All right, it’s time to talk Batman again; if you’re a regular reader, you might remember that I promised my take on the other two Christopher Nolan Batman movies when I talked about The Dark Knight Rises, and after catching up with the first two movies again in preparation for another DKR viewing, I think it’s time to deliver on that promise.
In my Dark Knight Rises post, I said that Batman Begins is about addiction. Did that statement hold up? Oh yes, most definitely, and the threads supporting that theme are even stronger than those in DKR.
Let’s do a quick review of the first movie’s premise: young Bruce Wayne attends an opera, Mefistofele, with his parents. Bats appear in this opera, and Bruce, having had a bad encounter with Bats after falling down a well, panics and begs his parents to leave. Soon after leaving, a street thug named Joe Chill attempts to mug them. The encounter goes wrong, Thomas goes to defend his wife when Chill levels the gun at her, and both end up dead. After this encounter, a young Bruce meets an up-and-coming cop named James Gordon, who will loom large in Bruce’s life. Consumed by his feart, hatred, guilt, and shame, Bruce grows up to be a bitter young man who lives an outward life of happiness but burns on the inside. The typical Batman story, really, but the details are important.
Bruce’s story takes a turn when he decides to come home from college to witness Joe Chill pleading out of prison in return for ratting out mob boss Carmine Falcone. Bruce’s return is driven by vengeance; he has brought a gun to the court and plans to gun down Chill in cold blood, finally getting even for his parents’ death. This opportunity is ripped away from him, however, when one of Falcone’s men gets to Chill first.
Consumed by his rage and denied what he thought would be an outlet to free himself, Bruce confronts Falcone himself, but he quickly learns that he is unprepared and out of his element against the man and the criminal organization that supports him. Having failed against both Chill and Falcone, Bruce goes into a self-imposed exile, traveling the world in search of something more, a way to get past the emotions that are consuming him. He begins by joining up with a group of thieves in order to “better understand” the “criminal mindset”. It’s easy to see this all as a set-up to more effectively strike back at Falcone, but there is a much deeper dynamic at work within Bruce.
The film itself begins at this point, with Bruce imprisoned for his work with the circle of thieves. The first time we see him, he is fighting his fellow inmates, telling them that they are “practice”, no doubt the next step in his plan to better understand and defeat Falcone’s empire. The seeds of Bruce’s addiction to anger and thirst for revenge have taken root; he has already repeatedly shown himself ready to throw his life away in service of that master, by killing Chill, by disappearing from Gotham, and by threatening his fellow inmates, but we’re only seeing the very beginning of his rage (hence the title).
Soon after release from this prison, Bruce meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who recruits him into a cult of assassins known as The League of Shadows. The League tells Bruce that it’s okay to feel the way he does: fear is normal, and the reaction to fear is not to get over it, but to bury it beneath righteous anger and vengeance. By so doing, he can become a legend. It’s music to the ears of someone who “seeks the means to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful”, complete and utter enabling behavior.
So Bruce undergoes the League’s training, which revolves around suppressing one’s natural fear and turning the resulting energy into a force of vengeance. I should note that this comes back to bite Bruce in the ass in the Dark Knight Rises, which provides some clue as to where the storyteller stands on the issue. Through the League’s training process, Ducard becomes a twisted shadow father to Bruce. Where Bruce’s real father, Thomas, was a man who gave to others with no expectation of return and whose last act was to protect his family, Ducard is a man driven by anger and vengeance, a man who left his wife to die but accused Thomas of not doing enough to save his own family. This is the man who tells Bruce that memories of loved ones poison your veins and stop you from acting. This is the man who guides Bruce through the process of conquering his fear, and this theme becomes very important throughout the film.
In essence, Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul, the head of the League of Shadows, are Bruce’s addiction writ large, a seductive voice that tells him a simple, black-and-white approach is all that is necessary.
Bruce is driven by fear: fear of his own shame and guilt, fear of the rage that covers those emotions, fear of an empty, meaningless existence. Fear is the dominant theme to this movie, and fear and addiction go hand-in-hand. Bruce’s graduation from the League revolves around finally pushing down his fears once and for all. As Ducard puts it, “to conquer fear, you must become fear. You must become an idea.” Bruce’s final trial is facing a box full of bats and standing among them without losing control. This represents his ultimate “victory” over the shame and guilt associated with his parents’ deaths, though the next two movies reveal this victory to be a sham.
With his initiation, Bruce is clued into the League’s plan: to destroy Gotham and wipe its corruption off the face of the Earth, for the “good” of future generations. Bruce balks at this and says that he will not kill – that is what separates him from his enemies. Of course, he goes on to kill anyway by setting the League’s headquarters ablaze and killing Ra’s Al Ghul. I suspect this refusal to kill, while very important to his character ( and offering us a clear line between where he is in his addiction and Ducard’s absolute surrender to his own), is related to Gotham representing the Wayne legacy. Even with his shame and guilt covered by his rage, he cannot bring himself to destroy what remains of his parents. In this way, Bruce rejects his shadow father and begins to become his own man at last. He completes this act by destroying the League himself (or so he thinks).
I talk about how all this plays out in the second post, found here.