The 2005 motion picture Batman Begins takes the familiar pop culture icon of Batman and his civilian persona of Bruce Wayne and attempts to re-envision him for a 21st century zeitgeist. While 20th century incarnations of the dark-cowled avenger veered perilously between Wagnerian grandiosity, as authored by oddball director Tim Burton, and tongue-in-cheek camp, as in the 60s television program and the films helmed by versatile arthouse director John Schumacher, the psychologically meticulous director Christopher Nolan turns Batman Begins’ attention entirely towards characterization.
Critic Peter Sanderson favors this approach, acknowledging that while certain aspects of superhero fiction are sheer fantasy, the ultimate goal of such films is not to aspire towards realism, but rather to ground themselves within psychological and contextual plausibility. Batman Begins grapples with revenge and justice, themes that have become central to the mythos and positions them as part of a dichotomy, and views them through Bruce Wayne/Batman’s relationship to parental figures.
Like many of the superhero tales that emerged from comics in the early late 1930s and onwards, Batman is defined by the loss of parental figures.
In the comic, his internal struggles originate with the loss of his parents to a gun robbery. This was a projection of the neuroses of Batman co-creator and writer Bill Finger, who “saw how the pain of loss could harden into a rage that made a man unlike other men,” and was, unlike his childless peers, a “father who could see a child’s pain” in the way they couldn’t. (Jones 154-155) The film effectively begins in media res, finding a self-exiled Bruce Wayne awaking from a dream of his childhood fears.
The first half of the film intercuts between treasured memories of his father, his obsessive desire for revenge against his parent’s murderer and his subsequent journey into anonymity and criminality. The second half of the film focuses on his attempt to reconcile the ideals instilled into him by his father, the philanthropic idealist Thomas Wayne, with the uncompromising attitude of his mentor, the seemingly sagely ninja Henri Ducard (and terrorist to usher a new era of hope into the city of his birth.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s first parental influence is his father. Bruce’s mother is seen but not heard, leaving little question as to who shapes the moral compass of the young Bruce. His father is the fifth generation inheritor of the Wayne estate, and uses these resources for big-hearted liberal causes, spouting the responsibility of the privileged to assist the less fortunate.
Bruce places the burden of guilt over his parent’s death upon himself, and as he grows to adulthood he is compelled to project this guilt and self-hatred against his parent’s murderer, Joe Chill. Despite the values instilled into him by his father, Bruce feels contempt towards the criminal class, and he contemplates murdering Chill in cold blood at a parole hearing, much to the disappointment of his childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, a district attorney assistant whose moral code is largely one of judicial idealism. It is Rachel’s disapproval, as well as the condescension of crime boss Carmine Falcone, that compels Bruce to exile himself from his own world of privilege as “the prince of Gotham.”
Bruce’s journey into criminality around the world – snatching fruit from street markets and engaging in cargo heists – is largely an attempt to move past prejudices that have formed as a result of the tragedy. Whereas his father believed that the less fortunate were individuals to be shepherded by well-financed progressive charities and development projects, Bruce fails to empathize with their station in life enough to overcome his own contempt.
Eventually, it is his encounter with Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows which re-awakens the values of his father. Fisher observes that it is the entry of Ra’s al Ghul, posing as his own right hand man by the name of Henri Ducard, into the narrative which ignites an Oedipal crisis. Though Bruce has been keen to blame himself for the death of his parents, Al Ghul asserts that the tragedy was the fault of his father. Thomas Wayne failed to impose his will upon the situation, and it is that failure to dominate criminality that Al Ghul maintains to be an irredeemable weakness.
Al Ghul teaches Bruce more than just technical skills and martial arts, but the idea that will is more critical to initiating any kind of reform than conviction. However, Al Ghul’s zeal in the pursuit of justice is also framed as a kind of fascism: to him, criminals are not to be tolerated since it “criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.” It is Al Ghul’s unforgiving rhetoric that compels Bruce to invoke the soft-hearted idealism of his father, declaring that compassion is what separates him from the criminal and the unjust.
Bruce renounces Al Ghul, and returns to Gotham to be greeted by the family butler, the sardonic Alfred Pennyworth, who is a much more effective father figure for Bruce. He recognizes the value of a Batman role that Bruce creates for himself, but also worries about the wisdom by which Bruce applies it, arguing that his campaign against criminals needs to be driven by more than just emotion, “otherwise you’re just a vigilante.” Bruce may have outgrown the wide-eyed optimism of his youth and rejected the purgative nihilism endorsed by his mentor, but he also risks abandoning the legacy of his father.
Alfred is not only a nurturing presence in Bruce’s life, but a preservationist one as well, making him the direct opposite of Al Ghul. Al Ghul wants to punish decadence and corruption with destruction, while Alfred wants to preserve the dignity and benevolence that Thomas Wayne made the Wayne name stand for. Sanderson observes that Alfred remains loyal to Thomas Wayne, but also resists in imposing upon Bruce, acting as parental spokesman and surrogate parent.
Ultimately, parental guidance shapes Bruce Wayne’s creation of the Batman. Batman is no Robin Hood trying to right the wrong, nor is he a war-mongering nihilist trying to destroy criminality, but rather by standing outside of both paradigms of heroism, he takes a different path: addressing the organizational corruption which breeds the kind of desperate criminals that took his parents, seeking reform not through purgation but also without compromise.