Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.
—Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)
You just couldn’t pull it off properly unless you became a beast inside of that suit.
—Christian Bale, “Batman: The Journey Begins”
“When you start to examine the realistic idea of why Bruce Wayne would dress up as a bat,” muses Chris Nolan in “Cape and Cowl,” “The best explanation offered by the comics is the notion of him using fear against those who would use fear themselves. When he’s looking for the most intimidating symbol he can think of, he naturally gravitates toward the thing that has frightened him the most as a child. Essentially Bruce Wayne becomes his own worst fear.”
In this brief assessment of his protagonist in Batman Begins, new to a fancy two-disc DVD plus comic book set from Warner Bros., Nolan brilliantly insinuates himself (and by extension, you) inside the utter pathology of Bruce Wayne. His formulation seems simple but it’s not. The “realistic idea” is anything but, and “when you” and “when he” lead you along a seemingly irresistible path, where logic is internal and perverse, and so, implacable. Listening to Nolan and writer David Goyer hold forth on their conception of Batman, it’s hard to imagine anyone else could grasp his darkness quite so darkly.
Their detailed, often oddly enthralling thinking emerges on the second disc (the first features only one, profoundly dull extra, the Jimmy Fallon skit from the MTV Movie Awards, so if you want more than the film, you need to buy the double). The various features on this disc—arranged in a quickly uninteresting “interactive” comic book format—are generally origin stories, about the character/film (“Genesis of the Bat”), the costumes (“Cape and Cowl,” in which designer Lindy Hemming notes, “We came up with the idea that it was something like a combat outfit”), the sets (“Gotham City Rises”), the choreography (“Path to Discovery”), and of course, the car (“Batman - The Tumbler”). The disc also offers up a decent Art Gallery and 12 “Confidential Files,” text screens to explain Batman’s “Hardware,” “Enemies,” and “Allies/Mentors,” all making points already made more compellingly in the film.
Nolan’s Batman (played by Christian Bale) is perpetually knotted up, unable to forget his dead parents, seeking a vague solace in his hard body’s capacity for violence. Batman Begins begins with Bruce beset with traumatic memories, from a childhood fall into a bat-swarmed well to the loss of a childhood friend. His brief reverie gives way to his present imprisonment in China, where it’s cold and grey and he fits in. Here he faces down a looming inmate who proclaims, “You’re in hell, and I’m the devil.” Oh no, Bruce grimaces, “You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”
It’s a decent first line, setting up Bruce’s rage and determination, as well as his grim arrogance and sense of comedy. It also serves as his introduction to martial arts mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who observes his bone-cracking throwdown with a squad of this devil’s large friends, then invites him to join up with the League of Shadows. At the training facility, Bruce learns that his “practice” has barely prepared him.
Here he meets cryptic mystic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who commands the League, a rugged band of mostly anonymous vigilantes resolved to kill every last villain on earth, or at least those in Gotham City. Bruce, however, is disinclined to burn down places in order to save them. As this prequel has it, he’s got a humanistic heart beating beneath his angry exterior. And so, following some indeterminate time spent training with Ducard and, Bruce heads back to Gotham and Wayne Manor, aided by Alfred (Michael Caine), who fetches him promptly.
Once home, Bruce sets about his self-appointed clean-up mission, as the camera predictably dotes on origin story highlights—the design of the cowl, the darkness of the cave, the creation of the cape. Of all these moments, the most exhilarating is Bruce’s discovery and purchase of the Batmobile, here a frankly awesome futuristic all-terrain military vehicle designed by Wayne Enterprises basement genius, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
Bruce names his crusading self Batman in honor of the creatures who traumatized him as a child. He is, like most superheroes, a function of trauma, the personal made public, the intimate spilling over into the commercial. Though he thinks he needs to separate revenge and justice, the movie assigns the articulation of this dilemma to its most annoying and needless character, Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel, now grown up to embody a combination romantic interest/moral conscience (played by the seriously lackluster Katie Holmes).
Now an earnest Assistant District Attorney in Gotham, Rachel stands in for viewers’ worry over Bruce’s desire to avenge his parents’ murders. The movie simultaneously invites you to love this drive to vengeance and also feel somewhat repulsed, mostly because Bale is so dour: this superhero business looks pretty dreadful frankly, even if you do get to drive the Batmobile. Still, the violence is thrilling, in an expensive art-house movie kind of way: Batman’s initial assault on a pack of henchmen working for kingpin Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is rendered with thrilling smash-up spasticity. The blows and the cuts are mixed up in whomping and whooshing sound effects.
While Batman takes up crusading, Bruce starts playing playboy, doing his best to squander his philanthropist father’s good name. This apparently helps him construct the bat-myth, leading to an eventual confrontation with Falcone and his henchperson Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). The villains’ primary scheme has to do with populating Arkham Asylum with a slew of nutty masterminds, their nastiness enhanced by a weaponized hallucinogen, which Scarecrow means to release into the Gotham water supply (holy bioweapons!). The effects of this drug are rendered in subjective whappy head imagery, blurred, toothy, and brutally nightmarish.
Nolan’s film presumes the loss of official goodness, as institutions and interests have long since slid into so-called corruption. On one hand, this makes vigilantism seem an only answer, but on another, it leaves no choice but “escalation,” to more spectacular attacks and more grandiose super-villains, as noted by last “good cop” Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). As police, legal, corporate, and criminal forces all hang together, the film suggests, Batman’s scary loner provides one possible answer, flawed and mortal as he may be.
Self-righteous, flagrantly emotional as well as coldly rational, alarmingly tunnel-visioned, Batman brings a sense of mission and strategies of terror—scaring the evildoers is the best (only?) way to deter their grasping ambitions and their overweening violence. Batman means business, in the equally trendy forms of franchise and vengeance. He feels better when he gets it done, and you’re supposed to feel better too. Batman Begins is smartly ambiguous and wholly marketable.