If one studies mythology and the hero’s journey, the ascent of the hero up the mountain will become familiar imagery.
It is therefore no accident that Christopher Nolan chooses to begin his take on the Batman mythos with this image. Batman Begins is very much the story of how a man becomes a hero. That is, after all, its entire purpose as a film. But Nolan deviates from the typical beats of the hero’s journey in several significant ways.
The hero’s journey typically goes something like this:
The audience finds the Hero in his Known World. But there is a Problem. A lie, a darkness, or in the case of Gotham, a deep-seated corruption. The Hero receives a Call-to-Adventure that will take him out of his Known World into the Greater World. Usually there is an initial Rejection-of-the-Call by the Hero, because he is reluctant to leave his Known World, usually out of discomfort, or insecurity, or a sense of duty to stay. This is typically followed by an Acceptance-of-the-Call, usually due to forces beyond his control that push him out of the Known World before he feels ready.
Batman Begins flips the script on many of these tropes, mixing them up enough to keep the story familiar yet interesting, and – more importantly – to fit the persona of the man who will become the Batman.
First, the young Bruce Wayne leaves Gotham of his own accord. After the murder of his parents as the Inciting Event – the first part of the hero’s journey that sets the story in motion – a young Bruce Wayne leaves the Known World of Gotham behind. He knows he isn’t ready. He understands that he is not yet the person he needs to be in order to change his world. But instead of motivating him to remain in obscurity in his comfortable and familiar sphere, his unreadiness is actually the thing that inspires him to take the journey to begin with.
Instead of remaining in the Known World because of his unreadiness, he chooses to leave the Known World because of his unreadiness.
One could argue this is the Call-to-Adventure, but it is more self-created than a call from without, and there is a stronger Call-to-Adventure to come for young Wayne.
Which brings us to the aforementioned mountain. Bruce Wayne is found wallowing in a thieves’ prison by a man the audience will come to know as Ra’s al Ghul, traditionally depicted as Batman’s greatest teacher and one of his greatest rivals. In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul is literally immortal. But in typical Nolan fashion, the director brings that concept into the real world, and gives us a study of immortality not in the form of long life, but in the form of legacy.
It is al Ghul that will offer the real Call-to-Adventure:
“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal…you become something else entirely.”
“A legend, Mr. Wayne.”
These are the words Bruce Wayne has travelled the world over to hear. Finally here is a figure who not only understands what Bruce is looking for, but can seemingly help him achieve it.
Again, Batman Begins subverts expectations here. Instead of initially rejecting the call, Bruce Wayne will accept the call immediately. He is ready. His search is over. He has found what he’s been looking for. Or so he thinks.
In mythological terms, the hero’s ascent up the mountain is a rite of passage. It is the first trial that will test the hero’s mettle, to see if he really has what it takes to do what he means to do, to test his devotion to his own cause.
The mountain is also quite significant as a mythological symbol. The mountain is the place where the sage hermit or the wise man waits, and where man may commune with the gods themselves. Typically, when a hero scales the mountain and reaches the peak, the waiting wise man offers the hero knowledge, or the gods offer a boon – a gift of vital information, an ability, or an item that will aid the hero on the remainder of his quest. This is the gift that will assist the hero in changing his world.
However, in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne will learn upon reaching the mountaintop that Ra’s al Ghul is not the man Bruce thought he was. Which leads us to what is – in my opinion – the single most significant subversion in the entire film.
The wise man atop the mountain turns out to be not only a false wise man. He turns out to be the villain. A threat that will become more dangerous to Gotham than the very corruption that infects it.
This knowledge will lead Bruce Wayne to ultimately reject the Call-to-Adventure, because he discovers it is a false call offered by a false wise man. In short, it’s a lie.
Part of the hero’s journey is learning to distinguish the lie from the truth. Because a lie is most dangerous when it is very close to what is true.
In Wayne and al Ghul, we have two figures who want the same thing: to purify Gotham. And Ra’s offers Wayne what seems like a viable solution: Destroy Gotham, wipe the slate clean, and start over. This is the lie that is almost the truth.
This is part of what makes Ra’s al Ghul and many other villains so compelling: Ra’s al Ghul is right. But his methods are wrong. Both Wayne and al Ghul want to destroy the cancer. But Ra’s wants to burn the body, while Wayne wants to save it. Their philosophies are very nearly in alignment. But their methods will differ drastically.
As Ra’s al Ghul criticizes, “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.”
But it is that very compassion which sets the hero apart from his enemies. We tend to think of heroes as figures of strength – and they are. But ironically, it is precisely Bruce’s so-called weakness that will make him a hero. Instead of destroying those caught up in the corruption, he will fight to save them from external threats and from themselves.
In this way, Batman becomes not only a hero, but a savior. This should sound quite familiar to people of faith. We believe in the One who had every right to destroy us for our corruption, but gave Himself to save us instead.
This is the same compassion that was shown to young Bruce himself, when a regular cop took the time to wrap a coat around a young boy’s shoulders just after his parents were taken from him. This is a moment that will echo throughout the Dark Knight trilogy, coming full circle in Batman’s final words to Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises.
Most of the thematic heavy-lifting of the film takes place in the first thirty minutes – the First Act - of Batman Begins. Typically in the hero’s journey the hero doesn’t return to the Known World until almost the end of his journey, after he has become the hero he needs to be.
However, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham quite early in the film, but at that point he has basically already accomplished that goal. There is much doubt and fear to follow, both of which are major themes in the narrative of not only this film but the hero’s journey itself. But Bruce Wayne never really strays from the path he has set for himself.
Typically, stories are about the protagonist’s need for change. The story is how that change happens. But it is clear that in these films Batman/Bruce Wayne is an example of a static character, one that knows what is right, that sets his path early, and never really veers from it. Batman is a prime example of the fact that a static character can be just as interesting as a dynamic one.
The question isn’t whether or not Bruce Wayne will or won’t become the person he should be. The question is whether or not his path will ultimately destroy him. As Alfred – ever the voice of Bruce Wayne’s conscience – says, “You’re losing yourself in this monster you’ve made.” This will come to a head in the relationship between Bruce and Alfred in the third film, The Dark Knight Rises.
There are two major factors that make Batman so compelling as a character.
First, his Rogues Gallery. In other words, his enemies. It’s a fairly prominent rule that a hero is only as interesting as his villain. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Batman has the Joker. These are iconic villains.
But pound-for-pound, Batman has more iconic villains than any other hero. Two-Face. Scarecrow. Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn. The Riddler. Mr. Freeze. Catwoman. Bane. The list goes on and on.
These are all mythological and psychological archetypes, which is part of what makes them so strong. They are not only great characters in and of themselves, but they each embody a fundamental element of the world, they are each positioned to attack Batman in a specific way, and they each reveal an aspect of Batman’s psyche that unlocks almost unlimited potential for stories in the world of Gotham City.
Which leads us to the second factor, and one of the things that Batman Begins does so well. Batman/Bruce Wayne is a deeply developed character, so much so that he can be – and has been - psychoanalyzed. Which gives rise to great questions, questions that Batman Begins does a wonderful job of setting up and exploring.
Questions such as: Who is the real persona? Bruce Wayne or Batman? The man or the monster?
Rachel Dawes – the character portrayed by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight – states outright at the end of Batman Begins that Bruce Wayne is the mask. Batman is the real persona. Sadly, the Bruce Wayne that she knew no longer exists. He was lost somewhere out there in the world, and the figure who returned is someone else, someone darker.
Bruce Wayne tells Rachel himself: “All of this…I am more.” I am more than what you see. I am more than this mask. I am more than just Bruce Wayne.
And Rachel answers: “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”
Which brings us to the central theme of the film. Who you are doesn’t matter if you don’t possess the thing Ra’s al Ghul values most: The will to act.
But what is the one thing that prevents us from exercising that will?
Fear is the true enemy in Batman Begins, and it is this enemy above all others that Batman must overcome in order to fight injustice. He must not only master his fear but embrace it, becoming the very symbol of his childhood fears: The Bat. He will conquer his fears in order to act. Batman uses the will to act to become what the people need: a hero and a savior, an example to show them there’s a better way.
Conversely, Al Ghul uses that will for destructive purposes. Ironically, Ra’s al Ghul values the will to act, but his plan necessitates removing that very will in others – using Scarecrow’s fear toxin to turn the populace of Gotham City into panic-stricken zombies incapable of exercising their own wills. In short, the villain criticizes others for failing to act, then takes that ability away from them entirely.
It then becomes the duty of the Batman to restore the will of the people so that they may choose for themselves. He does not take their will from them as Ra’s al Ghul did. He gives it to them. Batman is the figure atop the mountain (or in this case, the shadowy towers of Gotham) bestowing the boon from the gods upon humanity – the gift of free will and choice.
It will serve as a wake-up call for Gotham. They temporarily lost their will to act, and in so doing, realized how much they had been taking for granted. As Jim Gordon says, “You’ve really started something.”
After all, what are we as humans if not beings of choice?
We make our choices, and our choices make us.
The hero has returned to the Known World, has come through his trials, has brought the gift back to the people, and in so doing, has changed his world. There has been a paradigm shift. That is the hero’s journey.
But it isn’t over. Both Batman and Gotham must learn what it means to live in the New World.
After all…this is only the beginning.