Note: Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen it. This is an essay, not a review. Originally published on WritingUp some time ago.
Synopsis: In this movie, a man dresses up as a bat in order to fight ninjas.
Commentary: The central question of the movie is “What is Justice?” The movie gives us two answers to this question: one is Katie Holmes’ District Attorney’s simple pronouncement that “Justice isn’t Vengeance.” That would seem to be the essential difference between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) & Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson)’s characters: Liam Neeson blames something for the death of his wife; his want to destroy the city means he has confused justice and vengeance. Christian Bale’s loss of family led him to what is truly justice, as he rejected vengeance as something worth having.
But that answer is too simple to explain everything that goes on in the movie, starting with the part where Batman leaves Ra’s Al Ghul to die. “I don’t have to save you” seems a pretty cold act, even if it isn’t directly killing. The truly just man does no harm, and regrets deeply that any harm has to happen. Slick one-liners don’t quite make Batman perfectly just, in one sense of justice. Further, the bad guys consistently have the best lines in the movie, the lines that ring in our heads with a seriousness that cannot be dispelled. The mob boss is a perfect example of this: responsible for killing the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, thus interrupting Bruce’s attempt at vengeance, he tells Wayne to grow up and learn that the world doesn’t care what one stupid vengeful kid thinks. Power trumps obsessing over oneself, and while both activities can said to be selfish, it is true that the desire for justice wrongly directed will always be subordinate to a criminal understanding of the world, which exerts power, ironically enough, because it is more dispassionate.
The real answer to the question lies in the movie’s development of the theme of fear. The bad guys speak about this both directly and indirectly: Ra’s Al Ghul is the one who has mastered fear, and in teaching Bruce Wayne, his entire education is about overcoming fear. When Al Ghul says invisibility is a product of patience and agility, he means that control of fear is an active and passive phenomenon: one must be agile so as not to be seen, and thus not provoke another’s fear; one must be patient so one doesn’t give oneself away because of fear of already having been seen. The mob boss’ speech also speaks to this theme – why does he hold so much power? And note the mere existence of Scarecrow, a villain who holds all of Gotham scared by himself, even as merely a tool, because of his control over fear.
Bruce Wayne’s own take on fear is the central moment in the movie: asked by Alfred why he chose the bat as his insignia, when he is scared of bats, he answers (roughly) “I wanted my enemies to share my fear.” Despite all of Al Ghul’s training, he’s still scared, even of bats. What differentiates him from the criminal who trained him – Al Ghul showed him how to be Batman, in essence – is that he’s scared of himself. The problem with criminals is that they’re scared of nothing. Justice, then, is fear of what one is capable of. To be unjust is to try to lack all fear.
It is at this point we can see a crucial error in the second half of the movie, when Al Ghul becomes a raving lunatic as opposed to a man with an iron will. For Batman’s education, contra Katie Holmes’ character, has come about entirely through the bad guys. The most just man is he who can look into the abyss and see as they see, and turn away at the last second. But it isn’t because of anything rational that the just man turns away. Al Ghul is right – Gotham is corrupt and deserves to be destroyed. It killed Wayne’s family, and permits innumerable injustices every day at the expense of its citizens and others. Justice on a cosmic scale demands that Gotham die. Further, who cares about procedures in the case of the farmer that had murdered (the final test for Wayne to graduate from Al Ghul’s academy is the killing of a man that might be innocent. It is at this point Wayne runs away, becoming Batman)? Even procedural justice isn’t perfect: we have the procedures so we can ignore the bigger question about whether every procedure is perfect. If we thought about justice all the time, we wouldn’t be able to act. In the end, it is Wayne’s faith in Gotham that saves him: the one good cop, the Commissioner, is the difference in the battle between Al Ghul and Batman.
But that dodges the central question, and makes Al Ghul worse than he is: the writers have to have him say crap like “I have a city to destroy” and have to have him be a scumbag who, having been saved by Wayne once, still shows his ungratefulness by trying to destroy the city. We have to make him wholly bad, after all, so we can have a happy ending. This is Hollywood. The definition of anything that has a happy ending, btw, is “comedy.”
I hold that the movie should have been treated tragically. Al Ghul should have been a scumbag who got rescued by Wayne and was ungrateful. But when confronted by Wayne regarding his plans to destroy the city, he shouldn’t have sneered, but merely made the appeal to the fact that forces are in motion that neither understand. That’s the more consistent and fundamental teaching about justice: we don’t know where it comes from, we don’t even agree on it. But it is the most important thing in a Fallen world.