—About this Film
Batman Begins is the first truly great superhero film. While most superhero films tend to emphasize spectacle over story, Batman Begins is more like 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 no 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 be able to back it up with rock-solid substance. 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.
In this film at least, Wayne does see a clear line of demarcation between him and his enemies. Namely, Wayne regards himself as compassionate, whereas his enemies are not. Early in the film when Wayne refuses to kill someone at Ducard’s command, 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.” People like Ducard will kill to achieve their goals, even wipe out an entire city of innocent civilians, if necessary. But while Wayne may not always prevent the death of his enemies—even when it is within his power to do so—he will not cause their death by his own hand. And certainly he will not wittingly injure or kill civilians in his quest for justice. This difference, Wayne figures, places him at least one step higher on the moral ladder than his villainous counterparts. Perhaps. But I believe Wayne’s unwillingness to extend compassion to everyone—including his enemies—is his greatest weakness, a flaw in his ideology that will eventually bring Gotham City crashing down around his pointy ears.
To understand why I think this, we need to jump ahead to one of the final scenes in the film when Lieutenant Gordon raises the question of escalation. He notes that the stronger Gotham’s forces of justice become, the more determined their enemies will become in response. “If we use Kevlar, they’ll use armor-piercing rounds.” Batman isn’t too fazed by this, confident that no matter what the villains come up with, he can create something even more powerful to defeat them. This may be true, but it also points to an inevitable clash between ideology and methodology—between goals and means—a problem that plagues not just Batman but all superheroes.
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee hints at this problem in his book Story, where he states that the hero of a story creates the rest of the cast. What he means is, once a writer creates a hero with specific abilities and character qualities, he or she then creates the rest of the characters based on their ability to showcase certain aspects of the hero. If a hero is generous, the writer will ensure the hero encounters characters that elicit this aspect of his or her character. If the hero is clever, the writer will put him or her in conflict with an equally clever antagonist.
As I thought about McKee’s statement, it occurred to me that this principle is particularly true in the world of superheroes. When you create a godlike hero, you must create godlike villains for him or her to overcome. After all, what’s the point of creating a nearly indestructible character like Superman if the only people he ever goes up against are petty thieves? Sooner or later, a character that is capable of saving the world must be pitted against a villain capable of destroying the world. Otherwise, readers/viewers will lose interest.
Let’s set the question of entertainment value aside for a moment though and pretend that the world of Gotham were real. If so, the evolution of supervillains would be 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. Thus, the escalation Gordon predicted will come true.
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 then, Batman actually becomes a destabilizing force instead. This is the clash between ideology and methodology I mentioned earlier: Batman thinks he can adopt the criminals’ methodology (except for murder) and yet still remain true to his ideology. But, as Gordon foresees, the best such a schema can do is forestall the inevitable—mutually assured destruction of hero, villain, and society as a whole. Thus, we can finally see how the limit Wayne has placed on compassion truly does become his greatest weakness: By refusing to extend compassion to include his enemies, he doesn’t weaken them; he actually makes them stronger, thus compounding the very social problems he set out to solve.
Just think about the real world implications of this fact: Today, our primary response to something like terrorism is to hunt down and kill the terrorists. And why not? Surely a motley band of insurgents is no match for the technological and military might of the West. And yet, despite a global effort to defeat terrorism, the terrorists still manage to strike ever more frequent and devastating blows. Unthinkable. Or is it? Could it be that, like Batman in Gotham, the mere presence of such an overwhelming military superpower in our world is giving rise to the very thing that superpower was created to stand against? Like Batman, could the willingness of the West to adopt the methodologies of its enemies—war, terror, torture, etc.—actually be forcing our enemies to become more creative, more desperate, more willing to attempt bolder and more terrifying schemes because they see no other way of achieving their goals? If so, is there any way out of this situation? Let’s see if Batman Begins can provide us with an answer.
Imagine for a moment that instead of becoming the Caped Crusader, Bruce Wayne followed in the footsteps of his father and focused on preventing crime through social initiatives rather than trying to beat criminals into submission. I can’t be certain, but I doubt supervillains like Ra’s Ah Ghul or the Scarecrow would ever arise in Gotham, because without a superhero like Batman, there would be no need for them. 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, I believe it would be far more effective. Rather than intensify the resolve and ability 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.
If you want to get really radical, imagine if, in his efforts to solve the city’s social problems, Wayne actually extended his compassion to include the criminals themselves. What if, rather than coming up with tougher laws and longer sentences, for instance, he focused on rehabilitating them instead? Who knows? He may just discover that even criminals can be redeemed. 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. They are evil by nature, he believes, sub-human even. Objectifying criminals like this serves two functions: First, it releases Wayne from feeling anything toward them, making it easier for him to dispatch them. Second, it frees him from asking hard questions like, “What circumstances caused this person to pursue a life of crime? Has my life contributed to those circumstances in any way? If so, how? What can I do to change those circumstances?” Pursue such questions far enough, and I believe they will reveal that none of us are truly innocent, that we all bear at least a tacit responsibility for society’s ills. I suspect such questions will also reveal that perhaps our desire to vanquish our enemies is really an attempt to vanquish the voices of guilt that plague our soul. That’s why Wayne—and the rest of us—are so afraid to ask them.
Bruce Wayne is correct: Compassion does make him different from his enemies, but only marginally so. His ideology may be different from theirs. But as long as his methodology remains the same, Batman will continue to be as much a villain as he is a 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…
—About this Film