In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane supposes that “there can be no true despair without hope”. Meaning that without a carrot dangling on the edge of a stick to falsely promise a reward, one can go numb to despair. I posit that the inverse is also true: there can be no true hope without despair. This is counterintuitive but is nonetheless true. To showcase this premise, I will employ three films which I think accurately depict hope in their proper context. As such I want to provide SPOILER WARNINGS for each of the three films here discussed.
Exhibit A: Dunkirk
Let’s talk about the most recent film on this list first. Dunkirk is very light on narrative but is heavy with tone. Note that the tone makes a notable shift, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, I want to point out that the film opens by explicitly stating the British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk need a miracle. This would have been eye-rolling or pointless if the rest of the film didn’t explore why that miracle was necessary.
Soldiers are standing in queues, exposed on the beaches and waiting to be loaded onto ships that have to be docked in predictable and vulnerable fashion. It’s a turkey shoot for the Nazi Forces and those British and French men are the turkeys. The situation is so dire that the British have decided to requisition civilian vessels to aid in the evacuation. Evacuation: the whole movie is about a sorely neared retreat. It’s a long defeat playing out before the audiences’ eyes.
Even getting on board a ship is no guarantee, as bombers can sink them and being trapped in a sinking ship is hardly better than waiting for bombs on a beach. The hope of the film is shown from the perspective of Royal Air Force pilots who attempt to defend the retreat, and brave civilians who risk their lives to give their soldiers a ride home. In fact, the film takes a dramatic and emotional upswing when the fleet of civilian vessels arrive on the beaches and soliders clamour to load up and leave. J.R.R. Tolkien coined a term for this surprising event “eucatastrophe”. Eucatastrophe is a sudden change of circumstances from bad to good. Not everyone in Dunkirk saw it that way.
The soldiers see this as utterly inadequate and embarrassing. They expect to return home to ridicule and shame. Instead, they are hailed as heroes. How is this possible? An excellent exchange in the film does better than I possibly could explain. “Well done, lads!” “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough.” Merely surviving was a source of hope and inspiration to the island nation. It was a defeat, yes, but hope did not merely remain, it flourished in that defeat.
Exhibit B: The Lord of the Rings
Speaking of Tolkien, no discussion about hope amidst despair in films would be of merit if it failed to mention Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. These films perfectly encapsulate the concept of the eucatastrophe and hope. I could not choose just one film in the trilogy. Mostly because the trilogy’s arc so expertly expresses hope in its most truthful context. In a nutshell, the only hope this world has of surviving is to have a small, insignificant Hobbit march into the homeland of a tyrannical warlord without his notice and drop his magical ring into a volcano. The problem is expounded by the fact that this particular Dark Lord keeps very tight security on Mordor (the aforementioned homeland). It’s such a long shot that Gandalf, the free people’s preeminent source of wisdom, declares “There never was much hope. Just a fool’s hope”.
The Dark Lord Sauron uses terror and psychological warfare to keep the Free Peoples down. The forces of Mordor go so far as to lob severed heads of captives into the besieged city of Minas Tirith. In one of the more emotionally impactful scenes of the trilogy, Gandalf comforts a young and terrified Pippin with the prospect of a peaceful afterlife. Not cheery talk, but teeming with hope nonetheless.
The whole situation becomes particularly bleak when the majority of our heroes are mistakenly lead to believe the quest has ultimately failed and yet they continue to fight. Then eucatastrophe strikes. Frodo and Sam succeed in destroying the Ring of Power, effectively assassinating Sauron and defeating his forces. Hope, a fool’s hope, shone through at last- in the very hour of apparent defeat.
Exhibit C: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Lastly, let us observe Batman v Superman’s depiction of hope. Hope is the essential trait of Superman. His role in the film is to be a beacon of hope to the people of a broken Earth that is too afraid of him to trust him. A good portion of the film is from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, a broken man who rejects the very idea of hope. He’s given up hope on humanity, his own crusade on crime, and even himself.
Humanity continually doubts and rejects Superman throughout the film and the film’s antagonist, Lex Luthor, is outright hateful towards Superman. Every act of heroism is met with skepticism and Lex Luthor even has the Capitol bombed just to get to Superman and further enflame Batman’s rage. Humanity doesn’t have a firm grasp on hope at this point.
The unspeakable happens and Superman gives his own life to defeat Lex Luthor’s last gambit- Doomsday. In so doing, doubt about Superman and his good intentions are extinguished and he is elevated in martyrdom. Now memorialized, Superman accomplishes in Death what he never could in life: giving humanity the hope it needs to pick itself up and fight the good fight. His sacrifice even moves the ultimate cynic, Batman, to form the Justice League and defend humanity in much the same way Superman did. Hope sprung from death.
Hope is just an empty word if there is nothing to hope for or against. If you, as a viewer, want to be inspired to hope or to grasp exactly what hope is, then you must be willing to accept a certain level of darkness and despair in your films. After all, hope is dependent on a gradient to flourish. We need context to appreciate the gift of hope and those three films provide it in spades if you want to be truly inspired.