Batman Begins

Batman is back.

After years of films so bad that the Batman legend seemed forever lost – a diamond ring swept down a drain into the labyrinth of a sewer system – the dark knight returns to us in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. All the key elements are in place in the new film, but they’ve been reconfigured in such novel and interesting ways that they appear new again without feeling compromised or revisionist.

Batman Begins is rich, textured and nuanced: Everything the last few Batman films were not, and a hell of a lot more. Nolan evokes Batman by diving into the wreck of the myth and returning to the primal weirdness of symbols and psychology. It’s a path not unlike the one Bruce Wayne himself follows as he digs deep into himself to find a fear sharp enough to use as a weapon, and there’s something uncanny and immensely satisfying about the journey.

This Batman is a real, tortured being, not a too-goofy-for-life camp object or a fairy tale brought to the big screen. The power to do great and terrible things is tempered by a fragile mind and uncertain moral core, and the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne, a lost man in search of meaning, and Batman – the incarnation of justice – makes this film feel like much more than a comic book translated to film.

After his parents are murdered, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) abandons a leisure lifestyle of wealth to try to uncover the nature of evil. He travels with criminals to learn why they feed on fear and eventually finds himself in a remote penal colony, where he routinely battles for his life. Broken, disheartened, and confused, he is rescued from a life behind bars by a shadowy man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson).

Ducard promises to teach Wayne how to harness his hatred and anger, revealing an unambiguous path toward justice. Traveling to a mountain monastery, Wayne is eventually indoctrinated into the League of Shadows, a strange and occult organization whose mission is cloaked in mystery.

Wayne learns to regain the will to act – the courage to be fully present – while at the monastery. Ducard tutors the young man about the nature of anger between sparring bouts on frozen tundra, and a sort of friendship develops. Sounding a bit like the Jedi knight he once played, Neeson tells Wayne that anger is power, but if you allow it it will destroy you. When their philosophies violently clash, Wayne leaves the League and returns to Gotham, where he forges his Batman identity.

Drawing on an early childhood trauma, Wayne descends into himself to find a symbol to embody this new persona. The processes is mysterious and slightly occult, the territory psychological and mythological, and the thing that comes out the other end only barely resembles the cliché omelet director Joel Schumacher served up in the last few films – scarcely resembles anything human, really.

Focusing his mind and body into a weapon, an incorruptible symbol, a figure of dread and terror, Wayne finds the certainty he had been looking for within. He risks his soul to rescue these symbols of terror, returning them to their primal place of significance, but he also loses something of his humanity in the transformation, and the film takes these issues seriously.

It’s not certain whether Batman is outside of Wayne – a kind of demon that possesses his body – or an internal, supernatural psychological hobgoblin. When trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Wayne, “You’re getting lost in that monster of yours,” he shakes in anger and fear; anger that Batman is eclipsing his friend; fear that Wayne will not resist.

Released from Wayne’s unconscious, this Batman demon begins wrecking havoc on Gotham’s underworld, first taking down a major mob boss, then uncovering a sinister plot intended to bring the city to its knees. Confronted with the idea that the city is beyond repair, Wayne / Batman makes a personal commitment to save Gotham at any cost.

The city is himself: Lost, alcoholic, addicted, starving and mad, as deprived and broken as Bruce Wayne. Like Wayne – and like us – it needs to reclaim its symbols, reinvent its myths, recreate its superheroes. People need to believe in the words, symbols, and myths that support them, and Wayne’s dark voyage parallels our own.

Nolan makes us believe in Batman again.


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