Into the Light: Revisiting Batman Begins, Part 2

Editors note: this is the second part of a two-part post revisiting Batman Begins. You can see the first part here, and read my take on the Dark Knight rises here and here. The Dark Knight will complete this trilogy, and will be out in the near future.

So yesterday we talked about the first half of the movie and Bruce Wayne‘s exodus from Gotham to conquer his fear and gain the knowledge to strike back at those who were tearing Gotham down. I also talked about how this quest for vengeance parallels the addictive process and that, much like a new-formed addict, Bruce learned to push down certain emotions in favor of other, more powerful emotions that distracted him from things like fear and vulnerability. We’re now at the point where he returns to Gotham a changed man.

First, a word about addiction: one of the reasons that addiction is so insidious is that it begins as a very effective coping mechanism. For the sexually abused child, for instance, an addiction to sex gives him or her a way to gain some control over a part of them that has been hijacked by another, vastly more powerful person. Drugs can numb the emotional pain associated with domestic violence. These things can make perfect sense in the context in which they arise, but become maladaptive once the child is out of that situation and grown up. Bruce’s anger is much the same: where it once helped him to deal with his anger against Joe Chill and a world that tore his parents from him, it now prevents him from being present for those who love and care for him.

And yet…the anger still has a use, even if it continues to separate him from others. Much of the second half of the movie is the early days of a love affair with a substance or emotion. We see Bruce truly transformed when he enters the well that once terrified him, discovering a literal batcave – I couldn’t help but think of this as a scene where Bruce enters his psyche and discovers the dark things that lurk there, much like Luke Skywalker entering the cave on Dagobah. Once again bats swarm Bruce and he stands quiet and confident amongst them, master (or so he thinks) of his own fear.

Now we begin to see Bruce “using” in earnest. He visits Lucius Fox, who functions as something of a dealer for Bruce in this film, though he has other roles in later films. I’m not sure Christopher Nolan intentionally saw Fox as a dealer, especially given some of the racial implications, but I had a hard time seeing him as anything other than a dealer who asks no questions about how his product is used. With Fox’s help, Bruce becomes Batman, although Batman is more a matter of Bruce removing the mask that he presents to everyday society and revealing his true identity – the man consumed by anger.

I think it’s very telling that Batman’s first public appearance is during a drug distribution deal, almost as if there is a parallel to be had there. He is very effective in this appearance. taking down Falcone’s men and stopping the import of this shipment of drugs. In the process, he begins his relationship with James Gordon in earnest, and it is one that will define his life as Batman.

We see another telling scene shortly thereafter, when Bruce runs into childhood friend Rachel at a restaurant. Bruce is playing the part of carefree billionaire playboy, and Rachel makes a comment that she always thought he was more. Bruce responds by saying, “inside, I am more”. Her response is “what you do defines you”. He seems to think that this means she would approve of his role as Batman; after all, he is doing something good, right? Well…we’ll get to that. Bruce completely misses the point of what she’s saying, however.

Now we get to the second antagonist of the film in Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow. This one is complicated for me, as Scarecrow is one of my absolute favorite comic villains and while I really enjoy Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Crane, the character as written is missing a few vital elements that make the comic book version so enjoyable. I could go on for awhile about this, but we’re focused on the film, so the film version it is. Crane has been experimenting on the inmates at Arkham Asylum by dosing them with a powerful hallucinogen similar to the one that Bruce had to ingest during his League of Shadows initiation. Crane has made a scarecrow mask that he wears during these experiments to heighten the subjects’ fear. This is true to the comic character, by the way; the mask is part of the elaborate theater that Crane has created and in some ways mimics what the League of Shadows says about drama and theatricality being powerful allies. Also as in the comics, Crane represents the unrestrained superego: all intellect, no emotion, but able to control the emotions of others via that intellect. This is why the Jonathan Crane of the films bothers me just a little. The fear gas was his own invention in the comics, while the Batman Begins version of Crane depends on the abilities of the League of Shadows.

Yeah, that’s right: Crane and Falcone are working for the League of Shadows, and when Falcone is in danger of going to prison/talking to the police, Crane is brought in to dose him and drive him crazy with fear. Again we see the ways in which fear can control someone and what Batman is trying so hard to avoid, but which can still be controlled by others; for instance, when Batman first encounters Crane, Crane doses him with the gas and fear consumes him. Crane laughs and sets him afire, driving him away. Still, rather than becoming a casualty like Falcone, Bruce’s addiction gives him the strength to conquer Crane’s control over his mind.

This is already running long, so let’s wrap this up. Batman uncovers a plot by Henri Ducard (revealed to be Ra’s Al Ghul – more of a title than any one person) to use Thomas Wayne‘s elevated rail, the symbol of the Wayne Legacy, to transport a machine that turns water into gas, dispersing the fear gas throughout the city and driving it to tear itself apart. Ducard/Ra’s also reveals that they had tried to destroy the city once before, through economic means, but Bruce’s parents had fought back that assault. Ducard attacks Bruce, sets Wayne Manor on fire, and leaves Bruce for dead. This is the logical outcome of Bruce’s current path: a violent path of self-righteousness with no concern for innocent bystanders or, as Alfred has already called Batman, a “monster” that’s gone way “beyond personal”.

Alfred saves Bruce, and he sets out, as Batman, to stop the League’s plan, coordinating with James Gordon as his point man. Gordon has become Batman’s enabler, taking care of the details that Bruce cannot tend to. Batman and Rachel soon subdue Crane and Bruce is able to get to the train, where he does battle with Ducard one last time. The symbolism of the battle itself is quite amazing: the train has to be destroyed in order to stop Ducard’s plan. In effect, Batman must destroy the legacy of both his father and his shadow father in order to become something more. With Gordon’s help, he does this, leaving Ducard to die in the train crash. Batman becomes a symbol for the city.

To sum up, in emotional terms, Bruce must step out of the shadow of both fathers in order to become his own man. The anger addiction is his only means to escape those legacies, and in the context of a desperate, dysfunctional struggle, shows the useful aspect of that addiction.

The film has a small, but meaningful, coda. During the battle, Bruce’s misunderstanding of Rachel’s statement earlier comes back to bite him when he reveals his identity to her. At the end of the movie, she says she can’t be with him because of Batman, basically saying that the man she knew left but never came back, consumed by the means to the end. This is the beginning of the addictive consequences for Bruce, just as drug addicts lose family members and friends in the course of their addiction.

The film finishes with a little speech from Gordon about the consequences of escalation; police use handguns, criminals buy semi-automatics, etc. He reveals that an escalation has already taken place, as a new, more violent criminal has appeared, leaving the calling card of a joker card behind at every scene. This is our introduction to the Joker, and one of the more important themes of the next movie, which we’ll get to very, very soon.

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  1. Pingback: From the Shadows: Revisiting Batman Begins, Part 1 | Shaggin the Muse

  2. There were definitely a lot of layers to this movie. Great job!

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