Friday, July 01, 2005

Kant and Nietzsche revisited in Batman Begins: or just me overanalyzing

So I walked away from the latest Batman installment undecided only about whether it merited an elite nine, or unprecedented ten on my imdb movie rating list. I decided to go with the nine, just because the movie felt somewhat rushed, crammed with ideas, and though it introduced lots of interesting ideas, never developed them. I figured I would do so here. (Though I do want to first add that Christian Bale finally does Michael Keaton’s Batman justice. I agree with the New York Times that not only is Bale able to match Keaton’s borderline insanity, but also brings aristocratic entitlement that Keaton’s everyman can never achieve.)

Batman: the Animated Series creator Paul Dini, makes the point that Comic Book films achieved its success when its creators, weaned in the post-1986 modern comic book epoch inaugurated by Frank Miller/Alan Moore, stopped taking comic book characters as jokes (ala Christopher Reeve’s Superman or Adam West’s Batman) and started taking them seriously.

There is little doubt that though Doug Lyman’s Batman Begins doesn’t follow Miller’s Batman: Year One, Miller's influence is clearly there, with direct visual references such as the rearing Nightmare from Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, but more importantly, with deeper thematic ones.

In a paper for a philosophy class, I argued that Miller’s classic struggle between Batman and Superman represents the clash in philosophies of Nietzsche and Kant. In Batman Begins, Nietzsche’s Will to Power is exemplified by the League of Shadows. The League, like Nietzsche, believe that the ubermensch (overman), is Beyond Good and Evil, that the overman has the ability and the duty to exert his Will over the rest of society.

Batman defies the League because though he is at home in their overman society, he retains his sense of good. In D&D terms, it is the difference between Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral. Conveniently, the movie provides us with a rough working definition (a thin slice) of the forever vexing infinitely complex terms, good and evil, in young Bruce Wayne’s conversation with mob boss Carmine Falcone. Whereas the most harm Batman could inflict on Falcone is on his person, Falcone can inflict harm via Rachel and via Alfred, the ones for whom Batman cares. In Kant’s words, people are an end in themselves, whereas for the League and Falcone, people are merely a means.

In the final scene, Batman imposes his Will to impose order over a burgeoning Gotham mob, a direct reference to the climax of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Batman is still the overman, but he imposes his Will for the ends of the people of Gotham, not his own.