Superheroes: Batman Begins part 2

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Yesterday I laid out the basic structure of Batman Begins. And while structure, as any screenwriter knows, is the name of the game for a successful screenplay, it is not the only thing that makes Begins such a detailed, well-considered movie.

Assuming the reader is already familiar with the structure, here are some observations I have in chronological order:

ACT I While the Nolan Batman movies succeed in completely eradicating the tone of the Schumacher Batman movies, they are not so snooty that they won’t crib from them when they want to. Here, they replay the scene from Forever where the young Bruce Wayne falls in a well and is attacked by bats. In Forever, Bruce was fleeing in horror from his parents’ wake when he fell in the well, here his fall precedes their deaths– and, in fact, indirectly causes their deaths. Instead of the plunge into the well proceeding from his grief, it comes from a youthful flirtation with the crucial character Rachel. In the scene, Bruce wants something cool Rachel has (an arrowhead), and playfully snatches it from her, before falling into the well and into his cave. So Bruce’s initial fear of bats is tied more to his developing sexuality (discovering a cave, indeed) at first, and only later gets linked to the death of his parents. Nolan kills two bats with one stone here — he explains Bruce’s anxieties both in regard to his parents’ death and to his relationship with Rachel — in his moment of youthful conquest, he fell (no symbolism there) into a cave (even less there) and broke his leg (least of all). His failure is then compounded when his fear of bats contributes to his parents’ deaths.

Ducard seeks Bruce out in the Chinese prison (a reader noted yesterday that both Begins and TDK have side-trips to China — if only they had connected TDK‘s Lau to one of the characters in Begins) and tells him that he can do more than merely "fight crime," he can become immortal, by giving up his identity and becoming a legend. Awfully nice of him to suggest that, and it also foreshadows Ducard’s emergence as Ra’s Al Ghul. In the comics, Ra’s is immortal in a comic-booky supernatural way, but Begins places him in a more realistic light — Ra’s could become immortal by simply being an idea passed on from leader to leader — either Ducard is, literally, the "real" Ra’s Al Ghul, or else he assumes the title when the previous Ra’s dies at Bruce’s hand.

(Speaking of which, it’d be nice to see Ra’s’s daughter Talia show up for the next movie. Talia and Catwoman — now that would sell tickets!)

The theme of Batman Begins, obviously, is "fear," and it gets worked into every possible nook and cranny of the screenplay. Ducard tempts Bruce to come to his dojo and instructs him to bring the blue flower, then, once Bruce gets there Ducard asks him what he wants from his training. Bruce says to overcome his fear, and — hey, wouldn’t you know it? — the blue flower contains a powerful fear-inducing toxin. Maybe everybody who comes to the League of Shadows HQ wants to conquer his fears, I don’t know, but this stuck out to me as a minor logical inconsistency.

It didn’t hit me until the fifth or sixth time I watched it that, when Bruce’s father is killed, he sits in Police HQ with his father’s jacket on. Jim Gordon even comments on it — "is this your father’s?" The black suit jacket, of course, is too big for young Bruce, and hangs on him rather like a cape. It had never occurred to me before that Batman’s cape, in some way, is meant as a tribute to or remembrance of his father’s murder — both a remembrance of his father’s protective embrace and as a tribute to the protective blanket he tried to place over the shoulders of Gotham. If any geeks out there know whether or not this idea dates to Begins or shows up earlier in the comics I would be in your debt.

The teenage Bruce comes back home from college to kill Joe Chill, and mentions to Alfred that he’d like to destroy Wayne Manor. Little does he know, he’ll get his chance in a few years’ time. Oh the tangled web.

It’s true that Bruce’s vengeance against Chill is pre-empted by Falcone, and thus sets Bruce on his path to Bat-ness, but Bruce’s initial response is "I wanted to kill him, and now I can’t." Again, a frustrated desire gets channelled into his night-time cosplay. A kind of murderous coitus interruptus, Chill’s murder takes Bruce’s desire for simple eye-for-an-eye vengeance and turns it into a more macro vision of vengeance — now he wants to get Falcone, not because Falcone is a bad guy but because he spoiled Bruce’s big day. Falcone, ironically, is the one who awakens Bruce to the broader criminal picture in Gotham, and sets him on his path to China. So Ducard gives Bruce the idea of becoming a legend and Falcone gives him the idea of his place in the world of society.

ACT II When Bruce discovers the cave beneath his house, Alfred tells him about how an earlier Wayne had used the cave as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. It’s a small beat, but it ties into the larger picture of Begins as a vision of right and wrong as a constant flow, a battle being fought every day on every level of society.

One of the things I like about the Nolan Batman is that he feels pain. If he’s dangling off a cliff holding a six-foot-five Irishman by one hand, he’s going to goddamn well feel it, and if he jumps off a roof onto a fire escape he’s going to get some bruises. (On the other hand, the Batman of the Nolan movies pretty much is able to fly, which I don’t quite buy.)

ACT III Bruce’s father dies, but he never lacks for father figures. At the funeral, Earle offers Bruce his paternal care (while planning to ruin his father’s business). The same day, Alfred takes over as Bruce’s "true" father figure. Falcone gives Bruce fatherly advice in the form of a threat, but Ducard is a more genuinely father-like figure — a teacher and mentor, a guide. In this regad, it’s almost disappointing that Crane isn’t older — but on the other hand, as a man younger than Bruce, he’s an avatar of "things to come," the kind of demented, costumed freak that will come to be synonymous with Gotham.

Maybe I’m crazy, but a lot of the same locations seem to show up in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Could Batman actually destroy the same parking garage twice? And does he have a police chase on the same sunken roadway? And what about the bridge to the Narrows — is it the same bridge seen in TDK being swept for bombs? And has the Narrows somehow changed its location in between movies? (That’s perfectly okay with me — the crammed-together, over-the-top poverty of the Narrows is one of the production-design choices I’m glad was jettisoned for the more realistic approach of TDK.)

ACT IV The bad-guy plot, as I understand it, goes like this: The League of Shadows has a plot to destroy Gotham City. This plot involves importing this "fear toxin" thing and making it go kablooey with their stolen high-tech whatsit. Ra’s Al Ghul (or Ducard, or whoever he is) has been manufacturing the toxin in China and shipping it, through Falcone’s drug contacts, into Gotham. Falcone knows who Ra’s is, but he does not know the nature of his plot against Gotham or the size of his organization. The plot involves dumping the toxin into the water mains, which run under Arkham Asylum, which gives Crane unique access to them. Crane, we are told, also knows who Ra’s is, but, like Falcone, does not know the full extent of his plot. Falcone’s involvement in the scheme I understand, but Crane’s is a little more mysterious to me. If he is not a member of the League of Shadows, why is Ra’s using him? He’s got plenty of League members working inside Arkham, why does he need Crane? Did Crane develop the fear toxin, or did Ra’s develop it in China? That is, did Crane, independent of Ra’s, figure out how to turn the fear toxin into an aerosol? We get the idea that spraying the toxin into people’s faces is kind of Crane’s "thing," but was he doing it before Ra’s hatched his plot, or as a result of it? When did Crane start spraying people with this stuff? Did Ra’s tell him about his plan, the result being that Crane said "Oh cool, fear toxin, Icould use that in my work as a supervillain," or what?

The tiny "Rachel as daytime Batman" plot, which I rather like, plays out like this: Rachel, who believes that justice can only be served through strict adherence to the law, smacks Bruce upside the head when he tells her about his plot for vengeance against Chill. Later, we see that Rachel has failed to keep creepy Falcone hit-man Szaz in jail due to Falcone’s influence on the courts. Still later, Rachel is forced to confront her legal ineffectiveness when Szaz terrorizes her in the street during the Act IV riot. The man she was powerless to put away through legal means is now about to kill her in the street. Rachel, one of the few people in the riot who are immune to the toxin, comes thisclose to shooting Szaz in the face before Batman swoops down and takes him away, thus returning the favor that Rachel did for Bruce years earlier.

Finally, it had always stuck out funny that the thing Bruce finds in the ashes of Wayne Manor is his father’s stethescope. He was a doctor, I suppose, so there’s a certain amount of symbolism in that, and then I remembered that the purpose of a stethescope is to listen to one’s heart. Not only does Bruce learn to listen to his own heart in Batman Begins, but he learns to listen to the heart of Gotham City as well. And I reminded that Wayne Tower, in Bruce’s father’s own words, has been strategically built in the "heart of Gotham." Bruce is Gotham City, which feels like a living, breathing place for the first time in cinematic history, and which would come to feel even more so in The Dark Knight.

Comments

57 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman Begins part 2”
  1. sean_tait says:

    Flying Bats…

    I assume that Nolan went with the cape-as-glider schtick because swinging from the rooftops would look too much like Spider-Man. I’m disappointed we’ve never gotten a rooftop-swinging scene in a Batman film — or even a rooftop-running scene like the one in “The Crow” — but I’m guessing the costumes have proved impractical for such things.

  2. lokicarbis says:

    The underground railroad reference was originally from the comics, but I think you’re right about its thematic resonance. That’s something that never particularly struck me in the comic version of it. I wonder if that has anything to do with the order in which the ideas are introduced: in the film, it helps to ground Bruce in a family tradition of fighting for justice; in the comics, it was a flashback that added little to the Wayne story or the Batcave that we already knew from 50 or so years of comics.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    The movie has its flaws, a couple of which I think stem from the few cases where symbolism is played up at the expense of realism. You mention the blue flower containing a fear-inducing toxin being a little too convenient. I feel like Ra’s al Ghul being responsible for Gotham’s economic depression (and more indirectly, the death of Bruce’s parents) strains credibility in favor of driving home the idea of legendary, larger-than-life figures having huge influence on the world and giving Bruce an opportunity to actually take on the highest person on the totem pole of individuals who contributed to his parents’ deaths.

    Falling, cave, broken leg, and on top of all that, arrows and arrowheads are pretty recognizable phallic symbols. I think the only way the scene could be more blatantly symbolic is if Sigmund Freud popped up in the bottom right corner of the screen and started slapping labels on everything. But it works equally well taken literally, which I think is important.

    The future Batcave’s (or current bat cave, as the bats are there already) roots in the Underground Railway also serve to give a nice history to Wayne Manor and the Wane family themselves, not just by suggesting that the Waynes have been fighting for justice for a long time, but by pointing out that both manor and Waynes have been around for a while. Few versions of the Batman story make much mention of the Wayne family outside of Thomas, Martha, and Bruce, possibly to keep audiences from wondering if Bruce has any aunts or uncles or other relatives who might prevent him from being so alone in the world. But it’s nice to see some mention made of a history of the Waynes that goes back further.

    Speaking of the family Wayne, if there is any fiction that has anything interesting to say about Martha Wayne, I’d be very interested to hear about it. I’ve seen a lot of stories about Dr. Thomas Wayne’s influence on young Bruce, but rarely anything bout his mother’s role in his life.

    Shortly after we had both seen it, my sister remarked that one of the best things about Batman Begins was that it was almost nothing like the previous two films. I tend to agree. One of the movie’s smartest moves was to go in a direction nearly completely opposite to the movies that came before it. I like the Burton movies, but I don’t know if they would have been enough of a chance of pace if they had come after Batman and Robin. As I said, the movie is not without its problems, many of which would be addressed in the next film. but it did certainly put the cinematic life of Batman back on the right track.

  4. johnnycrulez says:

    I think the most common symbolic use of the cape is to represent the burden he has, I’d never seen it in this way before Batman Begins.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Also, the Scarecrow’s secret power (inducing fear) also comes from the same drug, does it not?

    And it also plays into Batman’s journey, which is that his greatest obstacle is his own fear and anger …

    Joshua James

    • reverenddean says:

      In regards to the blue flower, throughout the film (and I’m double checking) there doesn’t seem to be a mention of the hallucinogenic properties of the drug to actually be “fear inducing”. (Ducard does mention before burning down the Wayne Mansion that Gotham will “tear itself apart through fear” but not that it will be directly from the poison; why else release the prisoners?) Fear appears to simply be a product of the circumstances that the Gothamites find themselves to be in when drugged: confronted by the scarecrow, vis-a-vis with the batman, etc… The first time the drugged is used, mixed by ducard for Bruce to inhale, ducard plants into his head the idea of being afraid again. “breath in your fears; face them. To conquer fear, you must become fear, basque in the fear of other men. And men fear most what they cannot see.” He then goes into further monologue about terror and distortion as Bruce approaches that box. Now, I’ve always thought of the drug created from the flower as simple a hallucinogen as marijuana or acid – people can have “bad trips” given the circumstances of the situation in which they take the drug. Ducard, and later the scarecrow (who doesn’t ever use the drug on anyone as simply Dr. Crane) suggest that one think about fearful things while under its influence. Would the citizens of Gotham had panicked under the influence of the drug had a prison break not occurred moments before?

      What’s really always puzzled me was the box that Bruce opens during his training, which is covered in ornamental Arabian art though they are allegedly Asian. Now, was the box actually full of bats? Did Ducard’s cronies go to the trouble of catching bats just to momentarily disorient their newest recruit (and potential leader) and cause him to face his fear, OR is the box representative to everyone who goes through that test something that they need to open in themselves and release their own bad mojo. Would an arachnophobe find spiders in his box – not real spiders but the illusion of spiders?

      The very first scene in the film is a flashback for Bruce, which he calls a nightmare. The man has “Bats on the brain” constantly thinking about fear. If he’d smoked a joint right before, he’d still be thinking about scary bats! Just as if you were in the narrows when a ton of criminals escape from the asylum and you’re locked on the island with them taking a hit of acid – the drug is not the item that induces terror initially. I don’t understand why they even really need the drug, other than to give the scarecrow something that allows him to stand out.

      …and where does Crane get a horse?

  6. black13 says:

    I always liked this particular connection of the Wayne family towards crime fighting.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0755221/

    Henry Wayne (Adam West) meets Zorro (Duncan Regehr), gets introduced to Zorro’s brand of crimefighting, including Zorro’s cave hideout/HQ…

    • Todd says:

      The best version of Bruce’s parents’ death, for me, was that they were seeing The Mark of Zorro the night they were killed. I like that a whole lot better than Thomas and Martha taking him to see Die Fledermaus.

      • stormwyvern says:

        I’ve seen this so many places at this point that I think it may be a “canon” detail from the comics. Not that you can completely have a canon with the comics storyline being rewritten and retconned all the time. But I think it may now be an accepted part of current Batman continuity. Anyone know for sure?

        • Todd says:

          I forget where I first read it — it might have been Year One, but Miller might have been citing an earlier source.

          In either case, Year One caused me to rent The Mark of Zorro, which is a fantastic movie and I highly recommend it.

        • It was featured prominently in the recent Batman R.I.P. storyline. If that qualifies as “canon”, which is to say something that actually happened to “the” Bruce Wayne, who can say at this point? Final Crisis has put everything in a state of flux.

      • black13 says:

        Especially since Die Fledermaus doesn’t have a single bat in it.

      • j_d_w says:

        I think Die Fledermaus works better for Nolan’s universe because he’s said that it can’t be a world that has a pre-existing concept of a superhero. Responding to questions about a Justice League/Superman crossover movie, he said that Bruce’s decision to become a Symbol/Legend would be completely different if he was aware of “superheroes”, be they real or even in comic books. I think that’s spot-on, and making the night out a trip to see Zorro would make the wrong connection in viewers’ minds – he’s not becoming a costumed crime fighter, but something brand new (a “Symbol”, a “Legend”). I also really like, as Todd says, that Thomas and Martha’s deaths become a direct result of Bruce’s fear.

  7. I seem to recall the movie giving me the strong impression Crane was indeed the man who took the fear-inducing flower and “weaponized” it, but I don’t know if I just jumped to that or if it was explicitly stated.

  8. chadu says:

    I still think that in the next movie, the Catwoman should show up… but “Selina Kyle” is just a cover identity for Talia al Ghul.

  9. swan_tower says:

    if only they had connected TDK’s Lau to one of the characters in Begins)

    Yeah, those slackers, not working that tidbit in. 🙂

    One of the things I like about the Nolan Batman is that he feels pain. If he’s dangling off a cliff holding a six-foot-five Irishman by one hand, he’s going to goddamn well feel it, and if he jumps off a roof onto a fire escape he’s going to get some bruises.

    YES. The scream when they grind to a halt and then Bruce one-arm dead-lifts Ducard sold me on the character as no amount of slick heroics would.

    This was a detail I liked in Sahara as well. The place I noticed it there was when Dirk had leapt over to the other speedboat and grabbed hold of the railing — and then it took him like three tries to get his boot up and over so he could pull himself onto the bow, and when he got there, he spent a moment just kind of gasping. I’m told that in the novels Dirk Pitt is totally a slick James Bond kind of guy who makes all of that look easy, but I am so much more ready to love a character who does the awesome badass stuff and then spends a moment gasping and being glad it worked.

    • Todd says:

      Back in the bad, bad 90s, action movies reached truly stupid heights of stupidity in pursuit of ever-more spectacular action.

      The point where the string snapped for me was in the middle of Con Air, where Nicolas Cage is in a building where some kind of explosion happens, and the big orange fireball comes down the hall toward him, and he out-runs the orange fireball and “rides the shock wave” out through the front window, where he lands underneath a truck, whereupon the bad guys show up and start shooting him and he gets up and keeps running.

      And all I can think is, you know, forget about out-running the orange fireball, all I would need to do is go flying through one window, even a first story window, and that would be pretty much it for me, the bad guys could just come and get me, I’d be done.

      • swan_tower says:

        There’s a role-playing game called Mage that makes a distinction between coincidental magic (which an observer can write off as plausible) and vulgar magic (which is blatantly not natural). Apparently it’s somewhere in one of the rulebooks that if you jump when something explodes, then your use of magic to survive the blast counts as coincidental, thanks to decades of movies telling people it is so.

    • stormwyvern says:

      I wonder if another part of the reason characters who seem a little more human and vulnerable are appealing, aside from it being more realistic, is that they stand out because so many characters don’t have that trait. I like my heroes who are totally unperturbed by 40 guys attacking them at once as much as anyone. But I agree with my father’s statement that one of the appealing things about Jackie Chan is the fact that he usually looks pretty worried when 40 guys are coming at him, even though he’s equally capable of taking them out.

      • Todd says:

        Harrison Ford walked this line well: you knew he was always going to make it, but he always took a severe beating on the way, and relied upon luck as much as anything else to get there.

      • Anonymous says:

        oh my! Old Boy comes to mind. The hammer scene 🙂
        I love how the protagonist and his opponents gasp, squint and scream throughout that scene. hooray!

      • swan_tower says:

        Jackie Chan gets great humour value out of it; what interests me is that now it’s being used in drama, too. But that makes sense: if the guy gets through this stuff without ever bruising or breaking a sweat, where’s the tension? Even if I know Batman’s going to make it through the fight (duh, he’s Batman), the fact that it looks hard and painful convinces me there’s more at stake.

        • Todd says:

          Midway through the movie, when Crane gets the drop on Batman and bests him, sending him out the window and crashing to the pavement, it’s important that Batman seem not only vulnerable but dangerously outmatched by this guy who, under normal circumstances, he could snap like a toothpick.

          • swan_tower says:

            Exactly. And it’s also a good demonstration of how to put your hero in trouble: just because he’s physically badass doesn’t mean he can stomp any threat that comes along. You just have to think about other forms of attack.

  10. Anonymous says:

    locations…

    in regards to a lot of the same locations showing up in both BB and TDK, thats just chicago. there are like 8 of those bridges right smack dab in the middle of the city, every parking garage looks exactly the same, and lower wacker (the sunken roadway) is all around, so it would make sense for two major chases to take place there, because its really the only place to have a nice continuous run. otherwise the chase scenes would consist of everyone taking sharp turns every few minutes. unfortunately we don’t really have a bizarrely designed, blade runner-esque hobo village across the river.

  11. curt_holman says:

    The Brave and the Bold

    This is off-point to Batman Begins, but responds to some earlier discussion as to whether Batman is innately dark and brooding. The new Cartoon Networks series “Batman: The Brave & Bold” overtly evokes the old funny, silly 1950s take on the character. You may be able to see whole episodes here:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/BlueBeetle43

    • Todd says:

      Re: The Brave and the Bold

      My kids and I both enjoy Brave and the Bold a lot, it seems to strike the perfect balance of good writing and silliness, and is a welcome relief from the oppressive, ultra-violent The Batman from a few years back, which my son thought was just awful.

  12. Anonymous says:

    From an old friend in nyc

    Just wanted to say hi! I’m reading this! Alana J in nyc

  13. Anonymous says:

    Flying

    Re: Batman flying.
    Have you seen the wingsuit?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHlOvhlKPvs

  14. On a related note, will you be reviewing the upcoming Wonder Woman Animated DVD when it’s released in about a month?

    • Todd says:

      I’m curious to see it, since I worked on the long-aborning WW movie many years ago, but I can’t guarantee I’ll be putting the work into analyzing it for the purposes of this journal.

    • ninja_gamer says:

      If we’re going to suggest super hero movies for analysis, I’d like to throw The Incredibles into the hat.