Rounding out a Bat-heavy week, we bring you the first part of Jeremiah Lawson’s three-part review of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. Brace yourselves:
However strong and intelligent and wealthy and resourceful Bruce Wayne may be, his journey is one continually marked by failure. In fact, in each of Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films our protagonist’s path takes him into a different prison where he is confronted with his own guilt and weakness. In the first prison, a lost Bruce is invited to walk the road that will make him a legend. In the second, he is manipulated into a game that ends in tragedy and infamy. Bruce is sent, bleeding and broken, to die in the third prison, and yet it is from this final incarceration that he emerges to become the savior of his beloved city, a city that many don’t believe is worth saving. While Batman may be a persona created to battle injustice and symbolize the hope of freedom from the oppression of crime and fear, his identity is forged in imprisonment. Moreover, it is there, in prison, that we are shown glimpses of what Bruce Wayne scarcely realizes he is struggling to be free from.
THE FIRST PRISON: BATMAN BEGINS
Batman begins, literally and figuratively, with Bruce Wayne in a prison somewhere in Asia. He is fighting and defeating six fellow inmates who are trying to kill him. Locked in solitary confinement Bruce discovers that he is not alone. “Are you so desperate to fight criminals that you’ll lock yourself in to fight them one at a time?” An enigmatic man named Ducard (played by Liam Neeson) tells Bruce that whatever he was looking for, he has become truly lost; he also tells Bruce that the means to fight injustice exists within the League of Shadows. If Bruce will join the League leader Ra’s al Ghul, he may discover what he is really seeking. When Bruce asks, sincerely, “And what was I looking for?” Ducard says “Only you can know that.”
Of course, Bruce accepts the offer and arrives at the residence of Ra’s al Ghul saying that he wants the means to fight injustice, a way to use fear against those who prey on the fearful. Ducard replies that to manipulate fear in others you must first master your own. Ducard sees that Bruce is not afraid of him. What, then, is Bruce afraid of?
With the help of various nightmares and flashbacks, we see that Bruce is afraid of bats, and believes that this fear played a fateful role in the death of his parents. The child Bruce Wayne even feels responsible for their murder. “Do you still feel responsible for your parents’ death?” Ducard asks Wayne. Wayne replies, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” As training continues Ducard tells Wayne, “You have learned to bury your guilt with anger. I will teach you to confront it.”
Ducard tells Bruce that his parents’ death was not his fault but the fault of his father who had neither the courage nor will to do what was necessary. When Bruce objects that his father was untrained in fighting and the mugger had a gun, Ducard replies that the training is nothing and the will is everything. Of course, if this were true, why would Ducard waste so much time training Bruce?
As training continues Ducard tells Wayne, “You’re stronger than your father.” Bruce, again, objects, “You never knew my father.” Ducard explains, “But I know the rage that drives you. That impossible anger strangling the grief until the memory of your loved one is just a poison in your veins, and one day you catch yourself wishing the person you loved had never existed so you’d be spared your pain.” Ducard shares that once he had a wife, who was taken from him. “Like you, I was forced to learn there are those without decency who must be fought without hesitation, without pity. Your anger gives you great power [Bruce] but, if you let it, it will destroy you, as it almost did me.”
When Wayne asks what changed Ducard’s path he receives a one word explanation: vengeance. But Bruce cannot avenge his parents’ death. Their murderer, Joe Chill, is already dead (by the hand of Gotham’s mob king Carmine Falcone). When Bruce confesses to his childhood friend Rachel Dawes that he spent years wanting to kill Chill, she slaps Bruce and says “Your father would be ashamed of you.” Bruce stands on the pier, filled with fury and self-loathing at the realization that, in his anger and desperation, killing Joe Chill would have transformed him into the kind of desperate and amateurish mugger who killed his parents. Bruce Wayne may be full of a vengeful hatred but it won’t permit him to kill. Ducard was wrong, Bruce’s anger has not buried his guilt, it is informed by his guilt. Ducard’s path is one of finding a scapegoat so that anger may be justified and guilt averted. Ducard has not taught Bruce to confront his guilt at all; he taught him to escape it. And that is something Bruce cannot do.
Yet as Ducard finishes Bruce’s training he tells him: “You’ve traveled the world to understand the criminal mind and conquer your fears, but a criminal is not complicated. What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power, your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.” We know that Ducard has a vision for Bruce Wayne to do terrible things, destroying Gotham as a way to symbolically move humanity toward a “better” path.
It is easy to underestimate the significance of Ducard’s instruction to Bruce Wayne. How did Ducard teach Bruce Wayne to confront his guilt? To blame the victims of murder for their own deaths! Ducard also tells his student that his anger, an anger that horrifies Bruce with its murderous intensity, is what gives him power and makes him strong. Bruce is afraid of the rage in his heart and wants to channel it into something positive, something that will save rather than destroy lives.
When Bruce’s training is complete, he is told that the League of Shadows is ready to destroy Gotham. Just as Ducard took vengeance on those who took his wife from him, the League of Shadows plans to take vengeance on Gotham as a symbol of human corruption, injustice, and decadence. If the city that symbolizes human failure is destroyed, then balance will be restored. Bruce refuses to accept this path. Ducard warns Bruce, “Compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” Bruce replies “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.”
At this point, it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that Ducard turns out to be Ra’s al Ghul. Without reciting every plot points in detail, let’s consider some contrasts between Ducard’s approach and Wayne’s–because these contrasts play out through the rest of Nolan’s trilogy:
Ducard chose to become Ra’s al Ghul and wove a massive and fraudulent legend about the League of Shadows as a society devoted to checking human corruption over millenia. Ra’s al Ghul, however, is not immortal but, as Wayne puts it, uses a cheap set of parlor tricks to conceal his true identity. These parlor tricks were what he used to recruit Wayne in the first place. Ducard claimed that the path of Ra’s al Ghul saved him and his associates from the darkest corners of their hearts; but Ra’s al Ghul merely offered scapegoats through which murderous impulses could be considered noble.
By contrast, Wayne’s path toward becoming Batman starts with a confession. “It’s my fault,” Bruce says to Alfred after he’s seen his parents die. As an adult Bruce confesses to Rachel, “All these years I wanted to kill him [Joe Chill] and now I can’t.” Ducard can recognize what he considers the guilt of others but never his own. Bruce Wayne’s path involves the recognition of guilt.
Ducard adopts a dual identity to protect himself, while Bruce Wayne adopts a dual identity to protect the city he loves. That is to say, Ducard invents Ra’s al Ghul in order to terrify his enemies, while Bruce Wayne creates the “monster” of Batman to protect his friends and loved ones.
Wayne does not only differ from Ducard with respect to guilt and motive though. Ducard’s path as Ra’s al Ghul led him to make disciples, Bruce Wayne’s path as Batman began by being a disciple. Wayne’s journey as Batman continues not by recruiting others to follow him but by seeking out mentors. Relying on his beloved butler Alfred, Bruce begins to assemble the tools to become Batman. Turning to his father’s colleague Lucius Fox, Bruce finds the weapons he needs for his war on crime and finds a man he trusts with managing Wayne Enterprises. Famously, Batman finds an ally in James Gordon, one of the few good cops in Gotham. It was Gordon who comforted Bruce Wayne the night his parents were murdered. It is no mere coincidence that in these men Bruce has found people who share his father’s values and are able to be surrogate fathers to him.
Without such mentors Bruce Wayne would have died of endless panic attacks at the hands of the Scarecrow. But with Fox, Pennyworth, and Gordon to help him Bruce Wayne is able to defeat both Scarecrow and the League of Shadows. Having been chastened by the realization that saving Ducard’s life meant he had saved the life of a genocidal terrorist, Bruce tells Ducard, “I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you.” Bruce is willing to let Ducard suffer the consequences of his own schemes.
Bruce Wayne believes that in Batman he has found the persona and tools to battle the darkness and evil that threaten Gotham from without. But the League of Shadows ultimately pales in comparison to the heart of darkness within the city itself. It was only fitting then that Nolan’s second film would be the dark night of the soul for the Dark Knight.
For Part 2, click here.