Batman begins is easily the best of the summer blockbusters so far, and quite possibly the best movie ever made about the Dark Knight. It is certainly the first live-action film to take the title character and his roots seriously.
In 1989, a lot of people went ga-ga for the first of Tim Burton’s films because it was dark and moody, and this, it was believed, made it more faithful to the comics than the campy 1960s TV show. But Burton’s films were campy in their own way, and he was far more interested in the villains — who were more freakish in Burton’s vision than they had ever been before — than he was in the story’s ostensible hero.
At last, Batman Begins allows us to start anew. And what a promising start it is. For once, the story really is all about Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the orphaned billionaire who moonlights as the caped crusader.
And while the villains may be menacing or threatening, they are ultimately only accessories to Batman’s story. What’s more, because the film deals with them in series, rather than in parallel, the villains never seem to bunch up and crowd Batman out of the picture.
First, Bruce, who has been wandering the earth for several years, trying to come to terms with the murder of his parents, joins an international group of ninja warriors headed by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his lieutenant Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). These men not only give Bruce skills but a “path” or purpose into which he can channel his emotions.
However, at a crucial moment, Bruce realizes that he does not share his mentors’ thirst for dishing out merciless judgment — instead, he believes it is compassion that sets the heroes apart from the villains. And so he makes a somewhat violent break with their group.
Second, when Bruce returns to Gotham and creates his Batman persona, he targets the local crime lord Carmine Falconi (Tom Wilkinson). Third, he battles the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who runs Arkham Asylum and is secretly in league with other criminals. And then, finally, a certain villain makes his climactic reappearance.
The fact that Bruce becomes a hero partly under the guidance of a villain — that one of his major father figures is, in fact, a bad guy — opens the door to some intriguing moral ambiguities. What is the nature of justice? What role, if any, is there for forgiveness? What responsibility do we bear, or should we feel, for the actions of others?
Bruce, for his part, has felt guilt over the death of his parents for years, because they left the opera house through a back door when he found the performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele too scary; if they had not left early, they would not have walked into the alley where they were confronted and killed by a mugger named Joe Chill (Richard Brake).
The butler Alfred (Michael Caine) tries to assure the young Bruce that it was Chill’s fault, and his alone, that Bruce’s parents died, but young Bruce is burdened by guilt just the same.
However, Ducard, during one of his training sessions with Bruce, tells him it was his own father’s fault that he died, because he failed to fight back against Chill. Ducard says those who do not put up a fight are part of the problem, because they facilitate the success of such crimes and thus encourage criminals to commit them again.
Bruce replies that his father didn’t have the training to fight back, to which Ducard replies, “Training is nothing! Will is everything! The will to act!” Ducard may have a point, but his exaltation of pure will, compounded by his lack of compassion, is a tad Nietzschean.
To make things even more complex, the film does not depict Chill as a brutish lout, but as someone sympathetic, who was driven to desparation by a recent economic depression that hit him pretty hard. Indeed, the film goes beyond even that, to suggest that the depression was caused by the actions of other people. Do those people bear any responsibility for what Chill did? Are they responsible for the deaths of Bruce’s parents?
Batman Begins is full of political and mythic (religious isn’t quite the right word) overtones, many of them involving Ra’s al Ghul’s organization, the League of Shadows, which claims to have destroyed cities like Rome and Constantinople when they became too decadant. Like certain terrorists in our own world, their preferred mode of execution is beheading.
Gotham is next on their hit list, and although Bruce acknowledges that the city is corrupt, he begs them to spare it, for the sake of its better inhabitants, and to give him a chance to save it. This scene reminded me, of all things, of Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.
But there is also something Christ-like in Bruce, a rich man who undergoes a process of kenosis or self-emptying when he leaves behind his life of privilege and identifies with the underclass, en route to becoming a figure of judgment. Then again, he is also a very human figure who deals with his fears — his demons, you might say — by becoming a demonic figure to those who do not yet fear Hell but probably should.
Writer-director Chris Nolan is no stranger to complex moral questions, and his visual style is all over this film. The delicate, fleeting flashbacks recall similar scenes in Memento — his parable about memory and revenge told in reverse — and the open scenery, especially where glaciers are concerned, brings to mind his remake of Insomnia.
And like those other films, Batman Begins brilliantly affirms the truth that justice is something more than mere vengeance, and that good and evil tug for control of the hearts of every person. This is the first Batman movie that just might encourage some genuine moral reflection. Let’s hope the inevitable sequels can keep up the good work.