When Batman (Christian Bale) begins to yell, you realize just how different (and superior) Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is to its predecessors in the franchise. This comes about half way through the film, during Batman’s fledgling attempt to get to the top of Gotham’s organized criminal-political corruption network, by “interrogating” a bad cop.
We’ve seen Batman do this sort of thing a million times before. But Bale brings a menace to Batman, making him radically distinct from alter ego Bruce Wayne. Previously (from Adam West through Keaton, Kilmer, and Clooney), you could never figure out how so many people could be duped into not seeing that Bruce Wayne was obviously the Batman. When this Batman lets loose, all snarling voice and flying spittle, you understand villains’ conviction that the Dark Knight is some supernatural creature, and can imagine that those who know Bruce don’t make the connection.
The differences that Nolan (and co-writer David S. Goyer) bring to the character, as well as to Gotham and beyond, determine the excellence of Batman Begins. In true comic industry fashion, BB takes the history of Batman and reimagines it for today, just as Frank Miller did in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1987) and in Batman: Year One (1986/7). Comics fans will be a bit disappointed that the film departs significantly from the latter, which is generally the original source material. Neither the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) nor Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who figure prominently in the film, appear in the comic; though the film’s other villain, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), is drawn from the source. The only “supervillain” in Batman: Year One is Catwoman, who is entirely absent here. But rewriting the details is precisely what has kept Batman (and comics generally) relevant for the past 50 years. And Nolan’s film is nothing if not relevant to current world affairs and political/philosophical conundrums.
The Bruce Wayne/Batman duality allows Nolan to foreground a number of these issues. Batman Begins questions the status of both Bruce Wayne and Batman: Which is “real”? Which is “persona”? How does he, and how can we, justify his desire for justice against his vigilante actions? (These questions come up in several of the most sophisticated comic treatments of the superhero, like Grant Morrison’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (1997) and Miller’s work, already mentioned.)
Batman Begins complicates such duality by demonstrating how both Wayne and Batman are produced by competing binaries of all sorts. Wayne’s struggles with his anger over his inability to prevent his parents’ murder, his ongoing feelings of guilt over having caused their deaths, and his yearning for vengeance, all start him on the path to becoming Batman. This globe-trekking quest takes up nearly the first half of the film, and leads Bruce to the temple of the League of Shadows, a militaristic secret society. There, under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and watchful eye of Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), Bruce learns the physical and emotional control, as well as the martial arts skills he will need as Batman. It is also under the guidance of Ducard that Bruce begins to face the contradictions that have produced in him the desire to become something different, which Bruce variously calls a “symbol,” a “legend,” “a terrible thought,” and a “wraith.”
So is it revenge or justice that motivates Batman? Can he (or we) make such simplistic distinctions? And is the difference merely a matter of perspective? Childhood sweetheart and barely-for-a-moment love interest here Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) tells Bruce that “justice is about harmony, revenge is about making yourself feel better.” Similarly, Ducard tells him that “vigilantism” is merely about “self-gratification.”
Certainly Batman’s crime-fighting might be understood as recreating balance in a system in which social, political, and economic hierarchies are skewed, and at the same time about making Bruce feel better about the deaths of his parents. This further muddies for Bruce/Batman the relationship between guilt and responsibility. And the League of Shadows, dedicated, as Ducard says, to “true justice,” is an obvious allusion to extreme right wing and fundamentalist politics, which regularly deal in such moral absolutes. (It should come as no surprise that Ducard’s “selfless” actions afford him extreme self-gratification.)
Nolan weaves these philosophically complicated, and completely urgent, questions throughout Batman Begins to raise it above the franchise’s recent history. Running under the film’s consideration of revenge versus justice are questions about the political uses of fear. Batman manipulates primal fears to reinstate justice, scare politicians straight, and make criminals aware of the consequences of their actions. The League of Shadows and the Scarecrow manipulate bio-weapons technology to produce fear on a mass scale in the populace of Gotham in order to destroy it. What is the difference here?
Even though the film does come down on Batman’s “side,” it raises as many questions about fear as political weapon as it answers. The connections between fear in Batman Begins and terror(ism) in today’s “real world” could hardly be clearer. Are U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Iraq motivated out of fear and a desire for vengeance, or for justice? How do domestic politics manipulate fear to justify something like the Patriot Act? The movie proposes that your answers to these questions depend on which side of the conflict you stand, even while the differences between the “good” and “bad” are often negligible in the extreme.