The Dark Knight rises back next month. His arrival is significant for a number of reasons, and they all deserve to be quantified. But what’s socially important about The Dark Knight Rises is it’s attitude toward modern problems. The first two movies have been culturally significant. The Dark Knight was called “the first great post-9/11 film.” They’ve incorporated the political atmosphere of the times into the plot lines, with Ras al-Ghul’s League of Shadows organizing a massive chemical attack on an American city and the Joker’s tactical threats against landmarks and transportation effectively besieging a modern Gotham. The third film seems to be building on economic divisions and plans to round off the latent theme of terrorism, a tremendous combination of themes. But I felt it was important to describe in detail what Nolan was able to do with his modern Caped Crusader to match him to the spirit of the times.
Batman Begins’ Allegory for Al-Qaeda
The movie is about fear. That is the essential thing to understand. In Batman Begins, the story is indisputably is about Bruce Wayne. Everything revolves around his experience, but that’s an invested experience. He grows into the idea he has to be the guardian angel where no one else will be. Becoming a source of good that literally fights crime necessitates overcoming fear, whether one is training to be a Marine or run for office in a country known for its assassinations.
Along the journey he’s acquainted with Ras al-Ghul. In the comics, he is more science fiction, a hundreds-year-old noble who’s keeps himself living by means of a completely fictitious chemical pit. He’s experienced wars and pain over his lifetime, but has also had time to amass great wealth and build a network of global assassins. He is a man of principle, making him a mirror for Bruce Wayne’s morality throughout the comics. It’s no different in the film.
But his name makes the reason behind choosing to use his character much more obvious. His name is Arabic. Ras al-Ghul literally means “demon head” (related to “rosh” in Hebrew and “ghoul” in English), symbolizing the dread he can instill. In my mind, he and the themes of the movie have always made this the first real attempt to incorporate the epic problems of international terrorism a plot device in a movie that has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.
Adapted for the movie, the scifi is eliminated while maintaining his personality. He serves as the ideal model for today’s Islamic fundamentalism, motivated by an ingrained religious ideal to cleanse evil from the world by launching full-scale war against it. There is no concern for collateral damage. Their plan in Begins is to hit Gotham with a weapon that would tear at the sullied fabric of its society.
Challenging the Validity of Terrorism
Channeling the power of fear is a sub-element of the overarching theme. The secondary villain, The Scarecrow, makes that obvious. His background as a psychiatrist informs him how to design a chemical weapon that would induce panic and insanity. The weapon would literally make Gotham City’s citizens kill each other. Ras wants to use it to strike terror in the hearts of Gothamites, while Wayne wants to turn that strategy on the criminals who count on it. In al-Ghul’s words, “Gotham will tear itself apart through fear.” But Wayne wants to “turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” His struggle to overcome fear is a model he wants to project for those Gothamites, and consequently their future is not lost, much less are they deserving of being punished for others’ sins.
What is lost here is Batman can’t deny the corrupt nature of the city. Wayne takes a stand that “there are good people” in the city and that the only strategy to save the city is to take the fight to criminals and go through the court system to establish the rule of law, perhaps its own statement about modern politics. It is a message as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalism of our age than the prisons of Guantanomo Bay.
Wayne is trained by al-Ghul’s League of Shadows, and has to complete his journey by executing a known murderer. But this criminal hasn’t gone through a trial nor been proven guilty. His execution has no justice connected to it. The scene here nestles the idea of what a stable society looks like squarely in the face of the terrorists who aim to destroy it. Al-Ghul says “no one can save Gotham,” denying that anything can challenge a belief he follows religiously – the only way to wipe evil away is to stab it in the heart in one massive blow.
Batman challenges an international organization motivated by an infallible ideology. He squares off with people whose answer to criminality, selfishness, and moral decay is destruction instead of redemption. Begins, not just the character, invests stock in the notion that people can change, but it will not be overnight. Begins is a classical comedy with a happy ending, firmly establishing someone whose challenged the norms of human failure and stood up to people’s nature to bully or to run; their nature to give into their desires or give up on the world; their nature to turn on each other rather than on the real problem.
Batman Begins challenges the idea of terrorism by instructing us how not to be terrified, and goes further by tearing into its own self-justifications. It takes a dramatic adventure to deliver the point, but it’s difficult not to see it. And like all great teachers, the writers and director don’t give just one lesson. A deeper inspection of these themes continues in The Dark Knight.