We live in a moment of mass infantilization. The culture continuously drives us back into childhood, childish thinking, childish taste. As we grow accustomed to having our childish tendencies stroked and flattered, we demand more of it. Look around you at a multiplex screening of, say, The Boss Baby: You’ll be shocked by how many adults turn up without children, or rather you won’t be shocked at all because you’re alive in this country.
In 2005 Christopher Nolan set out to reverse the polarity of culture. He took a children’s genre — the comic-book superhero movie — and approached it with an adult sensibility. Batman Begins, directed and co-written by Nolan, was the first fully grown-up superhero movie, its maturity of both form and content unprecedented. Now streaming on Netflix, the film set a new standard for its genre and has yet to be excelled by its many successors. Instead of asking us to dispense with reality and agree to be transported into a comic-book fantasy, Batman Begins simply wonders what our world might be like if someone like Bruce Wayne lived in it. Batman doesn’t appear in the film until the second hour, and he is seen on screen for only about 15 minutes.
Christian Bale’s Wayne, it is critical to point out, is a clever, well-trained, and well-supplied fighter, but he possesses no superhuman abilities. Nothing magical happens in the movie, although some of the technology seems slightly of the future. Batman Begins recentered the superhero genre on humans and our fears and aspirations instead of focusing on mystical aliens, magical amulets, telekinesis, or superhuman strength. It isn’t the story of otherworldly abilities but rather a man of indomitable determination, a man who wills himself to rise the way Teddy Roosevelt lifted himself up from asthma and physical weakness. Hardship, for the great man, is reframed as challenge: “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up,” says Wayne’s father in a typically lapidary line, one that typifies Nolan’s rejection of the tradition of shallow, quip-based, and usually corny superhero-film dialogue.
Before Batman Begins, superhero flicks were a tiny subcategory of Hollywood movies. After the debacle of Batman & Robin in 1997, no DC Comics superhero movie appeared for seven years, and then it was the equally disastrous Catwoman in 2004. Between 2000 and the 2005 release of Batman Begins, the other major superhero movies were the first two X-Men movies, Hulk, Daredevil, and the first two Spider-Man movies. None of these were able to shake off their comic-book origins; all were silly in one way or another, notably the cackling, ridiculous Green Goblin zooming above Times Square on his magical hoverboard in the first Spider-Man and the even more ludicrous Doc Ock waving his tentacles in Spider-Man 2. And those are the two best superhero movies of the quarter-century before Batman Begins. Its villain Scarecrow, by contrast, is genuinely unsettling because a maniac such as he could exist: He overpowers his victims via a hallucinogenic drug released in spray form, and the visions he incites in his victims are the most frightening images ever seen in any superhero film. They transcend the genre.
They are also the obverse of Batman’s unashamed tactic of scaring wrongdoers. Wayne believes he needs to fight evil in Gotham City not as a man but as a symbol — “something elemental, something terrifying.” The scenes in which Wayne creates the Batman persona are some of the best in the film and provide a sound basis for superhero movies in general: We need larger-than-life figures, archetypes, and myths. This isn’t solely a question of taste in entertainment; we yearn for heroes in reality as well, but the media delights in exposing our idols’ feet of clay. Fiction is the only place where heroes are allowed to flourish anymore.
The way Nolan structures evil as concentric spheres of corruption and malice adds to the film’s gravitas. The proximate problem facing Gotham City is the disorder and misery caused by a mob boss’s domination of institutions such as policing and the judiciary. (Tom Wilkinson’s broad performance as the gangster is the weakest element of the film.) That boss in turn answers to the psychologist Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow, but he in turn is merely a pawn of a millennia-old secret society, the League of Shadows, that espouses cleansing by mass murder. When a city becomes too diseased and decadent (and Gotham City recalls New York City in the 1970s), the League of Shadows engineers a catastrophic event — a reset intended to spark renewal. The League’s dark vision resonates both on the right and left, evoking equally the fury of an Old Testament God who unleashes His wrath on sinners and the progressive sense, expressed in environmentally aware movies such as Children of Men and Wall-E, that man has so misused his home that he deserves an apocalyptic retribution on the way to a new beginning. “The move back to harmony will be unstoppable this time,” says the League of Shadows’ current leader, Ra’s al Ghul. The notion of man as intrinsically irreparable carries with it a chilling dread.
Shortly after the genre’s possibilities fully settled in with the sequel The Dark Knight in 2011, superhero movies became the lead product of the six major Hollywood studios and consequently one of the world’s chief cultural items. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies contain much sweetening — playful camaraderie, bantering interludes, and even outright comedy — but they build from Nolan’s real-world vision, while Nolan’s successor as the chief creative visionary of DC Comics films, Zack Snyder, tried to outdo Nolan’s brooding, unsettling approach and sometimes went too far. Both families of movies, though, have for the most part turned away from the campy tone that mars Tim Burton’s (and especially Joel Schumacher’s) Batman films. With Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan fixed the superhero movie.