Movie Review - Batman Begins

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Christopher Nolan

Superheroes used to appeal to the comic-book readers—to children and maybe a small cult following. Now they appeal to the thrill-seekers. Batman has morphed over the years, from an over-the-top, hour-and-a-half-long joke in the ‘60’s, to an intense, believable combination of high-tech gadgets, stunts, chase scenes, villains, explosions and moral dilemmas. Bruce Wayne has gone from being a benevolent but bland millionaire philanthropist with a costume and no back story at all, to a deep-thinking, brooding wit who has to use his playboy façade to conceal his intensive martial training, his ethics, and even his personality—in addition to his alter-ego and the location of the Batcave. Batman Begins isn’t the juvenile comedy of the ‘60’s, or even the racy thriller of the ‘90’s. It’s action—gripping, brilliantly acted, cleverly scripted. It’s complex characters, a believable villain, a great plot, and answers to all those questions that had been accumulating for seventy years. Batman Begins is great entertainment. But… there’s more to it than just entertainment.

Violent and Intense Content:
There’s death.
Batman Begins isn’t dark like a horror movie, but it’s not light, either. Characters—both good and bad—are shot to death in fast-paced, non-gory but somewhat emotionally intense scenes. Villains use weaponized hallucinogens to make their victims panic—some of them survive, some do not; all of them see visions of otherworldly monsters or of masked faces bursting into bats or maggots. Buildings burn and explode, presumably killing a number of bad guys, and definitely killing one of them, who dies with his eyes open under fallen debris. Batman is poisoned, set on fire and thrown out of a top-story window—and none of it is supposed to be funny.

The fighting (which makes up quite a bit of the movie) can get a little on the brutal side, ranging from prison brawls to actual attempts to kill. The ability to survive most of these fights is attributed not to superhero invincibility, but to Bruce’s training—which was rather brutal, itself. As his suave, suit-and-tie instructor declared (as he beat Bruce up), “You’re skilled. But this is not a dance.” Bruce trains with real weapons, which draw real blood from time to time.
A man is said to have slit his wrists, though without any lasting harm.
There are thousands of bats.

Now, what is Batman Begins’ take on religion, justice, wealth, human potential, crime fighting and the nature of evil? Or, more succinctly, why does the movie open with Bruce Wayne in a Bhutanese prison camp?
Bruce is discovered, as a prisoner who just got through beating up half a dozen fellow convicts, by Ducard: the suave, suit-and-tie man who offers him “a path” (and later ends up clobbering him in ninjutsu training). The path involves learning the ways of the League of Shadows—devoting himself to their ideals of justice and learning to overcome his fears… by becoming fear to other men.

By and large, the movie shies away from the supernatural. The potential religious associations of jujutsu, Ducard’s lines, “You must journey inwards,” and “Embrace your worst fear. Become one with the darkness,” and a medicinal prototype of the fear-inducing drug in incense form, are the worst of the religious-feeling elements.
The not strong but stronger religious message is humanism, in the repeated question, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up;” in Ducard’s reverent claim that the leader of the League of Shadows “rescued us from the darkest corners of our own hearts;” and (of course) in the very fact that the movie shies away from the supernatural. Ducard attributes several providential events in history to the intervention of the League of Shadows. Bruce learns from Ducard that, as a legend or a symbol, he can be more than “just a man.” He can rise above petty vigilante revenge, to be “incorruptible”—to be “everlasting”. It’s hyperbole, of course, but considering the absence of any sincere references to God, it seems quite possible that Bruce has made a religion (and a god) out of his altruistic ideals. When a panicking villain cries, “I swear to God,” and Batman angrily demands, “Swear to me!” it’s unclear whether it’s more a degradation of God’s authority, or a guess that the villain had more fear of Batman, making an oath to him more binding from the villain’s perspective.

Bruce’s crime-fighting ethics are very balanced, overall—acknowledging that a murderer should be executed, but refusing to acquiesce to the execution because the man had not been tried, for example. Sometimes, though, the perspective seems to tip a little far to one side. Neither wealth nor poverty are portrayed as inherently corrupting, and yet one of the good-guy attorneys pleads for a murderer’s early release on the grounds that he’d already served several years, he’d been cooperative in another investigation, and he had committed the crime out of desperation rather than greed. The murder isn’t minimized, but the tie to economics is uncomfortable. Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel tells him that one of the villains floods the streets of Gotham with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate… and leaving us uncertain whether Rachel places the greater blame on the villain or his criminal-victims. Bruce spent a number of years “exploring the criminal fraternity”—traveling the world, hanging around shady characters, with a view toward “understanding the criminal mind” (hence his sojourn in a Bhutanese prison). He “never became one of them,” but when he had to steal food in order to survive, he “lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.” This isn’t a relativistic movie that’s trying to justify crimes committed by the poor or undereducated—not if you look at the whole, the themes and the outcomes—but a few statements now and then could easily be taken that way.

Batman’s crime-fighting techniques involve quite a bit of deception (obviously, considering the whole alter-ego theme). They also occasionally involve chase scenes with the police, where a misunderstood Batman is the one being chased. In one chase, particularly, the Batmobile crashes over the roof of a police car, releases tire-puncturing gadgets that cause the cop cars to flip like few survivors’ cars ever flip in real life, blasts through rooftop structures, and causes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage in property, not to mention the risk of half a dozen lives… in order to save one of the bad guy’s victims—who just happened to be a dear friend of his. This segment is difficult to process because we know that most of the police force is corrupt, but we don’t know anything about these particular men. And because the destruction is as close to wanton as you can get without actually using the word, and it’s supposed to add to the coolness of the scene.

Bruce’s sweetheart Rachel isn’t necessarily trying to use her position as district attorney to prove that women are just as capable of handling supervillains as men are, but, rather than leave crime-ridden Gotham city or take a lower-profile job, she opts to handle dangerous cases on her own, to continue living by herself and commuting through a bad part of town, even after a colleague is killed for asking too many questions.

Miscellany: Sergeant Gordon, one of the few good cops, tells his corrupt partner, “I’m no rat”—meaning that he doesn’t report his partner’s suspected involvement in the villain’s drug trade. Bruce’s prison-camp enemy tries to intimidate him by saying, “You are in hell… and I am the devil!” A villain briefly references psychotherapist Carl Jung’s unbiblical theory of “archetypes”.* Rachel tells a grieving victim that the murder of his family “is unforgivable.” Her statement that “justice is about harmony” might be taken a couple of different ways. A young Rachel and Bruce appeal to “finders keepers” to justify hiding or stealing a trinket from each other. An adult Rachel and Bruce reminisce about stealing condensed milk.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
You know, there used to be a Bruce Wayne who could be seen sipping milk at a high-class restaurant while his date drank wine. This is not him. Alcohol appears a few times during the movie, and at one point Bruce pretends to be drunk.

After surviving a high dose of the fear drug, Bruce makes a joke about needing more of the antidote for when he’s “out looking for kicks and someone’s passing around the weaponized hallucinogens.”

There are a couple of strong vulgarities, five instances of “d--n”, eight of “h-ll”. “G--d-mn” and the name of Jesus are each used once out of context. Mild vulgarities like “crap” and “suck-ups” come in occasionally.

Sexual Content:
There are some low-cut dresses at a party, and Rachel occasionally wears some low-ish necklines. Bruce, trying to advance his public reputation as a rich, idle playboy, shows up at a restaurant with his arms around two women in cocktail dresses, and their getting out of the car draws a bit of attention to their bare legs. Bruce appears shirtless.
An unmarried (and, in fact, romantically uninvolved, if not uninterested) couple kisses. Corrupt city officials are seen in a club with their arms around women who are not their wives.

You know, it’s strange. There have been so many changes to Batman over the years, and yet a small handful of his attributes remain just the same, no matter what the decade. He’s always been a man for whom saving Gotham isn’t about the thrills. And yet, take this character who most certainly isn’t after the thrills, put him in a movie that’s actually exciting enough to be worth watching, and all of a sudden it is all about the thrills… for the audience. Batman Begins is not a bad movie, or even just a bland, shallow housing for a lot of violent explosion scenes. It’s a really well made movie. It’s artistically brilliant. But there’s another thing about Batman that has carried over even from his comic-book days: he’s always been a man who’s willing to give up things that he wanted—that might very well be morally acceptable—for the sake of a higher, self-imposed standard.

I’m not about to argue with people who love Batman Begins. Change just a few things about the movie, and I’d love it, too. I was pretty close to loving it as it was. But the hints of humanism, the occasional, iffy ethical statements, what felt like gratuitous destruction of property for the sake of a cool chase scene, the hallucination scenes that sometimes bordered on the excessive, the task (doable, but a task nevertheless) of muting all the language… If it had just been one or two of those things, I might have given Batman Begins a higher rating—I might, in other words, have been able to really enjoy it a second time through. Part of me thinks that I could enjoy it. The rest of me, though, knows that—though Batman Begins might very well be a morally acceptable entertainment choice—I’d be watching it for the vicarious thrills. And I’m inclined to think that it would get a lot harder for me to take a stand about other on-the-edge movies, if I compromised even the little it would take to give this one a stronger endorsement than Not Worth Watching Again.

Is it wrong to watch Batman Begins and enjoy it? No, I don’t believe it is. But I believe my standards need to be higher than this, and I believe I need to stick to them.

* Jung’s “archetypes” are “a storehouse of latent memory traces inherited from man’s ancestral past, a past that includes not only the racial history of man as a separate species but his pre-human or animal ancestry as well” (Calvin S. Hall and Gardner Lindzey. Theories of Personality. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1957, p. 80.)—a theory which subscribes to Darwinian theories of species development, and attempts to explain religion and ethics (a couple of the outflowings of these archetypes) from a naturalistic perspective.

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