It may be an accurately named trilogy, but its edges are both fuzzy. The Dark Knight Rises ends by gesturing forwards to an unrealized draft of DC’s film aspirations. Batman Begins, on the other hand, is inexorably tethered to the Burton/Schumacher films its title declares its separation from. Batman begins because his franchise had been driven into the ground by Batman and Robin eight years earlier. The choice of villains is perhaps the clearest remnant of this – two villains who had not been used in the previous series, including the Scarecrow, who was going to be the villain of a fifth Batman film ever since it was going to be directed by Joel Schumacher and called Batman Unchained. Even Hans Zimmer’s score interpolates Danny Elfman’s.
Even considered purely within terms of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins is odd. Again, the title is a clue – it’s the one part of the trilogy not to have the phrase “Dark Knight” in it. But more to the point, it’s the only film in the trilogy to be directed by Christopher Nolan, promising young director coming off of Memento and Insomnia as opposed to Christopher Nolan, director of major blockbusters. And this shows. Batman Begins is by some margin the smallest of the three films. Its action sequences are considerably more restrained compared to the other two, still unburdened by the pressures of perpetually topping the previous iteration. It’s also much more rooted in the classic superhero blockbuster structure where people end scenes with lame quips. (Not even Gary Oldman can make “I’ve gotta get me one of those” work.)
And so Nolan gets a relatively blank slate to define his Batman on – one neither colored by his own brand nor by anything save for “not Batman and Robin.” And Nolan deftly avoids the one way in which that could pigeonhole him, reacting against the quasi-Adam West aesthetics of Schumacher’s film by emphasizing “dark and gritty” at the expense of everything else. Nolan’s film is comparatively dark, yes, but he avoids the Frank Miller style histrionics that one might expect from that brief. Yes, the film nicks a character and a couple of plot points from Year One, but it’s manifestly not an adaptation of that comic. Indeed, while one suspects Nolan is not enough of a comics geek to intend it, the use of Carmine Falcone as a throwaway villain defeated by the Scarecrow, who is himself not actually the film’s big bad invites reading the film as a repudiation of Miller’s puerile maturity.
Instead, Nolan’s film unfolds with a sort of ruthless competence. 2005 was, generally speaking, a good year for this. The modern superhero book had been successfully kicked off with Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men film, but we were still three years away from the Marvel assembly line starting to roll. Competence was desired, but as Daredevil had shown two years earlier, still nowhere near being able to be taken for granted. And so much of Nolan’s work – which he was exquisitely suited to – came down to offering a detail-oriented and broadly serious take on Batman. This is most visible in the casting, where heavy hitters like Gary Oldman and Michael Caine are tapped to play roles that in the Burton/Schumacher films were filled by Pat Hingle and that guy from The Celestial Toymaker and The Arc of Infinity. With the exception of Katie Holmes’s performance, which has no discernible notes beyond “over-earnest,” this is a film in which even the tertiary characters are exquisitely cast. Even a relative nothing of a part like Lucius Fox gets Morgan Freeman, who duly makes a chain of nothing “Batman gets his equipment” scenes into the highlights of the film.
Batman’s equipment also gets at another key aspect of Nolan’s approach. Just as it’s not quite straightforward to say that he’s doing a “dark and gritty” Batman, it’s also not quite right to say that he’s doing a “realistic” Batman. One need only look at the gleaming hyper-modernism of the prelapsarian Gotham train or the reductivist sketch of how Gotham’s drug trade works to see that realism isn’t quite what’s going on. Nevertheless, it’s striking that Batman’s equipment is all presented as military gear, with the bat-suit imagined as a super-flexible lightweight armored fabric. What’s relevant is not the realism of magic spec-ops gear (which is in fact minimal), but the patina of materialism it lends Batman. And, perhaps more to the point, the extent to which it situates Nolan’s Batman as a product of the Bush era.
In light of this, and of Miller’s oft-troubling relationship with Bush-era popular culture, let’s return to the idea of Batman Begins as a film that is defined, if unwittingly, by its rejection of Miller. In that regard, let’s consider the best-known line of Year One, Batman’s “Ladies. Gentlemen. You have eaten well” address to a bunch of corrupt officials. And after “criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot. I will become a bat,” it’s probably the actual comics quote one would most plausibly expect to find in Batman Begins. Except, of course, that it wouldn’t fit. And even if its absence doesn’t tell us anything about Nolan per se, the fact that it would be so incongruous in the film is still significant. For all that Miller’s later politics took a hard authoritarian turn, the “you have eaten well” speech was fundamentally populist in its leanings. It positioned Batman’s targets as corrupt officials abusing their power. This is manifestly not what Batman Begins does, however. The closest thing to a corrupt and powerful man in the film is Carmine Falcone, who is, as we already noted, fundamentally disposable within the narrative. Yes, there are corrupt cops like Gordon’s partner, but he’s never really Batman’s concern. The film emphasizes Gotham’s corruption, but it pointedly never positions Batman in opposition to this. Instead, the film focuses almost entirely on Batman as someone who fights crime in the traditional sense, with a recurring theme of attacking the idea that the social causes of criminality matter in the first place, which pretty adamantly moves the focus away from those who have eaten well.
Yes, this idea is admittedly mostly advanced by R’as al Ghul and the larger League of Shadows, who are explicitly the villains of the piece, but this doesn’t undermine it as much as one might hope. For one thing, even without the active rejection of the idea of caring about material social conditions at the bottom as they relate to crime, the film full-throatedly embraces the idea of top-down solutions. Thomas Wayne’s great contribution to the city before he gets shot is a gleaming modernist elevated train whose decay into a graffiti-ridden wreck is made a metonym of the city’s larger collapse. R’as al Ghul makes it clear that the murder of Bruce’s parents “galvanized the city into saving itself.” All of this points towards a model where social problems are fixed not by understanding them or even directly addressing them, but by intervention from rich overlords. Indeed, given that R’as also takes credit for the social problems via the League of Shadows’ innovative wielding of economics, a weapon explicitly compared to plague and fire, it would appear that the world consists entirely of the machinations of the rich and powerful, with their impact on ordinary people merely a means of keeping score as to whether the virtuous capitalists or nebulously foreign interlopers are winning at the moment, as opposed to something worth studying on its own merits.
Of course, and not to put too fine a point on it, “social problems are best solved by the intervention of powerful and virtuous rich men” is basically the premise of Batman anyway. And in many ways Nolan deserves credit for facing this head-on instead of trying to disguise the class politics inherent in the premise. Yes, the resulting politics are viscerally horrifying, but it’s generally speaking better to be conscious of your bad politics than not. To compare to the last time we talked about superheroes, Nolan is on some level aware that his Batman films are paeans to fascism, as opposed to laboring under the delusion that they are in some fashion about resistance.
In this light, perhaps the defining aspect of Nolan’s take is having Batman do his training with the League of Shadows under R’as al Ghul. Yes, he’s obviously opposed to their ruthless “kill everyone in Gotham for being too decadent” approach, but he’s still fundamentally positioned as a successor to their views. His nature derives from theirs. There are limits to what can specifically be concluded from this, as Batman doesn’t get a scheming villain monologue to reveal his ideology. It’s clearly more liberal and rooted in trust in institutions than R’as al Ghul’s long manipulation of history to stamp out decadence, since the film ends with Batman’s alliance with Rachel and Commissioner Gordon, but it’s easy to make too much of this given that fascism and authoritarianism have long depended on liberal institutions. (And, spoilers, the next two films are going to muddy any pro-liberal claims pretty hard.) And perhaps more to the point, there’s really nothing that suggests that he’s any more pro-decadence. Indeed, the film’s basic inclination to have Batman’s mentor use the word “decadent” to describe an impoverished and crime-ridden city speaks volumes here.
Again, none of this quite rises to “fascist propaganda,” or at least no moreso than X-Men rose to “liberal propaganda,” or Mr. Robot does “anti-capitalist propaganda.” Batman Begins is simply a take on Batman with authoritarian ideology baked in deep and with a level of awareness of this. This is in many ways revealing simply because superhero fiction is generally not aware of its authoritarian leanings, and so something that is provides an interesting case study in understanding the genre at large. Most of the results of this case study are best saved for the subsequent two films in the trilogy, each of which very blatantly conjure their villains out of images of leftism, and we do have two more posts in this series, but there’s one detail worth focusing on here, with the part of the trilogy that came out in 2005, namely the sheer Bushiness of it all. Nolan’s entire trilogy is distinctly Bushy, as we’ve already noted, but Batman Begins is the one that came out in the heart of the Bush administration, and thus the one where this seems most like an active decision as opposed to a consequence of earlier ones.
But what strikes me as interesting here is not so much the mere fact of the film’s suitability for the Bush era, but the degree to which this feels like a larger diagnosis of, if not superheroes at large, at least the idea of the superhero film. Even if the craze got started in the dying days of the Clinton era, its rise was firmly in the Bush era, and its sensibilities are rooted there. As cinematic spectacle, the superhero weds the ideological iconography of the western (so beloved in Bush-era foreign policy) to the fetishization of American military technology. And the fetishization of military gear that Batman Begins introduced continued, perhaps most significantly and obviously manifesting in the foundational text of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man. It’s not fair to call Nolan the sole cause of this – comics had already been going in that direction with The Ultimates, and even arguably before the Bush administration in The Authority. But in terms of mass culture, it’s Batman Begins that solidified this particular aesthetic of superheroes in the public consciousness.
What is disturbing here is that it’s hard to escape the sense that this is part of why the film is good. Yes, Nolan’s characteristically fussy panache helps – this is a well-shot, well-made film, and few people are better than Nolan at making a film feel artsy without jeopardizing its basic pop appeal. But Nolan’s approach depends on a relatively straightforward take on a basic concept under the hood. His skill at making audiences feel like they’ve watched an intelligent and thoughtful movie comes from applying his technical aptitude to ideas that have been stripped of their rough edges and made thoroughly and uncomplicatedly accessible. And an authoritarian take on superheroes rooted in the glorification of American military technology fit the bill nicely. Batman Begins was, when it came out, the most compelling film of the superhero wave thus far, and we continue to live in its ominous shadow.
- Batman Begins