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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

On "Batman Begins"

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.

27 Comments

  1. Hey

    thanks for your encouragement. Nice essay by the way. I may give it a go and follow tour advice.

    M.B.

  2. Justice, then, is fear of what one is capable of. To be unjust is to try to lack all fear.

  3. And it was exciting Sorry for the FUBAR…I am embarrassed…

  4. Nice commentary. And I like your conclusion.

  5. Great article! Great way to keep a fresh everyonce in a while and get cued in back with the Batman! Definitely an appropriate read consider the mass Hype goin’ on with the release of the Dark Knight and All! Once again Ashok, you rock socks!

  6. very nice blog thanks for sending it to me.

  7. Well I can’t wait for the sequel.

    Now would you agree that we need another Batman character?
    .-= ZXT´s last blog ..You’ve got to see this =-.

  8. that’s an excellent post thanks for sharing

  9. “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.”

    I fully agree.
    .-= scottish fold kitten´s last blog ..Scottish Fold Newborn Kitten Ears =-.

  10. So anyone knows what is the next Batman title?

    And maybe when it will be release?
    .-= ZXT´s last blog ..What’s Hot on YouTube =-.

  11. Good post and analysis. Don’t know if the Liam Neeson character is as upsetting to me as the Katie Holmes (she just bugs me). Overall, though, I thought the movie was a wonderful take on this dark and morally ambiguous (and therefore most excellent) comic hero.

    Here is my take on the Joker in the new flick:
    http://scribblebibble.blogspot.com/2009/11/jokers-origin-speeches.html

    And check out the origins of the Joker in the movie “The Man Who Laughs”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsLQcOV2YeU&feature=PlayList&p=709C79836412951B&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=41
    .-= AbecedariusRex´s last blog ..Fagles and the Closed Circle =-.

  12. Very good essay! (You’re an excellent writer.) I just watched Batman Begins again last night and it certainly lost the magic that led me to watch it twice in theaters when it first came out. Nolan’s Batman series really does explore justice in a kind of interesting way, although one of my favorite parts is still that Batman becomes, well, the Batman because he wants to be his own fear.

  13. This is cool! I saw Batman Begins and didn’t really like it. I bet I’ll at least understand it better after having read your excellent essay.

    While the popcorn is popping, I will stumble into the computer room and add this to delicious (lol).

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  14. Excellent essay and analysis – I’ve never seen someone take such an in depth look into the meanings and symbolism behind Batman. Great job!

  15. While it does come to the nice happy conclusion, I’m happy that Batman Begins has a theme and a story to tell regardless. There are messages here left by Nolan that some director/writers wouldn’t be able to convey.

  16. “…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.”

    You hit the nail right on the head!;)

  17. “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.”

    This really rings true for me.

    After researching sociopaths this really captures one of the main indicators that these criminals are often sociopaths.

    They show lack of remorse, shame or guilt as well as a big need for stimulation combined with extreme narcissism.

    So a valid solution is to restore the ability to fear what one is capable of and feel remorse.

    Adam

  18. Tom - gouldian finches

    April 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    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.”

    This really rings true for me.

    After researching sociopaths this really captures one of the main indicators that these criminals are often sociopaths.

    They show lack of remorse, shame or guilt as well as a big need for stimulation combined with extreme narcissism.

    So a valid solution is to restore the ability to fear what one is capable of and feel remorse.

    Adam

  19. I have always been a big fan of the batman movies. I didn’t like the most recent one as much because it was really dark. But they really know how to make a good movie.

  20. Beautiful analysis! This essay clearly shows the meanings and symbolism behind Batman. Nice!

  21. excellent summing up of Batman, i think most people would watch the film and miss the underlying issues with justice

  22. Batman series really does explore justice in a kind of interesting way but there are messages here left by Nolan that some director/writers wouldn’t be able to convey.

  23. I loved this movie. All of them were good but this one was exceptional.

  24. The Batman’s series are among the movies I’ve most enjoyed in my life. And this one is the best, at least from my point of view.

  25. It’s not just the birth of Batman we’re seeing in this triumphant interpretation, it’s also the dawning of Gotham City’s age of greed.

  26. It’s one of the better Batman movies. It’s got Qui Jon Ginn (starwars) in it so how can it be bad. The concept of fear is something that we all must face.

  27. “Batman Begins” got the ending it deserved. It was only about Batman; not Gotham and not Al Ghul. Those elements merely helped shaping the complicated protagonist in order to set the tone for future projects. It is a movie after all and not a documentary on the concept of justice.

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