Fifteen years ago, filmgoers were introduced to a new vision of Gotham City’s iconic Dark Knight Detective in Batman Begins. In the film, writer/director Christopher Nolan, his screenwriting partner David Goyer, star Christian Bale, and their fellow cast and crew gave Batman fans what they wanted; a return to the franchise’s dark roots. The film is often overshadowed by its two sequels, 2008’s The Dark Knight, thanks to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker, and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which brought Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” to a close. That’s a shame though. Batman Begins is thematically one of the strongest films in the trilogy because it’s a meditation on the nature and power of fear.
The villainous Jonathan Crane AKA Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy)makes his cinematic debut, exploring fear as a literal weapon. Crane doses characters with his fear toxin throughout the film and in the climax fear becomes a plague as a giant cloud of it sweeps across Gotham City, transforming citizens and criminals into a rampaging mob. Those moments when characters are in the grip of the hallucinatory power of the fear gas are incredible for two reasons. The first is that the fear hallucinations have some very cool and creepy effects, like Batman transforming into a demon and Crane’s mask being covered in writhing maggots. The second is the clever subtext of those scenes. If your fears become uncontrollable you and your neighbors could die.
Fear is also a metaphorical weapon/motivational tool used by multiple characters in the film. Near the beginning of the movie, mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) tells Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne that he controls Gotham through fear. He explains that people, especially rich ones like Bruce, are afraid of him because they have so much to lose, and Bruce later tells Liam Neeson’s Ducard that he’s looking for a way to turn that power against people like Falcone.
Ducard advises Wayne that in order to manipulate the fears of others, he must first master his own. That leads to some great sequences because Batman Begins comes up with a particularly inspired and ingenious way to explain Bruce Wayne’s choice for adopting a bat as his symbol. It’s a way that differs from the source material too. In the comics, Wayne picks a bat for his identity because one of the bats that live in the caves below his home smash through the window of the room he’s sitting in. In Batman Begins we learn that this character is in fact afraid of bats.
“[Batman] not only confronts his own fears, he takes the power it has over him and transforms it into a strength…”
Through a flashback, we see that young Bruce developed his fear of bats when he fell into a cave on his family’s estate and was swarmed by a storm of the animals. We also learn that he developed that fear just hours before his parents’ death, and it’s that exact fear that lead Thomas and Martha Wayne out into a back alley where they were murdered. So Bruce Wayne’s fear of Bats is particularly profound and painful. Bruce confronting his fears and choosing his symbol is much more resonant and powerful because by becoming Batman he not only confronts his own fears, he takes the power it has over him and transforms it into a strength he can use to liberate his beloved city from the predators feasting upon it.
There’s one scene of Wayne confronting his fear of bats that’s particularly resonant for me as a horror fan. He strides into the darkness of the future bat cave, turns on a light, and lets a storm of bats wash over him. As horror fans, that’s something we do on a regular basis. We stride into a darkened theater and when it’s illuminated by the light of a film we come face to face with our fears. We let them wash over us. We revel in the way they make us feel, and if the film is particularly resonant, we come out of the experience feeling empowered and liberated.
Batman Begins’ further meditations on fear show us that while the power to create fright is useful, it isn’t enough to make a positive change. We see that throughout the film in the way Batman inspires characters like Katie Holmes’ assistant district attorney, Rachel Dawes, and police detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). He’s only able to save his city from the villains and dismantle an organized crime family because he showed those characters that Batman can be a symbol of both hope and fear.
More importantly though is what the brief, beginning, montage of Wayne traveling the globe says about the importance of compassion and understanding. Without those qualities, Batman would be no different than anyone using fear to bully, oppress, and kill people. That montage is especially effective coming after Falcone explains to Wayne that he doesn’t understand desperate. That’s ultimately what’s sets Wayne off on his quest to become Batman. He gives up his economic privilege to try and understand why people turn to crime. In doing so, he becomes a better person and a true hero.
So if it’s been a while since you’ve revisited Batman Begins today is a perfect day to rediscover it. It’s an exciting and gripping meditation on one of the most primal emotions that reinvigorated the silver screen presence of one of America’s most iconic pop culture characters. Let us know what you think of Batman Begins, as a horror fan, over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!