Batman Begins

Not only is Batman Begins the best film/TV Batman, it's one of the best action superhero films ever, on par with the first Superman, Spider-Man 1 and 2, and Unbreakable. Genuinely moving and powerful. I give it my highest rating: worth full evening price, twice. In fact, you will enjoy it even more on second viewing, because once you know the plot, you can concentrate on all the beautiful little details.

Please note the PG-13 rating; parts of Batman Begins are far too disturbing for little children (almost too disturbing for adults approaching middle age).

This film is exceptionally good: strong characters, solid storyline, mostly believable technology, moving soundtrack, and great performances (but for Katie Holmes, who pretty but bland and kind of weak). When Scarecrow puts the Fear on people, you get to see what they see, and it is nightmarish. The supporting cast really are "supporting" -- they're all strong in they're own right, but they know they are there to help Batman when he needs it. Brilliant writing.

And the soundtrack! It has the distinction of being the work of two distinctly different composers: James Newton Howard (e.g. Unbreakable) and Hans Zimmer (e.g. various action films and Rain Man). You can hear their different styles come through in different places, but sometimes you don't know which is which. Frankly, I never thought a two-note theme could *be* a theme ... but it is, at least when you have the underlying foundation of the rest of the composition. The first note builds, and builds, and then breaks to the second note just as an important scene element tips on-screen; it's a very powerful element, even though you may not always notice it on first viewing.

For those of us who care about this kind of thing, there are plenty of nods to Jung, and to the Sodom-and-Gomorrah story. The storyline is almost point-for-point in line with the Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth.

If you want to hear more about it, read on, but be warned: there are spoilers below.

WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW!

I don't want to review the movie, exactly, but I do want to point out some highlights. Before I do, though, I want to say that you really should read "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell.

Campbell researched a great deal of mythology and religious stories, everything from the Babylonian mythos to the Egyptians, Greek and Roman myths, Hindu, native American, northern European, Judaism, Christian, and Islam. In his research, he noticed that the same basic 15 points came up in all the "hero" stories, regardless of the time period or the geographic region. He called this the "monomyth" template.

It turns out that we're telling the same stories to each other even now: Star Wars, the Matrix, Superman, and many other sci-fi and fantasy and comic-book plots have most or all of the elements of the Campbell monomyth. Perhaps I'll write more about the monomyth in another post some time, but this overview should provide a good introduction with some good highlights from pop culture.

Now, back to Batman Begins:

The film opens with Bruce Wayne as a child of 7 or 8; he steals from his playmate Rachel an arrowhead she has found. He runs, and almost immediately plunges into a poorly covered well. In the well, there is a cave entrance, and bats flock out of it to surround the terrified boy; this is one of the traumas that leads to the origin of Batman (the other is the murder of his parents). That the film begins with an act of theft by its hero (who will go on to combat thieves), and that it leads him to the Cave of his subconscious, is clearly aspect of the Campbell monomyth and the work of Jung.

As a young man of 21 or 22, Bruce confronts his own desire to commit murder when the killer of his parents is released on parole; he does not commit the act, but only because the killer is gunned down in front of him. Rachel, now a lawyer, takes him to the underside of Gotham where he gets to see the face of true criminality; after that, he sets out on a journey to learn about the criminal mind. At the end of his seven years in the wilderness (reflections of Buddha Siddhartha), he is approached by the League of Shadows and is trained to fight evil, which he begins in earnest on the night of his 30th birthday (reflections of Christ). Again, we see points of the monomyth described by Campbell: the passing of the first veil, the descent into the underworld, the gift of special powers, and the return from the underworld to bring new knowledge.

***

Batman Begins reflects another ancient tale, that of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In the Judeo-Christian telling, Abraham has just finished hosting two angels and the Lord at a meal when God tells Abraham that he (the Lord) is going to destroy two cities that have become evil and wicked beyond His forbearance. Abraham asks God to withhold his wrath, and bargains with Him; eventually the Lord says he won't destroy these cities, but only if Abraham is able to find ten righteous men living there. (Abraham himself never goes to the city.)

The narrative then turns to a man named Lot, who lives in Sodom. He takes in the two angels who just left Abraham. There is an altercation with the men of the town, who want to rape the messengers of the Lord. The angels tell Lot to escape the city, and then lay waste to the it before the Lord rains fire down on the whole plain (including Sodom, Gomorrah, and other towns in between).

In Batman Begins, we never see the Lord directly, but we sure do see the angels of destruction; they are the minions of Ras al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, who are planning the destruction of Gotham. Bruce Wayne/Batman, as a combined Abraham/Lot character, bargains for the corrupted Gotham/Gomorrah. As in the Jewish tale, the angels of the League proceed with their plans to destroy the city.

But this is where the narratives diverge: Batman, as a dark angel of salvation, stands in the way of the immediate destruction of Gotham and defeats Ras al Ghul himself, even though the League's plan partially succeeds with the release of Arkham inmates (the worst of the worst) into the city. As such, the dark Batman is the savior character, and the destroyers are a corrupted evil, a significant twist on the original Sodom and Gomorrah tale.