(Originally written in 2005) One wonders if Warner Bros. would have decided to retool the Batman franchise if it were still making money. In spite of incredible star power, the last few installments have been laughable. Of course, there's a part of me that would like to think the studio's intentions to Begin the franchise again were motivated more from artistic inclinations and not merely financial ones. This may seem a bit far-fetched I realize, especially when dealing with a Summer Blockbuster. However, when looking at some inherent themes within Batman Begins as well as the way it was marketed, some interesting conclusions could be made. To reach these conclusions, let's first look at a few lines from Karl Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The mode of production and material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.According to Marx, one’s wealth or relation of production not only shapes one socially, politically, and intellectually but also determines one’s very “consciousness.” This consciousness (conscience?) is not pre-existent or independent but determined by one’s position of power within the mode of material production. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, there is a radical reversal of this ideal (or in other words a pro-Marxist ideal) where Nolan’s characters are not seen as modes of production, nor is their consciousness shaped by wealth or “material life.”
Of course the wealth of the Wayne family is evident throughout the film, yet I would argue that this materiality is often portrayed as a hindrance or burden. To begin with, money was the motivating factor for his parents being robbed and subsequently killed. When Bruce becomes older, he eschews all the trappings of this wealth and becomes a drifter who lives amongst the poor. This decision is not met with regret either, as we never see Wayne, not even when he’s in prison, missing the comforts that his family’s wealth afforded him. We get the impression, that if it weren’t for Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) rescuing him and motivating him to devote his life towards fighting crime, our hero would have never returned to Wayne Manor. Batman Begins also avoids codifying the wealthy as having any moral superiority or authority. Often a director will present distinct cues as to the hierarchy of power or value within a film. Usually, it’s through the positioning of the camera as well as through the gaze of a particular character. Upon first glance, it appears Nolan is guilty of doing this is when Wayne shows up to a party in a Lamborghini, self-equipped with two super models. The camera is placed at ground level as the car pulls up forcing the viewer into a position of recognition as the two beautiful women spill out of the car. Nolan does not keep us fixed within this position though, as Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is quick to criticize Wayne’s flamboyance when she explains that it is distracting him from more important matters. This is not met with disdain, but in turn with agreement by Wayne as he realizes she is absolutely right. In fact, all of the people in the film who assist Wayne (and represent a moral constant) are of low “material production.” The only material possession we ever see of Rachel is her car, a modest Ford Taurus. Likewise, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne’s other confidant, lives in a rundown apartment surrounded by crime and noise. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the designer of Batman’s “toys” in this film, works at Wayne Industries, but has been demoted to a desk job in the basement. Even Alfred (Michael Caine) fits into this category, as he lives at Wayne Manner but is in fact a servant. Alfred is never represented as subservient though. On the contrary, he is Wayne’s equal, and, one could argue, even steps into the role of a surrogate father. All these secondary characters hold a position of authority and importance in Wayne’s life without being wealthy, effectively deconstructing the idea that one’s “consciousness” is determined by his/her “material life.”
This notion is not only apparent in Nolan’s representation of the story’s secondary characters, but in Bruce Wayne himself. Like his father, Bruce seems to be interested in wealth as a strictly utilitarian device. At times, being a billionaire actually seems to be an annoyance. Wayne rolls his eyes after Alfred reminds him that he must attend some social functions so as to keep up appearances. At the end of the film, he tells the socialites of Gotham to get out his home, calling them sycophants as they leave in disgust. Later when his house is on fire and literally falling down around him, he seems indifferent and much more concerned with the criminals wreaking havoc on the city.
Some years ago, when Titanic came out, I also noticed a peculiar Marxist subtext. The wealthy were not only seen as foolish and wasteful, but downright dastardly as they fenced the “poor” passengers from the upper deck, keeping them away from the lifeboats. This theme was reinforced at the end when Rose decided to throw the precious stone into the ocean illustrating that some things are more important than money. Batman Begins does not only profess this ideology thematically though, it has carried this notion throughout the entire process of the film's production. For one, the film was not cross-promoted through a fast food restaurant. Burger King was representing Star Wars III; Revenge of the Sith at the time, while McDonalds was promoting Richard Rodriguez’ Shark Boy and Lava Girl. I understand Burger King’s choice, but McDonalds? I’m sure they would have loved to have had The Dark Knight competing with The Dark Lord. I was also impressed to see that no music video was made for the film by a current pop star. In fact, if you look at the soundtrack for Batman Begins, the song titles are named after various types of bats. One could even argue that the pacing or style of the film isn't constructed to gain the attention of a wide audience. There is hardly any action at the beginning of the film allowing the movie to take its time to develop the story. Also, there are no cute side characters to catch the interest of younger viewers. And, unlike the other Batman films, the villains are no in way amusing or humorous.
Whether it was a concerted effort, or simply a lazy marketing department, nearly all of the so called tricks of the trade were abandoned by Batman Begins. As a result, the film was a breath fresh air in the midst of several summer blockbusters whose only function seemed to be as a marketing tool. Perhaps Batman Begins, will be just that, a beginning. A beginning for studios to realize that a film can be successful on its own merit, and that it doesn’t have to pander to its viewers.