ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 9 – BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
The Batman symbol is probably the most perfect example of brand marketing. Tim Burton’s film was advertised all throughout 1989 with little more than a gold oval, set against black; and framed within, the stylized image of a flying mouse. Only Superman can rival the character in terms of immediate association, based on nothing more than a chest plate. These emblems are routinely worked into very logos that grace comic book covers and ancillary merchandise,* which, strangely, can’t be said for most characters of similar heroic vocation.
It’s a universally recognized icon, like the Golden Arches, or Apple’s apple. One look, and you know exactly what it represents. It’s rare that corporate branding is so successful in its ability to conjure a myriad of associated images, subtext, and history through the presentation of a simple line drawing. It can be embellished, or updated to reflect the changing times, but as we learned with New Coke, for every unnecessary change, there’s an inevitable return to what made the product so successful from the start.
The cultivation of a brand is the central idea running throughout BATMAN BEGINS. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the notion of fear, both as a weakness and a tool to be harnessed and then used against one’s enemies. Nonetheless, it’s how Bruce Wayne develops this primal emotion into a social construct through the creation of Batman that shapes the narrative of Christopher Nolan’s first — and best — take on the Dark Knight. BATMAN BEGINS is the only film in his trilogy with a sense of comic book mythology, both in terms of the themes and overall tone. This is a story about establishing a product for the people of Gotham — one they will feel compelled to buy into, be it for or against.
The backstory for Batman’s creation had rarely been attempted in any medium, even in comics. There were occasional issues of both the flagship title and its predecessor, Detective Comics, that told some bizarre one-off tales about Bruce Wayne’s childhood, including that time he trained with a world-famous detective while disguised in a costume that was the precursor to Robin’s**, and the tale of his Dad’s heroic evening as the very first Bat-Man. There were even the interesting circumstances involving Bruce’s ultimate confrontation with his parents’ killer, Joe Chill, which was later followed by another confrontation, this time with Chill’s boss, who, we can are told, was the real killer. In both cases, Batman unmasks, but his nemesis is dead moments later, and can’t spill the beans on who’s wearing the cowl for all the criminals who are too dumb to deserve such stunningly obvious information.
Outside of trade reprints -- and a three-part standalone story called The Untold Legend of the Batman (which attempted to make sense of forty years’ worth of borderline nonsensical history) -- these stories vanished from continuity post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. Only Grant Morrison has ventured back to this specific wellspring of Golden Age weirdness, and that’s because he’s Grant Morrison. Indeed, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One essentially wiped the slate clean, and returned to the outsider, vigilante aspects of the Bob Kane’s original (shared) conception.
Miller’s tale*** forms the groundwork for BATMAN BEGINS, but even that origin-redefining four-part comic series began with a world-traveling Bruce Wayne only just returning home to Gotham. If anyone is the identifying protagonist of the story, it’s a young(er) Jim Gordon; Bruce remains in many ways mysterious even to the reader in terms of what he’s doing, and why. Nolan, however, was specifically interested in filling the blanks between the moment that Thomas and Martha Wayne died in Crime Alley, and Batman’s first appearance in full costume. Screenwriter David Goyer was tasked with tracing a believable, Real World journey that made sense of the ridiculous end result, and instructed to add gravitas to an otherwise unbelievable concept. To accomplish so great a feat, Goyer pulled from ancillary sources (Denny O’Neil’s “The Man Who Falls” being a major inspiration), and found a brilliant way to fuse The Scarecrow’s fear-based gimmick with The Dark Knight’s mission statement, with Ra’s al Ghul serving as a primary plot motivator. While not a perfect movie, BATMAN BEGINS is a perfect concept, not only from a Story perspective, but in the way that it addresses the previously-stated notion of Bruce Wayne introducing Gotham City to his newest product, Batman, Inc.
I mentioned McDonalds. The development and growth from a singular burger stand to a series of franchises that would ultimately beoame a massive corporate empire, is perhaps the best comparison that can be made here.**** The inception and subsequent execution of a successful commercial enterprise can be broken down as follows:
- An Idea Man envisions a product that consumers don’t yet know they’ll want.
- The product is developed and then tested.
- A team is built to both produce and then deliver the product.
- Word-of-mouth spreads and demand increases.
- The product is refined, the line is expanded, and dispersed for maximum awareness.
- A logo and mascot are developed to represent the brand for a wider audience (particularly children).
- The product becomes legendary.
So basically: Batman is a hamburger. Or an iPhone. Or whatever. It’s not enough to put on a costume and prowl the subterranean byways of Gotham City — an enterprising hero requires a reputation and presence existing above and beyond his occasional in-store appearances. After all, Bruce Wayne isn’t simply trying to prevent crimes from occurring; he’s trying to develop a concept. A symbol. Something that, as he says, can’t be corrupted. Bruce Wayne is that Idea Guy, always thinking BIG PICTURE.
For one thing, he’s a survivor of childhood trauma. He never gets over the experience of falling down a well and cowering in terror as he’s sized up by an army of bats; the fact that the safety of his home could vanish suddenly beneath his feet and plunge him into the horrors lurking just under the noonday sun, is his introduction to the mere illusion of normality. This encounter might be one that he later exorcised along with other negative childhood experiences had he grown into a very different adult. Instead, it sends him plummeting down a different well, as that singular event prompts the moment that will define the rest of his life. If only Bruce hadn’t been afraid of bats, and hadn’t allowed that one frightening chance encounter with an unstable well-cap to freak him out when his parents took him to the opera, then maybe the Waynes wouldn’t have left early. Maybe Bruce wouldn’t have needed to be ushered out a side door so he’d calm down — a side door that opened directly onto Crime Alley. Maybe they could have exited through the lobby. Maybe then Thomas and Martha wouldn’t have died at their child’s feet. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
But these events did occur, and they did have consequences beyond the mere notion of losing one’s entire family by way of a cheap gun and an even cheaper criminal. Bruce’s first reaction to Joe Chill’s impending parole is to head downtown with a gun, but the Jack Ruby-style intervention of Carmine Falcone’s hired goons means that the surviving Wayne is cheated of his revenge. He’s pretty disaffected by it. Well, okay, that didn’t work, he seems to think, and after a series of Katie Holmes face smacks,***** he marches into a crime bar to deliver the bullet to Falcone himself. The mob boss’s reaction? He tells Bruce to fuck off with his sob stories and unearned desire for justice. Well, okay, that didn’t work, either, Bruce thinks again, and literally walks out the door and goes off to the other side of the world to meditate on how to best build an anti-crime franchise. He’s a man whose emotions are chained down below the surface, waiting for the perfect outlet.
And he finds it, eventually. He journeys far, becomes a ninja, and is introduced to a flower that amplifies fear and anxiety when you sniff it. He learns to steal, and learns to take a beating. He learns the methods of the League of Shadows, but denounces their willingness to issue the death penalty. Bruce went to college before his self-imposed exile, but this later time abroad – shorn of his wealth, his notoriety, and in many cases, his dignity – is his true education. Like any good entrepreneur, Bruce Wayne studies under the best of them. By the time he returns to Gotham, he has learned another valuable lesson from the business perspective: Take the best aspects of the most successful companies, and then use them to create something new…or fix a product that’s broken, and give it a fresh face. He effectively does both, following the previously-stated model, and basing it on Ra’s al Ghuls teachings.
1. An Idea Man envisions a product that consumers don’t yet know they’ll want. Gotham is a cesspool. The corruption runs through literally every civic crevice. No one can be trusted – not the police, not the elected officials, no one. In another time, crime was reduced by economic prosperity in Gotham, meaning that Bruce has to first return to Wayne Enterprises and steer it toward more altruistic goals (such as his deceased father’s beloved monorail), and then mop up the rest of the street trash under a different guise.****** It can be reasoned that Gotham needs its Whopper, and that burger’s called “Batman,” designed to deliver a different kind of Whopp-ing by establishing fear amongst the populace. He’s not going to host parades or MC events: this guy is going after the Old Testament model, in which Bad People are scared Good, and Good People stay that way.
2. The product is developed and then tested. The “Bat” concept isn’t fully-formed when Bruce begins dabbling with his nightly excursions. Instead, he heads out in a ski mask to visit Jim Gordon. Realizing that jumping off buildings can hurt, he recognizes the need for body armor, grappling hooks, and alternative means of transportation. In further exploring the underground caves he’d discovered after falling down the well outside Wayne Manor as a child, he recognizes the opportunity to create a hidden base of operations, and has the idea to use his personal phobia (bats) to strike terror in the hearts of his targets (because criminals, after all, “are a cowardly and superstitious lot”). This means acquiring partners to refine his concept and make it a reality.
3. A team is built to both produce and then deliver the product. Bruce already has Alfred Pennyworth at his disposal – a loyal, genius-level medical and military tactician. It’s a start. Jim Gordon has been approached, so Bruce now has a tentative “in” with the GCPD. Rachel Dawes is another valuable addition to his fledgling team, as she’s plugged into the D.A.’s office. The final piece of this puzzle is Lucius Fox, who has developed exactly the gadgetry needed to create the full Batman persona. From there, Bruce begins R&D on both a modified version of the Wayne Enterprises-produced body suit, and gimmicky items such as bat-shaped throwing stars. All of these individuals – coupled with the skills he has acquired in the Far East -- are key to executing the Batman concept and supporting the overall endeavor for successful delivery.
4. Word-of-mouth spreads and demand increases. A fully-realized Batman appears on the scene. In a brilliant sequence that plays more like a Horror film than an adventure tale, Falcone and his men are attacked by a mysterious creature on the docks. The ninja skills are used to create the illusion of a winged creature who falls upon his prey before vanishing back into the shadows whence he came. Fear is generated amongst the criminal underworld as Batman continues to single out his adversaries, and his reputation grows.
5. The product is refined, the line is expanded, and dispersed for maximum awareness. With the help of his growing team, Bruce has effectively stolen his newly-christened Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises, and hidden it away in the Batcave – a location now fully-established by way of secret entrances within Wayne Manor, as well as hidden passages on the outside. Fox develops anti-toxins to combat the Scarecrow’s fear gas, all while Bruce continues to perpetuate the notion that he is, in reality, a layabout shithead. As Batman, however, he likewise perpetuates the notion of his intangibility and “magic” by way of new technology designed to summon an army of bats; he also heightens his general awareness through public displays that make the nightly News (the high speed Tumbler chase being most notable), which solidifies his presence.
6. A logo and mascot are developed to represent the brand for a wider audience (particularly children). This goes without saying. While the costume was adopted early, the general notion of a “Bat”-Man comes about through a variety of actions undertaken over a period of time, and general acknowledgment of his motif. The premise of a costumed avenger obviously connects with kids (as we see during the second half of BATMAN BEGINS): his young fans presumably include those who are taken with his nifty appearance and overall coolness, and definitely include the ones getting smacked around by their Dads, and in desperate need of a strong male role model in their lives. By the time of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the Bat-Symbol has become regular chalk graffiti on playgrounds, drawn by the boys and girls who still hope for a return of what it represents.
7. The product becomes legendary. Bruce takes advantage of Ra’s al Ghul’s attempt to poison all of Gotham with the Scarecrow’s fear gas, and pulls out all the stops in doing his flying monster schtick for the many criminals experiencing a heightened state of reality. They don’t see a guy in a silly costume; they see a flying, fire-breathing demon. The reputation is solidified, and the Bat becomes greater than the Man. Soon, would-be vigilantes are emulating him; creepy Bad Guys like The Joker are co-opting his Masked Man gimmick; and, ultimately, “Batman” becomes, as a concept, a Gotham legacy to thrive under new ownership once the founder retires.
There are many who consider THE DARK KNIGHT the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I disagree. While the sequel may in fact be a better, more complex film, it has less to say, and its desire to move into an even more grounded faux-reality makes Batman himself seem faintly ridiculous under full, interrogation room lighting. But as a guy intentionally lurking in the shadows just out of Gordon’s line of sight during a visit to the latter’s home, perched on the roof and glimpsed only briefly from the corner of the police Lieutenant’s eye, it’s absolutely believable that a Batman could exist, and could make a striking impression. That’s how he works best, because as all good business owners know, it’s all in the presentation.
*This notion of using the Bat-symbol on the theatrical one-sheets (specifically, the teasers) in lieu of the final title was carried over to the three sequels, and remains a consistent, striking choice. For BATMAN RETURNS, we see the logo, powdered with wind-swept snow; BATMAN FOREVER features a question mark snaking its way around the iconic symbol; and BATMAN & ROBIN lays the “partner’s” (or, more appropriately, Nightwing’s) bird-design over the Dark Knight’s. All four taken together represent the best aspects of each film, and represent both a clever and consistent marketing campaign.
**This world-famous detective — whose name now eludes me — demonstrated his genius by deducing the masked child’s identity as being none other than the equally world-famous orphaned heir to a billion-dollar empire. Had Bruce been wearing more than a domino mask, it might have been more of a challenge, I think.
***I’m shocked Nolan didn’t utilize this literary allusion.
****If you haven’t already, check out THE FOUNDER, which tells the story of the Big Mac’s rise to power…and stars Batman himself, Michael Keaton.
*****In another example of an introductory film that wanted to establish a franchise but was prepared to tell as complete a story as possible, the character of Rachel Dawes is created as both a love interest for Bruce, and a connection to the D.A.’s office for Batman. Once again, Harvey Dent gets the shaft, and the potential benefit to his character in the following film – to say nothing of a largely wasted Two-Face -- cannot be underestimated.
******It already stretches credibility to suggest that there’s never a connection made between the mysterious vigilante with military-grade weaponry and seemingly a billion dollars in funding, and the only guy in town who fits the physical and financial description. Having them both suddenly appear in Gotham out of nowhere, at the exact same time, is the point where you go: Maybe Ra’s al Ghul was right, after all…
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)