Directed by Christopher Nolan
134 minutes (PG-13 rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller
Batman Begins is the first truly great superhero film. While most superhero films tend to emphasize spectacle over story, Batman Begins is more akin to a character study masquerading as an action movie. Like Bruce Wayne, this film only resorts to superheroics when all other avenues are exhausted. And when writer/director Christopher Nolan does employ such tactics, he mirrors Batman by treating them as necessary evils rather than big set pieces. During most fight or chase scenes, for example, the camera is so close to the action that all we really observe is the suggestion of action rather than the action itself. This is yet another reflection of Batman’s philosophy: Results are what matter, not how pretty you look as you achieve them. That’s not to say this film—or Batman—does not appreciate the value of theatrics. Exactly the opposite. But both Batman and Nolan realize that if you’re going to create a spectacle—a myth, even—you had better make sure it has a substantial base. So before the climactic, “all hope is lost if the hero doesn’t succeed” chase sequence, Nolan spends most of the movie creating just that substance.
Beginning with Bruce Wayne’s training in the Himalayas at the hands of the mysterious Ducard, Nolan feeds us a steady stream of questions regarding justice, fear, identity, anger, guilt, and vengeance. While Wayne doesn’t necessarily embrace everything Ducard has to say on these topics, Ducard’s tutelage is crucial in shaping the type of man Wayne will become. Ducard helps him refine his vision, overcome his fears, and find a constructive channel for his rage.
When Wayne returns to Gotham—a city so rife with corruption that Ducard and his nefarious “League of Shadows” sees no other solution than to destroy it—he determines to prove that even Gotham can be redeemed. He is not exactly sure how he will do it. But, little by little, he assembles the equipment, the personnel, the tactics, and, most importantly, the persona that will enable him to pull it off.
Wayne’s first forays as Batman are not exactly graceful. But the more experienced he becomes, the more success he experiences. Soon, his mere presence in the city begins to have the desired effect. Criminals are stricken with terror at the mere mention of his name, and crime begins to wane. It isn’t long before the myth begins to overshadow the reality, and Batman becomes exactly what Ducard promised: More than a man, he has become a legend.
But has Batman—Bruce Wayne—become a hero? That is the question that lurks at the heart of this film. Of all the heroes in the DC Comics universe, Batman skates closest to the fine line that separates superheroes from supervillains, because his quest for justice is so strongly tainted with vengeance, his methodology so riddled with fear and violence. Unlike Superman, for example, Batman isn’t on a self-sacrificial quest to save society from evil. For Batman—for Bruce Wayne—his fight against injustice is personal, a direct response to the murder of his parents. Among other things, this aspect of his ideology frees him to use tactics that his other (arguably) more heroic comrades will not. It also makes him one of the most intriguing heroes around. Like us, he is a complex mixture of good and evil. Even though Batman has learned to channel and control his dark side, at times we wonder if it is really the other way around—that his dark side has learned to channel and control him. This is what keeps us coming back for more, because we often wonder the same thing about ourselves.
Yet Wayne does see a clear line of demarcation between himself and his enemies. Namely, Wayne regards himself as compassionate, whereas his enemies are not. Early in the film, Wayne refuses to kill someone at Ducard’s command, and Ducard chides him for his hesitancy, saying, “That is a weakness your enemy will not share.” “Exactly,” Wayne replies. “That’s why it’s so important.” This difference, Wayne figures, places him at least one step higher on the moral ladder than his villainous counterparts. Yet his compassion has its limitations. Certainly Wayne will not wittingly injure or kill civilians in his quest for justice. But Wayne’s refusal to extend compassion to his enemies presents a flaw in his ideology that promises to bring Gotham City crashing down around his pointy ears.
The way I see it, the evolution of supervillains is a natural response to the presence of superheroes. For instance, in Batman Begins, it isn’t long before the criminals of Gotham realize they need to make some drastic changes to their tactics if they hope to remain in business. It’s a simple market reality: The more powerful Batman becomes, the more powerful they must become. If Batman is stealthy, they must become even stealthier. If he develops technology to help him in his crime-fighting efforts, they must develop even better technology. If he responds to their actions with violence, they must respond with even more violence. If Batman becomes, in effect, super-powered; they must also become super-powerful.
In this sense, Batman becomes his own worst enemy, because his very presence in Gotham assures that more and stronger villains will continue to arise. Rather than serve to stabilize society, Batman actually becomes a destabilizing force instead. Batman thinks he can adopt criminal methodology (except for murder) and remain true to his ideology. But his actions only forestall the inevitable—mutually assured destruction of hero, villain, and society. Thus, by refusing to extend compassion to include his enemies, Wayne doesn’t weaken them, he actually makes them stronger, thus compounding the very social problems he set out to solve.
But is there an alternative? Imagine for a moment that instead of becoming the Caped Crusader, Bruce Wayne followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on preventing crime through social initiatives rather than trying to beat criminals at their own game. Admittedly, Wayne’s effect on crime would not be as immediate or dramatic as Batman’s—and it sure wouldn’t make for a very interesting comic book—but in the long run, it would be far more effective. Rather than intensifying the resolve and contributing to the success of his adversaries, Wayne’s efforts would chip away at their ability to operate by alleviating the social factors that make crime an appealing career alternative.
As it stands though, Wayne is a lot like us. He tends to objectify his enemies, to view them as evil constructs rather than real people, thereby desensitizing himself toward their fellings, and making it easier for him to dispatch them. He also can more easily sidestep hard questions like: “What circumstances caused this person to pursue a life of crime and what can I do to change those circumstances?”
Pursue such questions far enough, and they will reveal that none of us is without responsibility, that we are all charged with working to correct society’s ills. I suspect such questions will also reveal that our desire to vanquish our enemies is also an attempt to vanquish the voices of guilt that plague our soul. That’s why I believe Wayne—and the rest of us—are so afraid to ask them.
Bruce Wayne is correct: Compassion does separate him from his enemies, but only marginally so. His ideology may be different, but as long as his methodology mirrors theirs, Batman will continue to be both villain and hero. The question is; would we really want him any other way? Not if this contradiction continues to inspire movies as fascinating as this one. As for us, that’s a different matter altogether…
@ 2005 Kevin Miller.