Batman Begins was released sixteen years ago; which is odd because before last week I had never seen it. Though I had seen its more successful sequel. Prior to watching it a couple times this week I could have sworn I had seen it, maybe it did not leave much of an impression. So unlike Iron Man, I do not have much of a personal history with this film and was able to watch it with fresh eyes. However, I do have a deep disdain for the gritty realism style that Christopher Nolan popularized in the mid aughts, and for that matter I don’t particularly like the films of Nolan. In the case of Batman Begins this “realism” tries to show life as it is; which perpetuates the negative themes of this movie in a way that a more fantastical superhero movie might not.
Why Do We Fall?
The central thesis of Batman Begins is “Why do we fall? So we can get back up. This phrase is repeated almost five or six times throughout the film. It even plays a role in the climax of the film. It’s repetition makes clear that the filmmakers intended the audience to know its importance. However, what does this phrase mean? Essentially it is the film’s equivalent of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. Which is to say you must elevate yourself without the help of others. This idea has become a part of the American mythos. Someone just works really hard and makes it to the top of their respective field. Obviously no one makes it on their own. Thomas Edison didn’t build the lightbulb by himself. There was more to the magic than Walt Disney. Again and again stories of rags to riches pop up, but are often just a farce. The myth of one pulling yourself up by your bootstraps does nothing but keep the powerful, powerful, and the poor, poor. We are all taught that we could be the next Bill Gates, or the next Elon Musk. Truth be told, most people can not be the next Gates or Musk. Both were both born to wealthy families. Gates loves to talk about how he started out in a garage, but what is left out of that story is the fact that he comes from a family of bankers and lawyers.
The film doubles down on this myth in its story structure, and visual language. Bruce Wayne’s story starts with him at the bottom of a cave, and ends with him on the rooftops of the city. Even Bruce’s appearance reflects this. When we first meet adult Bruce he is dressed in torn up clothing and has messy hair. He is in prison, and muddy. As he pulls himself up by his bootstraps, he sheds the ragged clothing for expensive suits. After he has trained hard, and worked hard, he trades his prison cell for his multi million dollar mansion. Further ingraining the bootstraps myth into popular culture.
Alienation in Batman Begins
Batman Begins spends a considerable amount of time talking about “the criminal”. Yet, for all this talk, it never contemplates why someone might become a criminal. This film never suspects that maybe there isn’t a monolithic criminal who commits crimes because they are just bad. We often hear in the film that Gotham has been in a long depression, and that many are out of a job. In this film we are told that “criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding”, the bellow scene shows that Batman, and maybe even the filmmakers truly believe that.
In this scene Batman brutalizes these people. We, nor Batman know their background, or why they are doing this. Perhaps this is the only gainful employment they could find. Maybe they have a family to provide for. They could even be forced to be there. We simply do not know. This is why we have judges, and juries. Instead these people are scared physically and mentally. They seem to just be working class people. Pretty low on the rungs of this mob. However, they receive a much harsher thrashing than the guy at the top. Possibly a sign of class solidarity between Bruce and the mob leader. While this event is completely fictional, the filmmakers intentions are not. This scene is supposed to be heroic and is played that way.
Bruce, with all of his resources does not offer a job, or helping hand to those who might need it. In a world in which Bruce Wayne can disappear for years, and come back richer than when he left, how could one not turn to crime? Batman is doing nothing in this film other than holding up a system that clearly is not working, and has not worked in some time. Vigilantism is not the antidote to an economy that works for the wealthy few. Batman Begins and the makers of the film ignore the connection that crime has to wealth inequality. Instead, we are shown that wealthy crime fighting billionaires are actually the protectors of the poor.
Batman and Spectacle
Like the subject of my previous blog, Batman has a thing for spectacle. Though Batman Begins actively engages with this subject. It’s a part of Batman’s creation myth in this film. Bruce Wayne is taught the importance of theatrics by Ra’s al Ghul in the first act of the film. He is told “theatrics and deception are powerful agents”. Indeed they are. The authoritarian uses theatrics to create fear. Think of the recent poisonings of Alexei Navalny. Vladimir Putin is sending a message, it doesn’t matter who you are, you do not cross him. Or think of the massive Military parades held in North Korea.
What Batman Begins fails to recognize, is the emptiness of these theatrics. For all the show of might that Kim Jong Un puts on, he does not have the capability to sustain a war with the US, and Putin can’t poison everyone. These acts are nothing more than spectacle to make people submit to power. Bruce’s theatrics, while a little more outlandish, are no different than that of an authoritarian strong man. He seeks to become a mythical being by becoming Batman. Bruce believes that people “need dramatic examples” and believes he should be that example. Instead of parading a military around, he dresses up as a bat and terrorizes people. The filmmakers behind the film treat this decision to pursue spectacle as heroic. We push in on Bruce, at a low angle, as he tells Alfred his wishes to become a mythical figure that strikes fear into Gotham. This deliberate choice by the filmmakers to romanticize this choice is no better than propaganda.
President Duterte and Batman
Of all the world’s authoritarian strongmen; Batman reminds me of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. Both have similar approaches to wielding power. For years Duterte has been able to fly under the radar of American news because he became president around the same time as Trump began running for president. Nonetheless, Duterte’s politics is one built on fear, demonization, and support of law enforcement. Duterte ran on the promise the he would kill drug users, and criminals, and has recruited police and vigilantes to carry out the extrajudicial killings. Some reports claim that up to 20,000 people have died as a result of his drug war. Yet Duterte is still widely popular in his country.
Batman, like Duarte, actively recruits the support of the police. He begins by courting the favor of detective Gordan. (EXPAND ON) and by the end of the film he has the support of the whole police force.
Batman Begins says out loud what Iron Man simply implied. Whether it be the the use of theatrics, or the American dream myth. I was really surprised in watching this film at the lengths it goes to support the bootstraps myth; this is always glossed over when people talk about this movie.
Further Reading/ Viewing