As Tenet begins its release in international markets, we’re taking a look back at filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s entire feature-length filmography, exploring each of his films one day at a time. Today we continue with his fourth feature, and his first Batman film, Batman Begins. Read about Nolan’s Following and “Doodlebug” here or Memento here or Insomnia here.
Full spoilers for Batman Begins follow.
Christopher Nolan’s films up to this point — Following, Memento, and a remake of Insomnia — might not have screamed “Batman” to the average viewer, but the caped crusader would prove to fit comfortably in his wheelhouse. Nolan’s winding, non-linear stories informed the film’s structure, allowing for a deeper dive into the pop icon’s psyche. Meanwhile, Nolan’s penchant for broken men chasing obsessions and constructing identities would prove the perfect platform to remix the character’s mythology.
For better or worse, Batman Begins kicked off a trend of “grounded” and “realistic” re-imaginings of otherwise jovial IP — among them, DC’s own Man of Steel. But many of these adaptations seem to have missed the soul at the center of Nolan’s superhero outing (not to mention, the fun). For all its focus on realistic detail, Batman Begins still leans towards formalist aesthetics, an explosion of opposites drawn from a wide variety of sources, spread across time and geographical origin. As we continue our analysis of Nolan’s oeuvre, today we journey to Gotham City… and beyond.
Past and Present, East and West
Downtown Gotham is shot in modern Chicago, but it’s augmented with Art Deco elements layered with CGI; the end results resemble Fritz Lang’s expressionistic German classic Metropolis (1927). The city’s downtrodden neighborhood The Narrows is a cluttered creation built in an air hangar; it looks like a classic Will Eisner comic sketch of New York City brought to life, a la A Contract With God (1978). Spatially, this Narrows set was based on modern Kowloon, an urban area of Hong Kong, but its gothic gaslight wash — like urine sprayed through London fog — makes it feel sickly. This mix of aesthetics — past-and-present, east-and-west — takes hold in the narrative too.
The villains employ hallucinogens which conjure nightmarish visions of the past, shot subjectively, as time and space collapse, expand and vibrate with uncertainty. The film, after all, is about fear (Batman is even introduced like a horror movie monster, attacking from off-screen). And though these shadowy moments are sparse, they’re complemented by the ways in which light interacts with surfaces, whether during Bruce’s solitary confinement early on, or in the halls of Wayne Manor. The Batcave was built of sheeting molded from actual rocks, but using a much more reflective material; “realistic” as this lair might seem, its function is clarity — of the mind, and of the soul.
The film’s biggest aesthetic success, however, is its editing. Spearheaded by Lee Smith, with whom Nolan would collaborate six more times, Batman Begins opens in flashback (in this case, a dream sequence) and cuts frequently to the childhood and teenage years of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a man now lost halfway around the world. As with Memento and Insomnia, the memories in Batman Begins initially manifest as jarring, jolting bursts of sensory input. Only here, Nolan eventually lets each memory play out in full, rather than as mere flashes, drawing us into the world that once was for Bruce Wayne. In a reversal of Nolan’s prior films, it’s the present that feels fleeting, rather than the memories.
While each flashback has room to breathe, the present moments feel in free-fall, tumbling from beat to beat. One result of this approach is the occasional obfuscation of drama in the current timeline; for instance, despite the potent imagery of Bruce conquering his fear amidst a swarm of bats, the scene unfolds far too quickly to be effective. However, the sped-up nature of these anchoring scenes also creates a unique relationship between past and present. Dramatic beats in the flashbacks, and therefore the flashbacks themselves, seem to last longer, as if Bruce is wandering through memories. He’s a man who has trouble existing in the present, so he gets lost in the past.
The impulses drawing Bruce into each flashback deal directly with his trauma and fear (fittingly, several of these transitions are accompanied by the sounds of screeching bats). Sometimes, these memories appear out of nowhere; during some combination of bat swarms, unexpected violence or fear-inducing gas, the film cuts away abruptly, snapping Bruce back to his childhood. Other times, these memories fade in slowly, after being brought on by questions from Bruce’s mentor, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who investigates not only Bruce’s fear, but his festering rage — the impetus for his journey.
These slow fades from present to past begin to replace the sudden cuts, representing Bruce gaining control over his fears. They only return to their jarring form late in the film when he’s hit by a concentrated dose of fear gas by Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a dark mirror to Batman who hopes to exploit fear, rather than control it.
Fear isn’t just central to the film’s characters. It’s also vital to building its backdrop, and this interplay between character and setting takes a distinctly modern form.
Adapting Batman for the 21st Century
“Theatricality and deception,” as Ducard puts it, form the backbone of Bruce’s alter-ego. Adopting a symbol that represents his childhood fears wasn’t an invention of the film — in the 1989 comic The Man Who Falls, a young Bruce Wayne tumbles down a well and is swarmed by bats — but Batman Begins helped solidify it as a key facet of his mythology. This focus on Bruce’s fears also led to a key change in origin, which magnified not only his survivor’s guilt, but the way he fits into the larger premise of a world torn apart by economic strife.
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No longer are Bruce’s parents murdered after a screening of The Mark of Zorro (1940), a film from which Bruce draws inspiration for Batman. Instead, they’re murdered outside the opera, during a performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. The bat-like creatures on stage terrify young Bruce, who begs his parents to leave. When they’re subsequently shot, he blames himself.
Mefistofele is a good-versus-evil story about Faust being tempted by the Devil — or rather, by the Devil’s demonic representative Mefistofele, who lays claim over Faust’s soul, mirroring the training scenes against which these opera flashbacks are set. The first hour of the film sees Bruce finding a new father figure in Ducard, who claims to speak on behalf of Ra’s al Ghul (in Arabic: “the demon’s head”) and attempts to lure Bruce toward his retributive form of justice. However, the changed setting of the Waynes’ murder doesn’t just function as winking intertext.
The opera is a symbol of affluence, and its doors lead directly to a downtrodden alley; in Gotham, the rich and the poor live nearly shoulder to shoulder, but are separated by doors which only the rich may enter. In this alley, a desperate Joe Chill (Richard Brake) kills Bruce’s parents in a mugging gone wrong. In other versions of the story, the Waynes’ killer has been everything from a nefarious hitman to, well, The Joker, but here he represents an inevitable outcome of vast economic disparity. This theme is universal, but when a college-aged Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City for Chill’s release hearing, it places specifically American symbolism in its crosshairs, evoking events that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy — specifically, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.
In a heartbreaking courtroom scene years after the Waynes’ deaths, the camera remains fixed on a remorseful Joe Chill, even as Bruce storms out of the building in soft focus, far in the background. Outside, Bruce conceals a pistol with the intent of exacting blood — his rage and his desire for vengeance bubble to the surface — but the prior courtroom moments attach us not to Bruce’s perspective, but to Chill’s. It’s the first of several scenes in which we’re forced to reckon with the difference between justice and revenge. When Chill is escorted out, Bruce’s own attempt at retribution is cut short as Chill is assassinated, shot in the stomach at point-blank range (the camera, again, remains fixed on Chill’s face as Bruce watches him die). The scene calls back to the death of Oswald, who after being accused of killing Kennedy in 1963 was himself shot dead by Jack Ruby while being escorted in police custody.
Jack Ruby and Joe Chill’s motives differed — Ruby allegedly wanted to avenge Kennedy, while Chill was killed by a woman working for Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), a mob boss whom Chill had been an informant on — but the visual similarities speak to a similar impulse for Bruce, whose idea of responding to tragedy was lethal force. By sheer chance, Bruce was spared from becoming a Jack Ruby — or, in the parlance of Nolan’s own films, a Leonard Shelby (a la Memento), forever trapped in a cycle of vengeance and death.
Bruce would, of course, eventually forego this instinct en route to becoming Batman. Years later, when Ducard presents him with a sword with which to behead a murderer (a farmer who, like Chill, turned violent out of desperation), Bruce would rather burn down the League of Shadows monastery than become an executioner. Where he once saw Chill as nothing more than a killer, he now sees humanity even in the worst of people (although his decision to let Ducard die at the end of the film, rather than saving him like he did before, feels like a half-baked narrative decision).
The focus on Bruce’s near-encounter with Chill, and its similarity to Oswald’s killing, also speaks to the larger backdrop of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Batman Begins followed the much goofier Batman and Robin, and the two films were notably separated by the events of September 11, 2001. The JFK imagery speaks to a similar mindset of national mourning and the desire for justice (or in Jack Ruby’s case, vengeance) following 9/11. The day’s event had placed, in the American consciousness, questions of what exactly “justice” ought to look like. For some, it was violent payback in the form of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. For others, militaristic violence was a step too far toward injustice.
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This dynamic, the pull and push between the impulses for justice and vengeance, became central to a story of a highly-militarized Batman and how he responded to tragedy. In flashback, when Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) implores Bruce to differentiate between justice and revenge, he tells her, “Sometimes they’re the same.” However, when he travels east, living on scraps and stealing to survive, he loses his “assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong,” and his outlook on justice is re-forged while training with the League of Shadows. During this time, he’s made to introspect on the nature of his fears.
Fear was the impetus for several cultural responses to September 11th — whether racist hate crimes or violent military incursion — and so a mainstream genre film tapping into fear as a fuel for violence was nothing if not timely. It also laid the groundwork for the series’ future explorations, of a world defined by “the war on terror,” though Batman Begins’ approach focused less on the wartime specifics and more on the psychology of a man defined by tragedy, desperate to lash out.
In Nolan’s film, Bruce Wayne is an artist of sorts. He attempts to turn his pain and his fears into something tangible in order to create a specific emotional response in his criminal audience. He wants them to fear the symbol of the bat, the way he does. His weapons are products of the American military-industrial complex — leftover projects that would better protect soldiers, but that the U.S. government didn’t want to spend money on — while his appearance as Batman is a sketched-out combination of parts ordered from Singapore and China, and spiked gauntlets fashioned after his training gear in Bhutan. He is a product of both east and west. The film’s sound design speaks to these varied influences; the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard uses a combination of western strings and eastern drums — they’re separate at first, but as Batman emerges, they overlap harmoniously.
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But the film also fleshes out the emptiness Bruce tries to fill with his mission. It opens with young Bruce falling down a well, only for his father (Linus Roache) to reach down and rescue him a few scenes later. And though his mother (Sara Stewart) is barely featured — a strangely common trope in superhero origin tales — Thomas Wayne’s presence in Bruce’s life, and his subsequent absence, are as defining as his fear of bats. His last words to Bruce? “Don’t be afraid.”
After his parents’ death, Bruce searches high and low for father figures to guide him. Alfred (Michael Caine) and Gordon (Gary Oldman) comfort him in childhood — Gordon even places his father’s jacket around his shoulders, like a cape — and both men later become his allies, as does Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But Bruce has no one to teach him to control his fear the way his father once did. He therefore sees Ducard as a mentor who might be able to fill this role, but eventually Ducard’s own grief — turned outward, into violent culling — proves to be too destructive for Bruce.
And so Bruce’s constructed identity — like the personas adopted by prior Nolan characters — springs from a desire to feel whole. In Following, the anonymous lead adopts the persona of his mentor Cobb, a debonair, Bond-like figure. In Memento, widower Leonard Shelby fashions a narrative in which he’s on a righteous quest for justice. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne creates dual alter-egos that feel influenced by both these leading men. On one hand, Batman is a crusader against crime; on the other, the public-facing Bruce Wayne is a suave playboy, seen wearing suits, driving fancy cars and accompanied by supermodels on each arm.
The proximity of these two identities — three, if you count the real man behind both masks — feels inherently destructive. Not only through actions that result in his home being burned down, but in moments of quiet, personal devastation, like when a recently returned Bruce (now playing the part of an obnoxious, ultra-wealthy womanizer) runs into Rachel Dawes for the first time in seven years. The camera interrogates the shame on Bruce’s face, and the disappointment on Rachel’s, as he desperately tries to reassure her: “This isn’t me. Underneath, I am more.”
In Nolan’s series, Batman and Bruce Wayne cannot coexist, setting up a three-film story across which the search for a replacement, and the shelving of the cape and cowl, becomes an integral part of the journey. Unlike his comic counterpart, there’s no glory in being Batman for perpetuity.
Similar to the Scarecrow’s weaponized gas, Batman Begins is like a concentrated dose of fear and guilt, wrapped up in a superhero story. It’s a film in which Batman remains tethered to the past, perhaps too strongly. He’s shackled by one of the most potent recurring themes in Nolan’s work: a fear of the past, in all its pain, guilt and trauma — a fear that the forward march of time may not be enough to heal.
Siddhant Adlakha is a filmmaker and film critic based in Mumbai and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SiddhantAdlakha.