The Psychology of the Shadow, Part 1: Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has been justly praised for countless reasons. The psychological construction of the protagonist raised the Batman from a mere comic figure to a relatable hero of stature. The quality of the acting, screenplay, production design and especially Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack have elevated this trilogy into the ranks of modern cinema’s all-time classics. But there is one reason for praise that has not received the consideration it deserves. And this reason is the fact that the trilogy has an underlying, very clear and consistent theory of evil, which is laid out in the plot of all three movies.

This essay is the first part of a series about Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In this series is we will lay out Nolan’s concept of evil as depicted in the trilogy.

Batman Begins

The first kind of evil, generally speaking, we encounter in the opening sequence of Batman Begins. We see Bruce and Rachel as children, which means in their age of innocence, being confronted with the most fundamental kinds of evil in the world. Bruce is confronted with it while he’s hiding from Rachel and falls down the dry well. This may sound trivial and unspectacular, but it’s important to state it, so we can progress from here. Even though there is no intention behind it, and one could claim that “if there’s no person with an ill intention, it’s not evil”, this is missing the point. Evil is not merely about intentions. In its broadest sense, evil means that bad things happen in the world and pull the human being out of his state of uninterrupted bliss. At the lowest level, bad things can just happen in every moment, unintentionally. Contingency is a manifestation of evil in the world.

The second level of evil which Bruce encounters in the same scene is a swarm of bats attacking him. They don’t attack him for a specific purpose. They’re animals; and feeling threatened, they attack the unknown intruder.

Fear

Fear plays a crucial role in The Dark Knight Trilogy, but especially in Batman Begins. The first part of the trilogy is essentially a story about fear. Bruce’s fear of bats is what, as an adult, drives him to become Batman. Fear is what urged young Bruce to leave the opera house, which lead to the situation in which his parents were murdered. But fear is also what made a desperate Joe Chill pull the trigger on Thomas and Martha Wayne. Ra’s al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) training of Bruce (Christian Bale) revolves around his fear, teaching him how to overcome it. The League of Shadows uses fear as a weapon, by means of a fear-inducing hallucinogen gained from the rare blue flower Bruce had to pick up at the top of the mountain (the Himalayan blue poppy). The psychologist Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), who secretly works for Ra’s al Ghul, uses this hallucinogen when he turns into Scarecrow, breaking his victim’s minds by causing them unbearable fear. When Dr. Crane meets Batman in the Narrows, he poisons him with the hallucinogen, causing a heavily traumatic reaction which incapacitates Bruce for several days. And finally, the final plot point of Batman Begins consists in Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison Gotham City with the fear-inducing hallucinogen gained from the blue poppy. His plan is to trigger the people’s fears as to unleash their dark sides, which will cause them to tear each other apart because they feel threatened by everybody.

We can see the clear line in how Nolan treats the topic of fear in Batman Begins. Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham corresponds to exactly the same mechanism that caused Bruce’s trauma. It’s the evil that erupts into life at the level of personal fear. As Thomas Wayne explains to young Bruce, “All creatures feel fear. […] Especially the scary ones.” Hence, fear is a fundamental precondition for all living beings. It is at the core of the dark side of our personalities. It is deeply ingrained in us, because we are vulnerable. Fear is the fear of being hurt, the fear of pain.

Excursus: Fear and Angst

Fear is not angst. Angst, sometimes called “existential angst”, is the contrary of fear. I said the contrary, not the opposite. The word angst has been introduced as a psychological term by the Danish pastor and philosopher Sören Kierkegaard in his work The Concept of Anxiety in the 19th century. As the founding father of existential philosophy, Kierkegaard explored the preconditions of the human condition. In his Christian anthropology, Kierkegaard regards the human being as essentially free. This freedom, says Kierkegaard in good Lutheran fashion, is blessing and curse at the same time. Freedom of will allows us to choose to do the right thing. But we are always confronted with the unknown, because we don’t know whether our decision is the right thing or the wrong thing to do. Hence, we are always afraid of what may follow from our decisions. For Kierkegaard, we are eternally standing at the abyss, staring down into the depth of everything that could possibly go wrong. Thus, angst is the fear of our own freedom.

We can see this fear of our own freedom in many situations. Conformity and obedience to authority, instead of relying on our own truly personal judgement, are two of the most apparent manifestations of angst. But angst is also when we become hubristic and act as if we didn’t have this fear of the unknown. Exaggerated certainty and overconfidence, says Kierkegaard, are an exponentiated level of angst. Because, as Kierkegaard says, angst is always part of our existence, and acting as if we could ignore or overcome it springs only from the angst itself. It is an act of spite against our own finite and limited nature as human beings.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who read Kierkegaard extensively, expanded the concept of angst to “a fear without object”. Fear, says Heidegger, is the fear of something, of some thing. But angst is a general, unremovable part of our existence, and related to being in the world at all.

Remember how I said that angst is the contrary of fear, not its opposite? The opposite of fear is courage. What is the opposite of angst? As a Lutheran pastor, Kierkegaard answers this question with “faith”. Fear can be overcome by courage. We feel the fear and confront that thing we fear anyways, be it a crowd of people, an escalator or a needle. But angst, standing at the abyss of our uncertain existence, can only be overcome by the famous Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

Fear and Anger

Fear is in everyone. Batman Begins is the tale of how Bruce Wayne becomes traumatized by it and finds a way to overcome his fear by becoming Batman.

What is Christopher Nolan’s answer on overcoming fear, in Batman Begins?

A closer look at Bruce’s coping mechanisms will lead us the way.

The central scene in Batman Begins, which initiates Bruce’s transformation, is when he confesses to Rachel (Katie Holmes) that he wanted to murder Joe Chill, to avenge his parents. Rachel tells him that revenge is not the solution to the deeper problem, but only the outlet for his anger. There is a deeper sense in Rachel’s words. Anger, as a matter of fact, is merely the attempt to overpower our own feelings of vulnerability. In other words, Bruce’s anger is a mechanism to cover up his fear as well as his sense of guilt for his parents’ death.

Rachel, after scolding Bruce for trying to solve the issue with anger, sarcastically urges him to thank mob boss Carmine Falcone for creating people like Joe Chill by spreading fear in Gotham City. There, Falcone makes Bruce understand that the criminal underworld thrives on fear. But the probably most telling part of Falcone’s speech is his final words, which underline the afore mentioned mechanism: “Don’t come down here with your anger, trying to prove something. This is a world you don’t understand. And you’ll always fear what you don’t understand.”

Deeply impacted by the unrefutable truth of these words, Bruce leaves for the underworld, where he spends 7 years, “to understand the criminal mind and face [his] fear.”

But it doesn’t work. After these 7 years, despite having lived as a criminal, Bruce is still possessed by his fear. That’s why he’s still having nightmares in prison. That’s why Ra’s al Ghul offers him a path to confront and conquer his fear.

How does Ra’s al Ghul intend to help Bruce conquer his fear?

Overcoming Fear

The essence of Ra’s al Ghul’s teachings is revealed in the sword fighting scene on the frozen lake. The scene picks up thematically where we just left: “You have learned to bury your guilt with anger. I will teach you to confront it and to face the truth.”

Ra’s al Ghul then proceeds to tell Bruce that his parents’ death was not his fault, but his father’s, because he refused to act. This angers Bruce, who starts to attack him fiercely. After a daring fight in which Bruce appears to have the upper hand, Ra’s al Ghul reveals to him that Bruce “sacrificed sure foot for a killing strike”, crushes the ice under Bruce’s feet and makes him fall into the cold water. This last reply is reminiscent of his first teaching at the beginning of the sword fighting scene: “Always mind your surroundings.”

How do all these things fit together?

Ra’s al Ghul calls Bruce’s father responsible because he refused to actively protect his family, and instead tried to appease the attacker. “The will to act”, as he says, “is everything”. Thomas Wayne was a peaceful man. Contrarily, Bruce is possessed by anger, even to the degree that director Christopher Nolan designed Bruce’s ferocious fighting style with aggressive, forward-striding attacks, to reflect this anger.

This trait goes hand in hand with Bruce tapping into his dark side to become Batman. While Thomas Wayne was a harmless man, Bruce is not – and he wasn’t harmless even before his training, as we can see in the prison scene in the beginning of the movie.

So, the will to act is a means to overcome the own fear. This is exactly how behavioral psychologists treat patients who suffer from various kind of phobias. They don’t try to talk their patients out of their fear: instead they teach them to confront it – gradually.

As we can see, “the will to act” is at the core of Ra’s al Ghul’s ideology. The League of Shadows is a fanatic organization devoted to bring justice to the world by punishing criminals. And they have been doing so for thousands of years in the past, according to the story, through the Sacking of Rome, by spreading the Black Plague, and by starting the Great London Fire. They have been quite dilligent. This time, for them, Gotham City is the epitome of immorality and corruption. And that’s why they want to punish the city by spreading fear amongst their population, so the people would turn against each other. The League of Shadows devoted themselves to actively do whatever appears necessary for them to bring justice. Their ideology is like an unstoppable monorail train – yes, exactly like the one they’re using to run the Microwave Emitter into the core of Gotham’s power supply, to spread the fear-inducing hallucinogen over the city.

Let’s take a closer look at the final fight scene between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, shall we?

Action and Hubris

Batman confronts Ra’s in the monorail train that’s supposed to carry the Microwave Emitter into the center of Gotham’s power supply. Ra’s believes that Bruce came to stop him. But he doesn’t know that Bruce has James Gordon (Gary Oldman) shoot down a pillar that supports the monorail. Ra’s al Ghul, certain of his victory, tells Bruce that he’s “just an ordinary man in a cape. That’s why you can’t fight injustice, and that’s why you can’t stop this train.” – to which Bruce replies: “Who said anything about stopping it?”, and, after breaking free of his grip: “You never learned to mind your surroundings.”

Ra’s al Ghul’s fanatism is based on hubris. It’s a one-dimensional perspective that oversimplifies “the nature of right and wrong”. That’s why he says “The criminal mind is not complicated.” We will learn in 2nd part of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, how wrong this assumption is. Furthermore, Ra’s al Ghul’s “will to act” turns a blind eye to the fact that by punishing what they regard as criminals, they become criminals themselves – which is why Bruce, back during the Initiation Ritual with the League of Shadows, refused to execute the farmer who had murdered his neighbor. Fighting crime does not make someone automatically righteous or immune to fault.

Hence, acting can be a means to overcome fear. But it requires a further ingredient to avoid falling into the trap of turning a blind eye to the consequences of our own actions. This further ingredient is: “Mind your surroundings.” And this means: pay attention.

Acting makes us feel sure of ourselves. But especially when things seem to go well, we’re prone to become overconfident and ignore what we’re turning a blind eye to. That is why the easy fix, in which we deceive ourselves about the consequences of our actions, is painful on the long term. This is why acting out of our lower instincts is easier than acting with nobility – this is why Faust becomes successful after sealing his pact with Mephisto. Acting is good; but if we deceive ourselves, or others, over the circumstances, things will snap back at us in an ugly manner. Even if we don’t want to look at it, the danger is always lurking. That’s why we become restless and uneasy when we deceive ourselves, although we may experience pleasure on the surface. Paying attention is the ultimate way to overcome fear, because it forces us to be humble enough to assess where we could go wrong, and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

Paying attention allows us to take stock of what’s going on around us. It reduces the complexity of the world to a manageable sphere of influence. When we feel anxious, paying attention to our own bodies and to our surroundings can be a source of great relief.

Nolan’s solution against fear, as depicted in Batman Begins, is to act – but to act with awareness, and with conscience. “It’s not who we are underneath, but what we do, that defines us.” This means also to be honest with ourselves and to be aware that everything we do projects who we are into reality. There is no piece that can stay hidden, nothing we get away with. We can only overcome our fears by consciously acting out of our authentic selves. Self-deception breeds hubris. And hubris inevitably leads to our own destruction.

This is why Ra’s al Ghul dies in a train he himself set in motion. “Pride comes before a fall.” Bruce doesn’t kill him. He just doesn’t try to stop him anymore. He lets Ra’s al Ghul fall into his self-created doom.

The two Degrees of Evil in Batman Begins

Hubris is masked fear. The League of Shadows trying to deny the possibility of their own fallibility reveals only the hidden fear of being judged beyond their own structure of values. Thus, in essence, hubris is self-deception.

The plot of Batman Begins confronts Bruce Wayne with the two kinds of evil fear and hubris. As he is driven by fear himself, his inner coping mechanisms are deeply intertwined with his exterior adversaries. This psychological consistency between character development and storyline is one of the many things that make The Dark Knight Trilogy so valuable.

In the next parts of this series, we will delve deeper into the depiction of evil in the two sequels, and embed them into the broader context of the trilogy.

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