The Alcott Analysis: Batman Begins

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Bruce Wayne, orphaned at eight, wants to overcome his fears and honor his father. This turns out to be rather more complicated than he suspects it will be.

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Batman Begins presents a radically new vision (for the movies, anyway — this stuff had been around the comics and the animated series for many years beforehand) of the Batman story, grounds it in a startling new sense of reality, presents not just a caped crusader and a wacky new villain but a whole wealth of good guys and bad guys, all following their stars in increasingly complex and interconnected ways, all of it bound together with the one fantastic conceit of a young billionaire who dresses up like a bat. It strongly reminds me of the Casino Royale re-boot, which brought the James Bond character to a new level of immediacy while retaining enough of the series’ fantastic hallmarks to still qualify as escapism. There is still enough silliness in Batman Begins to make it a recognizable “superhero movie” (grand, outsized villains with colorful personalities and an ambitious scheme to destroy an entire city, spectacular action sequences that teeter at the brink of believability, production design that borders upon science-fiction) but it’s presented with a sober, straightfaced earnestness that’s nothing less than shocking after the garish camp of Batman & Robin. The Dark Knight would successfully develop all of Begins‘s good ideas into an even more complex, startling vision of modern urban justice.

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ACT I (0:00 – 41:00) uses a complicated flashback structure to tell the story of Bruce Wayne’s early life, from the moment his fears took hold (falling into a well, getting attacked by bats) to the moment his fears inadvertently got his parents killed (I’m not sure what his parents were thinking: “Hey, let’s take Bruce to the opera, you know, the one with all the bats”), to his first attempt at justice as he schemes to murder his parents’ killer (much to girlfriend Rachel’s anger), to his dawning awareness of the interconnectedness of actions (especially the actions of the wealthy and powerful), to his decision to engage in the fight for justice on a more macro scale (involving, as it often does, a trip to China), to his falling under the spell of a powerful would-be father- figure, who trains him to become a different man (with the help of a drug derived from a special blue flower found only in the area), to his sudden realization that he and his new father-figure have radically different ideas about the meaning of Justice and his subsequent destroying of the guy’s mountaintop dojo, to his return to Gotham City to begin his new life as a masked crusader. I sometimes wonder if the act would be better served with a straightforward chronology, or if it’s better the way it is. As it is, in introduces the movie’s head villain very early on, but then again it seemingly disposes of that villain before the end of the act — we won’t know who the head villain is until the beginning of Act IV.

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ACT II (41:00 – 1:05:00) follows Bruce’s journey from “young man with an idea” to caped crusader (with the help of faithful father-figure Alfred), and introduces what we think is the bad-guy plot: Mob boss Falcone working with spooky young Dr. Jonathan Crane to bring some kind of scary new drug into Gotham City. It brings Jim Gordon into the picture as an ally of Bruce’s (Bruce picks Gordon partly because of his clean record and partly because Gordon was the cop who hung out with the young Bruce the night his parents were killed), introduces Rachel as a Batman-by-day figure not unlike the Harvey Dent of The Dark Knight and gives her her own mini-villain in Victor Zsaz, convicted Falcone thug and certified crazy person. It also brings in Lucius Fox as Batman’s Q, and gives him his own mini villain in Earle, the mean capitalist usurper who has taken over Bruce’s father’s business, which used to stand for something, and turned it into just another amoral corporation. Batman appears and halts the last shipment of the mysterious new drug, puts Falcone in jail and gives Rachel the evidence she needs to proceed with an effective prosecution (as Falcone is, literally, more powerful than the Gotham Police Department). Instead of having Jim Gordon staggering around looking bewildered as in the earlier movies, Begins shows that the quest for justice is something not limited to Batman, but is shared by civil servants at every level — Jim has stayed true to his ideals in the face of departmental-level corruption and Rachel fights for justice in the DA’s office even as her boss gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. On the Bruce side of life, we see that not all attacks on Bruce’s father come from a guy with a gun — some come in the form of businessmen in pursuit of profits, who can render a good man powerless through a stock sale or a demotion.
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ACT III (1:05:00 – 1:38:00) forces Bruce to reconcile his new identity as masked crusader with his daytime job of billionaire playboy — Batman becomes his true identity and Bruce becomes his mask. This helps him in his work as a crime-fighter but ruins his chances with Rachel, who thinks the worst thing possible of him — that, by acting like a callow, rich asshole, Bruce is dishonoring his father — he’s become a bad guy. A more straightforward “superhero” plot is introduced, which will involve Batman tracking down the mysterious drug that Falcone has been bringing into town for Crane (which leads to a confrontation with Crane, which leaves Batman deranged and out of action), and the theft of a big-deal whatsit that will figure prominently in Act IV. (The theft of the big-deal whatsit causes Fox to inadvertently embarrass Earle, which causes Earle to fire him.) As Batman the detective puts together the nature of the new drug (he was exposed to the same drug during his adventure in China) Rachel discovers the extent of Crane’s nefarious plot to dump the mysterious new drug (which we learn is Crane’s “fear toxin”) into the Gotham water supply. This discovery puts Rachel’s life in danger and forces Batman to rescue her, which leads to a hell-bent race back to the Batcave (which is where Bruce keeps the antidote to the drug, provided by Fox). The race to the Batcave becomes a police pursuit, which puts Batman at odds with the GCPD (after he demolishes several buildings and puts the lives of dozens of police officers at risk).

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ACT IV (1:38:00 – 2:20:00) takes place continuous with the end of Act III and brings all the plot strands from the previous three acts together in a spectacular action-movie climax. The shocking thing is that it actually brings all the plot-points into the climax, as we learn that the head bad-guy is the same guy who Bruce tangled with in Act I, that this bad guy (Ra’s Al Ghul) is the same guy who, many years earlier, had, yes, caused the economic depression that caused the poverty and desperation that created the guy who killed Bruce’s father. And so Begins‘s vision of justice-and-injustice snaps into focus: it’s not one man against a city, it’s a tradition, down through the ages, of good people struggling in the name of better lives for everyone against bad men who think only of themselves. (Bruce’s father, we’ve gathered by this time, was more than just a businessman, he was a doctor, a philanthropist and a civic-minded community leader — he built the elevated train that dominates Act IV in order to save the city after the depression that Ra’s Al Ghul created, but too late to prevent his mugger, a desperate man, from shooting him in that alleyway, but his death spurred Gotham’s wealthy to new heights of idealism, which forced Ra’s to come back with his big-deal whatsit, which was developed by amoral captialist Earle, to destroy the city for good. Whew — now that’s plotting!) Further, the flower that figured prominently in Act I is the source of the toxin that drives the bad-guy plot. Once Ra’s Al Ghul has destroyed Bruce’s house and headed into town, the movie delivers its extended action-movie set piece, a complicated bit of business that involves an insane asylum being emptied out into the streets of Gotham’s poorest district, big clouds of fear toxin causing nightmare visions in citizens and crazies alike, and a hurtling chase into the heart of Gotham, with the big-deal whatsit on the elevated train that Bruce’s father designed and built to heal the city so long ago. Ironically, to save the city Bruce (and Gordon) must destroy Bruce’s father’s train (no symbolism there, certainly). Within the climax, Rachel faces down her mini- villain Zsaz, and in the denouement Fox gets the best of Earle. In the end, Bruce promises to re-build his father’s house (but hasn’t as of the beginning of The Dark Knight — also, he stops short of re-building the elevated train, and even the Wayne corporate headquarters is nowhere to be seen in the later movie. Apparently, having settled his father issues, Bruce is ready to become his own man).

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Some observations:

ACT I While the Nolan Batman movies succeed in completely eradicating the tone of the Schumacher Batman movies, they are not so snooty that they won’t crib from them when they want to. Here, they replay the scene from Forever where the young Bruce Wayne falls in a well and is attacked by bats. In Forever, Bruce was fleeing in horror from his parents’ wake when he fell in the well, here his fall precedes their deaths– and, in fact, indirectly causes their deaths. Instead of the plunge into the well proceeding from his grief, it comes from a youthful flirtation with the crucial character Rachel. In the scene, Bruce wants something cool Rachel has (an arrowhead), and playfully snatches it from her, before falling into the well and into his cave. So Bruce’s initial fear of bats is tied more to his developing sexuality (discovering a cave, indeed) at first, and only later gets linked to the death of his parents. Nolan kills two bats with one stone here — he explains Bruce’s anxieties both in regard to his parents’ death and to his relationship with Rachel — in his moment of youthful conquest, he fell (no symbolism there) into a cave (even less there) and broke his leg (least of all). His failure is then compounded when his fear of bats contributes to his parents’ deaths.

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Ducard seeks Bruce out in the Chinese prison (both Begins and TDK have side-trips to China — if only they had connected TDK‘s Lau to one of the characters in Begins) and tells him that he can do more than merely “fight crime,” he can become immortal, by giving up his identity and becoming a legend. Awfully nice of him to suggest that, and it also foreshadows Ducard’s emergence as Ra’s Al Ghul. In the comics, Ra’s is immortal in a comic-booky supernatural way, but Begins places him in a more realistic light — Ra’s could become immortal by simply being an idea passed on from leader to leader — either Ducard is, literally, the “real” Ra’s Al Ghul, or else he assumes the title when the previous Ra’s dies at Bruce’s hand.

(Speaking of which, it’d be nice to see Ra’s’s daughter Talia show up for the next movie. Talia and Catwoman — now that would sell tickets!)

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The theme of Batman Begins, obviously, is “fear,” and it gets worked into every possible nook and cranny of the screenplay. Ducard tempts Bruce to come to his dojo and instructs him to bring the blue flower, then, once Bruce gets there Ducard asks him what he wants from his training. Bruce says to overcome his fear, and — hey, wouldn’t you know it? — the blue flower contains a powerful fear-inducing toxin. Maybe everybody who comes to the League of Shadows HQ wants to conquer his fears, I don’t know, but this stuck out to me as a slightly too neat.

It didn’t hit me until the fifth or sixth time I watched it that, when Bruce’s father is killed, he sits in Police HQ with his father’s jacket on. Jim Gordon even comments on it — “is this your father’s?” The black suit jacket, of course, is too big for young Bruce, and hangs on him rather like a cape. It had never occurred to me before that Batman’s cape, in some way, is meant as a tribute to or remembrance of his father’s murder — both a remembrance of his father’s protective embrace and as a tribute to the protective blanket he tried to place over the shoulders of Gotham. If any geeks out there know whether or not this idea dates to Begins or shows up earlier in the comics I would be in your debt.

The teenage Bruce comes back home from college to kill Joe Chill, and mentions to Alfred that he’d like to destroy Wayne Manor. Little does he know, he’ll get his chance in a few years’ time. Oh the tangled web.

It’s true that Bruce’s vengeance against Chill is pre-empted by Falcone, and thus sets Bruce on his path to Bat-ness, but Bruce’s initial response is “I wanted to kill him, and now I can’t.” Again, a frustrated desire gets channelled into his night-time cosplay. A kind of murderous coitus interruptus, Chill’s murder takes Bruce’s desire for simple eye- for-an-eye vengeance and turns it into a more macro vision of vengeance — now he wants to get Falcone, not because Falcone is a bad guy but because he spoiled Bruce’s big day. Falcone, ironically, is the one who awakens Bruce to the broader criminal picture in Gotham, and sets him on his path to China. So Ducard gives Bruce the idea of becoming a legend and Falcone gives him the idea of his place in the world of society. They help create the hero who will destroy them.

ACT II When Bruce discovers the cave beneath his house, Alfred tells him about how an earlier Wayne had used the cave as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. It’s a small beat, but it ties into the larger picture ofBegins as a vision of right and wrong as a constant flow, a battle being fought every day on every level of society. One of the things I like about the Nolan Batman is that he feels pain. If he’s dangling off a cliff holding a six-foot-five Irishman by one hand, he’s going to goddamn well feel it, and if he jumps off a roof onto a fire escape he’s going to get some bruises.

ACT III Bruce’s father dies, but he never lacks for father figures. At the funeral, Earle offers Bruce his paternal care (while planning to ruin his father’s business). The same day, Alfred takes over as Bruce’s “true” father figure. Falcone gives Bruce fatherly advice in the form of a threat, but Ducard is a more genuinely father-like figure — a teacher and mentor, a guide. In this regard, it’s almost disappointing that Crane isn’t older — but on the other hand, as a man younger than Bruce, he’s an avatar of “things to come,” the kind of demented, costumed freak that will come to be synonymous with Gotham.

Maybe I’m crazy, but a lot of the same locations seem to show up in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Could Batman actually destroy the same parking garage twice? And does he have two police chases on the same stretch of sunken roadway? And what about the bridge to the Narrows — is it the same bridge seen in TDK being swept for bombs? And has the Narrows somehow changed its location in between movies? (That’s perfectly okay with me — the crammed-together, over-the-top poverty of the Narrows is one of the production-design choices I’m glad was jettisoned for the more realistic approach of TDK.)

ACT IV The bad-guy plot, as I understand it, goes like this: The League of Shadows has a plot to destroy Gotham City. This plot involves importing this “fear toxin” thing and making it go kablooey with their stolen high-tech whatsit. Ra’s Al Ghul (or Ducard, or whoever he is) has been manufacturing the toxin in China and shipping it, through Falcone’s drug contacts, into Gotham. Falcone knows who Ra’s is, but he does not know the nature of his plot against Gotham or the size of his organization. The plot involves dumping the toxin into the water mains, which run under Arkham Asylum, which gives Crane unique access to them. Crane, we are told, also knows who Ra’s is, but, like Falcone, does not know the full extent of his plot. Falcone’s involvement in the scheme I understand, but Crane’s is a little more mysterious to me. If he is not a member of the League of Shadows, why is Ra’s using him? He’s got plenty of League members working inside Arkham, why does he need Crane? Did Crane develop the fear toxin, or did Ra’s develop it in China? That is, did Crane, independent of Ra’s, figure out how to turn the fear toxin into an aerosol? We get the idea that spraying the toxin into people’s faces is kind of Crane’s “thing,” but was he doing it before Ra’s hatched his plot, or as a result of it? When did Crane start spraying people with this stuff? Did Ra’s tell him about his plan, the result being that Crane said “Oh cool, fear toxin, I can use that in my work as a supervillain,” or what?

The tiny “Rachel as daytime Batman” plot, which I rather like, plays out like this: Rachel, who believes that justice can only be served through strict adherence to the law, smacks Bruce upside the head when he tells her about his plot for vengeance against Chill. Later, we see that Rachel has failed to keep creepy Falcone hit-man Szaz in jail due to Falcone’s influence on the courts. Still later, Rachel is forced to confront her legal ineffectiveness when Szaz terrorizes her in the street during the Act IV riot. The man she was powerless to put away through legal means is now about to kill her in the street. Rachel, one of the few people in the riot who are immune to the toxin, comes extremely close to shooting Szaz in the face before Batman swoops down and takes him away, thus returning the favor that Rachel did for Bruce years earlier.

Finally, it had always stuck out as funny that the thing Bruce finds in the ashes of Wayne Manor is his father’s stethescope. He was a doctor, I suppose, so there’s a certain amount of symbolism in that, and then I remembered that the purpose of a stethescope is to listen to one’s heart. Not only does Bruce learn to listen to his own heart in Batman Begins, but he learns to listen to the heart of Gotham City as well. And I am reminded that Wayne Tower, in Bruce’s father’s own words, has been strategically built in the “heart of Gotham.” Bruce is Gotham City, which feels like a living, breathing place for the first time in cinematic history, and which would come to feel even more so in The Dark Knight.
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Comments

  1. Christopher Nolan’s two “Batman” films represent what is for me, the second best non-comic version of the character, falling only to the classic Bruce Timm/Paul dini animated series continuity.

    And honestly, that is only because the beautifully structured realism in the Nolan films does not allow for the broader, more fanciful elements of Batman’s history. More extreme villains like Robin, Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc or Clayface simply wouldn’t work in a series so tied to a realistic vision of Gotham. Plus, in animation, you’re suspending disbelief the instant the drawings start moving, so it’s not a leap to imagine than a guy dressed up as a bat is actually scary and not laugh inducing.

    I’ve always found that no matter HOW well designed the costume is in the live action films, I always have to turn off the part of my brain that notices how silly a grown man looks in that costume. This isn’t as much of a problem in the Spider-Man films where the costume is never MEANT to inspire fear and really doesn’t. (See the elevator scene in Spider-Man 2) And in IRON MAN, the armor just looks like it’s supposed to look: like a cool piece of technology.

    But those are really nitpicks. BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT after it are roadmaps of how to do Batman RIGHT in live action and I love every frame of them.

    This was a great review, and revealed levels of depth the film reached that I never even noticed, like all the symbolism. But for me, I rarely notice such things in films that are well made. I FEEL them in the way I’m intended to by the filmmakers, but I never leave the theater thinking about them conciously.

  2. Andrew Laubacher says:

    Alcott wrote, “It had never occurred to me before that Batman’s cape, in some way, is meant as a tribute to or remembrance of his father’s murder — both a remembrance of his father’s protective embrace and as a tribute to the protective blanket he tried to place over the shoulders of Gotham. If any geeks out there know whether or not this idea dates to Begins or shows up earlier in the comics I would be in your debt.”

    A similar idea was explored in the comics; although, from a slightly different direction. In DETECTIVE COMICS #235 (1956), Bruce discovers that his father was “The First Batman.” Bruce finds an old home movie and a diary belonging to his father. Around the time when Bruce was around 4 years old, Dr. Thomas Wayne and his wife Martha attended a masquerade ball with the theme of “flying creatures.” Dr. Wayne wore a “bat-man” costume. Criminals abducted Dr. Wayne in order to force him to treat their wounded boss Lew Moxon. Wayne resists, Moxon is captured and Dr. Wayne testifies at Moxon’s trial, where the crook is convicted and sent to prison. Bruce further learns that his parents were not killed in a random robbery–Lew Moxon hired Joe Chill to kill them out of revenge. Bruce was left alive as a witness of the “robbery.”

  3. Matt D says:

    Neither here nor there, Todd, but I just saw Salt last night and I think I want to see you break that down as much as anything.

    The protagonist motivations in that movie hurt the soul.

  4. Guy Smiley says:

    Salt: Stupid beginning (what is the villain’s motivations for disrupting Jolie’s life in the manner most likely to get her killed/captured in the first reel? To cause a stunt-filled chase scene?), preposterous ending … but damn, that middle, where (if you went into the film knowing nothing) you’re totally held captive by Jolie acting so strange, and without explanation to the audience? I LOVED the middle. I second the motion for a detailed breakdown here.

    I am going to rewatch Batman Begins in the next day or three, this analysis has me so intrigued. I pity the day you try to do this for Inception (though, see Steven Grant on CBR for some insight). I would love to see you take on the Spider-Man flicks, one-offs like The Rocketeer, etc. This is great stuff.

  5. I love Batman Begins, I find it much superior than what has probably become the most overated comic book movie ever TDK. Aside from Ledger’s incredible performance, Dark Knight in the end falls incredibly short of what it tries to accomplish. On the other hand Begins delivers everything you would want from a Batman movie and then some aside from Holmes weak acting it’s a better movie overall and has a ten times better ending that it’s sequel.

  6. I loved Batman Begins (even Ra´s is responsible at the end of Bruce´s parents deaths as The Joker was the one who killed the Waynes in Burton´s Batman).

    I think this movie and it´s folower are part of a whole. The first one used colour is brown, the second one is blue and the third… mmmmhhh ¿maybe gray?.

    Villains I´d love considered for the 3rd: Deadshot, Talia Al Ghul, Lady Shiva and it would rock to see Ra´s resurrected to end the trilogy.

    I´d use the Murderer? plot. Bruce in Gotham´s prison would be great because we could be remembered of the first movie but this time he´s is BATMAN :)

  7. keith says:

    love this analysis! primarily because i’ve long held the belief that ken watanabe was indeed r’as al ghul when we met him in act I and that ducard assumes the mantle of the demon’s head upon his master’s death. that “r’as al ghul” is a “legend” passed on from generation to generation is a very nolan-esque way to tell of ra’s immortality sans lazurus pits. it also means that an actor of watanabe’s stature got to play the iconic character and is not reduced to a mere “decoy.”

  8. Ozymandias says:

    This is a very brilliant review, I would say one of the better blog-reviewers I’ve read for Batman Begins. After TDK there seems to be a tendency among fans to ignore the first.

    I really liked some of your interpretations but there were a few I’m iffy about.

    “While the Nolan Batman movies succeed in completely eradicating the tone of the Schumacher Batman movies, they are not so snooty that they won’t crib from them when they want to. Here, they replay the scene from Forever where the young Bruce Wayne falls in a well and is attacked by bats.”

    This is really unnecessary, the fall into the cave was never exclusive to Schumacher but in fact one of the more rudimentary ‘events’ in Young Bruce’s life, even from the comics. I love the way you interpreted his gradation with fear and connection with Rachel (giving her a key role in Bruce’s origin). But rather than the fall being exclusive to Schumacher, it is the character of Rachel Dawse who is exclusive to Nolan. A character who isn’t so ‘pointless’ as I’ve come to learn over multiple viewings.

    “the Chinese prison”, it was Bhutanese!

    “The black suit jacket, of course, is too big for young Bruce, and hangs on him rather like a cape.”

    This is the reason why I am writing this comment, it’s brilliant! I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before and you, my friend, have managed to capture a very essential part of the film, nay, narrative that’s been made. Hats off for you there.

    “The bad-guy plot, as I understand it, goes like this…”

    The League never made Crane a member of the League, he was always independent. We may speculate the why and how regarding his ‘mask’ and gas-montage, but there’s a notion of absurdity here, of extremes to which Gotham has succumbed to, and Crane represents that. A spawn of modernism, who “spreads fear in a handful of dust” (if we may quote T.S. on this), a Jungian fanboy. While I’m willing to bet that it was the League who influenced Wayne Enterprises into making the whatsit (they do have an omniscient hand), I don’t think Crane was simply given the gas. If anything, the toxin was probably an important factor linking Crane with the League, we can’t know for sure.

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