We have to wait a little longer to see Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, and NerdBastards’ Matthew Jackson is dealing with the wait by filling his head with as many other Batman tales as possible. In the six weeks leading up to the flick’s release, he’ll be revisiting all six Batman franchise films so far (yes, even the crap ones) and writing retrospective essays on what worked, what didn’t, and what each film means to the franchise at large
The Long Dark is over. I made it through the Schumacher era and I’m on to the Nolan era. Writing about these is going to be interesting, because they’re basically universally revered as the best big-screen interpretations of the Dark Knight to date, and so much has been written about them already that it feels like any analysis I do will be to some extent simple regurgitation. I don’t have much critical to say about either of the Nolan films, and I apologize if the points I’m about to make have been made elsewhere before, but I am here to attempt to lay out some thoughts on just why these films matter so much to Batman and to the superhero genre as a whole. We begin, as Nolan did, with Batman Begins.
What strikes me most about the Nolan-era films is how different they are from each other. Take a few minutes and watch a trailer from each of the three films. They’re united by casting, production design sensibilities, cinematography and darkness, but in terms of pacing, in terms of color palette, in terms of theme they all present very different issues to us (or at least, The Dark Knight Rises has so far). Superhero movies aren’t generally about flowing the story from one to the next. They’re about setting up the hero, presenting obstacles to him or her and watching him or her overcome said obstacles. Nolan’s films certainly have that element, but they’re also about the development of Bruce Wayne as a man and as a hero. They chart an emotional arc that doesn’t begin and end with a single movie. As a result we’re left with a very deeply layered set of films That evolve from story to story. You can watch any of these films over again and come away with something different than you got the time before. This time around with Batman Begins, three themes jumped out at me: fear, justice and hope. They’re all things Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), and by extension his supporting cast, grapple with throughout the film, and Nolan shapes them all through his camera, through his design, through his pacing, his plotting and the pure energy he brings to the film. So, let’s examine each of those three elements in detail, starting with the most obvious: fear.
Fear: The film opens with a young Bruce Wayne falling down a well on his family’s estate and encountering a massive swarm of bats. His father rescues him and asks the now-famous question “Why do we fall?” The answer, of course, is so we can learn to pick ourselves up, but this sequence turns out to be much more than a nice father/son moment or an introduction of bats into Bruce Wayne’s life. Later, we watch as Bruce’s parents are shot dead beside him, watch as he sits in a police station and hears the future Commissioner Loeb say “We got him,” watch as he endures his parents’ funeral,watch as he weeps and tells Alfred (Michael Caine) that it was all his fault. Later, we hear an adult Bruce tell Alfred that Bats are what frightens him, but all these childhood traumas, coupled with his quest in adulthood to find “the means to fight injustice,” lead me to believe that Bruce Wayne’s greatest fear is helplessness. In so many Batman origin stories, we see the young Bruce silent and grimacing as his parents lie dead beside him. We’re led to believe that he made a vow that very day to battle injustice for the rest of his life. Nolan’s Bruce has a much more realistic and in many ways more frightening reaction. There’s nothing he can do. They’re gone and they’re not coming back. He weeps like a helpless child because he is a helpless child. As a man, helplessness is his great trauma. The first time he’s gassed by the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), he sees a bat flying out of the villain’s mouth, but just before he wakes up from a drug-induced stupor he sees his father asking him yet again “Why do we fall?” In Batman Begins, we see a man who’s fallen too many times. Falling terrifies him. Falling makes him feel like he failed. His fight to become “more than a man” is rooted there. In many ways, the story of Batman is the story of a man who doesn’t ever want to be unable to take something into his own hands again. That’ll be explored deeper in The Dark Knight, but in the first film of Nolan’s trilogy it’s very much portrayed as the root of a deep fear that Bruce must overcome.
Then there’s the Scarecrow, the agent of fear in Batman’s early days. Murphy plays him brilliantly as a man consumed by arrogance and fascinated by the monsters of his city. But he’s not a showy villain. He’s quiet, careful, slow until the toxins hit his enemies, then his theatricality comes alive. He’s a compelling villain, but he’s also useful to Nolan’s thematic explorations because he forces Batman to directly confront his fears. By the end, fear is conquered, but the other two main themes of Batman Begins are bigger than one film.
Justice: When Bruce Wayne enters training with the League of Shadows, he’s after a way to fight injustice. He wants to become more than a man. He wants to be a symbol that can power through the corruption and evil of his home city. He achieves this, but when the question of what justice really is comes up, Bruce and his trainer (Liam Neeson) disagree. He returns to Gotham to cement himself as the symbol he wants to be and overcome his fears, all the while doing his best to put the worst the city has to offer behind bars, but the shape of justice always remains murky. It’s murky when an even younger Bruce confronts his parents’ killer in a courtroom. It’s murky when Batman begins locking up mobsters. It’s murkier still when Ra’s al Ghul lands in town with his own plans for placing Gotham under justice. Whether or not Batman should stop Ra’s is an easy decision, but even as a clear good vs. evil fight is laid out for the film’s climax, Nolan is telling us something important about justice: It’s a malleable concept, and he’s not done shifting it yet.
Just as Scarecrow is a kind of avatar of fear in the film, there are avatars for justice as well. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is uniquely close to both Bruce Wayne and the justice system. She’s seen the world of the fortunate and the world of the devastated, and she shepherds Bruce through both of them even when she’s not aware of it. She’s a pure force for good, a person bent on finding “the right thing” even at the cost of her own life. In many ways she’s an example for Bruce, even if she does represent a naivete that Batman can’t afford to have. Then there’s Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), a cop who’s so close to the corruption of the city that he watches his own partner take bribes but refuses to rat him out. At the same time, he’s fighting to make a better life for his family in a city that seems to actively oppress him at every turn. In some ways, he’s a cop going through the motions, doing the best he can with what little he’s allowed. When Batman arrives, he sees some bigger purpose in Gordon, and by the end Gordon sees it in himself as well. Then there’s Ra’s al Ghul, an advocate for justice with a completely different definition of the word. He’s the villainous mastermind at the heart of Batman’s obstacles, but he’s also a force that makes Batman question everything about his mission. And as I said before, those are questions we’re not done asking yet.
Hope: Fear is the easiest theme to spot in this film, and justice is the biggest, but hope is the simplest, and by the end of this trilogy it could also prove the most important. Bruce Wayne begins this mission on a quest for vengeance, on a quest to do battle. He ends it, perhaps without really intending to, as a symbol of better days. This sense of better days, of hope and optimism amid all the darkness, is personified by two particular avatars (I keep calling them that, but each of these characters are fully-formed people even as they’re personifications of the film’s concepts.). First and most importantly is Alfred, Bruce’s keeper, protector and constant crutch. Alfred is the ultimate dedicated friend. You just know that no matter what Bruce goes through, Alfred will be there, and that will definitely matter later. And then there’s Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Batman’s supplier, the smartest man in the room who’s happy to pretend he’s ignorant for the sake of something bigger than himself. In many ways, he’s one of the most fascinated characters in the Nolanverse. We’ll find out why next week.
Conclusion: Though things will only get better from here, it’s safe to say Batman Begins was the best Bat-film to date at the time of its release. If I have one criticism, it’s that Nolan’s insistence on rooting every single Batman concept in reality is sometimes a little irritating to me. It’s the story of a guy who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. It’s nice that you want to make our suspension of disbelief so easy, but sometimes the reality is just a little too real. The Tumbler’s cool and all, but I miss the Batmobile.
Next week: We conclude our retrospective journey with the meatiest of the film’s so far, The Dark Knight.