Batman Begins (2005)

"People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting." -- Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)

The page was turned on Batman Begins quite quickly, as I recall. Director Christopher Nolan made another movie the following year called The Prestige that also prominently featured Christian Bale and Michael Caine, and I can remember seeing commercials for it and hearing people say, “So is that supposed to be another Batman Begins or what?” Batman Begins also had the misfortune of being immediately (and completely) overshadowed by its successor, particularly once Heath Ledger passed away six months ahead of The Dark Knight‘s July 2008 release. Begins also came on the heels of an extended drought: it had been eight years since the previous Batman film, Joel Schumacher’s atrocious Batman & Robin, which could be — and this is not hyperbole — one of the very worst movies ever released by a major Hollywood studio. Schumacher’s 1997 fiasco — featuring nipple suits, painfully bad Arnold Schwarznezegger one-liners (for which he was paid $20 million to deliver) and ’70s camp set to cheese overload — was many things, but above all it had the distinction of, for eight long years, killing the Batman film franchise.

For younger cinephiles, this bit of history is likely impossible to even conceive, considering The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises each grossed over $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts. In fact, I didn’t even see Batman Begins in theaters, despite hearing that it was actually good. Frankly, I just wasn’t interested. (Though to be honest, I didn’t see that many movies in theaters back then.) Batman had pretty much no pop culture value when Batman Begins hit theaters, which goes a long way towards explaining its relatively paltry $374 million worldwide box office take. (With a $150 million budget, that means the movie barely broke even, if it managed to do so at all.) Even given proper context and the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s still shocking in retrospect that Batman Begins only managed to gross a third of what its sequels managed. But that’s how badly Batman & Robin broke the franchise: it was thought to be, like Gotham in Batman Begins, beyond saving. Nobody wanted more Batman in 2005, until everybody eventually saw Batman Begins and said, “Oh wow, these movies can actually be good!” Unlike its sequels, Batman Begins was not an event; the word of mouth built slowly over the course of two or three years. By the time Heath Ledger died, everyone was on the same page: we were all looking forward to the second film.

Batman Begins

In retrospect, the tendency for most fans has been to consider Batman Begins inferior to The Dark Knight. Much of this view is circumstantial — the bluster and the noise of “the moment” when The Dark Knight was released was incredible — while the rest of it is likely due to the fact that Begins is an origin story and is often viewed as less than a Batman film, or at least less than what a Christopher Nolan-directed Batman film can be. I can certainly understand this point of view, but I think it’s a mistake to not give Batman Begins its proper due, considering it’s such an important film for a lot of different reasons: It launched Nolan’s career as a director of ambitious, max-budget blockbusters; it brought the Batman franchise back from the dead; and, most influentially, it perfected the modern origin story. Batman Begins completely redefined how to do an origin story for a character everyone in the audience thinks they are already familiar with (unlike Spider-Man, Batman had already logged considerable screen time over the years), and has been arguably the most influential film of Nolan’s trilogy — even if it has also received arguably the least acclaim. (Just one Oscar nomination for Cinematography, which was well deserved.)

Batman Begins caused a stir in Hollywood: if Batman could be brought back from the dead, surely other studio properties could be, too. The number of origin stories that started popping up immediately following Batman Begins‘ release were many (it was as if every studio took a look at all of their franchises and said, “Hey, let’s find a way to reboot all these series since they’re pre-sold!”), with Casino Royale (2006) being the earliest and most prominent of the bunch. Other high-profile reboots included The Incredible Hulk (2008), Star Trek (2009), Terminator Salvation (2009), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Hell, the Superman franchise was even rebooted in 2013 with Man of Steel, which Christopher Nolan executive produced. (And let’s not forget that freaking Spider-Man received a reboot just ten years after the original debuted.) It’s interesting, though, that when you go over that list of reboots I provided above, most of them flopped and didn’t receive direct sequels. The most successful films were Casino Royale and Star Trek, two movies that didn’t crush at the box office but were received very favorably by critics and audiences alike — once they were seen. Look under the hood of Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and Star Trek, and you’ll realize that they’re of similar build: no superpowers are involved for the main character(s).

Batman Begins

This is specifically what makes Batman unique in the comic book canon; he isn’t a true superhero since he doesn’t possess superhuman powers at all. Though Batman’s abilities in Batman Begins are still far from realistic, they can at least be attributed to a reasonably plausible source: the Applied Sciences department of Wayne Enterprises. Every new skill or gadget Batman acquires and adds to his tool belt is at least given some kind of explanation and proper set up by the invaluable Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who serves as the equivalent of the James Bond series’ Q here. The failings of the previous four Batman installments — Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), as well as Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) — always were in their tendency to play squarely into the character’s limitations: Burton and Schumacher each gave the Batman universe hideously over-the-top treatments that were not the slightest bit realistic and were basically cartoonish. In other words, Batman, with no superhuman skills, was severely limited in his own world, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever and made for unsatisfying viewing.

Christopher Nolan wisely decided to take the opposite tack, and the result is a new Batman universe that is grounded in character with a more human, realistic perspective. This also means that the more iconic villains and characters explored in the earlier films — the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Two-Face, Robin, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy — are not present in Batman Begins, but that’s the point: Batman is front and center, as he should be in an origin story. The entire first act of Batman Begins is dedicated to Bruce Wayne; he doesn’t put on the bat suit until a full hour into the film. Of course, this is a risky gamble, expecting audiences to not get bored when what they have clearly paid to see is a Batman movie. But the film is quite engrossing in the first act, exploring Wayne’s childhood fear of Bats, the guilt he still carries as an adult due to the murder of his parents, and his relationship with his childhood friend (and later Assistant District Attorney), Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). As an adult, Bruce also leaves Gotham and disappears (for seven years, no less) so quietly he is declared dead, landing in an Asian prison after engaging in petty thievery with a local criminal organization in order to understand the mindset of a criminal from the inside out.

Batman Begins

In order to really understand the psychology of the Batman character, the nature of childhood trauma must be examined. Childhood trauma is the driving force behind addiction and alcoholism, believe it or not; every addict and alcoholic has two things in common: a history of childhood trauma and a genetic history of addiction or alcoholism. Most often, childhood trauma manifests itself in the form of abuse, but there are certainly other instances that can prove traumatic as well, such as having to witness the murder of your parents. Where addiction comes into play is in how the victim copes with living when his or her sense of self has been shattered. For victims of abuse who have the genetic component, too, eventually they use drugs and alcohol to escape the incident(s) that shattered them, and when they use, they achieve a new sense of self — a new normal. This is why addiction is impossible to cure and extremely difficult to treat from a medical perspective: the overwhelming desire to use never disappears — ever — simply because it isn’t possible to reverse the occurrence of a past event or to alter an addict’s genetic makeup. (To read more on the subject, I would recommend Dr. Drew Pinsky’s book Cracked. You’ll never view addicts the same way again.)

As for Bruce Wayne, it would appear he doesn’t have the genetic history to be an addict — we observe him having a drink here and there without habitually needing more. No, Bruce responds to his childhood trauma in a different way — Batman, his version of a new sense of self, is not created via the use of drugs. When Bruce’s parents are murdered, his human development is radically altered, to the extent that he is never comfortable with being Bruce Wayne. Obviously, one of the functions of parenting is acting as a shield for your children, controlling what they are exposed to. When Bruce’s parents are taken from him, he loses that shield, and since his family has such a high profile, he likely suffers from considerable overexposure, causing him to become withdrawn. One of the most interesting aspects of personality typing is the notion that not only does everyone have a specific type, but that everyone also has a shadow type, too. It’s a bit complicated (even the summary on Wikipedia is bogged down with Jungian abstraction), so allow me to elaborate on the shadow type by explaining how I have always understood it: the shadow emerges when you are under stress.

Batman Begins

After all, the Myers-Briggs Typing Indicator is all about helping you discern which of the psychological functions — Introversion or Extraversion, Sensing or iNtuition, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Perceiving — you prefer to use. For example, I prefer Introversion (focusing my energy inward to explore my own ideas) to Extraversion (focusing my energy outward to always involve others), iNtuition (big picture ideas and patterns) to Sensing (concrete facts and details), Feeling (a values-oriented approach seeking harmony and consensus) to Thinking (a logic-oriented approach that seeks consistency), and Perceiving (keeping my options open) to Judging (making decisions quickly). I’m an INFP, yet I have always thought the ISTP description is a pretty good match for me, as well. In effect, I have found that at work I am an ISTP and elsewhere in life I’m an INFP. It was this conclusion that led me to use regressive abstraction and inductively reason that “your shadow type emerges when you are under stress.”

Your Myers-Briggs type consists of four functions; for the INFP, these are: introverted feeling (Fi), extraverted intuition (Ne), introverted sensing (Si), and extraverted thinking (Te). I could go into a lot more detail here about what a lot of this means, but for the purposes of this discussion, all you need to know is that these functions are laid out in order of dominance. This means that the fourth function is an area of weakness, and believe me, extraverted thinking — outward organization — sure is my biggest weakness. At work, though, it’s almost not an issue — the four functions of the ISTP are: introverted thinking (Ti), extraverted sensing (Se), introverted intuition (Ni), and extraverted feeling (Fe). When under stress, you almost by definition can’t utilize your preferred functions (or you wouldn’t feel stressed), so it’s not surprising that, in projecting my shadow personality at work, I actually flip the introversion/extraversion on all of them, and reverse the order to boot. On paper, the ISTP is not only my shadow, but my opposite. In practice, however, the ESTJ is my true opposite, since it’s the inverse of the INFP (i.e., it’s the same functions in reverse order of preference).

Batman Begins

What does all this have to do with Batman? Well, everything. I love the psychological richness of Batman Begins. The way Christopher Nolan approached the film was to basically invert the “Spider-Man dynamic” (or so I like to call it since 2002’s Spider-Man put the comic book genre on the map as true 21st century box office gold) of having Peter Parker walk into the equivalent of a Metropolis phone booth and emerge as his alter ego. Over the course of decades, year after year, superhero movie after superhero movie, this is all we saw — it was law. Most crucially — and this must really be emphasized — from 1989 to 1997, this is what we saw from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, as well. Instead, what we got with Batman Begins is a Batman whose natural personality is Batman, not Bruce Wayne; Bruce Wayne is the projection, the shadow. In the first act of the film, we are shown a Bruce Wayne that, in flashbacks, never quite knows what to do with himself or how to act and likely never has — he’s not wanted at Princeton any longer, he’s not needed in Gotham, he’s not needed at Wayne Enterprises, he has no family — so he disappears for seven years.

Wayne informs us he does this to learn how criminals think and act, engaging in petty thievery and working with local Asian criminals. But make no mistake, Nolan puts Bruce Wayne in isolation so we can see Wayne forget who he is. Ever since the murder of his parents, Bruce has had to project, and during his disappearance, his true personality finally emerges — off in the Asian country of Bhutan (the sequence was filmed in Iceland, though the actors look Japanese to me, for what it’s worth), Bruce can stop pretending, now that no one expects anything from him. This is also why the film is so interesting in the first act, even with Bruce on the other side of the world: he’s actually allowing himself to be Batman — his true self — here, and as a result the first act never feels disconnected from the rest of the film at all, even if on paper it seems like it should. Woven into the narrative of his incarceration, his recruitment by the League of Shadows, and his explosive escape from the monastery in the mountains are flashbacks of a bat attack after he falls in a well, his parents’ murder, and the release of his parents’ murderer from prison years later after he cooperates extensively with police regarding mob boss Carmine Falcone’s (Tom Wilkinson) criminal operation.

Batman Begins

The film opens with Bruce in prison, where he has been tracked down by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who implores him to conquer his fears, master hand-to-hand combat, and join the League of Shadows, an organization that, as we later learn, was responsible for the destruction of cities like Rome and Constantinople — as well as the spread of the bubonic plague, incidentally — that grew decadent and misshapen until they could no longer function. (In related news, 65 million years ago the League of Dust Clouds — as it was called then — caused an asteroid or comet to hit the Yucatán peninsula, causing the dinosaurs to go extinct.) The way Ducard spins it, the League of Shadows provides human civilization with a necessary service: When an empire is ready to fall, the League of Shadows goes in there with the proverbial wrecking ball and does the demolition work so humanity can then rinse and repeat. Ducard informs Bruce at the conclusion of his training that it’s now Gotham’s turn — crime is just plain fuckin’ ballin’ outta control there, and it’s high time to add the city to the League of Shadows’ growing graveyard of empires so the good people of Gotham can start over.

Bruce quickly realizes this isn’t what he signed up for. “I seek the means to fight injustice,” an exhausted Bruce Wayne manages to say after climbing a freaking mountain to reach the League of Shadows’ monastery just before his training officially begins. But justice to Ducard and Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) is not justice to Bruce, who wants no part in essentially Noah’s Arking an entire city — his city, no less. Bruce already has an inkling that corruption has long since devastated Gotham, but unlike the League of Shadows, he refuses to believe that his city’s people are irredeemable. Furthermore, he certainly doesn’t agree that beheading a murderer — his final test before he can join the League Shadows — is justice either. “This man should be tried,” Bruce asserts. “By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats?” Ducard shoots back. In a way, Ducard has a point: it’s not exactly a secret that Gotham is corrupt — Bruce knows it, Rachel knows it, and Sgt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), supposedly the only cop in Gotham who isn’t crooked, especially knows it.

Batman Begins

The justice system in America only works when its proponents actually adhere to it, and it starts at the top. When those who make the laws (politicians), those who uphold the laws (judges), and those who enforce the laws (cops) are bought and lower the standard for those who have bought them, society suffers. As Rachel tells Bruce just before he disappears early in the film, “[Justice and revenge] are never the same, Bruce. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better, which is why we have an impartial system.” Bruce scoffs at that, informing her, “Your system is broken.” It’s to Bruce’s credit that at the conclusion of his training when he is tasked with beheading a murderer, he actually argues Rachel’s position. (I guess a couple slaps on the face from Katie Holmes will bring anyone to their senses. Plus, he does flee Gotham in shame immediately following that conversation.) No government is perfect, and ours is no different — we are always striving to form a more perfect Union, as they say. I actually found this diatribe by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to be great at elaborating upon the current dysfunction of the American system:

My concern about Congress? 57% of the Senate and 38% of the House cite law as their profession. And when you look at law, law is — well, what happens in the courtroom? [The verdict] doesn’t [reward] what’s right, it [rewards] who argues best. …The entire profession is founded on who the best arguers are.

As Tyson illustrates, the justice system is actually far from just: in practice, being a lawyer is about getting the best deal for your client. People with more money can afford better lawyers, who can get them better deals in court. The explanation for why something like the death penalty is ultimately about race isn’t rocket science — blacks tend to have less money and have worse representation in court, so they are much more likely to find themselves on death row than whites charged with similar crimes. To some degree, politicians have always been lawyers in this country. Barack Obama was a lawyer. Bill Clinton was a lawyer. Many of the founding fathers were lawyers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Obviously, being in politics is about serving your own interests, about effecting the change you personally want. Campaign rhetoric says it’s about the people, but in reality it’s about what the politician wants for the people. In Batman Begins, the perspective is completely street-level — we don’t get a view of the city government, but we can infer from the level of corruption at the lower levels that it must be trickling downward from above.

Batman Begins

Gotham is an interesting situation: it’s presented as a city within America — the aerial shots are of Chicago — that’s about a million times more corrupt than every other American city. Even if you remove all of the Batman story elements, this is still a completely unrealistic scenario — the world is an elaborate network of deeply interconnected elements, so for Gotham to be isolated from the rest of the country like it’s portrayed in the film is pretty ridiculous. It’s also crucial to the film’s success that we never get a concrete sense of what the rest of America is like — it would draw attention to how much the filmmakers have skewed the sense of local corruption beyond what could be interpreted as realistic. (This is why when Bruce disappears, he leaves the country.) Moreover, the film has to strike a careful balance in its presentation of the city itself: the audience has to not wonder why the rest of America doesn’t step in and do something to clean the city up, yet the League of Shadows’ mission has to also seem like a plausible alternative, philosophically speaking.

Incidentally, this is where previous Batman films failed: unlike Batman Begins, those films utilized stylized sets that kept reminding the audience that everything about the movies was artificially constructed. (I didn’t grow up watching Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, so when I watched it for the first time nearly twenty years after its release, I couldn’t stand it.) As a result, nothing of a truly serious nature could be put forward, story-wise. But by shooting many scenes in an actual city, Batman Begins presents Gotham as a typical American city — and by extension, the problems that plague Gotham are understood to also plague American society at large (i.e., to the extent that the country is unable to fix Gotham), but to a much lesser degree, obviously. This, of course, is an assumption we unconsciously make simply because again, the film never shows us the rest of America, which is a wise move. Granted, if we really stop to think about it, this premise isn’t realistic in the slightest since cities aren’t this isolated in real life, but given that this is a fictional city — one that we have no problem accepting as plausible since we see actual city footage — the license they take with it isn’t an issue.

Batman Begins

Whereas normally society’s institutions are equipped to provide solutions (at least in theory), in the world of Batman Begins, it’s society’s institutions that are the problem. Since this presents a circular predicament that is inherently unsolvable in the film’s er, closed ecological system, if you will, the two most natural results are a progression into inhumanely slow self-destruction or someone like Ducard leading the League of Shadows into town with the wrecking ball. In this light, the League of Shadows’ approach is somewhat sympathetic, and it’s part of what makes the eventual conflict in the third act of the film so compelling: Sure, the League of Shadows is committing mass murder, but their justification makes sense from a certain point of view. What makes Batman such an interesting hero in combating the League of Shadows’ attempt to destroy Gotham is his will to find a different way — one that doesn’t involve, uh, killing the city’s entire population — to use his power as a symbol to repair society’s institutions, both at the law enforcement level through his relationship with Sgt. Gordon and at the court level through his relationship with Rachel. Batman isn’t a vigilante; rather, his work is eventually transferred into capable hands (Gordon’s and Rachel’s).

Of interesting symmetry is the vaporizer weapon used by the League of Shadows — it was built in the same place as all of Batman’s tools and weapons: the Applied Sciences department of Wayne Enterprises. (It gets stolen from a ship.) It’s important for this to be the case, since it serves as a check/balance on the power the Applied Sciences department can have within the story. This also externalizes the power of the Batman world’s weaponry — powers that normally are simply a part of the main character in the superhero film genre are instead up for grabs in Batman Begins; if weapons fall into the wrong hands, it means trouble. This reinforces the Batman character’s inherent limitations, and keeps the film from descending into having a protagonist using ridiculous powers to defeat a monster-of-the-week type of villain who has even more ridiculous powers. As for the plot Batman must defuse, it’s a good one that still holds up. Psychiatrist Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) turns out to be a good villain as the Scarecrow, who poisons the water supply with a hallucinogen, and Ducard reappears as Ra’s al Ghul toward the end, revealing himself to be the real mastermind behind the plot.

Batman Begins

Watching the film again, it’s really apparent how tight the script is. For an action movie, the dialogue is really sharp, tackling heady themes, and everything is set up nicely, too, including the final train sequence. While unfortunately some of the visual effects shots of the train — particularly the ones early on in broad daylight — look dated now since they had to be rendered with CGI, just about everything else holds up visually, with the exception of the wide shots of the Narrows. They did a really good job of not using CGI whenever possible, and only did so when the story demanded it. Since this was Christopher Nolan’s first CGI action film, it’s reasonable that the “mistake” of having the story rely on CGI in places was made here, and it’s clear from watching both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises that he consciously has avoided taking the same approach again, as both of the sequels lack obvious CGI completely. (And again, this criticism is only applicable to some establishing shots here and there in Batman Begins.) For the scenes in the Narrows, an enormous set was constructed inside a giant airship hangar, allowing them to blow stuff up and manipulate the slum-like environment the way they wanted.

The climactic fight on the train and the subsequent crash achieved using miniatures is just fabulous and is easily the film’s highlight. As far as the action sequences go, they’re pretty first-rate, and since the writing is also a cut above most good action films, they have more of an impact, too, since it actually feels like there’s something genuinely at stake. Compared to the sequels, the action scenes here don’t really compare but they’re still top-notch, all things considered, and since this is Nolan’s first try at a large-scale action picture, the results are actually pretty remarkable. The decision to use the Tumbler as the Batmobile is pretty inspired — in presenting the Batmobile as a high-tech tank instead of some ludicrously over-the-top gimmick, it further grounds the Batman universe with a more realistic sensibility. The only thing about the use of the Tumbler that strikes me as laughable is during the chase when it starts leaping from building to building — one of the buildings it leaps onto has a bunch of shingles on it and clearly would not support the weight of this enormous, tank-like vehicle that obviously must weigh at least a few tons. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Batman Begins

But my criticisms of Batman Begins are really pretty damn minor. (Some of the Asian accents when Bruce is over there in the beginning are pretty bad/stereotypical, too, starting with Ken Watanabe’s.) In reality, this movie is an undeniable classic that has been incalculably influential over the past decade. Even with all of the other comic book movies hitting theaters every year now, Nolan’s Batman films are the only ones I can take seriously. Even good ones like Spider-Man 2 (2004) — probably the best non-Batman superhero film — are fundamentally escapist, which is a label I wouldn’t ascribe to Batman Begins or especially The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Make no mistake, Batman Begins is easily the lightest film in the trilogy, but it’s still somber stuff full of poignant moments. In particular, the final conversation with Rachel really resonates. She informs him how excited she was to hear Bruce was back after his disappearance, but then says, “Then I found out about your mask.” Bruce responds, “Batman’s just a symbol, Rachel.” She gently touches Bruce’s face and says, “No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved — the man who vanished — he never came back at all. But maybe he’s still out there, somewhere. Maybe someday, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I’ll see him again.”

She’s incredibly astute in pointing out to Bruce that he’s merely projecting when he isn’t Batman, but she is mistaken in thinking she may see the man she loved again. The boy version of Bruce Wayne she knew prior to the murder of his parents will never come back, even if there comes a time that Gotham no longer needs Batman. It’s a sobering reminder that, while Bruce is Batman, he will never find a loving partner. It’s a solitary enterprise, being Batman, one that requires an obsessive personality; it’s far from a healthy existence. But the long term effects are yet to be tackled, even as Gordon hints at them in the final scene when he asks Batman about escalation: “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.” This becomes the central theme of The Dark Knight: now that there is a Batman in place, criminals will now be drawn to Gotham because he is there, and ultimately he could be doing more harm than good. This makes the Joker the perfect Batman villain, since he actually provides a well-drawn illustration of this scenario. I see I’m getting ahead of myself, but this is precisely why Batman Begins is so effective: by doing such a great job of defining the world and fully exploring the character, it becomes the perfect launch pad — the possibilities seem endless at the conclusion of the film.

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