Of Bats and Men: One Son’s Review of Batman Begins

I saw Batman Begins this afternoon (Saturday). I liked it. A lot. So much so I got up at midnight to blog all the thoughts it inspired…

At their best, comic book stories are myths, manifesting the great truths of human nature in fantasy form — much like fairy tales or Greek tragedy. Sure, a lot is drivel, but the best have deep power to illumine the human psyche. Alas, most movies reduce such complexity to facile truisms: they become mere Heroes, and not Men. One exception was the Spider-Man movie, which brilliantly incarnated the struggles of adolescence. Another is Batman Begins, which better than any fiction I’ve read since Hamlet shows what it means for a man to conquer — and redeem — the shade of his father.

“Read More” for my thoughts on the Man behind the Bat [Warning: Spoiler alert].

Other reviews:

* Breakpoint: Batman’s True Father
* K-Punk: Shades of white
* New York Times: Dark was the Young Knight
* Toronto Sun: New life for a dark hero
* Rocky Mountain News: Standing Tall

The most prominent theme of Batman Begins is fear:
* Bruce Wayne’s fear of bats
* His lack of fear of death
* The Scarecrow’s drug-induced manipulation of fear
* Batman himself becoming a symbol of fear
That in itself is not very surprising — entire genres (and TV shows) are devoted to fear, after all. What is surprising is how the movie tied fear into shame — something western culture barely even acknowledges — rather than mere existential horror. In other words, it actually understands that fear is not due to the intrinsic nihilism of the universe, but rather a loss of faith in our Father.

Warning: Spoiler Alert
The only explicit reference to shame (that I recall) is when Rachel slaps a student-age Bruce Wayne — twice — for trying to assassinate his father’s killer. How her words must’ve burned: “Your father would’ve been ashamed of you.” Her surfacing his shame drove him to face a gangster, who again shamed him by first capturing him, and then releasing him — and most of all by taunting him about his incredible naivet about criminals (and fear).

Bruce, intriguingly, responds to that shame by humiliating himself. He literally takes on the cloak of a bum, in order to learn a criminal’s fear and desperation from the inside. Rather than learning his craft from highly-regarded teachers in exclusive schools, this Batman earns it the hard way. Yet, like Solomon, his wisdom does not desert him even as he seeks the roots of folly. Nor does his compassion.

The biggest lesson, though, only comes after Bruce is inducted into the League of Shadows, led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul. His mentor is Henri Ducard. Bruce more-or-less confesses that he is driven by guilt over his parents death — a common reaction, made even more plausible by the fact that it is Bruce’s fear of bats that drove his parents out of the opera into the fatal alley. Moreover, he realizes that the only way he knows to override that fear is with anger — anger at the injustice that stole his parents from him.

Ducard, however, is wise enough to sense the deeper truth. In the midst of grueling training, he springs the bombshell: it is not your fault your parents died, it is your father’s!

That, in essence, is the ultimate shame for men: to know that our father was not strong enough protect himself, much less us. It was that shame which ultimately drove him to become, as he later confesses to Rachel, “a coward with a gun.” Yet, it is only by finally facing and accepting that shame that he gains the strength to, ironically, defy his teacher and escape the path of both weakness and brutality.

The other thing I loved about the movie is that the good guys are actually wise. Alfred’s loyalty to the memory of Bruce’s parents is not merely sentimental, but fierce and righteous. Gordon is not merely an honest cop, but a courageous one, and it is clear that Batman needs him as much as vice versa. And Rachel is perhaps the first superhero love interest I could truly respect: she actually realizes how the hero, by his very nature, is not a person she can love! Batman can not afford to love, and Bruce Wayne isn’t real enough to love. Perhaps that is why we’re told how brittle the mask truly is.

It is a credit to the movie’s realism that it paints a Gotham dark enough to justify a good man paying that price. Yet, it is a credit to the movie’s idealism that it holds out the hope that someday Batman — or rather Bruce Wayne — may succeed enough at redeeming the city to allow him the luxury of redeeming himself.

Batman Begins is a movie I would love to see with my father. And someday, my son. God willing, I hope to be a man strong enough (and real enough) that he is free to become a whole man, a just man, and a good man — all at the same time.