Friday, September 7, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

In 1986, Frank Miller's graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS rewrote Batman's origin for the purposes of that story. 

The standard origin up to that point, hailing from 1939, asserted that after Bruce Wayne had trained for many years to become a crimefighter, he decided to pattern his crimefighting costume after a bat when one such creature flew into his open window.  This origin was a simple, elemental myth-notion, untrammeled by verisimilitude or probability. 

Miller's rewriting posited that Bruce Wayne's fascination with his totem animal hearkened back to a much younger age.  Gradeschool-age Wayne, chasing a rabbit on the Wayne Estate, falls into a shaft leading to the bat-caves underlying the manor.  Young Wayne is both horrified and fascinated by the bats, particularly one oversized beast-- given such a vivid description that the creature may arise from Young Wayne's imagination:

"Gliding with ancient grace. Eyes gleaming untouched by love or joy or sorrow. Breath hot with the taste of fallen foes, the stench of dead things, damned things. Surely the fiercest survivor, the purest warrior. Glaring, hating, claiming me as your own."
Miller's epic had mostly indirect influence on the 1989-1997 cycle of Bat-films, mostly in terms of the styling of the costume and the Caped Crusader's acquisition of a bigger and more ruthless arsenal of bat-weapons.  BATMAN BEGINS, however, adapts the broad outlines of Miller's revised origin of the Batman, though inverting the psychological value of the experience.

Even confining my argument to Miller's work purely within the scope of the origin-scenario, the artist's focus might best be styled "Adlerian," as seen in this Alfred Adler quote from his 1923 "Progress in Individual Psychology:"

The striving for significance, this sense of yearning, always points out to us that all psychological phenomena contain a movement that starts from a feeling of inferiority and reach upward. The theory of Individual Psychology of psychological compensation states that the stronger the feeling of inferiority, the higher the goal for personal power.
Though fear plays a strong role in Young Wayne's reaction to the bats, there's a strong element of admiration of its power and "ancient grace" as well, possibly even envy for the monster-bat's indifference to lesser, human emotions.

Nolan's Bruce Wayne, however, has his encounter not in competition with a fleet-footed animal, but following an act of petty thievery.  When Rachel, the same-age daughter of one of the manor's domestics, shows Young Wayne an arrowhead she's found, he swipes it and runs, and so ends up plunging into the shaft.  He's surrounded by a swarm of bats-- none of which are unusually sized-- and traumatized with a phobia that still touches him in adulthood. 

Could one also call Nolan's origin "Adlerian?"  In one sense, yes, for Adler speaks of "compensation" as being either positive or negative.  Miller's Batman, following the "can-do" model of the 1939 origin, unquestionably masters his early fears, and so he qualifies for Adler's "positive compensation."  Nolan's Batman, while impressive in some ways, never utterly transcends his early fears, and might be considered an example of "negative compensation."

The source of that negative self-image, it would seem, has its roots in psychology more Freudian than Adlerian, in that Wayne's character is primarily a response to parental images.  Freud's Oedipal theory doesn't come into play, for Wayne's mother is barely a presence in BEGINS, and the only female who plays a substantial role--  the girl Rachel, grown to adulthood (Katie Holmes)-- functions mostly as a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience and very mild romantic interest for Wayne.  But as for father-images, Wayne can't seem to turn around without running into some sort of paternal figure.  No less than five older men (older, that is, than star Christian Bale) contribute to the genesis of Batman, and that's leaving out the "grey eminence" of Sergeant (later "Commissioner") Gordon.

Nolan's take on the Batman mythos emphasizes that his Wayne acts more from weakness than from strength.  Taking the events of the Nolan-origin in chronological order-- rather than the order of their actual depiction on-screen-- we get the following:

*Because of his fear of bats, Young Wayne tells his parents that he has to leave the theatre where an opera uses bat-like imagery.  When they leave, mugger Joe Chill accosts the trio, resulting in the expected deaths of the Waynes.  Young Wayne thus lives not just with survivor-guilt but guilt that his weakness put his loved ones in harm's way.

*Chill, who escapes justice for many years in the Bat-comics until the crusader tracks him down, is immediately caught by the police and goes to jail for over a decade.  At no point does Young Wayne formulate any ideas of becoming a crimefighter.

*A crisis is fomented in the life of adult billionaire Bruce Wayne when the office of Gotham City's district attorney-- for which adult Rachel works-- makes a deal to give Joe Chill a parole in exchange for damaging info about Gotham's leading crime boss, Carmine Falcone.  Wayne plans to shoot Chill rather than let his parents' killer free.  He's saved from committing murder when Falcone's goons rub Chill out before Wayne can do so.  He confesses his desire to kill to Rachel, who upbraids him with a speech about the evils of personal vengeance.

*Wayne, apparently feeling his passion for vengeance unresolved by Falcone's execution, seeks out the crime-boss, though the billionaire doesn't seem to know what he wants to do to the gangster.  Falcone gives him a condescending speech, telling him that he's a rich boy who doesn't know how the world works, and has his thugs toss Wayne out.

*Whereas in the comics Joe Chill's murder motivates Wayne to become Batman, in BEGINS it seems that Falcone's little speech is the first impetus.  Wayne leaves his ritzy life behind for seven years-- during which butler Alfred declares him dead-- and mingles with the criminal underworld in various places without precisely becoming a criminal, though Wayne does sometimes steal food.  Wayne ends up in a prison in Bhutan, where he constantly gets into fights with the other prisoners, even though he's somehow picked up enough martial-arts skills to beat them every time.  If he has thoughts of returning to Gotham as a crimefighter of some sort, the film does not expressly say so.

*He's freed from prison by the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson).  Ducard represents a mysterious order of justice-seekers who call themselves the League of Shadows.  It's not clear whether or not Wayne has ever heard of them, but he dismisses them derisively as "vigilantes," which would suggest that at this point he doesn't intend to become one.  But even if he does, it's  Ducard, the second "strong-but-evil father," who molds Wayne's malleable mind as to what he will become.  While giving Wayne all manner of intensive martial-arts training, Ducard encourages Wayne to take on the aspect of "a legend," of "a terrible thought," which he can only do by confronting his deepest fears.

*Ducard hones Wayne to the peak of his powers, and because the billionaire's father died because of a "failure of will," Ducard insists that the aimless young man must also become a creature of pure will.  However, when the time comes for Wayne to be inducted into the League, Ducard insists that Wayne must execute a helpless criminal.  Though Ducard has read Wayne's heart in every regard up to this point, he makes a bizarre misjudgment here.  Wayne refuses, breaks with the League in a violent altercation (incidentally killing a sort of "grandfather figure" who calls himself "Ra's Al Ghul"), and escapes back to the real world.

*Once he's back in Gotham, Wayne nevertheless uses Ducard's inspirations to formulate the identity of Batman, aided this time by two "good fathers."  Alfred the Butler and research weapons-expert Lucius Fox are not perceived as weak like Thomas Wayne, but they are only able to act through Bruce Wayne for the most part.  Despite some early missteps-- Batman's first attempt to enlist the help of honest cop Sergeant Gordon almost gets the hero captured-- Wayne makes his crimefighting debut in spectacular fashion, busting the druglord Falcone with almost ridiculous ease.

This marks the end of Nolan's Bat-origin as such, though as one might expect, the League doesn't simply fade out of Wayne's life, and nor does Ducard, who eventually reveals that the old man slain was just a ringer; that Ducard is the real Ra's Al Ghul, leader of the Shadows.  Batman's bust of Falcone leads him to uncover an admirably complicated plot to destroy Gotham.  With the help of corrupt researcher Doctor Jonathan"Scarecrow" Crane, Ducard plans to pollute Gotham's water supply with fear-inducing toxins.  Thus Ducard, who tutored Wayne to become a fearful image in order to master others by terror, still plans to use the emotion of fear to destroy the city.

In one scene Ducard explains that he wanted to enlist Wayne into the Shadows so that he would help them destroy the city.  Is Scarecrow merely the backup plan of the master villain, once Wayne defected to become Batman?  It would seem a possibility, though Ducard's actions toward suborning Wayne don't make much sense unless one views him as having a desire to become Wayne's exclusive mentor/father-figure.  He even has a "Darth Vaderish" moment late in the film, in which he expresses a desire that he and Wayne should have presided over Gotham's destruction together.

Batman is forced to experience soul-shattering fear again when he's dosed with Scarecriow's toxin, but in time he conquers those fear-demons of fear from Ducard's "new son" by finding an antidote for Scarecrow's toxin.  Ironically, without his toxin this Scarecrow is such a minor threat that Rachel is the one who takes him out.  Ducard/Ra's plans to unleash the toxin in full force with the use of an elevated train built by Thomas Wayne to keep Gotham City prosperous.  Batman boards the train and fights Ducard, but the hero has also made advance arrangements to have Gordon destroy the tracks ahead of the train.  "I won't kill you," Batman tells his former mentor, "but I don't have to save you."  He leaves the evil, strong father to perish in the destruction of an instrument built for the improvement of men by the good, weak father.

There's no question that BATMAN BEGINS is an effective big-budget thrill-ride, well-acted and psychologically dense, even if it's at odds with the basic concept of the comic-book Batman.  BEGINS, the first of the "Nolan Bat-trilogy," is perhaps the best plotted despite some of the dubious motivations seen in the origin-sequence, and it certainly has the richest moments of comedy relief.  The tentative romance of Rachel and Bruce Wayne never occupies much narrative space, and even though Rachel gets to find out Batman's true identity, she has less influence on him than Alfred. (Her character will take on a more negative impact in the subsequent DARK KNIGHT.)  Just as Nolan seems very Freudian in analyzing Wayne's psychological hangups, he shows an almost Marxist leeriness of the idea of this billionaire using his vast resources to beat up low-class criminals, to the extent that the story is lumbered with many references to the philanthropy of the Waynes, and even involving their ancestors in slave-freeing undergrounds.  In the next two sequels, sociological and political motids will far dwarf those of psychology.

Naturally, given all of the high-tech Batman employs, the phenomenality here is "marvelous." 

ADDENDUM TO MYSELF:  In the original review I rated the film's mythicity as "good," but on reconsideration I've decided that it's no better than "fair," due to the ways in which the symbolic discourse is hemmed in by the pseudo-intellectual discourse.

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