Batman Begins on Fear
Since The Dark Knight Rises just released and I have acquired the entire trilogy on Blu-Ray, this post starts off a short series which should hit at least 5 total posts analyzing the movies. The primary theme of Batman Begins is the power of fear. The theme continues throughout the series, particularly in the third, but it is very clear and directly talked about a lot in the first movie.
The story of the movie begins with Bruce’s childhood when he falls down a well and is swarmed by bats. With the fear of bats in place, Bruce and his parents are seen watching an opera with bats. Bruce is visibly squirming in his seat and eventually asks his father to leave. They exit through a side door into an alley, a mugging ensues, and both parents are killed. Bruce blames himself for the death of his parents because it was his fear that caused them to leave. Several years later, the murderer is eligible for parole because of good behaviour and being willing to cooperate in framing Falcone, the largest mob boss in Gotham. After attempting but failing to kill the murderer (because someone sent by Falcone got their first), he confronts Falcone in a slums restaurant.
This becomes one of the major turning points in the plot as Falcone delivers a chilling truth: Bruce will never really get it because he was born into millions of dollars and cannot relate to the real issues going on in Gotham (and elsewhere). He explains that fear really drives most people, and he is the one who is most feared, not some vengeful rich kid. Bruce takes it on himself to learn more about fear on a personal level, dropping out of school and disappearing to live the life of a common criminal in various places around the world. He explains that the first time he stole out of necessity, he realized what fear felt like.
After being released from prison, arrested for some of his crimes, he goes to the home of the League of Shadows, a secret ninja organization. We learn a bit more about the League later in the movie and a lot more in the third movie, but I’ll simply say for those who haven’t watched the movie that the League operates as a vigilante group to rein in by any means necessary when societies have gotten too corrupt. I’ll probably say more about them in my next post on what Batman Begins says about justice. The League teaches him ninja techniques, but much more importantly it teaches him to confront his fears.
Scarecrow and Ra’s Al GhulUmmm… Not that Scarecrow
The main villain for most of the movie is Scarecrow. His entire modus operandi is to prey on fears. He has managed to weaponize a natural drug that makes you begin hallucinating the things that you most fear. It is extremely effective, even on Batman. Interestingly, there is no theme of conquering fears aside from the training of Batman by the League earlier in the movie. Nobody really faces their fears in fighting Scarecrow; they just create an antidote to Scarecrow’s drug so that they do not have to face them. For the most part, it seems to stick with the theme that fear is the ultimate weapon.
It isn’t until the final quarter of the movie that we learn Scarecrow and Falcone are not the main villains. They are pawns of Ra’s Al Ghul who did not die as we were led to believe when Bruce burned down the League of Shadows home. He’s continued to work on his plan to destroy Gotham which includes using Scarecrow. He’s possibly even better at fear manipulation than Scarecrow. He continues essentially the same theme – hierarchies of power based on who can control who, largely through fear – and just adds another level to the hierarchy.
Peace Through Victory
The regular reader of my blog would know that I’ve been meditating a lot lately on the Scripture text that “perfect love casts out fear.” I think we see that idea a little bit in the third movie but it is frustratingly absent in the first movie. Batman wins primarily by helping people escape their fears through the antidote and through brute force with better fighting skills. Basically, he became a better version of Falcone, Scarecrow, and Ra’s, doling out his definition of justice through power-over tactics. The difference is an important one – his definition of justice is far more forgiving and interested in the greater good – but the tactics are the same. Jesus on the other hand wins by casting out fear through love shown by dying on a cross. Some movies have great Jesus analogies with their heroes, but I don’t think this is one of them.
One of the wisest parts of the movie comes at the very end and it may be easy to overlook. Basking in the feeling of victory, Batman and Gordon are talking on the roof beside the bat signal. Gordon raises a very important point: this is going to escalate. Batman’s power-over tactics may have solved the short-term problem but there will be further problems that manifest long-term because of it. If you watch the next two movies, it is clear that Gordon’s words are prophetic. The reality is that this matches the lessons of all of our history. Batman’s tactics of violence don’t really change anything and may in fact make the city a more dangerous place long-term. Fortunately by the third he seems to have mostly learned that something more is necessary than just brute force, but we’ll get there in due time.