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Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), still reeling from his parent’s murder when he was a child, flees to Asia to seek tutelage from Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) in how to be a warrior against the evil spreading in Gotham. Once trained, he dons a specially designed suit of black armor and the mask of a bat to comb the streets at night and rid the city of crime. He faces off against a maniac named Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) with plans to poison the water, while also rekindling a relationship with an old friend from his youth named Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who is an idealistic assistant DA on the side of good, trying to bring down a mob boss who might be more of a kingpin in all of this than even she understands.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins is a gritty, more authentic telling of the famous character, entrenched in romanticized realism rather than cartoon buffoonery, a conscious choice to separate itself from the tarnished legacy of the previous series. Giving Batman a more grounded backstory and an arsenal of mostly real-world feeling weaponry and gadgets, Nolan’s Batman became a far more identifiable hero, one with vulnerabilities and growth unseen in earlier movie iterations. Bale made Wayne a tortured character that let guilt for his mother and father’s death fill him with anger for the rampant slow decay of his beloved city. As Batman, he and Nolan created a fascinating hero who learns through pain and struggle, hones and defines the presence and purpose of the symbolic crime fighter, and established a whole new direction in the genre that changed the face of superhero movies to this day.
Since his parents were shot in an alley behind a theater when he was boy, Wayne has held firm that he is to blame as it was he who grew frightened by the performance at the show and begged to leave early. He’s buried that guilt under layers of anger, and now, as a man under the mentorship of Ducard, seeks training to vanquish the evil in his city. Ducard sees great potential in his protege, and while they speak of his past, they also study the art of war. Intercut during a swordplay session on a frozen lake, we watch as they engage in a montage of martial arts techniques under a stream of advice and wisdom spoken by Ducard. He tells of the value of patience and agility and more about the benefits of theatricality in becoming more than just a man in the eyes of an opponent. All of these are hints to the coming alter-ego Wayne will adopt, yet beneath it all is the truer message Ducard has lying in wait. At the height of this sequence, as the two are swinging swords, he assures the younger man that it was not his fault his parents were killed; it was his father’s. The words level heavy on Wayne, more so than the broadside of a sword. He lunges with more of that anger at his teacher, but is set down quickly. Ducard then claims his father’s unwillingness to act was his downfall, even if had no training. That is the greater lesson to learn. For Wayne, there is no hope without the will to act.
It is here, on the icy flats of a frozen lake in the valley where the League of Shadows trains, that Bruce Wayne gains the greatest insight into what will make Batman succeed. The combat training and valuable practice in how to best not just 6 but 600 men at a time are all tools he will sharpen as the Caped Crusader in the underworld of Gotham. Yet despite the weapons he masters and deception he practices, it is the words he learns that have the most impact. Ducard is careful with his revelation, teaching the unbalanced Wayne much before allowing him to see the larger truth about what makes a real hero. It is no coincidence they are standing on thin ice when Ducard tells him it takes a will to act in order to survive and best the evil he will face. That is precisely what a fight for life is like when meeting an enemy in combat. Sure footing and a full knowledge of your surrounding are key, but to stand unmoving as the cracks spread beneath your feet are your own fault, no matter what produces the impending fall. This was Wayne’s father’s failure in the shadow of the gunman who killed him. It won’t be for Batman.
The moment is the turning point for Wayne as he battles through the weight of the truth. At first, he lets his anger grip him, a reaction that has been a comfort to the bitter young man for a long time. He lashes out and loses a bit of his grace for combat as he swings, and in so doing loses his weapon as Ducard easily strips it away. This is very important as the sword represents the anger he harbors, something he clings to with great passion and sometimes, messily uses to fend off those he has fought before, such as the prisoners in an earlier scene where his rage crushed his opponents. With that anger flung out of his hands, tossed to the ice, he is free to do the very thing Ducard is asking: think and use the will to act. it takes a moment to understand, but when it does, Wayne looks upon Ducard with a knowing eye and instead of lashing out as he has been, he uses agility and cleverness to get the upper hand and drop his teacher to the ice. Yes, it is fleeting, as he quickly and painfully learns, but its a crucial first step up the rungs that will lead him to become the Dark Knight Gotham needs.
Bob Kane (characters), David S. Goyer (story)
Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes