Most recent talks Film talks A-Z Before viewing talks Deep talks Sign up: email updates About the film talks Stay up on new talks Join the community
What's this site about? Inside out: Heart Inside out: Beauty Inside out: Love Thoughtful: a film's heart Thoughtful: film content Thoughtful: films to watch Who's behind this?
Register and login General PttH updates Film review sites Film site quick views Quotes The PttH seminar

Batman Begins (2005)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

Batman Begins is an superb example of what excellent screenwriting and directing can do for a familiar story. Batman can easily be (and has been) produced with simple action and black-and-white morality. Christopher Nolan

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: ,

Post a Comment

NOTE: Please do NOT put spoilers in comments on Before viewing talks.

You must be registered (it's easy) and logged in to post a comment. Why?

"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

Watching Batman Begins, seeing Bruce Wayne’s internal struggle to find the right response to evil, and seeing the contrast with Ducard’s definition of justice, I want to find a clearer and better response to the offenses I suffer in my own life. Don’t get me wrong: I have no delusions that I would be a Batman, stalking at night to fight the thieves and thugs on the streets of my neighborhood. But in response to wrongs against me personally and in response to societal ills, I can be like Ducard (playing judge, jury, and executioner), like Batman (digging to bring the facts of the case to light and letting “the authorities” try the case), or like most of the people of Gotham (doing nothing or else cooperating with evil for fear or for personal gain).

Although the Batman metaphor is not the perfect archetype to emulate, I’m pushed toward a better path by watching Bruce and his struggle. In Batman Begins, I see the depth of tension wrapped in and around vengeance, compassion, and justice, and I’m prompted to let that tension grow my motivation and ability to respond to wrongs done, whether to me personally or society at large, with strength, grace, courage, and love.

In Bruce Wayne’s development through the first 40 minutes of Batman Begins — in stages that slowly build his understanding of and response to evil — I experience multiple emotional aspects of his struggle. “Living through” the murders and their aftermath, I can feel and understand his vengeful starting point. Yet more strongly, I feel the ugliness and shallowness of it, and I feel something beautiful in Bruce’s arrival at his conclusion that he’s “no executioner.” The film’s exploration of Bruce’s development is rich and multi-facted. We see:

  • Enjoyment of minor injustice. Though we might say it was only a bit of childhood teasing, Bruce takes quite the pleasure in talking Rachel into showing him her treasure and then swiping it and running off with it. True, he gives it back after he’s hurt but, in the context of the film, the point is made. His little bit of “evil” shows something of how we enjoy power over another. Unchecked, such enjoyment is fuel for vengeance.
  • Visceral experience of fear. As the bats fly around Bruce, he doesn’t know what they will do, but by their sheer numbers, they present an overpowering force. We experience how the unknown and the potential for harm can raise an intense emotion of fear.
  • Visceral experience of evil. During and after the murders and as Bruce sits in the police station, we see and feel his blank stare of shock. No relief shows in Bruce’s face when the police chief tells him that the murderer has been caught. Later, in his room with Alfred, we see the pain on Bruce’s face as guilt and grief are deeply intertwined.
  • The consuming power of vengeance. In the years between the murders and Chill’s hearing, Bruce’s desire for vengeance grows until his life revolves around it. Even though the system worked — Chill was tried, convicted, and imprisoned — it is not enough for Bruce, who still says, “All these years I wanted to kill him.” When confronted with Chill’s early release and the reasons for it, Bruce will have none of it. His personal pain blinds him to the benefits to society at large. His anger crowds out any considerations beyond his own self-centered experience of the wrong suffered. Not only does Bruce believe that “Sometimes [revenge and justice are] the same,” he so thoroughly and willingly takes on the role of Chill’s exectioner that, when someone else kills Chill, he is left with only a consuming fire burning inside. In Rachel's words, "Your father would be ashamed of you," I feel the ugliness of Bruce's obsession.
  • From individual injustice to injustice writ large. When Rachel shows him the dark side of Gotham and he confronts Falcone, Bruce sees a whole new depth of evil in the pervasive rottenness in the system. Falcone was right: Bruce had thought that he knew all about the underside of life just because his parents had been shot. Focused only on Chill's solitary evil act, he thought he could simply avenge his parents' murder and be done with evil. Falcone shows him that Chill was only the tip of a very deep and dark iceberg — and we get a sudden taste of the darkness in the bravado with which Falcone, in public, pulls a gun on Bruce. Bruce realizes there's no simple answer to his rage. He was angry, but not angry enough. It's more than he can handle, and he runs.
  • The complexity of right and wrong. In his wanderings, Bruce sees for himself how desperateness can push people to crime — as it did for Chill — and he "[loses] many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong." Though the film doesn't further explore the desperate side of evil — Batman encounters no desperation-driven crime — this experience seems to engender compassion in Bruce, demonstrated in his sharing with the street boy.
  • The deadend of a rage-induced response to evil. In Bruce's initial encounter with Ducard, we see in the dark and dirty setting the depth to which he has sunken. Ducard wakes Bruce up to the reality that his actions have been those of an unthinking, anger-driven vigilante and that there is a higher path to follow. Bruce has been more or less lashing out wildly, hoping without a plan that one day his "practice" might be put to better use. In taking up Ducard's challenge, Bruce admits that his fight for justice needs direction. During his climb up the mountain, he clarifies in his mind what he seeks: "The means to fight injustice. To turn fear against those that prey on the fearful." I felt hopeful and encouraged to see Bruce's fight with evil begin to gain some coherence.
  • Cleansing of the motivation to pursue justice. Bruce learns both by emulating Ducard and by contrast with Ducard. From Ducard, Bruce learns that anger and guilt impede pursuit of true justice. Yet for Ducard, this is a practical matter: Anger and guilt will destroy you because they will weaken your fighting skills and determination. Compassion is but an indulgence that the hard hammer of justice should not allow. Bruce learns something different: That anger and guilt impede true justice because they cloud your judgment about justice. Compassion is necessary because it maintains the humanity of both the perpetrator and those who seek justice. No longer ready to play judge, jury, and executioner, Bruce understands that any final determination of justice is beyond one person. It felt right to see Bruce reject his final test and resist the League of Shadows.

Ducard's manner of justice

By building Bruce's journey around feelings that we can relate to, the film emotionally connects us with the fight against injustice and it shows us a higher path. In Rachel's words, "Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better." We can feel the dark depths to which a heart set on revenge took Bruce. We feel courage and hope in watching Bruce's preparation to fight injustice. We shudder at Ducard saying that he was freed by personally avenging his wife's death. We are outraged by Ra's Al Ghul's cold condemnation of Gotham, especially in contrast to Bruce's refusal to play executioner.

Later, the film heightens the contrast when, at Wayne Manor, Ducard reappears. Though we share Ducard's judgment that Gotham has, on the whole, gone quite the wrong direction, his sense of "harmony" is something completely different than Rachel's. For Ducard, Gotham's depravity has cheapened the lives of all, even the innocent, and the harmony of justice is restored only upon the complete and indiscrimate destruction that (supposedly) ensures all traces of evil are gone. Ducard's path to "harmony" is cold and intellectual — it has no heart. It particularly strikes home that Ducard is so firm in his determination to play Gotham's executioner that Bruce having saved Ducard's life means nothing. Ducard can see Bruce only in Batman's role as an impediment to Gotham's judgment. Ducard sees harmony only in getting even with Bruce by torching his house and leaving him for dead.

There's a Biblical touch point here, in that Ducard's intended destruction of Gotham is not unlike God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. But there are two critical differences. First, if any being has the sole authority to declare the death of a city, it would be God alone, since He alone can see all sides of each person's guilt or innocence. Second, the story in Genesis depicts God's compassion by letting Abraham argue before God the fact that there are righteous people still living in Sodom. So, God sends angels in disguise to usher Lot and his family out before the destruction.

Evil has a price: death, whether physical death or the many smaller "deaths" that we cause in our day-to-day relationships. It is not Ducard's desire to see the price paid that is repulsive, but rather the fact that his desire leads him to play God against Gotham, thinking his authority alone is sufficient to act as executioner to the city. In this, in Ducard's lack of compassion for Bruce, and in his satisfaction with avenging his wife's death, I see and feel a distasteful, prideful, and self-centered pursuit of justice.

Building Batman

When Alfred picks Bruce up in his private jet, all that's left for Bruce's preparation to fight injustice is for him to figure out the practical details of how to do it. He knows that Gotham is too corrupt to rely on the system, which means he must do most of the fight on his own. He knows that to fight evil alone, he needs to be more than a man. He must be a symbol, an idea, a legend. By showing several stages of Bruce's investigation and preparation of the Batman persona, we gain a stronger sense of Batman as a man with good tools, not superhuman powers. We see his pain when he doesn't have all the right tools (e.g., when, to escape from Gordon, he jumps to the fire escape and injures his ribs). We sense more clearly the amount of preparation required to face up to evil.

Through the building Batman sequence in the film, by juxtaposing Bruce's preparation against scenes with Falcone, Earl, Crane, Gordon, and Flass, Batman Begins emphasizes the importance of what Bruce is doing. We see the different forms of evil that Bruce is fighting. We see Falcone's fear of Crane's boss — one criminal's fear of another. We see Flass's discomfort with Gordon's straightness — that evil aims to take in the goodness around it. We see Earl's smoothness in running Wayne Enterprises according to his own moral code and agenda. We see the range of injustice and gain some sense of evil's weak points.

Batman's manner of justice

In Batman's first major encounter, we enjoy the fruits of Bruce's preparation. It's good to see Batman wrap up Falcone in a neat, clean package. It's good see him save Rachel's life and give her leverage against Judge Faden. He sets Gotham to talking about justice. And he's true to his principle of being no executioner. Although he is operating outside society's defined justice system, there is, in these first encounters, no appreciable collateral damage. The contrast between Batman's results and the ineffectiveness of Gotham's justice system makes the police chief's exclamation that "no one takes the law into their own hands in my city" ring a bit hollow. Why not, if the police can't do it and Batman is serving up criminals to the system for normal prosecution? Batman's approach to justice is fundamentally honorable. Where the system is too weak or broken to bring about justice, someone needs to step in to fill the gap.

Sometimes, though, the situation gets out of hand. In two of Batman's major encounters, innocent lives are clearly endangered. Yet the two situations are different:

  • Saving Rachel. Batman saves Rachel at a high cost of property damage and lives risked. Was it justified? There was indeed little or no time to explain, and running for Wayne Manor was the straight and fast path to save her. Batman clearly steps outside the law, and Gotham PD chases him with all it has. Risking lives to save lives is always a tough choice — perhaps Batman may have chosen a different path.
  • The final battle. The dynamics of his final battle with Ducard justify Batman's actions. In this case, acting outside the law is, in essence, within the law. In a street mugging, a regular citizen is justified in taking action to prevent the crime or stop the perpetrator afterwards. It is in this vein that Batman fights Ducard, causing substantial collateral damage. Gotham's courts (free of corruption) would excuse his actions.

Batman violates his own creed

Batman's statement that he's "no executioner" is a foundational part of his creed yet he violates this tenet during the last scene with Ducard. In saying, "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you," and then letting Ducard go down with the train, Batman takes sole authority to decide Ducard's fate. In effect, he plays executioner. From a practical standpoint, one might say that, even here, Batman's actions were justified — Ducard was an incredibly dangerous person, whom likely no prison could have held for long. Furthermore, it is reasonable to say that it would have been very difficult for Batman to save Ducard from a speeding train that is 10 seconds from destruction. But these considerations are nullified by the vengeful tone in which Batman says, "I don't have to save you." He had already made up his mind; he would not have saved Ducard in any case. We come to the limits of Bruce Wayne's compassion. In the heat of battle, I cheer Batman's victory, but on reflection, I'm dismayed. I can understand — but not excuse — the distasteful vestiges of vengeance that point to a path for Bruce's continuing development.

The cost of Bruce's pursuit

Three scenes with Rachel depict the cost of Bruce's pursuit of justice. First, There is the little interaction with Rachel at the hotel when Bruce tries to explain that his rich playboy actions are just a show. Without revealing that he is Batman, he can't explain. Rachel judges him based on what she sees, and we feel Bruce's aloneness in his struggle to find the words to explain. Later, after saving Rachel, Batman expresses his solitariness by saying, "I don't have the luxury of friends." At the end, on the blackened grounds of Wayne Manor, Bruce is more hopeful. He has revealed his identity to Rachel, so he no longer needs to explain. Yet here is where his solitariness cuts the deepest, because Rachel sees something that he has not seen: He has become Batman, and now Bruce Wayne is his alternate identity.

Who we are; who we need to be

We can't be Batman, so what can we take away from Batman Begins? The first thing to grab me is the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne's and Ducard's approaches to justice. As Ducard describes the impending execution of Gotham, I'm repulsed by his assertion that "only a cynical man would call what these people have lives." To be sure, I wouldn't choose to live in the corrupt Gotham, but his judgment of Gotham is so strong that Ducard devalues and discards whatever good there may be. At a personal level, I think of how easily I can do this with the person next to me. Seeing only the wrong they've done or some bit of ugliness in their character, I can write off the whole person, to one degree or another "killing" their presence in my heart and life. I can easily do the same with a political candidate, an artist, an author, or any other public figure whom I judge to be offensive or dangerous. Not only do I write them off, I sometimes spread the "death" to others in the way I judge the offender in my conversations about them — and possibly in my actions against them.

By contrast, Bruce says, "Gotham isn't beyond saving...There are good people here." Can I say of an offender, "There is still good here in this person; there is still something of value"? Can I begin to see the poverty — financial or otherwise — that drove them to do what they did? Can I relax the focus on my "knowledge" of right and wrong enough to see the value in this person that God loves? I put "knowledge" in quotes to recognize my blinders. I know that my judgments are not always right: Ducard was right to want a world free of corruption, but he was wrong to think that the corruption was entirely outside himself. Psalm 89:14 says "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Lovingkindness and truth go before You." Discernment of justice is indeed a foundation of wisdom in our relationships with others, but seeing the Bruce-Ducard dichotomy played out on the screen before me, I see more clearly how compassion must live alongside discernment. I'm push toward a better path: to let my love go out first to meet the perceived offenders in my life. And doing so, I might just have a better chance to see my own offenses.

Compassion in tension with justice

If I can, indeed, let love be the lens through which I see an offender, there still properly remains the foundation of justice underneath love. Love doesn't mean ignoring all wrongs. When should I take action against injustice? What does it look like to take action in a love-first way? A counter-example sticks with me in Batman's failure to live his no-executioner creed in his final interaction with Ducard. I remember the spite and finality of judgment in his voice as he said, "I don't have to save you." Yes, Ducard's wrongs are far beyond what mine are, but do I want people to cut me off this way when I've offended them? As I feel the finality in Batman's words, I feel again the deep cuts from when I've been on the receiving end of such finality. In a backwards sort of way, the scene drives home to me the compassion and humility — the love-first attitude — that is there when he does live his no-executioner creed.

In the battle to prevent release of the chemical weapon, I see represented the far end of a continuum of response to evil where it is quite clearly appropriate to fight with all we have — even going outside the law — to protect the innocent from known and lethal danger. Of course, in life, the danger is rarely so clear as it is in Batman Begins, and we can easily misjudge the danger. Our tendency toward prideful self-assurance — like Ducard's — increases our danger of poor discernment. Yet still, unless we would — like many in Gotham — shirk our responsibility to help create a just society, we are at times called upon to make such judgments.

But not all situations are so dire. In the middle of the continuum, we see Batman capturing and containing criminals, bringing to light evidence for due consideration and deliberation through the courts. Ducard would simply have killed the criminals then and there, allowing no possibility that his judgment could be flawed in any way. Batman's no-executioner creed provides space for challenging our prideful "assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong" — and especially about the seriousness of an offense or the possibility of mitigating circumstances. Upon suffering a perceived offense in my relationships, it is appropriate to take action to contain the offense and establish relational boundaries to prevent further damage, but that's not the end of it. The no-executioner creed gives me a focal point for seeing and living a more beautiful love-first approach where, once the offense is contained, instead of "executing" the relationship, I can seek dialog — "a hearing" — aimed at redeeming and restoring brokenness in the relationship.

That's where Batman Begins takes me. I want the awareness to see when I'm playing executioner, creating death — even in small ways — in my relationships. I want the strength to slow down and turn, letting love cover my sense of and my pursuit of justice. Perhaps I should keep repeating Bruce's words to myself: "I'm no executioner...I'm no exectutioner...I'm no exectutioner."

One final point: what makes us who we need to be?

In a pair of exchanges between Bruce/Batman and Rachel, we are offered the perspective that "It's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you." There's a truth to that — or not — depending on how one reads it. On the one hand, Proverbs 20:11 says, "Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right." But on the other hand, the rendering in Batman Begins seems to discount who we are underneath, as if it bears no relation to what we do. And then, on yet another hand, a seemingly righteous action can be driven by ugly and self-serving motives underneath. We must be careful of assumptions about the simple nature of the connection between external actions and who we are underneath. A more accurate rendering might say, "It's who you are underneath that defines what you do" (thanks to David Lott for this rendering). And, if who we think we are underneath doesn't come out in what we do, are we really who we think we are?

  • The inter-cutting of three time periods that tell Bruce's story at the beginning of the film — by folding the story over on itself, the film juxtaposes emotions and key moments, allowing them to inform each other and give us a stronger connection to Bruce's emotions and development.
  • The music behind Bruce's trek up the mountain — it combines a short, pounding, intense rhythm of strings and long notes from horns, rising in volume, in a way that brings us into Bruce's drivenness and uncertainty.
  • The dialog between Bruce and his father about bats: "You know why they attacked you, don't you? They were afraid of you." – "Afraid of me?" – "All creatures feel fear." – "Even the scary ones." – "Especially the scary ones." — it's an example of how skillful screenwriting works important elements into natural situations and dialog.
  • Rachel saying that "revenge and justice are never the same. Justice is about harmony; revenge is about you making yourself feel better." — It summarizes concisely the core difference between the two, and it occurs naturally in the dialog of the film.
  • Ducard's and Bruce's exchange: "Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share." "That's why it's so important. It separates us from them."
  • The sequence of building Batman's equipment, environs, and persona — it has many moments that are both fun and enlightening as to the relationships, character, and motivations of Bruce, Earl, Fox, and Alfred. Like Alfred saying, "I can see everything alright from down here, sir, thank you very much." And Bruce saying, "Well. At least we'll have spares." And Fox saying, "But don't think of me as an idiot."
  • Batman holding the butt end of a stapler to Jim Gordon's head — a good emphasis of his no-executioner creed.
  • The boardroom conversation just before Bruce arrives back at Wayne Enterprises — the screenplay very concisely covers important points (e.g., the direction of the company, Fredericks' continuing loyalty), and the acting and editing bring them out quite well.
  • Cillian Murphy's portrayal of Dr. Crane — from mannerisms and style of speech to his facial expressions and body language, Murphy exudes a chillingly cold, thoroughly convincing face of evil.
  • The scene in Arkham, after Crane has gassed Rachel, where Crane's thugs voice their fear of Batman — together with their jumpiness, it shows well that Bruce had achieved his goal of making Batman an Idea, a Legend.
  • The film's heavy use of word and phrase repetition — by putting the same phrases and words in different charcters' mouths at different times, Batman Begins opens questions about the meaning of harmony, vengeance, justice, compassion, right, and wrong.
  • The ending scene with Rachel, where she first seems to want to be with him, then states why she can't — playing it out in two stages makes visible both the tension inside Rachel and the true cost to Bruce of his chosen path.
  • The many one-liners tossed in here and there. They're plain fun, and they keep us one level above, taking the film as myth, not reality — including this small sampling:
    • Homeless man: "You shoulda tipped better" (upon Bruce being thrown out by Falcone's thugs).
    • Alfred: "You're looking stylish...apart from the mud" (watching Batman approach the jet).
    • Alfred: "You can borrow the Rolls if you like...just bring it back with a full tank."
    • Fox: "I guess they never tried marketing it to the billionaire, base-jumping, spelunking crowd (in reference to the memory cloth).
    • Bruce: "Does it come in black" (after test driving the Tumbler).
    • Bruce, to Alfred: "Tell them that joke you know" (as Bruce is leaving before his guests arrive).
    • Gordon: "I gotta get me one of those" (upon first seeing the Batmobile).
    • Batman: "Excuse me" (upon taking a shortcut through a patient room).

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2005 by the filmmakers.

Tags: ,

Post a Comment

NOTE: It is okay to have spoilers in comments on After viewing talks — no warnings necessary.

You must be registered (it's easy) and logged in to post a comment. Why?