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Non-Review Review: Batman Begins

Batman Begins has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan’s original reimagining of the Batman mythos is a compelling and clever examination of one of pop culture’s most enduring icons. I think there’s a case to be made that Batman Begins represents the best superhero origin story ever told in film – and quite possibly the definitive introduction to Batman and his world. The key isn’t collecting bits of trivia to explain the finer details, although the script from the Nolan brothers and David Goyer certainly does that. Instead, Nolan dares to examine the psychology of Batman. Richard Donner’s Superman famously boasted that you’d believe a man could fly. Nolan makes you believe that a man would dress up as a giant bat to fight crime.

Swooping ahead of the competition…

It’s about an hour into the film before Batman actually appears. Sure, his introductory sequence is fantastic. Realising that Batman is, by his nature, a creature of the night, Nolan frames the Dark Knight’s introduction like something out of Alien as he preys on hapless goons at the Gotham docks before triumphantly revealing himself. However, this scene comes relatively late in the film. Up until that point, we’ve been following Bruce Wayne, the billionaire playboy with lots of issues. While Tim Burton’s iteration of the character often felt like nothing more than a facade for the superhero, Nolan develops and crafts Wayne into an interesting and intriguing character.

The audience doesn’t care that it takes Batman so long to show up, because we care about Bruce Wayne. That’s the trick. In a way, that’s a rather brilliant misdirection on Nolan’s part. The director has a knack for subverting his audience’s expectations. Say what you will about The Prestige or Memento, they were stunningly produced films which came with a sharp detour. If we believe The Prestige, the film maker considers the art of movies to be something akin to a magic trick.

Viewer beware, you’re in for a Scare(crow)…

Misdirection is half the battle. “Theatricality and deception are powerful tools,” Henri Ducard advises Bruce early on, and he could be speaking for Nolan. The movie comes with a third act twist, of course, but there’s a more fundamental deception at work here. Although the title of the film refers to Batman, this is really the story of Bruce, and it’s the stronger for it. Save perhaps the criminally underrated Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, this is perhaps the only time that Bruce has been a far more interesting character than Batman, a young man “truly lost” on a quest to make sense of the world.

Sure, we get the finer details, the paint-by-number explanations for much of Batman’s world. Where does he get those wonderful toys? He has Wayne Enterprises R & D working them up. Why a bat? He explains, “Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.” Why not just become a police man? Because Gotham is rife with corruption, and Bruce doesn’t seem to respond well to authority. (Discussing his departure from Princeton, he implies he was expelled. “I like it fine. They just don’t feel the same way.”)

Running the gauntlet…

Asked to explain why Batman is such an iconic figure, a lot of people will give a lot of different answers. Maybe the character’s place in popular consciousness is simply a result of his nigh-ubiquitous presence, thanks to shrewd marketing from DC and Bob Kane. Perhaps there’s something appealing about a character who is just a man, in world populated by aliens and speedsters and other sorts of super-human characters. Mayhap it’s the fact that he’s so readily adaptable and seems capable of being absolutely anything pop culture needs him to be, from the grim avenger of the night to the camp crusader and everything in between.

Nolan latches on to the importance of Batman as an idea. More specifically, the idea that Bruce can transcend his mortal status by becoming an idea rather than a mere man. “You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent,” his teacher warns him. “You must bask in the fear of other men. And men fear most what they cannot see. You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!”

Sharp as ever…

A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.

Which is?

A legend, Mr. Wayne.

– Bruce and Henri

It’s an idea that would be fairly essential to Nolan’s three Batman films, with Bruce evolving into a symbol and an idea. The Joker and Bane would rise against Batman more as ideological opposites than gimmicky villains.

Has Bruce finally gone batty?

Here, even Ra’s Al Ghul himself transcends mortality through evolution into an idea. The comic book character is literally immortal, but Nolan opts for a more metaphorical form of eternal life. “But is Ra’s Al Ghul immortal?” the villain teases when he’s revealed to be alive towards the film’s climax. “Are his methods supernatural?” Bruce responds, “Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity, Ra’s?” It’s all about misdirection. The trick has been right in front of us the whole time, but we just didn’t see it thanks the director’s slight-of-hand. (In effect, the ultimate casting gag, as Liam Neeson is much easier to accept as a concerned but hardened mentor than as a genocidal maniac.)

It’s frequently been argued that Batman is a character who is constant upstaged by his villains. After all, he’s the ultimate straight man to the eccentric selection of foes. Nolan does well to counteract this by making the villains serve Batman, rather than the other way around. Ra’s Al Ghul makes the perfect counterpart to Batman, a corrupted surrogate father figure for a boy who lost his real father at a young age. The Scarecrow is presented here of minimal importance, but he exists to mirror Batman’s use of fear.

Crane’s up on his high horse again!

It speaks to Nolan’s ability as a director that Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane is developed better in a handful of scenes than most comic book bad guys in entire films. In fact, he’s an effective counterpart to Bruce. Like Thomas Wayne, Crane is a doctor. And, like Bruce, Crane was recruited by the League of Shadows. (Although he wasn’t quite a full member.) While Bruce’s principles lead him to refuse to take part in the scheme to destroy Gotham, Crane is completely divorced from any such morality. Ra’s explains how he convinced the psychiatrist to go along with the plan to dump the chemical into Gotham’s water supply, “He thought our plan was to hold the city to ransom.” Presumably Crane expected a cut.

Ra’s Al Ghul makes for an interesting counterpart to Bruce, because they share a lot of the same motivations and goals. The differences are only defined by their methods. Ra’s is a character who has isolated himself from the world, living in a remote mountain-top retreat. Bruce, in contrast, travels the world to understand how it works. Bruce is a vigilante, but he respects the need for order – as contradictory as that might sound. Ra’s would justify mass murder to serve his ends. In the end, Bruce is defined by his humanity, while Ra’s has completely lost his.

About to have a gas time…

It’s interesting that Christopher Nolan would make Ra’s wear a mask during the final third of the film. Interestingly, it seems to foreshadow Bane’s appearance in The Dark Knight Rises. Both masks cover the mouths of the person involved, while Batman actually leaves his mouth exposed. It’s a vital piece of humanity visible. It’s interesting that Batman looks far less inhuman and threatening than Bane or Ra’s, despite the fact that his mask covers more of his face. (Bruce’s humanity is also reflected in his broader supporting cast. Ra’s doesn’t seem to surround himself with anyone other than anonymous mooks. He doesn’t even directly interact with the Scarecrow, his hired goon.)

Bruce Wayne, as Batman, is presented as something of a benign terrorist, a character using fear to bring about his desired end – to help reclaim Gotham from the vice and corruption festering there. Asked what he is searching for, a young Bruce responds, “I seek the means to fight injustice, to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” This position is, of course, firmly anchored in Bruce’s childhood, as we can trace the outlines of the thought processes that fed to this conclusion. In particular, it seems this course of action was rooted in a conversation with his father. “All creatures feel fear,” his father assures him. “Even the scary ones?” young Bruce asks. His father replies, “Especially the scary ones.”

“Mr. Wayne, I presume…?”

Bruce’s background is laid fully open to us for what seems to be the first time in film. Michael Gough was, undoubtedly, great as Alfred, but the character was little more than a plot device. Here, Alfred is rendered as a tragic figure in his own right. He’s the former military man who finds himself tasked with responsibility to protect and raise the son of his former employee. A bachelor who knows the world only in the strictest moral terms, Alfred is singularly unsuited to the task of parenthood, despite his best efforts. One wonders if Bruce might have a had a chance to turn out normal if he hadn’t have ended up in the care of Alfred, a man who – despite his sincerest efforts – seems to have no idea what he’s doing.

Tasked with comforting a young boy following the loss of his parents, Alfred seems a bit caught out. Bruce is feeling guilty and responsible. After all, he wanted to leave the show early, which led to the mugging. “If I hadn’t been afraid,” the boy cries. Rather than trying to deal with that sense of misplaced guilt and responsibility, Alfred instead instructs Bruce to channel and project it. Alfred tries to sooth him, “It was nothing you did. It was him and him alone.” You can almost see the seed being planted in Bruce’s mind – the idea that as long as he projects his anger onto these anonymous criminals, he won’t have to worry about dealing with his own misplaced sense of guilt.

Crime has had a stranglehold on Gotham for too long. It’s Bruce’s turn.

We can see that Bruce still carries that philosophy with him into adulthood. “Do you still feel responsible for your parent’s death?” Henri Ducard asks Bruce. The young warrior responds, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” This is compounded by the fact that Alfred himself can’t be the father-figure that Bruce so desperately needs, by virtue of his place in the Wayne household. He rigidly adheres to the role of the butler, fitting his military mindset, as if unaware that Bruce needs more than that.

At one point, Alfred threatens to “call the men in white coats”, but it seems an idle threat, especially when Bruce is already so deep into this thing. Alfred doesn’t seem to trust himself to challenge Bruce, even though that’s exactly what Bruce needs. There’s a harrowing shot of Alfred collecting Bruce from a botched night on the town, and the older man is crying – completely unsure what he’s supposed to do, as if coming to terms with just how messed up the son of his former employer (and friend) has become. Michael Caine is superb in the role, and was a casting coup.

Is Bruce prepared for the splashback?

If you look at the film as a whole, it seems to be about Bruce’s attempts to find a replacement father figure. Thomas Wayne is only present for a few short scenes, but he imparts the theme of the film (and, arguably, the trilogy) as he asks Bruce, “Why do we fall, Bruce?” The answer is obvious, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Bruce fails repeatedly throughout Batman Begins. He’s willing to murder Joe Chill. (And he probably would have, if Falcone hadn’t done it first.)

His initial attempts to understand the criminal mind seem to consist mainly of getting himself locked in prison so he can “take them on one at a time.” His first attempt to take to Gotham as a vigilante is a failure, as he nearly kills himself escaping the police station. His first real adventure of Batman isn’t that much better, as he gets a face full of fear toxin and set on fire. Still, Bruce improves. He learns. He evolves.

All tied up…

I think that’s an interesting aspect of Nolan’s Batman films that occasionally gets overlooked. People focus on the relatively bleak and cynical outlook, but they miss the central moral. Characters struggle and fail to meet their objectives or goals. However, the heroic characters refuse to let those failures define them. Batman suffers and goes through an immense psychological trauma, but he adapts to it. He is willing to improve, to tinker. (This ultimately leads to escalation, but Nolan suggests that Batman could ultimately win because he will continue to evolve and to improve, despite his setbacks.)

Comic book origin stories are so compelling because they are one of the few types of stories you can tell with these icons where they have a very clear character arc. Due to the nature of Batman as a serialised comic book, he really can’t change that much from issue to issue. However, if the status quo is the end result of the origin, rather than existing as both the beginning and the end, it allows the writer to put the character on a structured journey. I think that’s why writers and creators like superhero origins so much.

Shine a light on it…

Bruce evolves a lot here. I’d argue that he still isn’t quite the perfect Batman by the end of the film, but he’s a damn sight closer. The Dark Knight would really test the character’s mettle and his moral resolve. Still, we see several dramatic moments where Bruce’s moral character is affirmed. His willingness to kill Joe Chill is contrasted with his refusal to kill the prisoner Ducard brings before him. (Coincidentally, the killer was a thief who “became a murderer” during a robbery gone wrong, much like Chill was.)

Batman is an improvement over Bruce’s ski mask adventure. And Batman eventually learns how to deal with the Scarecrow, who promptly goes from a major threat here to a distraction to a glorified drug dealer in The Dark Knight. In contrast, Ra’s and his League of Shadows prove completely unable to evolve or change. Their attack on Gotham is just the continuation of a strategy they used against “Constantinople and Rome before it.” It doesn’t matter that they’ve apparently been doing this for centuries and haven’t really changed anything. (They boast that “harmony is restored”, but it’s never a fundamental or permanent shift. In a few decades, they have to do the whole thing again.)

The not so good doctor…

Interestingly, I like the idea that this conflict between Ra’s and Bruce defines Bruce as a surgeon. To the pair, Gotham is a sick patient, dying. To Ra’s the patient is terminal and needs to be put out of its misery. “It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die,” the villain insists. To Bruce, the cancer (crime) can be fought, and can be removed. He counters, “Gotham isn’t beyond saving.” I like that it allows Bruce to become something of a successor to his father, the surgeon. Except Bruce isn’t operating on patients. He is trying to save a city.

Of course, Bruce’s relationship with his father is at the heart of the film. He seems to spend most of the time searching for a replacement figure, and he find Ra’s Al Ghul. Al Ghul has always been presented as something of a potential father figure to Batman, a fact I think is related to the fact that he’s a character who tends to die. A lot. In the comics and cartoon, Al Ghul sought to make Bruce his heir, and there are hints of that to be found here. However, it’s Ra’s who continues the lessons from Thomas Wayne, and hits upon the idea that Bruce must become “more than just a man.”

What an upside down world…

If you look at the film, it’s Bruce who makes the mistakes. Bruce is motivated by petty vengeance, willing to kill the man who murdered his parents in order to make himself feel better. Batman allows Bruce to transcend his own mortality, but the hero also allows Bruce to step outside himself. Batman is this giant metaphorical ideal who can become so much more than Bruce Wayne. He can bear these immense pressures that a mere mortal couldn’t, and he can make Bruce more than just a frightened kid out to avenge himself on crooks. Bruce Wayne literally fights criminals. Batman fights crime. There’s a big difference, and Ra’s teaches him that. Ra’s boasts, “You know how to fight six men. We can teach you how to engage six thousand.” And more still.

I do like that the film goes to great pains to explore Bruce’s journey to enlightenment. There’s an element of class conflict to Batman that writers need to be careful when handling. He is a rich man who devotes a large amount of time and money to beating up the poor, the disenfranchised and the mentally incompetent. Nolan has Bruce give all that up to travel the world and learn the value of social responsibility. He steals for food, and learns what it’s like to live in poverty. He confesses, “The first time I stole so that I wouldn’t starve, yes. I lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.”

Craning his neck…

And yet there’s an element of class still present. Nolan makes it very clear that the only way Bruce can wage his one man war on crime is through his massive inheritance. He has a whole R & D department at his disposal. More than that, though, he inherits his parents’ friends. We’re told that he doesn’t begin the movie with legal and financial control of Wayne Enterprises, but he can still exploit the company through the loyalty of Lucius Fox, which he inherited from his parents. When Bruce starts to waffle about what he might be doing with the technology, Lucius won’t hear anything of it. “Mr Wayne, the way I see it, all this stuff is yours anyway.”

In fact, the movie seems to be about Bruce acknowledging the people around him, and realising that he has two firm moral pillars right at home. Shortly before travelling the world, Bruce has a pretty major confrontation with Alfred, as Bruce is whining about Wayne Manor. Alfred tries to instil some respect in the kid, prompting Bruce to pull the “you’re not my father” schtick. “Why do you give a damn, Alfred?” he demands. “It’s not your family.”That’s pretty cold, and it’s no coincidence that it comes shortly before Bruce leaves Gotham and finds Ducard. It’s a firm rejection of Alfred as a potential father.

A night at the opera…

The end of Batman Begins, however, sees Bruce accepting that Alfred and Lucius are suitable father figures. That they are far closer to the kind of man his father was than Henri Ducard or Ra’s Al Ghul could ever be. It’s telling that The Dark Knight sees both men making very important moral decisions on Bruce’s behalf. Lucius destroys the eavesdropping machine, while Alfred decides not to tell Bruce the truth about Rachel. It’s telling that Batman Begins ends with Bruce defeating Ra’s, as if completely rejecting the philosophy of vengeance in favour for the more optimistic outlook provided by Alfred and Lucius.

The entire cast is amazing. Liam Neeson is great. Michael Caine is beyond impressive. Cillian Murphy develops a relatively small role. Morgan Freeman brings that strange duality of levity and gravitas that makes him such a wonderful supporting actor. However, my favourite member of the support ensemble is Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. Gordon has always, to me, been one of the most fascinating characters in the Batman mythos.

Ice to meet you again…

While Alfred is enabling his employer, it’s Gordon who makes the decision to trust Gotham to a man dressed as a bat. “I think you’re trying to help,” he tells Batman at one point, before warily conceding, “but I’ve been wrong before.” Gordon is arguably the one truly sane member of the supporting cast, his mind unclouded by any pre-existing loyalty to the Wayne family. Oldman is superb here in a role that is nuanced, and yet would be developed even further in The Dark Knight. It’s great to see these characters fleshed out and developed.

Nolan does all this wonderful psychological grounding without sacrificing any of the scale or wonder that makes these larger-than-life characters and stories so fascinating. I think it’s become common place to attack Nolan’s vision for being “realistic”, but that never struck me as fair. His concepts are at least as fantastical as any other comic book film. Batman Begins does, after all, feature a secret cult of ninja assassins, a “fear toxin”, a weaponised microwave and an attempt to wipe out a major American city.

The butler did it…

In fact, I especially like the way that Nolan is able to respect his source material without getting too tangled in forced references. In particular, I like the fact that Nolan shoots the films in shades of blue (the league of assassins) and yellow (Gotham) as something of a loving homage to the more bright and cheerful takes on the character. Regardless of what the crew might say, there is a strong influence of Frank Miller’s Year One on the story, and I do like that they used Henri Ducard, a comic book character created by Sam Hamm, the writer of Tim Burton’s Batman.

In fact, I really like the last third of the film, because Nolan suddenly transforms what had been a relatively intimate psychological study into a full-blown superhero epic. A supervillain emerges with a deliciously over-the-top actor relishing the opportunity to deliver lines like “now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to destroy!”The entire last third of the film is effectively one extended chase sequence, with a number of impressive beats, all leading up to a crescendo with the momentum of (pardon the pun) a runaway freight train.

“Yeah, I might wanna shave before I put on the cowl…”

More than that, though, the film’s final third hinges on Batman as a character who doesn’t win via brute force, but through guile. It’s a rather wonderfully executed plot point, and I think it perfectly captures the appeal and the essence of Batman. He’s not the strongest there is, and he’s not perfectly suited for every situation. However, give him a chance to formulate a plan, and he can easily topple the biggest and meanest bad guy.

If I had a problem with the film, it’s the fact that there are no real female character to speak of. Rachel Dawes is an awkward plot contrivance, and the flashback sequences are focused on Bruce’s relationship with his father. His mother doesn’t seem to have any lines – or at least not any of major import. I know that Batman’s cast doesn’t have too many major female character who aren’t villains, but it’s a shame that the movie couldn’t find room for them. Dawes exists purely to lecture Bruce and to provide a potential love interest. She’s barely better used than Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s adaptation, but only barely.

Ninjas!

Still, aside from that, Nolan’s Batman Begins is a master class in how to construct a superhero origin story, and an illustration that the genre doesn’t need to be disposable entertainment. There’s a lot of clever ideas here, delivered in an engaging and stylish manner. Arguably the best was yet to come, but the trilogy was off to a great start.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy:

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One Response

  1. Nice Post! Thanks!

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