Somewhere in the first act of Batman Begins, Alfred asks Bruce a question that I'd always longed for someone to ask:
"Why bats, Master Wayne?"
Bruce replies that bats frighten him, and that it is time for his enemies to share his dread. Just like that, Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan, and now celebrating a 15-year anniversary, made me understand both Batman and Bruce in a way that I never had before.
The choice to dress up in a bat costume had always seemed arbitrary to me. Other cinematic bat-endeavors had dipped their toes into the reasoning behind the symbol, with Batman Forever even having Val Kilmer's Bruce go into a monologue about how he was scared by a bat after the murder of his parents. I didn't truly get it until Christian Bale took up the cowl in Begins, however, and that came part in bat-parcel with many other truths about the Dark Knight.
To be fair, when Batman Begins came out I had never read any of the classic DC comics that it took inspiration from. I rectified that after seeing the film, as I was finally inspired to delve into all-time classics like Batman: Year One and so forth. They showed me that these truths were always there, but film hadn't really illustrated them yet. I hadn't seen Batman: Mask of the Phantasm yet either, but I rectified that one too.
Batman Begins is very much a movie about fear — using fear as a weapon, an ally, and showing how it can be conquered. Through a hefty dose of theatricality, Bruce uses the elemental symbol of the thing he fears the most to strike fear into others. In many scenes, the movie transitions into a horror tale for criminals; random flunkies become main characters for brief periods as they wait in terror for an unseen bat to take them out. Every one of these flunkies makes you believe they are truly terrified, and the legend of "The Bat Man" begins to spread.
This is something that the 1989 Batman does — for a little while, at least — with Batman being an urban legend until he becomes very real. The police don't trust him, and they chase him more than the criminals do. Begins does the same, but it sticks with it. Batman is never condoned, he is always fighting against a rigged system.
If you grew up watching the Adam West Batman series (and watched the 1966 film many, many times), this is an adjustment. In the 1966 film, Batman and Robin are described as fully deputized agents of the law. The 1989 Batman certainly didn't take that approach, but then Batman Returns came along and, in no time, you have Commissioner Gordon taking a casual walk with Batman and thanking him for saving the day. Begins does (slowly) make Batman and Gordon allies (and Nolan would add Harvey Dent in the following film), but their alliance is something saved for secret rooftop meetings, not post-circus dustups right out in the open.
When watching the 1966 Batman, I always wondered why the cape and costume were necessary if Batman was some sort of regular cop. The same questions popped up in different ways with both Batman and Batman Returns, since the police get used to him right quick.
Batman Begins answers this directly: The Gotham that Bruce returns to is helplessly corrupt, to the point where it makes the 1989 Grissom-Gotham look tame. There is no way for anyone to change anything within the system, so he has to work outside of it. He has no system to protect him, so he has to become more than a man. A man can be killed, but a symbol? That's something else.
To become one with that symbol, Bruce descends into the cave where he was once trapped as a child. He stands among a giant swarm of bats, and begins to conquer his fear. This was the answer to "why bats" and so many other questions — it was his destiny, and also a rebirth. He's becoming Batman in this scene, but he is also sacrificing Bruce Wayne.
The murder of his parents remains the catalyst for this change, but the journey from that point forward is so much more complex. In pitting this new symbol against a hopelessly broken system, I began to root for him like never before. I wasn't necessarily rooting for Batman, either — I was rooting for the person who used to be Bruce Wayne. I'd never cared about Bruce Wayne before.
This was another cinematic gift from the film. It's something that the comics address time and time again, but for someone who hadn't dived into them yet, the movie solidified the theme in perfect fashion.
A lot of jokes are made about Bruce Wayne being nothing more than a rich guy with no powers. This is a very simplistic way of looking at the character. It's hard to pin down exactly what makes Bruce operate because, for all intents and purposes, Bruce Wayne doesn't exist. Rachel Dawes calls this out at the end of the movie, saying that the boy who vanished, the boy she once knew, he didn't come back at all. She's right.
Alfred knows the "real" Bruce, and he's the only one. Rachel discovers his secret late in the movie, but this is after she's spent a lot more time dealing with Bruce's public playboy persona, which is just another bit of grandiose theatricality. When she encounters a wet Bruce having fun with models, she gives him a judgmental look for how he is spending his time. She has no idea what he's really doing. When she says that "it's what you do that defines you," I want to shout at the screen. You have no idea what he's doing! He's dressing up and hurting himself night after night outside the system and nobody knows. Just love him — please!
This adds something extra to a point made earlier: Not only is Bruce Wayne sacrificing his body, mind, and soul to a specific cause, but he's doing it while almost nobody knows.
To the world at large, Bruce Wayne is a drunken idiot billionaire who burned down his own mansion. The Batman is endlessly hunted by the corrupt police because he's doing the right thing in the wrong way. If you were putting yourself out there, night after night, you'd certainly want some kind of credit, right? Doesn't Batman ever get to kiss the girl? Not in this movie, and that's one of the million reasons I'm no Batman.
Bruce has sacrificed his entire identity to a symbol that does not only represent fear — it represents service. He isn't doing any of it for applause. He often does it without witness, and never does it for a reward. This is for virtue.
That is why the final lines of the movie work so well, adding in the final notes of true understanding. Before Batman leaps off into the night, Gordon says, "I never said 'thank you.'"
The Bat, of course, replies, "... and you'll never have to."
He had a calling. It's not his job, and he's not a cop. He's also not just a guy dressed up in a bat costume. He's become selfless in a way that few will ever truly comprehend, and as he flies away, Gordon can't help but smile just a little.
I smiled a lot — because I realized that I was thinking about a character that I'd been watching for most of my life in an entirely new way. I've never said thank you to Batman Begins for this, and though I'll never have to, I will anyway. Thank you.