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Lecture 19

GGR202H5 Lecture 19: Batman Begins + Visual Culture

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Nicole Laliberte

RLG101H5 Introduction to the Study of Religion Prof. Ken Derry Batman Begins: Vulnerability to Fear and its Exploitation     Christopher Nolan’s first cinematic rendering of the Batman universe, Batman Begins, is a violently entertaining movie that is also morally and intellectually complex. In this regard, a key belief promoted by the film is that fear is a person’s worst enemy and can be used as a weapon by the proponents of both good and evil to achieve their means. This belief in turn is supported by the visual culture of Batman Begins. Drawing on concepts about religious creative expression from Ken Derry’s “Indigenous Traditions,” I will analyze the ways in which masks in the film function as devices for externalizing and exploiting people’s fear, as well as the role that the Batcave plays in helping Bruce Wayne use his childhood phobia of bats to his combative advantage. Additionally, I will draw on both Foucault’s concept of the panopticon, as well as Derry’s notion that with religious objects what you see is not what you get, to show how both bats and the blue flower function as weapons of fear. The belief of Batman Begins is two pronged: on the one hand it hints at the disastrous effects that fear can have on people’s lives, and on the other it shows how this vulnerability to fear can be exploited. The first fifteen minutes of the movie establish the paralyzing effects fear has on the protagonist’s life. After falling down a well and being attacked by a hoard of bats, ten year old Bruce Wayne acquires a fear of those creatures in spite of being assured by his father that the bats attacked him simply because they themselves were afraid. Not much later, Bruce accompanies his parents to the opera where the actors dressed as bats invoke his deep set fear, prompting him to ask his parents to leave early and involuntarily facilitating their murder at the hands of a street criminal. It can be argued that Bruce’s fear was what inadvertently caused the death of his parents, an angry and guilt ridden realization that sticks with him throughout his life. His father’s last words—“Don’t be afraid”—can be interpreted as a parent’s attempt at consoling his child. On a deeper level however, these words can be taken as a morsel of wisdom that Mr.     Wayne saw fitting as the last piece of advice he could impart to his son, thereby reinforcing the importance of conquering one’s fear and the belief of the movie that fear is a person’s worst enemy. Furthermore, in addition to guns and other traditional armaments, Batman Begins features a rather unconventional weapon: fear itself. While characters like Ra’s al Ghul and the Scarecrow use fear by administering strong hallucinogenic medicine on an individual and city wide level, Bruce creates a persona designed to inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies. The fact that such terror is central to the plans these characters reinforces the belief promoted by the movie that fear is used as a weapon by the proponents of both good and evil. An important visual element of Batman Begins is the use of masks by both the Scarecrow and Batman. The main purpose of these masks is simple: they are a means of concealing the identity of the wearers. However, Derry’s view of focusing on the form of the mask with reference to the context in which it is used to get a clearer grasp of the meaning of critical elements forces one to consider the symbolic meaning of these masks (Derry 2011, 352). Indeed, the mask serves a literal purpose of concealing Batman’s identity and protecting his loved ones from reprisals, but as was indicated by Bruce Wayne’s intention of creating a persona that was immune to the weaknesses that afflict human beings, an identity that was considered almost super human, his mask serves a greater, more symbolic purpose. Also, in concurrence with Derry’s account of masks of animals not necessarily representing the worship of those animals (Derry 2011, 352), Batman’s mask is not meant as a form of bat worship. Fashioning a mask resembling a bat, his one and only fear, is Bruce’s attempt at externalizing his phobia so that his fear of these creatures can instead be felt by his enemies; he literally wants to become a face of terror for the corrupt and the criminals of Gotham. In a similar manner, the mask of the Scarecrow is always donned whenever the hallucinogenic drug is sprayed on his victim, so that     those victims could, as Dr. Jonathan Crane explains, “focus their paranoia on an external tormenter.” Thus the principal masks in this film are meant as tools for inflicting fear. As is the case with the marae discussed in Derry’s text, the location of Batman’s Batcave too is of critical importance, has historical significance, and holds true to the view that what you see is often not what you get (Derry 2011, 355-6). Like Batman’s mask, the Batcave too has both a literal as well as a symbolic purpose. Its literal purpose is that it functions as Batman’s secret headquarters located in a large cave hidden un
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