I’m seeing The Dark Knight tonight.
It feels good to be able to say that.
Before we go on to the next chapter, I wanted to give you guys a primer that explains why I’m so moved by the Batman we were given in Batman Begins.
First, let me take a detour into what Batman means to me.
For far too long in the comics, too many writers were trying to mimic the gritty Batman introduced by Frank Miller in his mid-1980s classics, Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Though these stories were products of their time (and, in their own ways, relevant at the time), subsequent writers didn’t get the memo and never stopped writing him that way. By trying to humanize Batman, they were dehumanizing him. As a result, Batman was becoming less of a hero and more of a cynical, paranoid man driven by dark impulses created by his own inner rage. Even Miller himself fell into his own trap with his eventual DKR sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and now he’s totally gone off the deep end with All Star Batman & Robin.
Quite frankly, Batman is portrayed all too often as an ass.
And I don’t like it.
Batman, to me, is a hero.
The Burton and Schumacher Batman films were all over the map; Burton’s films were good Burton films that just happened to feature Batman, while Schumacher’s devolved into silly toy commercials. Meanwhile, the campy Adam West television series from the 1960s was still playing in syndication across the globe.
Looking back on them now and taking them as they are, they’re simply not Batman to me. But they all had their moments, and they all played a part in getting us to where we are today.
Shining through like a beacon with a legacy that still burns brightly today was Batman: The Animated Series, which nailed it better than any of the live-action films did because it understood the difference between serious (in terms of respecting the character) and dark (for the sake of being dark). Those shows respected Batman and made him a hero without turning him into a cartoon.
I also found true glimmers of hope in the comics.
There’s an awesome one-shot comic that came out in 2003 called Batman/Planetary: Night on Earth (by writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday), in which the Planetary team — the Archaeologists of the Impossible! — tracks a young man named John, who gained the ability to shift between realities as the result of terrible experiments conducted on his father, to the Gotham City of their reality. Berserk with grief and fear, John has lost his tenuous grasp on his abilities and keeps shifting between alternate realities. The problem is that every time he does, people die because of the catastrophic effects his shifts have on space and time.
The Planetary team follows him through the Gothams of several different realities. They encounter different incarnations of Batman, including the previously mentioned Frank Miller and Adam West versions.
Finally, they meet what I can only describe as the Ellis/Cassaday vision of the ideal Batman, who sits with John and tries to help him understand what’s happening to him.
“Do you remember your parents?”
“Do you remember their smiles?”
“Do you remember the times they made you feel safe?”
“That’s what you hold on to. That’s what you can do for other people. You can give them safety. You can show them they’re not alone. That’s how you make the world make sense. And if you can do that, you can stop the world from making more people like us. And no one will have to be scared anymore.”
And that, my friends, is the most beautifully written summary of who Batman is that I’ve ever read.
A year later, Andersen Gabrych hit the nail on the head in another way in issue 800 of Detective Comics. Batman and Catwoman are on a rooftop, and she’s trying to get him to open up. She slaps him. “Don’t you feel ANYTHING?”
He looks her in the eye and says, “Selina … I feel EVERYTHING.”
And there it is all over again: Batman doesn’t do what he does because he’s running from the pain of his parents’ murder. He does what he does because he truly does feel everything, and he wants to make a world where no other child has to bear the pain or make the choices that he did.
It’s why, in Batman Begins, that Batman tells Gordon that he’ll never have to have to thank him at the end.
“I never said thank you.”
“And you’ll never have to.”
In Batman Begins, writer David Goyer, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale take those threads and elevate them to levels I never dreamed I’d see in a Batman movie by taking us inside the heart of Bruce Wayne while still giving us our most dangerous and capable Batman.
Anyone who’s ever felt that their best wasn’t enough, or that their best intentions still went wrong anyway, can relate to Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
It’s harder to relate to a billionaire, but Nolan’s team really brought it home.
Because Batman Begins isn’t about money or masks.
Batman Begins is about a man.
It’s about Bruce Wayne, and how his convictions and his influences set him on a path to becoming a hero.
During his training with Ra’s Al Ghul in the mountains, we see that Bruce held on to what his childhood friend Rachel Dawes told him in the wake of the mob’s assassination of the man who killed Bruce’s parents: “Justice is about balance. Revenge is about making yourself feel better.” When presented with the opportunity to execute a murderer, Bruce basically signs his own death warrant by refusing to become a killer himself in a room full of ninja assassins who’d kill him at a moment’s notice for disobeying Ra’s Al Ghul’s order.
And it’s worth noting that Goyer and Nolan made the decision to have Bruce’s parents’ murderer killed so early in the film. Why is this significant? Because even though the reason he wanted to become Batman in the first place is gone, he still wants to become Batman anyway. He still wants to go on to inspire and protect others.
It’s like he tells Alfred on the plane back to Gotham, when Alfred asks him how long he’ll be in Gotham. “As long as it takes,” Bruce says to his old friend. “I want to show the people of Gotham their city doesn’t belong to the criminals and the corrupt.”
And it’s not just about fighting the bad guys. He also wants to inspire the people of Gotham to stand up for themselves, too, and to be shaken out of the fear and apathy that have taken over their lives.
And he has a plan.
Indeed, Batman Begins gives us both sides of the mission. One minute Batman’s terrorizing a dirty cop with such ferocious intensity that the man’s pissing falafel, and the next he’s tossing a million-dollar piece of surveillance equipment to a scared little boy in The Narrows because he knows it’s a moment that the child will remember — and be inspired by — for the rest of his life. It pays off later in the film, when the child has been gassed by the Scarecrow’s toxin. While everyone else is terrified by how they see Batman through the twisted veil of the Scarecrow’s fear gas, the little boy becomes calm when he sees Batman because he knows that Batman isn’t there to hurt him but to help him.
(To steal the tag-line from the first Hellboy movie, when things go bump in the night, Batman bumps back.)
And that’s why I find Batman Begins so moving. It’s not just about a man waging what’s basically a military operation against the criminals and freaks who are destroying his city from the inside out (or, in the case of Ra’s Al Ghul’s final plan, from the outside in).
It’s about a man who had his own hope and innocence taken away.
It’s about a man who goes out there every night to make sure that the people and the children of Gotham City know that they’re not alone anymore, and that if Batman can live a life of hope and inspiration then maybe they can, too.
Furthermore, this isn’t the lone-wolf Batman (from far too many of the comics) who shuns help and trusts no one. This Bruce Wayne is smart enough to know what kind of help he needs and, more importantly, who to ask for it.
Alfred, for example, isn’t an outside observer. Bruce brings him in from the start as part of the operation, and Alfred can’t help but be inspired himself by what Bruce is doing. For example, when Wayne Manor is burning, Alfred could have dragged Bruce just a few feet out the front door and they’d both have been safe. Instead, Alfred drags Bruce deeper into the fire, deeper into the danger, because he knows he has to get Bruce into the cave to do what only Batman can.
It’s so awesome.
And then there’s Gordon, the good cop who was the only man who took the time to sit with Bruce in the police station when he was a scared little boy who’d just had his whole life taken away. Commissioner Loeb says, “We got him, son,” of the Waynes’ killer, but what does that mean to a traumatized little boy? It was Gordon, who wrapped the boy in his father’s coat and told him it would be okay, who had the bigger impression on Bruce.
And I’d even argue that little Bruce had just as much of an impression on Gordon; in a town as dirty as Gotham, a good cop like Gordon is driven by moments where he tells himself to keep going for all of the other innocent children who need to be protected and inspired.
And of course there’s Lucius Fox, who knew Bruce’s father and helped him build his train and still believes in Gotham City, too. It’s not long at all before Bruce isn’t even trying to hide what he’s doing from Fox; he knows he can trust him, and he allows himself to do so.
One of the most powerful images in the film — and we see it twice to stunning effect — is the wordless flash of a young Bruce listening to his father’s heartbeat through a stethoscope. That shot says everything we need to know about the man Thomas Wayne has inspired Bruce to become. And now Bruce is not afraid to seek out father figures (and friends like Rachel) who can help him save Gotham by inspiring it to stand up and save itself.
And that brings us back to the original thesis. Batman has never been more dangerous or capable. But he’s also never been more inspirational, thanks to the beautifully efficient way in which the Begins team took us inside of Bruce Wayne’s heart for the first time that we’ve ever seen on film.
What could possibly shake Bruce’s spirit and perseverance?
I think we’re about to find out the hard way.
And the end of Begins, we see how Gordon has been newly invigorated by Batman’s example.
But he warns Batman about escalation.
And he shows him the joker card.
Batman says, “I’ll look into it.”
Be careful, Bruce.
Because it’s going to look right back at you:
The Dark Knight opens tomorrow, July 18.
And though the Knight might become darkest just before the dawn, I believe in Bruce Wayne.
Thank you, Batman Begins, for that and for so much more.
And, as always, more to come.
(Much more, in fact. This was meant to be longer but I accidentally emailed my notes to myself before vacation rather than my rough draft itself, so I’m writing this again from scratch and will expand it when I get home next week.)