Tag Archives: Bruce Wayne

Exorcising the Haunted Past

Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.
Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – Magnolia (a movie I detested, proving again that flowers sometimes grow from a pile of manure)

I saw a tweet flit through this morning about how someone was wishing that just once, a character wasn’t haunted by his or her past.  At first it’s a sentiment one might rush to agree with, given the seeming flood in popular culture of privileged yet angst-ridden characters wailing to the cold, unfeeling world that no one can possibly understand the soul-scraping depth of their pain.  The impetus to scream “get over it!” in those instances can be difficult to resist.  But it’s probably overly simplistic to blame the trope of the “haunted past,” given that the reason it still functions is that everyone you meet has a past, and in quite a few of those cases, it wasn’t all smiles und sunshine.  We are creatures of linear time; our past informs the decisions we make in the present as we plan for the future.  The concept of learning is based on the notion that we must garner wisdom by making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and correcting them to be able to go forward.  The propagation of the human race depends on this.  How many of us are married to the first person we ever dated?  Do we not apply the lessons from the fumbling moments of that first awkward relationship to our subsequent dalliances in the hopes of establishing a permanent connection with the right person?  Yet admittedly, as company, we become tiresome if we dwell forever on things we once did wrong – if we live in that past instead of simply letting ourselves be guided by it.

In the creation of enduring characters, this is a tricky tightrope to walk.  Expecting an audience to sympathize with a perfect person who has made no mistakes and regrets nothing is a tall order, and few writers (at least those that are not perpetual amateurs) would dare try.  The problem is that most force the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  Allegorically (though somewhat to the point of cliché) the past can indeed be considered a heavy load borne on the character’s back.  However, that burden should be in an appropriate weight class – if a perfectly healthy adult is going to moan about dragging a five-pound barbell around then they’re going to lose our interest and attention pretty darn fast.  More appealing are those who carry their pasts privately instead of on their sleeves.  They have a history but they don’t dwell on it; they don’t broadcast it to any and all within range and grab at every precious fragment of pity.  If one is to look for a singular example of this, eyes should wander no further than Batman.  Bruce Wayne is changed profoundly by the death of his parents and his inability to exact vengeance for their murder.  It’s what drives him to don the cape and cowl and roam the night skies beating the crap out of criminals for the rest of his days, on an ultimately futile quest to make the pain go away.  Note that what’s important about this is that he does something.  He doesn’t let his grief cripple him into inaction, into endless sessions of whining to Alfred about how the world is so hard and he just can’t catch a break.  Instead, he becomes the goddamn Batman.  Would Batman be believable, or even interesting, if he was just some silver-spoon-fed playboy billionaire with loving, very much alive parents, who decided to fight crime for something to do on Tuesday evenings?  Hardly.  The haunted past is an integral part of his character.  What it is not, though, is the entirety of his existence going forward.  This, I think, is where some may err, both in creating characters and living their actual lives.

I’ve argued before that characters haunted by a past that is never explained are the most compelling of all.  William Goldman makes this point in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and points to a famous exchange from Casablanca whereby you learn the entirety of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s backstory, or at least all you’re going to get out of him:

CAPTAIN RENAULT

What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK

My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

CAPTAIN RENAULT

The waters?  What waters?  We’re in the desert.

RICK

I was misinformed.

This works so much better than had Rick launched into a meandering history lesson about his impoverished childhood working in a Brooklyn sweatshop making mattress springs for a nickel a day, followed by his hard-luck teenage years picking fights over candy bars, the tragic loss of his first love in an unfortunate streetcar accident and his subsequent quest to find himself at the bottom of whisky bottles in speakeasies across Chicago.  Dear gods, I’m bored just writing this imagined synopsis of his life; how tedious a man would Rick Blaine be, and how swiftly forgotten by movie audiences, if he decided to spill something similar to Captain Renault?  By being evasive about his past, Rick keeps us interested.  His inscrutability makes his choices that much more difficult to guess, that much more compelling to watch.  Until the very end we don’t know that he isn’t going to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa and leave Victor Laslo behind as a prize for the Nazis.  It hasn’t been telegraphed for us by dwelling to the point of exhaustion on What Makes Rick Miserable.

The lesson for today, then, is to keep a lid on the angst.  The haunted past should not be a cement block in which the character is forever anchored, flailing his or her arms to get people to pay attention (and perhaps bring a sledge hammer to shatter it).  It should inform their choices but not overwhelm them in a cesspool of woe-is-me.  As Goldman says, play it as it lays.  It’s noteworthy that in almost all good time travel fiction, the character who has a chance to change an old mistake comes to realize that mistake is a crucial part of their life and that things are ultimately better the way they always were.  Indeed, we are never truly through with the past, it’s who we are.  However, we, and the characters we write, can choose how we wear it.  We can wallow, and keep pointing out our scars to passersby in the vain hope the lines will somehow fade away, but they won’t.  Instead, as we go forward, those scars can be our roadmap.  And with a good map at our side there’s no reason to keep it in first gear.

Fear and loathing: Christmas 2012

stuffychristmas

It’s emblematic of our age that when a major event occurs, we are guaranteed to know what every person with a computer thinks about it, in various degrees of legibility and/or sanity.  The thoughts expressed following the Sandy Hook massacre have been a virtual deluge of sympathy, anger, regret, confusion, disbelief, shattered faith and predictable political posturing, from both prominent public figures and unpronounceable cyber aliases.  There is a compulsion to find sense in the senseless, meaning in the unimaginable.  To ask how something like this could happen and ensure it never happens again.  For many it’s too late for that; a resignation that these mass shootings are an inevitable consequence of the path the United States is on, where the power of the NRA has made firearms regulation a political third rail and attempts at increasing access to proper medical care lead absurdly to mass protests and election losses.

The little bodies were barely cold before the trotting out of the usual canards began – Republican congressman/professional moron Louie Gohmert (the slightly more evolved protozoan who was screaming a while back that “anchor babies” were the latest terrorist threat) wished that the teachers had been packing heat so they could have pulled the Charles Bronson routine against the killer.  He and others of his ilk think the answer to every mass shooting is to increase the supply of guns amidst the populace – the idea, if you can dignify it with that word, being that potential mass murderers will be deterred from carrying out their insanity if they think it’s possible that one of their targets might shoot back.  Setting aside the fact that not a single gun massacre has ever been stopped in this way, what message are Gohmert and his cretinous colleagues trying to send?  That in the Greatest Country in the World™, people, little children even, should be walking around every day scared to their britches that someone’s going to pull a gun on them?  Please define for me how that constitutes greatness – a land where everyone you pass on the street is a potential murderer to be horrified of.  The other day a boy in Utah was arrested for bringing a firearm to school because he thought someone might shoot him.  I have no doubt that Gohmert et al will hold this boy up as a patriotic defender of liberty instead of the terrified little child that he is, who should be playing with teddy bears and Lego instead of Glocks and Smith & Wessons.

The text of the Second Amendment reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  I’m no Constitutional scholar (nor, I suspect, are 99.9999998% of the people who howl about the sanctity of these words) but it’s my understanding based on my read of American history that this was written in light of the fear that the British might return and civilians needed to be able to fight back if the regular American army wasn’t able to get there in time.  Perfectly logical, one supposes, for the late 1790’s, when the fastest public alert system was a guy on horseback yelling that the British were coming.  But scanning through comment sections on news websites, one finds a different argument, that the citizenry must be able to own and wield guns in case the government needs to be violently overthrown (memories of Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle and her infamous “Second Amendment remedies.”)  The same folks who wail “Support the Troops!” every time they are sent into battle (whether or not the cause is just) think that on a whim these same heroes of unimpeachable virtue will transform into mindless pawns of the Antichrist dictator and begin sweeping through the streets mowing down patriotic citizens.  In the highly unlikely (if not utterly impossible) event that ever happens, quite frankly, the government has the 82nd Airborne and stealth bombers and you’ve got three guys with shotguns in a Dodge Durango – I don’t like the odds.  And of course, the government only has those stealth bombers and an entire range of invincible high-tech weaponry because the same people who cite the above logic of the Second Amendment continue to vote for the party who thinks cutting defense spending for any reason is an act of sedition.  If one feels the onset of a migraine at these unfathomable leaps in logic, one must remember that these arguments are not even in the same stadium as logical reasoning – they come entirely from a place of fear.

Fear is the one emotion common to every creature that walks the earth.  It has been ingrained in our being ever since we were swinging through trees to avoid being eaten by something bigger and stronger.  As our minds have developed across the eons, gaining the ability to reason, we have still never shed this most basic instinct.  Fear can, if properly tempered and managed, drive us to achieve greatness.  In The Dark Knight Rises (ironically, a movie tainted by its association with a mass shooting), Bruce Wayne finds it impossible to escape a prison without the motivation of the fear of dying in the attempt.  But fear run rampant is endlessly destructive, and there will always be those who understand this and prey on fear to make money.  The political lobbying of the NRA and its offshoots, despite repeated publicly stated intentions of preserving freedom and promoting responsible gun ownership, is about the freedom of weapons manufacturers to continue to sell their product, regardless of whether those who purchase those weapons are the slightest bit responsible.  And if you are not afraid of a big scary bad guy breaking into your house or the faceless drones of the evil government coming to drag you off to the gulag, what do you need a gun for?  So it is in the interest of companies who sell guns and by extension advocacy groups like the NRA to keep the masses as scared as possible.  They no doubt revel in the free assistance provided to them by the media who splash every act of violence across newspapers, television screens, websites and smartphones and then conduct weeks-long investigative reporting into every single facet of the event and how YOUR FAMILY might be threatened.  Gun sales explode following gun massacres, ostensibly from the fear of being targeted next but really because somehow the government might actually get off its ass and do something about the absurd ready availability of deadly weapons, and nobody wants to be last to the buffet table.  The government, in turn, rarely does anything because it’s too afraid of the ability of the NRA to swing elections, nor does it want to be labelled anti-business by regulating, sanctioning or otherwise restricting gun manufacturers.  And so the cycle of fear creaks on, until it reaches its bloated tentacles into the one place in the world that should be utterly free of fear – a public school.

The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were not feeling any fear that morning.  They were probably excited about Christmas, writing letters to Santa and helping to decorate the classroom with styrofoam snowmen, popcorn garlands and candy canes and reindeer cut from colored construction paper.  They could never have fathomed in their innocent young minds that someone was coming to take everything away in a hailstorm of bullets.  Why would they?  They hadn’t yet had the chance to be properly programmed by the great slouching mass of fear that oozes from society’s pores unchecked by reason and common sense.  Our collective inability to recognize the difference between vigilance and paranoia and to silence those who would exploit our fear for financial gain.  I have to laugh, sadly, when I hear politicians talking about the necessity of beefing up arms and equipment stockpiles to protect our shores from unseen external threats.  Yet what indeed is all this meant to protect?  In a world where everyone has guns, how can anyone ever feel safe?  Indeed, our very failure to check the expansion of the world’s supply of firepower, while enriching those who make the tools of murder, has only aggravated the foreboding hanging perpetually over every human head; like the famous doomsday clock inching ever closer to midnight, we seem to be willing accomplices in our own destruction, ensuring that we remain drugged with constant fear of our neighbour and ever readier to set off the fuse at the slightest provocation.

The suggestion purported by some that every school should post armed guards would be laughable were it not so tragic.  They forget the subliminal lesson the presence of a scary uniformed guy packing an obvious .45 engraves upon the impressionable child’s mind – that the world is a frightening place to be regarded with suspicion and mistrust.  The millions of kids who came home from school safely that terrible day would be full of questions, with parents and guardians struggling desperately for reassuring answers.  It is simply not enough to reach for the usual prayers, platitudes and bromides and change the channel until the next incident occurs.  We often speak about the kind of world we are leaving our children, whether it will be a better, more prosperous life, or something out of the most nightmarish dystopian fiction.  What is needed to achieve the former – beyond the immediate fixes of an increased focus on mental health care and sensible, effective gun restrictions – is a fundamental re-examination of the wisdom of the agenda of fear:  the invisible conspiracy convincing the world that we need to jump at our own shadows, not because shadows are scary, but so we’ll be the first in line to purchase deluxe-grade shadow repellent.  We are hooked on fear like the proverbial junkie chasing his next fix.  And in one area, I find myself in agreement with some of the Second Amendment advocates, in that I don’t think gun control is the panacea, although it will certainly help start the journey.  When we learn to shun the fearmongers, when we evolve away from this notion that we need an arsenal to protect ourselves from the boogeyman lurking in the alleyway, when we celebrate the good instead of constantly giving airtime to the bad, when we reject the concept that safety only comes through deterrence, and when we recognize that the right of children to attend school free of fear should always trump somebody else’s freedom to blow a deer’s brains out, and resolve to do whatever it takes to make that happen, then we will be able to finally crawl out from the iron grip of fear, and into a better future.  We owe it to those dear lost children who won’t be celebrating Christmas this year.  The alternative – the slow, doomed march of the status quo – is simply too frightening to contemplate.

In any event, now you know what this anonymous idiot with a keyboard thinks.  And my hope is that you and your family have a joyful, celebratory holiday season utterly free of fear and loathing.  See you in the next one, and let’s get on with things, shall we?

UPDATE:  The NRA has officially responded and predictably, they’ve blamed everything but guns and suggested the answer is more guns in schools.  Armed guards in every school, which won’t necessarily have to be police but volunteers (because armed guards are wonderful but amateur armed guards would be even better!)  And the taxpayer would of course be the one to pick up the tab for the huge bill the weapons manufacturers would then get to send to the government.  NRA Vice President/Gun Pimp Wayne LaPierre says that “the only thing that can stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.”  And while he was speaking, someone shot and killed four people in Pennsylvania, wounding two state troopers in the process, who, presumably, were armed.

Your move, America.

Occupy Gotham City?

Bane strikes at the heart of the one percent.

The undisputed kings of the 2012 summer box office have both been comic book movies:  The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.  While The Avengers is essentially a crowd-pleasing greatest hits package that you either dig or don’t (I dig, for the record), the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a more complex tale probing the human condition behind the capes and cowls of its characters, and as such, opens itself to a wider degree of interpretation.  One of the most interesting of the responses to the film is in how certain critics have seen it as condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement and praising the nobility of the 1%.  For his part, Nolan has denied that the film has a political slant.  I’ve seen the movie twice now, and while the tropes associated with Occupy are certainly present, I can’t get behind the notion that the movie is Ayn Rand redux.  Great art reflects our times, and it’s natural for current history to bleed through the edges of the screen.  But reducing the themes of The Dark Knight Rises to a simple political didactic for easy cable news consumption is to perform a disservice to the deeper moral questions at play here.  Nolan’s Batman movies have always operated on a more primal level, exploring the nature of fear, chaos, and the case of the final chapter, consequences, and our ability – or our duty – to accept our responsibility for them, regardless of our means.

(Author’s note:  MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.  Please don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie; I’ll hold nothing back.)

Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of anarchy led to the death of Harvey Dent, Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes and the caped crusader’s disappearance from Gotham City.  In the aftermath, a draconian “Dent Act” has allowed police to rid the streets of organized crime once and for all.  But the illusion of peace is built on a lie, and the two heroes who have allowed it to fester are being torn apart by their demons.  One, Commissioner Jim Gordon, hides in plain sight, while the other, Bruce Wayne, has become a crippled recluse.  Both know, instinctively, that the center cannot hold; Gordon prepares to read a speech denouncing Dent and admitting his role in the cover-up but chooses at the last second to hold back, while Wayne is restless in his isolation, like Sherlock Holmes without purpose in the absence of a case.  And then, from beneath the veneer of deception and fabricated security, and literally beneath the earth, evil begins to rise, as unstoppable mercenary Bane sets his dark plan for Gotham City into motion.  Gordon is wounded and Bruce Wayne is compelled to suit up.  But they’ve waited too long, allowed their deception to endure long past its limit.  They have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  Bane uses the time to outmanoeuvre the two, seizing control of Wayne’s secret armory, trapping Gotham’s entire police force underground and finally, breaking the ill-prepared and overconfident Batman.

Shades of Occupy first percolate through the narrative as Bane lays siege to Gotham, speechifying about punishing the corrupt and sending his minions to drag the wealthy and powerful from their mansions and haul them in front of a kangaroo court, in the name of “the people” of Gotham.  But despite the illusion of his rhetoric he is hardly a populist hero or a masked MLK.  Indeed, a man with a noble message doesn’t need the threat of nuclear annihilation to ensure that it’s heard – Bane’s goal is the total destruction of Gotham City, first envisioned by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.  After confining Wayne to the same prison to which he was condemned as a younger man, Bane admits that the greatest despair requires hope, and like the most accomplished sadists, he will provide the people with Gotham with hope so that they suffer more.  He wants them all to hurt.  He intends, like the American army marching into Baghdad, to present himself as a liberator, in fact using that exact word, while espousing himself as a sort of “Occupier,” because he knows this is a sensitive button that can be pushed.  Clearly Gotham is a place of great inequality, despite the false security brought on by the Dent Act, as noted when Selina Kyle tells Bruce earlier in the film over shots of the wealthy eating lobster and drinking champagne that “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”  But Bane has no allegiance to the Occupy philosophy and is most certainly not fighting for the people, he’s using them – as cynically as the billionaires, politicians and professional lobbyists who seized control of the Tea Party and convinced common people to protest and vote against their own best interest.  The theatricality and deception of a “people’s revolution” in Gotham is a mere smokescreen, as Selina comes to understand when the storm she predicted destroys everything it touches – not just the rich.  For its part, the Occupy movement has never claimed to want to tear the wealthy down, nor does it begrudge the acquisition of wealth; it simply believes in fairness, the enforcement of the law, and not rigging the game toward the singular interest of the haves.  Give everyone an equal chance to achieve a decent life, Occupy says, don’t purposely screw over those of us who’ve had a few bumps along the way to make it easier for the ones who already have it pretty good.  Bane’s attitude of killing them all and pillaging their treasures would hardly be welcome in the true Occupy movement – regardless of what the doofuses on Fox and Friends tell you.

To the second point raised by the critics, this movie purported to glorify the rich and the status quo of capitalism presents the rich largely as remorseless manipulators.  Bane is funded by billionaire construction entrepreneur John Daggett, who lets a terrorist wreak a trail of murder through Gotham City so he can seize control of the struggling Wayne Enterprises.  Daggett is not satisfied with his considerable wealth – like the Koch Brothers, he merely uses it to acquire more.  He cannot see his own complicity in what is to come, even at the very end, accusing Bane of being “pure evil” just before he has his neck snapped, when it was he who chose to release the genie from the bottle.  And the most accomplished and cruellest manipulator in the film turns out to be billionaire Miranda Tate, who wears the veil of a philanthropist trying to save the world, but is in fact Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, as committed to destroying Gotham as her late father.  She convinces Bruce to install her as chair of Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors and give her access to his dormant clean energy project, with the intent of using her other pawn – Bane, himself motivated by the easiest manipulation of all, his love for her – to bring her father’s wishes to fruition.  She does not care that there are innocent people in Gotham City; she scoffs at the mere mention of the word.  Her desire for retribution trumps everything – ideology, loyalty, even her own life.  Money for her is but a means to a horrible end.

Bruce Wayne, however, has never been one to let himself be defined by his wealth; it gives him no pleasure.  His flaunting of it in previous films has been a form of misdirection, convincing people that he is the worst of the stereotypes of careless moneybags; the last person who would ever want to become Batman.  However, when his wealth is taken away from him through a fraudulent stock transaction, he seems totally unconcerned about being broke.  He does not miss it, and does not care about regaining it.  He has long ago realized what Daggett never did – that more zeroes on the balance sheet don’t take the pain away.  That pain is a point of bonding between himself and the young cop John Blake, a man who has grown up poor and in and out of foster care, but has, like Bruce, channelled his anger into a sense of justice (and unlike Bane, who grew up in the worst cesspool on earth and consequently turned against humanity).  The film suggests that nobility, then, has nothing to do with wealth, and even the smallest acts of good are worth more, to invoke a cliché, than their weight in gold.  Indeed, when Bruce is reduced to his lowest, broken and lying immobile at the bottom of a prison halfway across the world, he finds the strength to rebuild himself from nothing, to escape and return to fight for his city.  These are qualities that cannot be bestowed; those who never confront desperation, loneliness and fear can never rise above them.  Those who are insulated by fortune never achieve their greatest potential.  Throughout the series, the moments that have shaped Bruce Wayne’s character for the better have come when he is separated from the life of luxury that is his birthright.  As Carmine Falcone tells him in Batman Begins, “You’ve never tasted desperate.”  Bruce Wayne may be a one-percenter, but he understands what it is like to have nothing – his empathy for the weak and powerless is part of what drives him to right Gotham City’s wrongs.  I would find it very difficult to believe that David and Charles Koch have ever had to choose between rent and food, that they have ever sat up nights wondering how they’re going to pay their heating bill, that they would deign to come within one hundred feet of a homeless man – which is why they are relentless in their funding of politicians who share their disdain for social equality and the common good.  They do not believe there are any wrongs out there, and if there are, it’s always somebody else’s fault for not trying hard enough.

The counter-argument goes, “see, Bruce Wayne pulls himself up by his bootstraps and works hard to defeat the bad guys – how is that not the attitude of the one percent?”  True, Bruce does have to rebuild himself from nothing, but what’s most important about his recovery is that he does not do it alone.  He has significant assistance along the way, from two of his fellow inmates in the prison, to Blake, Commissioner Gordon, Selina Kyle, Lucius Fox and the entire Gotham City police force.  The final act of The Dark Knight Rises is not so much the rise of a single man but of an entire city fighting for its liberation – in a sense, they are all Batman.  Perhaps the final act of heroism does belong solely to the caped crusader, but he does not get to that point without the help of his allies.  It is something of a paean to the nature of heroism when Bruce explains that Batman can be anyone – that we do not have to look to a single person to find the courage within ourselves as a society to make the kind of world we want.  The monument of Batman that is unveiled at the film’s finale is less a tribute to an individual than it is to a spirit, reflecting a time when the people rose up to take back their city from the thugs attempting to destroy it.  It is not a resumption of the status quo – it is an evolution.

Ultimately, the chief reason why The Dark Knight Rises can’t be pegged as allying itself to either the Occupy movement or the one percent is because that is too easy a question to answer – it’s easy to say that the rich are all evil and that there would be a tremendous satisfaction in watching every single one of them thrown out into street.  Our world is not that simple, nor is the moral universe of the Nolan Batman trilogy.  Nolan’s aim after the cartoonish wreck of the previous four Batman movies was to treat the character with a realistic approach, one that recognized the frequent real-world ambiguity of the nature of good and evil.  There are villains, but they are not simply forces to be destroyed – they upset the moral platform of both the heroes and the audience, and challenge us to re-examine what we think about the state of our world.  The message of The Dark Knight Rises, if there is one, is that we should not put off these questions, that we cannot sleepwalk through our lives and expect that what we sweep beneath the carpet in the interest of expediency, or a temporary peace, will not someday come back to wreak havoc upon us.  But it also assures us that no matter how deep we sink, we can come back.  We have it within us.  We can rise.

Rise of The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta.

After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader.  This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.”  Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups.  The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60’s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes.  What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.

Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster.  Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel.  “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.”  It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale.  (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.)  So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.

The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either.  Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again.  Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four.  The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old.  After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it.  Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off.  The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton.  The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.”  The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia.  Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.

Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.

The reasons why?  Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film.  Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie.  Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead.  The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies).  Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being.  Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope.  And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours.  It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.

In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen.  He has three personas:  Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich.  Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way.  Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on.  The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy:  Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself.  In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!”  “Zap!”  “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings.  Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us.  He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will.  And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.

The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it.  With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part.  Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies.  Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made.  So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.