As we know from tales of the vampire, a bat is an image that echoes something deep in the human psyche. Almost six hundred years ago, the brilliant theologian Nicolas of Cusa said that we should be like bats to see in the darkness of our ignorance and in our world of mysteries. Pictures from the arcane textbooks of alchemy show the human being with two heads, two genders, and the wings of a bat (see image at left), indicating that we have to be day people and night people-both awake and dreamy. What does the latest film about our bat nature, Batman Begins, have to say about these very old images? Sadly, less than I'd hoped. The film opens with the promising scene of Bruce Wayne falling into a well, where he is terrified of the shadows and the horde of bats that fly out of a cave opening into the well. The cave-dwelling bat is an animal totem of that deep and dark place in us. It is honored by religions with their grottoes, caves, and kivas. From ancient times, humanity has recognized chthonic gods and spirits, powers that reside just beneath the surface of the earth. Literature is filled with these spirits in scenes of open graves and monsters rising out of swamps and quicksand. Batman has a clear relationship to our own chthonic natures, that scary place in us that lies just beneath the surface.

The idea of a fall is also traditional across the spiritual traditions. Adam's fall into sin has a disguised echo in Humpty-Dumpty who had a great fall, and John of the Cross, the Christian mystic of the Dark Night, who fell from a building. Jill's friend Jack also fell while trying to fetch a pail of water, perhaps the same water of vitality that Psyche had to fetch in order to come back to life (in the ancient tale of Eros and Psyche). Psyche, too, had fallen off a cliff to become Eros's lover. Shamans-to-be are sometimes recognized as spiritual leaders when they fall from a tree or some other high place. We fall into awareness of ourselves and into the complexities of our lives. So, the fall into the well is a wonderful start to the movie about Batman's beginnings.

But then the story shifts to an undefined mountainous spot in the East, where Batman is trained in ninja arts by the real villain of the film. Those who cherish Eastern wisdom and a deep sense of warrior might be disappointed by the phony wisdom and brutal notion of power associated with this Tibet-like region. In a sentimental scene we learn that Bruce doesn't fit in with the bad guys because he's compassionate and can't execute a prisoner. He takes a noble position, of course, but the scene takes him away from the dark and into sweet sunshine. I would have expected his schooling in the high Eastern mountains to deepen his mysteriousness.

There is much talk of fear and justice. Here, the solution to fear, becoming a warrior, means learning the skills to fight off a squad of ninja goons, a skill found in countless films having nothing to do with bats. Again, I was looking for the mystery of how the bat, an ancient image of the spiritual underworld, might be shown as the source of Batman's power. But in the film the bat image serves more as a logo. For a few moments we do see him swooping, comic-book fashion, through the air, and during these few seconds, when Bruce really seems transformed, I felt that Batman had finally appeared . But for the most part the movie merely duplicates old-fashioned sword-fighting scenes as updated and reproduced in all sorts of contemporary ultra-violent films such as Kill Bill.

At one point, Bruce has a flash of insight. He realizes that as a man he can't deal effectively with the crime and corruption that has taken over Gotham. He says that a symbol would be more powerful. But as the movie progresses, he doesn't trust the symbol as much as he does the high-tech machinery created in yet another subterranean locale by a forgotten inventor played marvelously by Morgan Freeman. Somebody in the film even mentions Jungian archetypes, but the film falls far short of a true mythic, archetypal exploration of the bat-world. Instead, this is just another movie full of sword-bearing ninja-types, swarthy bad guys, frenzied car chases, bursting fireballs, and twin-towerish crumbling infrastructure. The hero of this movie is not a mysterious and powerful bat-creature from the Otherworld, but a guy with a great set of wheels that runs over the competition like a demolition derby champion.

Batman really begins in the comic book, a genre that is generally far more in the realm of imagination than fact. The comic book Batman, and even the Adam West Batman of television, were more figures of the imagination than life. These genres sweep us blessedly from this hard world of fact, so honored and worshipped by modern culture, to the deeper realities of fantasy and dream. Seeing the sociological Batman of this movie, his bat-nature explained as childhood trauma, I missed the old Batman and his crew, especially the stylized portrayal of the villains in Burgess Meredith's Penguin and Jack Nicholson's Joker. In this new film there is no conscious and artful camp, which cracks the literalism, but only unconscious moralism. There is no irony and little humor, except for the delightful Michael Caine who, with his soulful wit, as the millionaire kid's valet and nurse, brings some spirit to depressive Gotham.

A mantra is repeated throughout the film: "You fall so you can learn to pick yourself up." Maybe that's true, but in light of Bruce Wayne's fall into the well, I would think you fall to become acquainted with your deeper nature, to enter the realm of the bat, which is mysteriously a part of your interior, the dreamworld that has great impact on your emotions and sense of meaning.

Maybe it isn't fair for me to complain that this isn't the movie about Batman I want to see or I would have made. But I'm concerned about a number of issues raised by the fact of this film:

  • We are a society becoming less and less devoted to the imagination and to the mysterious. We want to demythologize everything in life, control it and understand it. But this dehumanizing agenda destroys the imagination, which is vital for our survival.
  • Our movies are becoming tiresome with clichés of violence and the sentimentalizing of virtue. We need some real art in the theaters, art that can educate, in the deepest sense of the word, and still entertain.
  • We need to become more sophisticated about our own darkness, about the bat-nature in all of us. Batman is a perfect place to explore this haunting region of ourselves that is difficult to know and appreciate.
  • There is some fine acting, some inspired moments, and a great depiction of a dark archetypal city in this film. I think it's worth seeing. It's just too bad that it has little to do with us, the viewers. After all, at some level we are all batmen and batwomen.

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