RESTORING A TEMPLE BRICK BY BRICK
In 2005, Christopher Nolan introduced us to his version of Batman in Batman Begins. I was among the cynics who had been burned by the last 2 Burtonverse Batman movies. What could Nolan have to offer that was any different? Fortunately, a close friend of mind corrected me of my leery ways, and after first viewing Batman Begins six years ago, my world has not been the same. Nolan’s realism as well as his addressing the moral relevant questions of justice versus revenge during the early years of the War On Terror struck a cord with me.
Fire operates as a religious metaphor in my interpretation of Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. The meaning of fire changes with each piece of art that Nolan produced. In Batman Begins, fire represents the human capacity to create and to destroy. Like the mythological Promotheus who brought down fire from the Greek gods, so does fire remain a symbol of human creativity in Nolan’s first installment of his trilogy.
We are first introduced to Bruce Wayne as a prisoner, who engages in fights with the criminal underworld. Bruce has been “arrested” for stealing Wayne Industries’ technology. Bruce has found a way to cope with his anger by creating a new self while in chains. One of the first (but very brief) pieces of dialogue we get from Wayne is his encounter with a thug larger than him, who wants to play the bully. “You are in hell, little man, and I am the devil.”-the criminal informs him. “You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”-Bruce Wayne
Bruce is trying to re-create himself from being a hot-headed rich Ivy-League boy (he drops out of Princeton) to a fighter for justice, as well as understand the criminal element that took the lives of his parents. Bruce goes on to meet a Henri DuCard, who invites Wayne on a spiritual journey, to a monastic-like lifestyle of practicing the martial arts as a way to bring about “true justice.” Bruce accepts this invitation, because like Ducard, he has a “hatred of evil.” Evil in the context of Batman Begins is the political corruption and greed that oppresses Gotham. The League of Shadows is a group with a “devotion to an ideal” so that in the end, they can become “Legend, Mr. Wayne.”
Not everything is what it seems, though, as Bruce finds out. The League of Shadows executes a man simply because he stole food to provide for his family. The League is a group of cold-blooded assassins, with no time for mercy. Bruce realizes what he has gotten into, and just as the journey that he takes to reach the mountain top, he overcomes his naivete and the League of Shadows, burning their headquarters to the ground, but sparing his mentor Ducard.
Chronologically speaking in the story world of Batman Begins, that first fire that appears is that of a homeless man trying to keep himself warm. Bruce’s first act of mercy after he sees the error of his ways (the desire for revenge on Chill for killing Thomas and Martha Wayne) is to give all the money he has on him, as well as his jacket to the homeless man in exchange for the unnamed homeless man’s trenchcoat. Bruce Wayne makes a vow of poverty like the monks of old, to experience what the exiles of Gotham’s bottom rung feel. In one scene, he shares food he had just stolen with a young boy who was also starving.
Turning fear who prey on the fearful was the goal of the League of Shadows. However, exactly who’s fear are we talking about? Ducard, who we discover to be later, Ra’s Al Ghoul, wants to prey on the fears of Gotham’s ELITE classes. The League of Shadows terrorizes and targets those on the upper echelon of Gotham’s classes. It is not the fear of the poor to be manipulated, for they do not have the power and influence that the League seeks to possess.
Meanwhile back in Gotham, Stephen Crane/Scarecrow, one of many secret agents inside Gotham’s political class, is executing the League plan to incite fear into the heart of Gotham through the use of chemical warfare. Crane, responsible for the 3rd fire in Batman Begins, is burning evidence to keep the Gotham City Police as well as the new vigilante Batman from uncovering their scheme. “Torch the whole place” says Crane, since fire is an element to be controlled, for destruction or creation in BB.
The fourth fire that we see as an audience is the burning of Wayne manor. Now, earlier in the movie, Bruce referred to Wayne Manor as a mausoleum that ought to have been torn down brick by brick. This statement is one of high class privilege, anger, because destruction is Bruce’s aim. Would the homeless man wanted to have seen Wayne manor destroyed by its owner, or would the impoverish, the orphans of Gotham need a place to sleep at night?
As Ra’s Al Ghoul is leaving Bruce Wayne’s birthday party back at Wayne Manor, as the mansion is being burned to the ground, he leaves Wayne with these words, “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.” […] “Justice is balance. You burned my house and left me for dead. Consider us even.”
Fire is a force of nature that is naturally brought forth, and a forest that gets too big, in Al Ghoul’s mind, is gonna destroy itself. This tells us about the mission of the League of Shadows more than about Henri Ducard. Ducard sees vengeance and violent evils as necessary ways of controlling humanity. “It’s the will to act, not anger that changes things,”-Ras claims, but according to Ras’ own theory, he has no choice but to act. The decision is not his, it is human nature that has decided for him that Gotham must burn.
Bruce Wayne/Batman wisely sees through Ra’s Al Ghoul’s hypocrisy, however. Ra’s and the League of Shadows are the ones who have made the decision to invade Gotham, not the people. Ducard/Al Ghoul is blaming the victim because he only knows how to go into the spaces where the well-to-do reside. Like many politicians during the War on Terror, Ducard plans to profit from the fears of those at the top. “You must bask in the fear of other men. And men fear most what they cannot see.”-Ra’s Al Ghoul.
Batman may be a vigilante (an unofficial enforcer of the law at this point), but because of his cooperation in the mission of the Gotham City Police, Ra’s recognizes Batman as a police power.”It ends here.”-Batman “For you AND the police.”Ras promises. But in the end, it’s the members of the League of Shadows who meet their demise.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne refuses to play by the rules set forth by both the Gotham wealthy (sit back and do nothing about the poor) as well as the League of Shadows (execute lethal violence against enemies, make yourself judge, jury, and executioner). Batman, by turning in Falcone to the police, working with Commissioner Gordon, and his rejection of gun violence, is taking action on different terms than what society expects. In Batman Begins at least, the Batman refuses to give in to the politics of falsehoods, and rather chooses creativity (the fire), and just as Wayne refocuses his anger towards assertive action, restorative justice, and compassion. What Christians, and really people of all religions could learn from Batman Begins, is that the best way to view human wickedness is as something that is unnecessary (ala contra Henri Ducard), as something that is the result of human choices, and as something that is best overcome through acts of mercy and nonviolent political action.
For our discussion of The Dark Knight in the next post of this series, I will refer back to Batman Begins.
What other religious themes are there potentially in Batman Begins?