Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has been one of my favourite series’ to go back to again and again, not just because Batman is always an enjoyable, exciting superhero to go back to, but also because the themes underlying the overall story behind the Batman are philosophically interesting and incredibly inspiring. The primary things that make Batman tick, such as the “no kill” rule and his reasoning for becoming the Batman (the death of his parents) aren’t quite what fascinate me so much. What fascinates, and most importantly inspires so much passion in me upon watching this particular trilogy is the birth of Batman, the development of his character, the failures, the struggles and the eventual redemption.
It’s a great trilogy to go back to precisely for this, because while it’s not relatable within the actions and plot (I don’t think many people have to deal with nihilistic clowns in their lives), it is relatable on the human level – the area of success, failure, struggle, pain, joy, redemption, etc. That’s part of why I’m writing this post up, mainly to extrapolate my thoughts on what goes on in the series and what, in particular, I pick up on it and am inspired by the most. Hence we start with the first in the trilogy, “Batman Begins”.
Batman Begins is the starting point of the series and tells the story of how Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman, how he develops his core principles, and builds a solid foundation as to what to expect from this character. It’s the “birth” of the character in the sense that Bruce Wayne becomes the mask, and the Batman becomes the true identity.
Keep in mind, I’m treating the trilogy as purely its own thing and separate to other forms Batman has taken, as I think this trilogy is unique in its depiction of the idea of Batman and its themes.
The movie begins with a vengeful Bruce Wayne that almost murders the man who killed his parents. Upon witnessing the assassination of the murderer right before he was able to murder him himself, he has a moment of realization that while murdering the man would satisfy his rage, it would not heal the grief and pain of his parent’s death. Through the act of murder, he was only infecting the wound he had even further and it would drive him deeper into torment. He’d be no better than the man who killed his parents. Through this realization, he throws the gun into the ocean and travels the world, looking for some kind of insight to take him in a new direction.
This scene is the first major development of his character where he essentially establishes his “no kill” rule. But more importantly, on a psychological level Bruce comes to the realization that revenge is just as poisonous as murder, just a slightly different strain sharing the same roots. This moment here was the moment where Bruce realized that forgiveness is the path to redemption, but not for the murderer – for himself. And it’s a relatable experience.
There are many situations in our own lives where we resent someone for “betraying” us, or breaking our hearts, or even committing an unspeakable act. It seems just that those people get what’s coming for them – they get what they deserve, so to speak. Many acts are often unforgivable, too; and indeed, the murder of Bruce’s parents does not deserve forgiveness.
But forgiving the act is not about saying that the perpetrator deserves it – it’s about rejecting the poison and letting go of what happened, and building yourself in such a way that you can learn to accept. You forgive them for yourself. When you hold onto vengeance and hatred, you’re allowing the same person who wronged you to wrong you again and again, every day for the rest of your life. You’re refreshing the memory, the pain, the wound, and allowing the poison of that hatred to further infect your own heart and mind. Furthermore, the act of revenge will only satisfy your hatred temporarily – the memory and pain will still remain, albeit partially pacified.
So for me, this moment in the film was the first moment of Bruce “letting go” of the past, and finding a positive alternative – that of building something out of the wreckage of his grief. I imagine some would argue he never really lets go of his past, but that’s not my point – he’s letting go of the hatred that defined how he saw the past, and instead choosing to build something on top of that pain rather than relish in it. He’ll always remember the death of his parents, just as we all remember certain painful moments of our own lives – but it’s what we do with that wound that defines us, another theme that appears later on in the film. You can let the wound fester and become infected, or you can remove the poison and let it heal. The scar remains, but the poison doesn’t run deep.
Identity and Integrity
The next phase in Bruce’s journey eventually leads him to meeting Ducard (who we later learn is actually Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of the League of Shadows). Bruce is exploring the world and fighting injustice, but aimlessly and without focus. He’s looking to satisfy his desire to fight injustice but he doesn’t really know how. Once he meets Ra’s however, he is given the opportunity to focus his energy and desire. Ra’s takes him into the League of Shadows so that he may learn to combat injustice effectively, but more importantly, discover his core principles more explicitly and who he is.
Throughout the training period with Ra’s, Bruce discovers that Ra’s has a similar past to his – a great loss, that being his wife, had driven him to fight injustice. It became his sole purpose in the world, but with one key difference; Ra’s was unrelenting in his vengeance and considered the killing of the unjust as right and necessary, while Bruce had let go of that concept. They are essentially the same character but on the other side of the coin – Bruce is the side of fighting injustice but not succumbing to vengeance as the driving factor, while Ra’s was fighting injustice, driven by vengeance.
Throughout this bonding of characters, the fundamental principles that defined them were eventually the rifts that caused them to become enemies. During the final test that would officially initiate Bruce into the League of Shadows, he was asked to execute a criminal, and this is where he made explicit a core principle of his that gave him his identity – he would not kill, as he did not consider it justice when one acts in the same manner a murderer would. And though he saves Ra’s life upon escaping the League of Shadows, he had made an enemy for life, and one that would prove to be his ultimate, overarching enemy throughout the trilogy, which I’ll explain later.
The training arc has several layers to it, thematically. As mentioned, Ra’s and Bruce are essentially the same character, and in some sense Ra’s is an older, mirror version of Bruce that is mentoring and helping him realize who he is.
However, that fundamental principle, to kill or not to kill, is what separates and ultimately makes them adversaries. By choosing to not compromise on what he believed, Bruce had found his own identity and split from Ra’s completely. Throughout the training, Ra’s had consistently tried to break that principle that Bruce had held so tightly, and ultimately failed.
Part of what makes Bruce such a heroic character in this part of the film is his unyielding integrity and sticking to what he believed in. He was consistently pushed and tempted to yield to the principles of the League of Shadows, and while it’s likely that vengeance was burning within him, he ultimately thought back to the choice he made when he threw the gun into the ocean – the choice to be above vengeance – and once again let it go. Ra’s had helped him mold his passion for justice into something far more powerful, but Bruce solidified and made it whole when he made the fundamental choice to stick to what he believed. He found his identity.
Again, the relatability is not in the context, but in the virtues espoused. Everyone deals with the challenge of identity and integrity, and everyone has likely had the experience of being pressured to submit to something they don’t agree with, or challenged in such a way that it confronts the very principles that they believe in. People will try to change you, to push you in a direction that you may not want to go. But you can’t force someone to change, they have to want to. And you have the ability to stand up to the pressure, no matter how high, and just like Bruce, say “no”.
Bruce discovers who he really is, and becomes the personification of integrity.
From here on in, Bruce returns to Gotham and with the sole purpose of bringing justice and hope to the city, which is now even more corrupt than before he left it. He considers his resources and wealth but realizes it’s not enough, as people are not driven by large acts of charity or material movement, but by symbolic representations of hope. Something that lights the fire within people’s hearts.
It’s through this, alongside his training in the League of Shadows, that he realizes that one thing the criminals of Gotham do not have, is fear. They are not afraid to take the streets as they have become the thing that everyone fears. Through this realization he starts to mold the idea of a symbol, “something terrifying”, that will strike terror into the hearts of the corrupt but hope in the pure and innocent. He looks back into his own past experiences and considers what he is afraid of – bats.
In one of the earlier scenes in the film, a young Bruce falls down a well and is swarmed by a bunch of bats. Through this he becomes frightened and traumatized by the creatures as they dwell in the dark, unseen and silent, only to pounce out of nowhere and terrify you. Through this memory, and his experience of “facing his fears” in the trials of the league, he develops the idea of sharing his dread for the creatures of the night with his enemies – and thus the idea of Batman is born. This leads to a wonderful build up to the first scene of the Batman in action, where we see him embracing the symbol, the creature and his overall fear, and expanding upon that energy in a productive, powerful way – as a positive expression of justice and hope.
Batman Begins tends to have fear as its overarching theme as is evident by the appearance of Scarecrow, the terror inducing drug, facing ones fears, etc. But the relatable part lies in Bruce Wayne and his embracing of his own fears – but not “overcoming” them. There’s a difference.
We all are afraid of something, whether it be in a particular thought, a creature, an event, etc. That fear can be paralyzing in that it limits your ability to take action and makes you want to run away, just like how the bats gave Bruce his nightmares. But the incredibly important point that I take away from this film is that it’s not about overcoming fears, but rather embracing them. Fear is a natural reaction to the unknown or a response to something we have had a negative experience with. Sometimes, overcoming fear is nigh impossible – the fear of death being a great example, as it’s a frightening idea that we are mortal and one day, we will expire.
But the point that Bruce and the film showcases is that fear ought to be embraced, because that is how it is overcome. You don’t swallow the fear and pretend you aren’t afraid. You identify your fear, acknowledge what it is, and through that, you replace that fear with something positive – something powerful and life affirming. We cannot drop our negative thoughts, fears, actions etc, but we can replace them with positive, powerful and productive things. Instead of running away from the bats, Bruce embraced them and thus found something deep within that fear that he could turn into a weapon against the wicked. Likewise, within a real world context, you may be afraid to do certain things in your own life too, like start a new career, move to another country, etc. All daunting, frightening tasks.
But it’s not about dropping the fear and saying “I’m not afraid”. Acknowledge your fear and look deep within it – and through that, you’ll find what truly matters and can turn that fear into a force for change in your own life. This, in turn, vanquishes the fear in the long run. Accept and replace it with something that will strengthen you. The fear of death is a frightening one indeed – but the reason you’re afraid to die is because life is worth living. Embrace it, because it reminds you how good being alive is.
The Death of “Bruce Wayne”
From here on in the movie plays out with Batman learning to hone his craft and build upon his identity, alongside some failures and mistakes such as the burning down of his mansion after the league ambushes him, and being ambushed by Scarecrow with the fear drug. With this also comes the slow death of “Bruce Wayne”, and the birth of “Batman”, with the only character aware of this being Rachel Dawes, Batman’s love interest and long time friend.
In her reunion with Bruce, she identifies rather quickly that he has changed and is no longer the same person. She also leaves him with a particular quote around the mid part of the film which further solidifies his identity:
It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.
This quote resonates deeply with Bruce here and further galvanizes his pursuit of justice as the Batman. It also ends up being the thing that drives the stake into the heart of “Bruce Wayne”. It remains only as a mask to hide who he has become, which is Batman.
By the end of the film, when Rachel encounters Batman, he paraphrases the quote right back at her before leaving to fight, making explicit who is underneath the “mask”. This scene is very clever and beautifully done, as it represents a very important detail and mirrors the moment Rachel says it to Bruce: what’s “underneath” the mask is Bruce Wayne, which is just a concept at this point, but the one who takes the actions that defines him is..the Batman! This essentially completes the transformation of his character and confirms that Bruce Wayne is truly dead and is just a cover up. I really love this little detail, as when you rewatch the scene where Rachel says it to Bruce, you realize that “Bruce” IS the mask, and Batman IS the man, it’s just that she doesn’t know that quite yet. It’s wonderful, and it maintains the theme of the entire film, which is the birth of a character and a powerful, principled hero that turned his fears, pains and past into positive, powerful outlets.
The end of the film also shows that she realizes this too, that the man she kisses, the “Bruce” in front of her is no longer there – he’s a very different person. It sets the entire trilogy up in such a way that makes Batman and Bruce Wayne very complicated, interesting and relatable characters. Bruce Wayne is the representation of our own masks, what we show to the public, while Batman is the representation of who we really are underneath it – our principles and virtues (or vices) in action. It’s relatable in that certainly most people have tried to play the “social” game, especially when young, to try and fit in while hiding our authentic selves. While I won’t delve into that as fundamentally there is no such thing as “two sides” of you, this theme is an incredibly important one that integrates with the next two films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
The Establishment of Order and Control
Batman Begins is not just the birth of the character of Batman, but also the manifestation of order and control in Gotham. Batman brings hope to the people and fear to the corrupt, and ultimately helping establish order. It’s important that the film end this way, because the next films objective is to disrupt that order with its opposite – chaos.
Which is a write up for another time, and one I am greatly looking forward to expanding upon when I have the time.
I hope you enjoyed my write up and if you have any comments, let me know! Thanks for reading and if you want to support my writing, you can donate via my paypal below!
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