Duller but more openly confused than The Dark Knight, ‘fear’ is the topic to be explored in Batman Begins (the characters verbalise this every ten or so minutes) and Nolan looks first at Batman and then the War on Terror and shrugs. He finds too many contradictions comparing terror to military retaliation, vigilantism to fascism, violence to violence, to pick sides. What could be more apt for a Batman origin story than leaving these contradictions exposed? “Criminals thrive on the indulgences of society” says Ra’s al Ghul to Batman who we know is in full agreement except not quite. Both agree that they should stay in the shadows and employ fear to terrify the populace, and that the corrupt and powerful are to blame for the world’s ills, except that Ra’s al Ghul kills the poor (i.e. those who are neither corrupt nor powerful) and Batman just beats them up.
The film never clarifies whether it the poor, the rich and powerful, or ‘liberal society’ that Batman and Ra’s al Ghul are holding to blame. At one stage Rachel explains that the bad guys “keep the bad people rich, and the good people scared”- the good people being Bruce Wayne’s rich dad and the bad people being rich criminals. You can feel Nolan wishing that Bruce Wayne could be re-written as working-class to make his rage more straightforward. Similarly you can feel the director wishing that making superhero movies about good and evil in the wake of 9/11 didn’t have to be so complicated. Ra’s al Ghul advises Bruce Wayne “You have to become a terrible thought… a wraith… you have to become an idea!”, and later Bruce Wayne to Alfred “As a symbol I can be incorruptible… I can be immortal.” Why? Because “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they cannot stop you, then you become something else entirely.”
Batman and Ra’s al Ghul have many things in common, the main thing being their pursuit of the power of ideology combined with a scared population. Ra’s al Ghul’s plan is to “watch the city tear itself apart in fear.” He is a terrorist triggering a crisis situation, “the word is panic.” Batman’s solution to this is to use fear and ideology to combat fear and ideology, to initiate a State of Emergency. He becomes “a terrible thought… a wraith.” He becomes what he fears so that he can spread fear through Gotham. The difference between hero and villain is unclear. Presumably if you’re “good people” then you have nothing to worry about. The problem is that nobody in the film knows who or what a “good person” looks like. The distressing analogy here to the War on Terror is made more obvious in The Dark Knight when Batman declares a “war on terrorists,” and we see the Joker along with members of the criminal world having a meeting to figure out how to respond to this. We see what this looks like to the citizenry in Dawn of Justice when Clark Kent visits Gotham and an old African American man tells him that he’s too scared to leave the house lest he run into “the demon.”
Nolan is too ambivalent here to weigh in as explicitly as he does with the followups. And as with the followups it is not his politics which spoils the film (as much as I am opposed to what he says through film) but his deficiencies as a director. Explicitly jingoist films such as Rambo II and Rocky IV are among my favourites because they are well made films, and we as viewers can oppose whatever politics the director had in mind when making the work. Of course Batman’s and Ra’s al Ghul’s talk about doing the dirty work because “corrupt bureaucrats” won’t is some bland fascist Dirty Harry shit, but there are ways around it. The film’s first proper scene is Bruce Wayne in Bhutan fighting some guys in a mud-pit. Zack Snyder is often criticised for his OCD editing, but the much heralded Christopher Nolan is unable to coherently film a bunch of idiots hitting each other in the face in a mud-pit. Arrhythmic edits break actioned cause from effect, and all of the shots are close-ups, which adds to the confusion. We don’t know what is happening except that people are yelling and stuff is moving and there is mud.
With this in mind we fear that once the film is in motion Nolan will not be able to visually tell the story that needs to be told. Of course he employs the regular videogame cutscene verbal exposition that even fans acknowledge is not so great, but the greater problem in Batman Begins is that the film is never actually inmotion. Rather it is a long progress-montage loaded with flashbacks loaded with progress-montages. It is more a Last Time on Dragon Ball Z recap than it is a film. I am struggling to articulate why Man of Steel works as an origin story and Batman Begins is such a drag, even though Man of Steel has similar problems on paper. Both films employ in media res and extensive flashbacks, but Batman Beginsexplains the action so thoroughly through flashbacks that it quickly feels like backtracking. This feeling is likely due to the fact that Batman Begins flashes back to a time that is not far from the ‘present’, which convolutes the narrative. Man of Steel operates on the level of ‘ideas’ discussed throughout Batman Begins which gives it a hopeful, grandiose tone that counterintuitively makes it feel more intimate and human. It flashes back to a number of different scenes all from different periods, which link lessons learned then to what is happening now. Here, all Bruce has is imagery from the day he fell down the well. Clark is pained by the death of his father but he understands how and why he died, whereas Bruce’s best memory of his dad is the overtly Nietzschean “Why do we fall?” “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” True, Bruce is traumatised (hence the repetition) and Clark isn’t (hence the warmth), but Man of Steel finds more humanity in a more unknowable figure and lets memories build rather than stagger momentum.
“You never did learn to mind your surroundings” is the entire film save for the scene at the docks, and particularly in the car chase which is cut with the frequency of a montage (I do not doubt that Nolan is very savvy with film theory and film history), but which does not make sense once the images come together. In terms of even abstract movement, it is not dynamic. The car moves from the right to the left of the frame, and occasionally we see behind it. This is a strange choice given that we are used to seeing movement from left to right, and if it is intentionally disorienting then we still need the occasional reverse direction in order to emphasise this. In the way of visual content, each profile shot the batmobile appears with a different backdrop provided without context, and in some forward-facing shots it busts down gates and enters tunnels. These gates and tunnels are not given any context either- we are not told within a prior shot where they are, which means that like the mud-pit fight we cannot make sense of the filmic space. It is just images happening in front of us.
The film is loud and messy and insane but dull. Because Nolan at this stage in his life understands the strangeness of Bruce Wayne’s quest to become a terrible thought/wraith/idea who terrorises the poor to get back at the liberals and bureaucrats, there are traces of self-awareness and weirdness that make it into the film. My personal favourite is when very early on Alfred picks Bruce up from the airport and says “You look fashionable” which on the one hand reminds us that Alfred is used to seeing him in suits, but on the other paints for a brief moment Bruce as this spoiled rich kid getting picked up by his butler after spending time ‘finding himself’ in a third world country and then leaving because he has the power to do so. That he effectively does ‘find himself’ is acknowledged by Bale with this dumb sheepish grin. When Ra’s al Ghul sets Gotham into panic, we get to see Batman through the eyes of the man from Dawn of Justice– as a demon with glowing red eyes. More fun here occurs when Rachel and Joffrey run into Scarecrow riding a fire-breathing horse and also a Night of the Living Dead convict mob, although as with the batmobile chase the camera just kind of teleports them to different locations without reason. Batman’s own Night of the Living Dead mob try to maul him in the most Romero of ways, but again we are unsure how they managed to get hold of him because Nolan just crashes from Batman standing somewhere, directly into the mob trying to get their maul on.
In hindsight this is small-scale, quaint even, compared to the rest. It is difficult to say whether it is better or worse because the director’s lack of familiarity with the subject matter means that he is not confidently running with it and trying to Say Things at this stage. So on the one hand this makes for a film that is neither as interesting nor as bad as the others, but on the other hand we should never allow incoherence to be so draining, unimaginative, and lacklustre.