Batman Begins alternative poster.
I recently had the pleasure of watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins … twice. This was in celebration of Netflix’s decision to restore the movie and its follow up, the renowned The Dark Knight, to its streaming library. It was also because I really like Batman Begins. My first viewing was purely for pleasure, but the second time around (after deciding I would rather watch it again than anything else at my disposal), I vowed to pay more attention to Nolan’s visual storytelling. Below is a list of my observations of the beginning of Batman Begins.
I. The Opening Shot
It has been said that opening shots tell us everything. In the case of Batman Begins, Nolan immediately establishes his Batman Trilogy’s darkness, grittiness, and chaos in the opening shot of the film, which depicts a swarm of bats that shifts to form itself into the bat symbol.
By using this as his opening shot, Nolan reveals how his Batman will differ from previous interpretations, especially in the idea that identifying the drama and the symbol of Batman is more important than identifying Bruce Wayne, Batman’s secret identity.
II. The Hero's Introduction
The assertion made by the opening shot is affirmed by Bruce Wayne’s lack of a glorified introduction. The bat swarm shot is followed by a short memory/dream sequence again involving bats, and then we are thrown into a prison somewhere in Asia where Bruce spends a lot of time in quick shots lit in low light.
The average shot length in the whole film is short, but the choice to use short shots is even more noticeable in the beginning of Batman Begins, because it interferes with the audience’s ability to collect narrative information about Bruce. Conventionally at this time in the film, a director would want the viewer to get a good look at Christian Bale, the actor playing Bruce Wayne/Batman, for a visual introduction. This expectation seems especially relevant given that most comic book films are driven by their heroes. Instead, Nolan barely shows Bale’s face before he is involved in a prison-yard fight and covered in mud.
By starting with the bat symbol, keeping his shots short, and literally obstructing Christian Bale’s face with mud within the film’s first 5 minutes of his film, Nolan effectively denies the audience the hero’s introduction they were anticipating.
Bruce Wayne’s introduction made me curious about how other superheroes are introduced in their origin story films. Ironically, the sharpest contrast I found was in the 2013 Superman movie, Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s gritty Superman reboot that was actually inspired by Nolan’s visual style.
The first moment in which we see actor Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, as an adult in a front facing shot, he has just climbed into an exploding oil rig in an attempt to rescue its passengers. Also, he is shirtless. And on fire.
Here, Snyder is an example of a director who needs you to see his hero. The audience is supposed to base their understanding of Superman on this introduction: a strong, shirtless, flaming man. (Interestingly enough, according to my extensive(ish) YouTube research, a lot of hero introductions involve fire in some way or another. Quite the contrast to Nolan’s mud fight.)
An important note: There exists in nearly all superhero movies I have seen a separate introduction: one where the hero embraces his/her identity as a superhero. Often, these moments mirror their initial introduction and reaffirm the same thematic material.
Here is Superman:
Alone, centered, majestic, lit by the sun; Superman is really out here to be seen. This shot affirms the message conveyed earlier in Man of Steel by the flaming, shirtless Clark Kent: Snyder wants us to see Superman as more than a man, separate from the rest of humanity, and comparable with forces of nature.
And here is Batman:
Dare I say this is pretty much the opposite of alone, centered, and lit by the sun. Clearly, the appearance of Nolan’s Batman is not important in order to understand the character. Neither Nolan’s introduction of Bruce nor his introduction of Batman asks the viewer to recognize the character in the same manner that Snyder is asking viewers to recognize Superman.
This sharp contrast between Snyder’s choices and Nolan’s exist because of the contrast between their films’ respective characters. Darkness and a lack of visual clarity in Batman Begins accurately represent Batman, a vigilante who covers his face and wears black specifically to avoid being seen. Batman’s introduction sequence parallels Bruce’s with short shots and Nolan’s refusal to clearly reveal his appearance. The emphasis on this sequence is placed far more on what Batman’s actions, implying that he is important not because of who he is, but what he does.
III. The Actions Taken
So, what does he do? The first impactful action Bruce Wayne (pre-Batman) takes in Batman Begins is to follow Ducard’s (Liam Neeson) instructions and bring a rare blue flower to the League of Shadows after his release from prison. We learn during this time that Bruce attempted to kill his parents’ murderer and confront Gotham’s crime lord, ultimately failing at both tasks. These failures led him to a life of crime in an attempt to understand the criminal mind. Bruce’s anger from this period and his newly acquired skills contribute to the development of the Batman figure.
By choosing to train with the League of Shadows, Bruce learns to prioritize the execution of justice over his own anger. But as a trainee, Bruce is a soldier—one of many; unextraordinary. The most important choice Bruce makes at the beginning of Batman Begins is his refusal to execute a murderer, preventing him from becoming initiated into the League of Shadows. This choice has many moving parts that foreshadow Batman’s eternal struggle with darkness and light, and also secures his role as an outcast.
First, he refuses to execute the criminal, saying, “I’m no executioner.”
This statement shows true growth from the young, vengeful person he previously was: the boy who tried to kill his parents’ murderer. Bruce’s refusal to kill also becomes the foundation of Batman’s code of ethics, which he religiously adheres to throughout the trilogy.
After Bruce makes this monumental choice, he learns that the League of Shadows intends to destroy his home, the city of Gotham, due to the city’s corruption and crime. In response, Bruce says, “I will go back to Gotham and I will fight men like this, but I will not become an executioner.” Here, Bruce lays out the mission that he ultimately fulfills as Batman. He punctuates this choice by setting the fortress of the League of Shadows aflame (there’s that superhero movie fire).
Besides literally giving us the darkness of the fortress and the light of the flames, this act reveals the deep conflict between light and dark which underlines all of Nolan’s Batman movies. Despite having just refused to execute a man, Bruce sets a fire that leads to far more than one death and great destruction. Ducard is injured in the fire, and Bruce carries his mentor to safety. It is this protective instinct, what Ducard refers to as compassion, that will go on to become Batman’s greatest weakness.
Before Batman actually begins fighting crime on the streets of Gotham, Nolan provides viewers of Batman Begins with an entire toolbox of thematic material by way of Bruce Wayne. Nolan introduces the symbol of Batman before he introduces the man. The first shot is a bat swarm that gathers into the shape of the bat symbol. Bruce explicitly states that the symbol of Batman is more important than any one man when he says, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Then, Nolan emphasizes Wayne’s actions over his character by refusing to show us the hero we are looking for, instead focusing on the acts that pave the way to Batman’s creation. He is kind enough to explicitly affirm this theme of action over character again—this time through Bruce’s childhood friend and love interest, Rachel Dawes:
Finally, Nolan shows how Bruce/Batman’s actions always walk the line between darkness and light when Bruce burns the League of Shadows to the ground and reveals his compassion as his greatest weakness.
It turns out that Nolan really knows how to walk the walk. The ideas of symbol over man and action over character prompted my analysis of Batman Begins, because rarely does a director tell you to your face an idea that he has been showing you all along. If this peaks your curiosity, give Batman Begins a watch and focus on what Nolan shows you about fear, another theme that he communicates both explicitly and implicitly. Despite no doubt missing a million other things Nolan left for us, I would say this has been a relatively successful analysis of the beginning of Batman Begins.
Photo Credits: studiokxx, Warner Bro.