Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bruce Wayne and Batman's Rogues Gallery: Batman Begins (2005)

Christopher Nolan's ambitious Dark Knight Trilogy raised the bar for not only comic book movies but also movies in general. And that is in no small part due to the unique rogues gallery of villains that Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman must face throughout the films. As we enter the final chapter of this trilogy on Friday with the opening of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), this article will take stock of this saga's villains up until now. We will then end with a preview of Bruce Wayne and Batman's final challenges and what we predict Bruce will do to overcome them.

Villain #1: Fear Itself (The Bats of Wayne Manor)
Batman Begins (2005) immediately introduces a powerful conflicting theme to frame the Dark Knight Trilogy, namely the destructive and constructive uses of fear in society. In the opening scene, Bruce Wayne as a young child plays with his childhood friend Rachel Dawes over an old boarded up well on Wayne Manor. The wood covering the well is rotted and collapses under his weight, causing Bruce to fall a long distance and break his leg.
Thousands of Bats Pass by a Terrified Bruce Wayne as they Exit the Cave
Rachel leaves him behind to get help, leaving Bruce alone in the dark. Here Bruce begins to dread the possibility he is not alone in the cave and as he stares into the abyss, the abyss stares back and impossibly lunges at him. Thousands of bats escape past him, probably more afraid of Bruce than he is of them, as his father Thomas Wayne later points out to him. But Bruce will carry with him a phobia of bats for the next 20 years of his life.
Villain #2: Joe Chill, the Man Who Killed Bruce Wayne's Parents
In fact, young Bruce Wayne's phobia of bats is so severe that he asks his parents to leave early when the opera they are watching downtown simply features some people performing as bats. Thomas Wayne seems to catch on quickly the reasons for Bruce's fears and discreetly leaves the opera alone with his wife and son, only to be confronted by a desperate criminal hoping for a big score from the wealthy family. Trying to protect his wife, Thomas Wayne inadvertently scares the mugger and is shot to death along with Mrs. Wayne. As Thomas slips away into death, he admonishes his son, "Bruce... don't be afraid."
Villain #3: Carmine Falcone, Gotham's Most Powerful Crime Boss Who Ordered
the Assassination of Joe Chill for Turning State's Witness
Gotham successfully captured and incarcerated Joe Chill for the Wayne murders, but Bruce Wayne was tormented by the impotence and powerlessness he felt as a child and over the years he apparently planned to avenge his parents' death if Joe Chill were ever released from prison. But on the fateful day Bruce planned to publicly execute Joe Chill, a Jack Ruby-like assassin beat him to the punch. Rachel Dawes helped explain the criminal hierarchy to Bruce and blamed people like Falcone for being a predator to the economically depressed citizens of Gotham. Falcone teaches Bruce a lesson in power rooted in fear, causing Bruce to embark on a seven year odyssey across the globe to understand the fear criminals feel.
Villain 1a: Fear Itself (Fear-Inducing Toxin)
A kindly Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) finds the troubled Bruce Wayne in a Mongolian prison and exerts influence to have Bruce released under his custody. Henri mentors Bruce in the ninja-like ways of the League of Shadows, eventually testing Bruce's willpower under the hallucinogenic effects of a local blue flower that when dried, burned, and inhaled will serve to stimulate the fear centers of the brain and amplify the normal fear response. Bruce must encounter bats while thinking clearly enough to get the drop on Henri, which he amazingly does.
Villain #4: Ra's Al Ghul, Leader of the League of Shadows
The League of Shadows' leader, Ra's Al Ghul, seems pleased by Bruce's development, but demands Bruce execute a local murderer as part of his final initiation into the League. It is made clear to Bruce that the League cannot afford to keep him alive if he does not pass this final test, so he must part ways with the League by blowing up their training facility, incidentally killing Ra's in the process. Bruce does manage to save his mentor and friend, though, the unconscious Henri Ducard.
Villain #4a: Henri Ducard
Many world leaders employ the use of body doubles to offer an extra margin of protection from assassination attempts. But Ra's Al Ghul took things to a Prestige-level of commitment to deceive everyone into thinking he was just a lieutenant in the League of Shadows, while propping up his front man as the League's ostensible leader. The man we thought was Ra's Al Ghul was really a Keira Knightly to the real Ra's Al Ghul's Natalie Portman (Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace).
Pictured: Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson
Only near the end does Bruce learn that Ra's Al Ghul led the League of Shadows in causing the economic attacks on Gotham that impoverished the lower class to dangerous levels, hoping to prompt an artificially planned revolt against the wealthier middle and upper classes. The League hoped their efforts would destroy Gotham and wipe it off the map, a warning to other cities across the globe to clean up their act.
A.K.A. The Real Ra's Al Ghul, Leader of the League of Shadows
Bruce Wayne's parents had stood up to this economic subversion, becoming Gotham's guardians to the underprivileged. The murder of the Waynes also helped galvanize the other wealthy Gothamites to action, and they helped repair the economically distressed conditions of the poor. So in a very real sense, Ra's Al Ghul turns out to be the actual killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. Joe Chill and many thousands like him were simply manipulated into a frenzy of crime to save themselves from the League of Shadows' economic attacks on Gotham. Late in the game, Bruce realizes that he has taken up the same banner as his parents in the fight against the League of Shadows to save Gotham, and in his own way, is following in their footsteps.
Villain 5: Earle, C.E.O. of Wayne Enterprises in Bruce's Absence
Bruce's butler Alfred Pennyworth informs Bruce that Earle, the current C.E.O. of Wayne Enterprises, had Bruce officially declared dead after being unaccounted for the past seven years. This allows Earle to acquire Bruce Wayne's majority shares in Wayne Enterprises at a fair price so that Earle can take the company public and sell shares of the company on the stock market for a hefty profit. This villain is more of a usurper of Bruce's birthright than a malignant threat. But Earle does prompt Bruce to fight with a creative financial gambit resulting in the acquisition of a controlling interest in his father's company, further enabling Bruce to act as a financial guardian of Gotham rather than just a criminal deterrent.
Villain 6: Detective Flass, a Corrupt Gotham Police Officer on Carmine Falcone's
Payroll and is Partnered with the Honest and Frustrated Jim Gordon
Detective Flass is kind of the self-serving every-man of Gotham. He represents the corrupt norm in Gotham's police force and government, the sense of misused power that permeates every level of Gotham's defense against criminals. Flass is not just turning the other way while crime bosses like Falcone reign supreme, but is an actual enforcer of Falcone's rule across the city. Flass is the reason for a Batman being necessary in Gotham. Normal efforts to clean up the city cannot work when the entire system is rotten from the inside out.
Villain #7: Dr. Crane, Police Psychiatrist and Working with the League of Shadows
Dr. Crane is a brilliant psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacology, developing medicines that exert a powerful effect on the human mind. At some point, Ra's Al Ghul acquired the services of this evil genius to weaponize the blue flower fear toxin into a far more potent and concentrated strain. Dr. Crane is under the impression that they will threaten the city for ransom. The League of Shadows robs from Wayne Enterprises a specialized device that can help deliver the new weaponized fear toxin into the lungs of nearly everyone in Gotham.
Dr. Crane (A.K.A. The Scarecrow) Balances the Demands of a Respectable and
Believable Cover Before Unleashing his Monstrous True Self via his Alter Ego
Dr. Crane is an intriguing villain, who cultivates a position of trust within Gotham society while carrying on a secret double life via his masked persona. Like Bruce Wayne, Dr. Crane is viewed as an honorable law-abiding citizen by day, but frequently puts on a mask to protect his identity and to exert a symbolic power of fear over those he wishes to intimidate by night. In this respect, Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow is the evil analogue to the heroic Bruce Wayne/Batman.
A.K.A. The Scarecrow
Dr. Crane insinuates himself in with crime boss Carmine Falcone, who ironically helps Dr. Crane undermine his own territory by aiding the Scarecrow in manufacturing the very weapon the League of Shadows is planning to use against him and the rest of Gotham. And the Scarecrow proved a formidable opponent and is the only villain to escape Bruce Wayne and Batman's justice in Batman Begins, as he rides off on his horse leading a band of violent insane asylum fugitives through the ghettos of Gotham. The Scarecrow is not be underestimated in this film, although his aura of fear is somewhat diminished with his anticlimactic capture at the beginning of The Dark Knight (2008).
Villain 1b: Fear Itself (Gotham Goes Mad with Fear in a Murderous Frenzy)
Batman encounters this weaponized fear toxin early in the game, enabling his trusted friend Lucius Fox to develop an antidote to the mind-altering hallucinogenic gas. Batman is able to pass on the antidote to Lt. Gordon who in turn gives it to the government who in turn can start mass producing the antidote. Meanwhile Batman confronts Ra's Al Ghul directly and helps stop the gas from spreading citywide. But on a personal level, this hallucinogenic experience reawakens his most primal fears and intensifies them nearly to the point of death. Only the efforts of Alfred and Lucius can save him from being afraid to death. In a literal and symbolic sense, Bruce Wayne fights fear with fear and wins this crucial engagement to save Gotham.
Batman is Frequently Cornered by the Police and Must Escape
So Bruce Wayne completes the circle, maturing from a fearful child into a master of fear as an adult. He has passed through the gauntlet of all his own personal list of fears, including bats, random acts of violence, and the guilt he has over his parents' death. And as he decides to fight the fear of organized criminals and the fear wielded by the League of Shadows against Gotham, Bruce must transform himself into a symbol of fear that Gotham's enemies will think twice about crossing: Batman.
As Bruce Wayne says, "I'm going to show the people of Gotham that the city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt. People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can't do this as Bruce Wayne. A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol... as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting..."
In this respect, it seems likely that in the final movie Bane will attempt to tear down the symbol of Batman and expose him as just a man, Bruce Wayne. By incapacitating Gotham's symbol of strength and power against overwhelming odds, Bane can destroy Gotham's spirit and finish the work Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows started: destroy Gotham through economic manipulation and class warfare. If Bane truly is the new leader of the League of Shadows, as we suspect, then this will likely result in him killing Bruce Wayne to eliminate the legend of Batman, the Dark Knight. But if that's the case, Bruce Wayne could be victorious post mortem if another person takes on the mantle of the Dark Knight to defeat Bane afterward. Since the true test of Bruce Wayne's success is not his immortality, but Batman's.

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