they get depressed with failure.

  • 1
    This sounds more like a stream-of-consciousness fit about fear with Batman plugged into it after the fact, as opposed to a genuine a genuine answer to the question. I suggest checking out the Tour to get a better idea of how to ask and answer questions. We're not a typical discussion forum. – Meat Trademark Jul 6 '14 at 7:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .