Tattoos & Totems
Part IV: Batman Begins (2005)
Is our identity defined by our past?
“My anger outweighs my guilt.”
By this point in Nolan’s career he had become a big enough name so that he could not only be given even more money for a huge summer blockbuster, but he could be handed a nugget of Hollywood gold: a franchise hero character that once started off dark and creepy (a la Keaton, Nicholson, and Burton) but quickly, with the help of lines like, “Chicks dig the car,” and the Shumacher-Schwarzeneggerien “Cheel owwt,” morphed into a string of silly Tinseltown punchlines. We all remember the big news when “Batman and Robin” was slated to return: The Batsuit has nipples! At last! With “Insomnia” and “Memento”, Nolan had become bankable enough to dive into something he’d obviously been intrigued with for years (see: the Batman sticker on the door in “Following”), and something that fit right along in his existential philosophy of man’s continuous search for his identity. Fortunately for us all, Nolan was given permission, and exactly 1.7 bajillion dollars, to rediscover The Batman, and to allow us to reconnect with one of our favorite fictional heroes through his introspective and violent history, giving us one of the biggest movies of the decade in the process.
Inherent in Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the struggle of two opposing identities: the millionaire playboy, which he was born into, and The Batman, which was a product of two very significant events in his youth. Both of these identities are forms of the past, his parents bore him into a certain life and he feels a certain pang of obligation (whether warranted or not) to live up to the life as his fathers before him, but the events in the very life he was expected to lead have a greater and more profound effect on him than any birthright could claim. It’s the basic eternal (and badass explosion-y) struggle of nature versus nurture. What created The Batman? Is he more a product of his genetic instincts, or of his life events? Wait, both? This is getting complicated.
The very first scene of the film is a young Bruce Wayne falling into a well in the yard to be engulfed, and subsequently traumatized, by thousands upon thousands of bats who had just found a new exit from their cave. Soon after, we are shown the flashback of his parents’ murder; leaving early from a trip to the theater – because of young Bruce’s fear of bats on stage, a single seed which will soon sprout into whole forests of guilt – they are accosted by a petty thief who kills both parents in front of a young Bruce. So the young Bruce has to say goodbye to his home and goes away to a boarding school to grow up and fulfill his destiny as a wealthy, pretentious asshole. But his anger never quells in his years absent; he returns as a young man with the intention of avenging his parents’ death and killing their murderer after his court case. His anger over his parents’ death outweighed his guilt for making them leave the play early. But he never got the chance, as the killer was assassinated before Bruce could get close. He wasn’t able to quench the resentment that had been building in him for nearly a decade, and now there was no way to accomplish it. So, meaningful purpose removed, he leaves, setting out to find himself with only the clothes on his back and the fury in his heart. In an ultimate introvert maneuver, he locks himself in a prison in Bhutan and fights with prisoners, since they are easier to physically assail than his own demons. It’s the same old story from here: self-imprisoned man is approached by supervillain and trained to be a ninja only to back out after having learned all the kung-foolery because he doesn’t want to kill a possibly innocent man in order to join said villain’s League of Shadows, but saves same villain from death because he’s like a father figure, only to go back to the city that made him (and that his parents helped build) in order to fight crime because it was slowly turning into just a really shitty place to live. Like we haven’t all heard that one a million times.
In order to give us a physical representation of how Bruce Wayne identifies (see what I did there?) with the city, and vice versa, we see that Wayne Tower is the biggest building in the city, lying directly in its heart. This makes Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gotham synonymous, and he’s returned to help because he can sympathize with his city’s plight of rotting from the inside, as Wayne feels he has been doing for the last ten years. The city and the man are even given dual villains: Scarecrow is the humanly representation that The Batman can actually get his hands on, while Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows is trying to bring the city itself down, claiming to be a centuries old force that rights the human race every time it loses its way; “We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground.” Nolan changed the name from The League of Assassins in the comic book to The League of Shadows for the movie, invoking his first film, and all that “shadowing” implies; we are given the impression that The League has always been and will always be, silently following and watching, shadowing us, as long as the sun is shining. The Batman can only hope to fend it off for now. Both villains are even using the same weapon in the form of insanity-in-a-can, Scarecrow uses his madness drug on the criminals he releases into the city, The League uses it to infect the water supply and the very air the city breathes. As Alfred (Michael Cane) tells Wayne that he’s “on the brink of getting lost in this monster of yours,” The League of Shadows is turning Gotham’s own citizens into monsters in order to bring about the destruction of the city. Note that the destruction of the city isn’t necessarily blowing up all the buildings or burning everything down, it’s about destroying the people, the heart of any true city, and what Bruce Wayne truly cares about.
In a poignant moment (as poignant as you can get with Katie Holmes, anyway), Rachel Dawes tells Bruce, “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” Later, upon his revelation that he is Batman, she tells him that his real face, this whole “Bruce Wayne” getup, is his mask, and that right now he is truly the city’s avenger, that that is his identity, because both the city and the man need someone to fight for them. In a more symbolic gesture, Wayne Manor is burned to the ground; the house that his father built (his past) is in ruins, and must be built back up. The Wayne legacy is “more than just bricks and mortar,” Alfred points out, and that they’ll just have to rebuild it with a promise of making improvements for the future. This is a beautiful metaphor for Bruce Wayne accepting who he is as a product of his past (his family, his name, his house, his city) and of his experience (his guilt, his anger, his desire for justice, his mean growly voice); he is allowed the chance to break himself down and build himself up with a better knowledge and clearer understanding of who he is and what he is meant to do.
So what’s the next step, now that he has discovered himself and his true identity? Living it? Embracing it? Discovering its limits, its dangers, and its sacrifices? Will the new Batsuit have nipples? I’m only joking.
Why so serious?