The common thread that runs through Christopher Nolan’s short but already illustrious directorial career is his focus on protagonists with battered psyches. Often plagued by the tragic death of a loved one, the anti-heroes of Nolan’s earlier films embark on tortuous and destructive journeys toward self-redemption.
Consider Leonard Shelby in Memento–which, along with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, are arguably the only American-made films this decade to advance the medium–whose chronic short-term memory loss dooms him to a life of perpetually searching for and killing men he believes murdered his wife. Or Detective Will Dormer in Insomnia, whose checkered past and debilitating sleep deprivation crashes down upon him after he inadvertently kills his partner while trying to track down a murderer. Even in Nolan’s first feature Following, the main character has a predilection for voyeurism that leads him into dark and dangerous places. Thus, it’s not surprising that Nolan chose to assume the mantle of the Batman franchise eight years after Joel Schumacher finished running it into the ground. The lore is familiar to even casual comic book fans: As a child, Bruce Wayne watches as a mugger kills his parents, propelling Bruce into a dual existence–millionaire businessman by day, winged vigilante by night.
Much has changed since Tim Burton’s gothic, post-Reagan reimagining and Schumacher’s bombastic, Clinton-era excesses. While not a period film, Nolan’s version is ostensibly a throwback to the superhero’s brooding 1940s origins, accented by Frank Miller’s 1988 Year One series. Perhaps so, but Nolan, along with writer David S. Goyer, also filters Batman through a post-9/11 prism, expanding the Dark Knight’s paradoxical role as both hero and iconoclast into a contemporary commentary on the Jungian psychology of self and society.
A moral and spiritual vagabond, Bruce (Christian Bale) is rescued from the slog of an Asian prison by the mystical League of Shadows and taken to their Himalayan hideaway. There, he undergoes rigorous mental and physical training overseen by Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, portraying for a fourth time since 1999 the role of a mentor educating his biological/surrogate son in the fine art of combat).
This extended first act sets a sublime tone, one that briefly vanishes once Bruce returns to Gotham City to begin his clandestine career, aided by the devoted but strong-willed Alfred (Michael Caine, a superb choice) and unsullied cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). To throw off suspicions as to his alter ego, Bruce adopts the persona of a decadent playboy, eerily replicating the creepy cadence (and violent duality) of Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Ironically, the actual birth of the Caped Crusader proves to be the story’s mushy middle, preoccupied by his retribution against a local crime lord (Tom Wilkinson) and reacquaintance with a doe-eyed Katie Holmes as prosecutor/gal pal Rachel Dawes.
When a nefarious criminal psychologist, alias Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), threatens to contaminate the city’s water supply with a hallucinogenic agent, the plot turn seems to betray the earlier sweeping examination of identity and self-discovery for a rote of explosions, car chases and fisticuffs. In particular, the frenetic quick-cut editing of the fight scenes exposes Nolan’s unfamiliarity with the genre.
However, it is in the final stanza of Batman Begins that the fragments of this surprisingly accessible pulp fiction (Chicago has never looked so familiar yet foreboding) coalesce around its allegorical story arc. You realize that Gotham is not a real locale, but instead a metaphor for American cultural, political and economic decay. Bruce’s father, once part of a progressive group of wealthy industrialists who sought to better their hometown, is gunned down by a criminal and impoverished byproduct of capitalistic gluttony. Corruption permeates courtrooms, boardrooms, police and city hall. The shining city on a hill becomes vulnerable to a terrorist plot to literally infect its inhabitants with a sense of fear so overpowering that its causes them to destroy each other.
Indeed, Gotham’s defenders are comprised of opposing post-9/11 proxies–hardliners who believe that “criminals thrive on the indulgences of society’s understanding,” and an enlightened protector who confesses that he was once “a coward with a gun, and justice is about more than revenge.”
From another perspective, the struggle is not unlike that posited in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. On one side is a force abiding by the Old Testament concept of God’s wrath, who believes the only way to save Gotham, like Sodom or Dogville, is to destroy it. On the other hand is God’s “son,” Batman, who is more than willing to throw the moneychangers out of the temple, but who also preaches compassion. Ultimately, he sacrifices his own life–his true identity–so that his fellow man might be saved.