In the summer of 2005, I had just graduated from high school and was preparing to go away to college three hours away from the hometown that I knew and loved throughout the majority of my life. I had cultivated friendships, some of which have lasted to this day, and was simultaneously eager and terrified to branch out and begin my journey toward the adult I would become.
That was the summer Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins rocked the box office and rejuvenated the Caped Crusader’s film presence after Joel Schumacher’s toy merchandising-focused films of the 1990s. Drawing a lot of inspiration from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One graphic novel, the gritty realism of Batman Begins follows a younger and more naïve Bruce Wayne as he starts his career as the Dark Knight of Gotham. In the film, Nolan imbues Bruce Wayne with pathos and a sense of duty toward Gotham that is brought to life by a wonderfully nuanced performance by Christian Bale.
The Dark Knight trilogy as a whole draws a strong link between hero and city. It’s never more apparent than in Batman Begins as Bruce takes the first steps toward growing into the symbol he’s destined to become. The film culminates in Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan to destroy the city and its citizens, whom the League of Shadows have deemed unworthy of having such a prominent seat in our collective civilization. Of course, Batman thwarts those plans, saves Gotham and takes up the mantle of protector and watchful guardian of his city.
What Nolan knew when he embarked on his trilogy was just how much Bruce’s crusade against crime is tied to Gotham City. And while the repeated depiction of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s murder in different Batman iterations over the years is understandably meme-able these days, it’s easy to forget how integral it is to Batman’s titular beginning here. It’s not simply a tragedy that sparks Bruce’s vigilantism. It isn’t a dance-with-the-devil-in-the-pale-moonlight situation either. It’s something deeper that cracks the surface of Gotham City and the Wayne family’s duty to help it. And what better way is there to confront the problems of Gotham than to have the face of the faltering city personified by a random mugger turned killer named Joe Chill?
In Begins, Joe Chill is shown as a desperate, destitute and fearful man. He gets no glee or rush from the act of the crime. He’s robbing the Waynes as a means to survive. Whether survival for Joe Chill means food and shelter or pursuing drugs is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear he has no joy in robbing the Waynes, and though his appearance is brief, Richard Brake shows us through his performance that Joe Chill feels he has no choice in that fateful moment. It’s later confirmed in the court scene that he’s a broken man who regrets his actions. But we know he was broken before his trip down Crime Alley. He is a tragic byproduct of the rot that corrupts Gotham City and prevents it from reaching its full potential as a society (at least in the eyes of Ra’s Al-Ghul and the League of Shadows). In Nolan’s world, the Waynes’ fate in Crime Alley is inextricably tied to the state of Gotham, and it triggers in Bruce a drive to devote his life toward protecting the city.
This duality of man and city is furthered when Rachel drives Bruce to the Narrows to show him what his privilege hides him from after she learns he intended to murder Chill. She explains to him that Falcone floods Gotham’s streets with drugs and creates “new Joe Chills everyday.” This piece of dialogue is as direct as they come and indicative of Nolan’s penchant for not sugarcoating his dialogue. But it works because it’s not just expository or plot-dumping. It’s an extension of the key element of Bruce’s story and further expands the trilogy’s myth-building of Batman as he relates to Gotham.
As the villain’s plan comes to fruition in the third act, Gotham City erupts in chaos spurred by the citizens’ fears thanks to Scarecrow’s handiwork. The potential death of Gotham itself isn’t a wholly original avenue for a Batman adaptation to go down, of course. However, tying it to the deepest fears of the citizens expressed through a hallucinogenic toxin they have ingested, while the city grapples with a masked vigilante terrorizing Gotham’s criminal element, is an inspired way to tell a cohesive story about Bruce, Batman and Gotham. Begins is as much about Bruce’s fear of not picking himself back up when he falls as it is about criminals fearing the unseen and brutal Batman. But most of all, it’s about the citizens and their fear of the lack of safety on Gotham’s streets.
Seeing Nolan’s take on Batman as an 18-year-old who was about to bid adieu to his hometown resonated in a big way. I walked out of the theater processing the film and instantly equating Bruce’s defense of Gotham with my own town pride. With retrospective embarrassment, I wondered how my town could possibly survive without me. As only a teenager could, I felt my leaving home would be an irreconcilable affront to a town that couldn’t possibly survive without me residing in it.
Rest assured: Speedway, Indiana, has been perfectly OK over the last 17 years and it will be OK long after I’m gone from the westside of Indianapolis. But I can’t deny the profound sense of comfort Batman Begins offered me as I prepared to leave home for college. While my life hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would (I did not become a symbol of fear for the criminals of Speedway, Indiana), my affection for Nolan’s Batman Begins remains steadfast.