Hi. This is a bit of an adaptation, from a comment I left on someone else’s blog, quite a while ago. Notably, it was the last comment I made, before realizing I wanted to get my own blog. I’d been snooping around a bit up ’til then, occasionally putting in one or two cents worth…but somehow I couldn’t see myself as one of them, the Blogging crowd. After all, what did I really, really have to say, that I needed to say? “You’re all wrong; Simonson’s FF sucked.” That was about it. Batman Begins rather changed all that, though. I saw it on a rare trip back to Vancouver from Bowen Island in the summertime, at Ed’s insistence that if I didn’t go see it in the theater I was an idiot. Knowing it was based on Year One, I was looking forward to it…
But, I didn’t know how much.
Since that time, I’ve had enormous fun going up to strangers at bars and parties and restaurants, and saying: “Hey, buddy…just curious: did you see Batman Begins?”
“Uh…yeah…” (It’s not generally realized, but strangers are, to a degree, amenable to questions out of the blue.)
“Did you like it?”
“Uh…” The stranger mulls it over; realizes: “Yeah! Yeah, I did!”
“And how ’bout your wife/girlfriend/sister? Did she like it, too?”
Once again, the stranger mulls. Concludes: “Yeah…yeah, she liked it.” Grins. “Not as much, though.”
I get basically this same response, over and over. And the reason for it?
Cue the adaptation…
“…Couldn’t agree more, of course. But what interests me most about the emphasis on fear in Batman Begins is what I see it as pointing to: I think fear in BB is not just there as itself and for its own sake, but also that it’s deliberately present in order to highlight issues of maturation – and not just some anthropologically vague and genderless “coming of age”, either, but very specifically the transition from boy to man, with all the attendant doubts and anxieties that are particular to our own Western culture (at least so I assume, having never gone through that transition in any other culture but this one). Bruce Wayne is literally instructed in fear by several characters, and they are not just bringing it up for nothing: every secondary character in this story starts out knowing something Bruce doesn’t, and being in possession of a coherent world-view of a sort that Bruce just can’t seem to lay his hands on perfectly…and all are busily engaged in telling him what to do with his fear, but in the end none of their world-views can hang very well on him, and that’s because all those philosophies are revealed as only partly believable, only partly useful, and so at least partly dangerous and wrong. Deceit lurks everywhere, if unconsciously: from the old man who warns him not to approach the League of Shadows, right up to Alfred somewhat hysterically insisting that the Wayne name be maintained, the messages that our shared action/adventure film vocabulary would ordinarily cloak in insight and revelation and moral corrective are exposed as being untrustworthy, if not actually harmful. The warning of the old man on the mountain should be foreshadowing, yes, but it’s out of place, and it comes to nothing; Bruce really does have nothing to fear by going up the mountain by the time he gets there. Similarly, Ducard’s psychological assault on Bruce’s idolization of his father is both successful and indispensible; yet it must be wrong too, because we as filmgoers know perfectly well that Thomas Wayne is an unimpeachably noble figure. (Even if he did decide to go out the back door of the opera house into Gotham’s “bad” identity, rather than out the front door into its “good” one – perverse choice, Tom!) Even the reprehensible Falcone is right, quite right, when he berates Bruce for not knowing how the world works, as we can tell from the way that this confrontation starts Bruce off on his path to enlightenment, and being Batman…and yet Falcone is also clearly not a trustworthy relayer of truth, and in the end Batman gets the better of him because of it.
What has this to do with fear? I’m getting to that, I hope, but first a couple more inconsistencies:
Rachel is an idealist, just as Thomas Wayne was, but the pragmatism Bruce has absorbed from Ducard is the only thing that will save her. So we could say that her idealism is misplaced at best, and foolish at worst. Except it isn’t, obviously, for God’s sake! She’s clearly right, and we’re clearly meant to think her so! Or…are we? Inconsistencies pop out all over the place in BB, and there’s no point trying to whack-a-mole them away…Ducard is right about R’as Al-Ghul’s prisoner (at least by the lights of the social milieu he is found in), so when Bruce refuses to execute him he is perhaps guilty of applying idealism where it doesn’t belong…but then in the very act of not cutting the man’s head off, he in effect consigns him to death by fire, and so how does that make any sense? Is it idealism, or isn’t it? Is it a mistake? Or merely a necessary part of the psychodrama, as Bruce learns that his choices can’t not be made just because circumstances obtain…well, perhaps it’s a valuable lesson, to know that even a good choice can be poorly-made. Ducard, for his part, is right about everything except the most important thing, which is his very goal: since by making “every man a criminal” he also causes the powerful of Gotham to bestir themselves in order to save their city, his plan for Gotham fails precisely according to how well it succeeds, and he never sees the contradiction. And Bruce simply can’t save the good Wayne name as Alfred implores him to, a fact that is absolutely, painfully obvious to the audience…but it’s peculiar as hell, too, because it was Alfred himself who suggested the new, less responsible Wayne public image in the first place. Oh, I want to give all the examples, but I can’t, there’s just too many. Everybody is wrong, though everybody has at least one irrefutable insight to bestow on our hero. Everyone’s truth is incompatible with what’s around it, and can’t be absorbed without also absorbing delusion. As Ducard implies with his ironic-yet-true words, it’s all too easy to sacrifice your footing for a killing stroke – to commit to a single view of the world is to become trapped by it, to become both ineffectual and lost.
And yet one must not be afraid, one must embrace one’s fear, one must willingly take action, one mustn’t kill, one must make sacrifices and do what is necessary, one must never give up, and it isn’t who you are underneath that counts, but it’s your actions that define you. All true statements. Just impossible to reconcile.
And thus: fear. Fear of identity, because gaining adult autonomy is impossible without it, and yet to claim it one must give up so much, so many possible ways to be. One must give up the moral shelter of consistency itself, and yet still manage to find one’s own truth anyway. Parturition, Batman Begins seems to say, isn’t just about the pain and fear of separation from one’s parents, but also from received ideas about oneself and one’s moral universe. To do it the wrong way is to become misguided, or even criminal, if not sociopathic…to “sacrifice your footing,” which in other words might be “to become insane,” or “to sink into delusion”…but the road that leads to “right” accomplishment in this respect is also the very same road that leads to “wrong” accomplishment, as the flower-drug that liberates Bruce is also the doomsday weapon that will bring Gotham to its knees. So maturation is not as simple as accepting inner peace from the Zen master or assuming one’s conventional adult responsibilities in accordance with the timely advice of an old family friend: it is a test of strength, that if passed leads on to having a vital personality (one cannot get this beforehand), but which if failed leads to abnegation. And so the key moment in Batman Begins for me is when Gordon gives Batman a kind of backhanded sanction, by telling him “I think you’re probably just trying to help.” Sure, like all real adults are; the big secret is that maybe it doesn’t matter so much that you can’t be consistent, so long as at the end of the day you can adapt to preserve the quality of your good intentions. But don’t tell the kids that! They’re not ready to know that when you get older things don’t clear up for you that much. In fact you’ll scare the hell out of them if you tell them that, they don’t need to know that fear is something you just learn to deal with as best you can while you get on with the job of being you…Batman tells R’as: “I’m not going to kill you…but I don’t have to save you.” No, he doesn’t have to do anything, not a damn thing. Because he’s the only one capable of judging his own choices – hell, not even his own philosophy can do that for him. So the pressure’s never off.
And, interesting: because on further viewings, when inconsistencies become impossible to ignore, it becomes apparent (to me, anyway) that this “realistic” Batman is anything but; far more than any Tim Burton offering, it has the resonance of dreams, with the elements of darkness and realism only surface trappings, designed to fix our attention in a particular mood. Looking at it again, you can’t help but notice that the plot is intensely contrived…and yet it doesn’t matter that it is. In fact it even helps that it is. Ah, classic twentieth-century oneiric psychodrama, in the Jungian vein! No wonder the villain is a psychiatrist.
I’m reminded of a Seinfeld joke, from that last tour of his own material he made after the show ended: he tells the women in the audience that he’s going to let them in on a secret about men and comic books. “I shouldn’t even be telling you this,” he whispers nervously. “But Superman, Batman, Spider-Man…to men, these aren’t fantasies. These are options.”
I may have misquoted a bit, there, but that’s pretty much what Batman Begins is all about, to me. Thanks again for the kind words, really very gratifying! If I can think of something else I’m as obsessive about as this, I’ll be sure to post again.”
But, I never did.
Instead, I began to accost strangers at bars and parties and restaurants with the above observation. And guess what? As a rule, it goes over very big. Which is a little surprising: after all, isn’t our culture already pretty lousy with male-oriented coming-of-age stories? Shouldn’t we all be inured to their sometimes-dubious charms by now?
But Batman Begins is a special case, you see. Or, most of the others are incredibly unspecial cases, take your pick.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what you think about that…