Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Family relations in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

Note: There are spoilers in this post. If you don't want The Dark Knight ruined for you, don't read this. But you should have seen the movie by now, it's that good. Stop reading and go to the movie theater right now.

In Christopher Nolan's Batman series (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), family is incredibly important; the death of his parents is a driving motivation for Bruce Wayne to create Batman. However, Nolan constructs the father-son relationships as pinnacle, placing them as paramount to both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordan.

Thomas Wayne-Bruce Wayne

In Batman Begins, there's a huge emphasis on the relationship between Thomas and Bruce Wayne. It is his father who rescues him from the cave, Thomas' business that Bruce inherits, and his father who he turns to in fear at the opera.


Martha Wayne is practically non-existent in the film; except for the scenes necessary to build up to her death (train to the opera, opera, in the alley), she's absent. I'm not even sure if they say her first name anywhere in the movie, but you can bet Thomas is mentioned by name.

Throughout the film, Bruce collapses "parents" with "father." Sure, Joe Chill killed both his parents, but the movie only establishes a relationship between Bruce and Thomas. Thomas and Bruce have conversations, while Martha's only line in the film is to scream when her husband is shot.


Indicatively, when someone wants to knowingly antagonize Bruce, they bring up his father. When Bruce confronts Carmine Falcone as a young man, Falcone intentionally demeans Thomas Wayne. Falcone says:
"Yeah, you got spirit, kid. I'll give you that. More than your old man, anyway. In the joint, Chill told me about the night he killed your parents. He said your father begged for mercy. Begged. Like a dog."
Ra's al Ghul follows a similiar pattern, using Thomas Wayne as an access point to Bruce Wayne's anger. During a training exercise, Ra's says:

Your parent's deaths were not your fault. It was your father's. (Bruce attacks Ra's) Anger does not change the fact that your father failed to act.
There's more references to Thomas thoughout the film (i.e. Rachel says Thomas would be disappointed in Bruce, or that Wayne Enterprises is going in a different direction than Thomas would have chosen, etc), but it's notable that while the death of both of Bruce's parents are used as character motivation, it is his father who recieves most of the attention in both Bruce's inner angst and external references.

Jim Gordon - James Gordon (son)

Here's another example of a father-son relationship highlighted while other familial relationships go ignored. In The Dark Knight, whenever we have a scene at Gordon's home, it involves him and his son. After Gordon comes out of hiding, his wife welcomes him home, however, he has a more moving scene with James.

The film establishes the father-son relationship as most important in a more explicit manner, though. When Harvey Dent kidnaps Gordon's family, he threatens to kill the person Gordon loves most, right in front of his eyes. As Dent moves his gun from Gordon's wife to daughter to son, Gordon yells out when Dent points the gun at James, causing Dent to assume Gordon loves his son more than his wife or daughter. Although James is eventually saved, his role at the end of the film re-establishes the prominence of father-son relationships to the Batman franchise.

What about mother-son, mother-daugther, or father-daughter relationships? Well frankly, there aren't very many to choose from.

There isn't much interaction between Martha and Bruce Wayne or Barbara and James Gordon. Until Gordon's whole family is held hostage by Harvey Dent, we don't see Gordon's daughter so there's virtually no father-daughter relationships at all. There are a few examples of mother-daughter relationships, however, they're very minimal and not generally as positive as the father-son connection.

In Batman Begins, Rachel's mother works at Wayne Manor and is present when Bruce falls in the bat cave and breaks his arm. As Thomas carries Bruce inside, she apologizes for any role her daughter may have played in the accident.

As for The Dark Knight, the only mother-daughter relationship exists between Det. Anna Ramirez and her hospitalized mother. In order to pay for hospital bills, Ramirez turns over police information to the mob. It's problematic enough to have one of the only WOC characters be corrupt, but it also casts a shadow over mother-daughter relationships in general because there's no evidence or examples of positive mother-daughter relationships.

So what does this mean? Well, it tells us that this Batman franchise is about men's relationships with other men. Not only are most of the characters in both films men, The Dark Knight is entirely about the trinity of Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent. Rachel Dawes is an important character, but mostly because of the tensions that arise between her and Bruce and her and Dent. She is essential, but only because her death sent Dent on his crazy killing spree. The father-son relationships act to highlight this theme, underscoring the ways the films characterize masculinity. We are told/shown how to be a man, but not how to be a woman.

It'll be interesting to see how man-to-man relationships will be used in future Batman films, but also how woman-to-woman or woman-to-man relationships are missing, lacking, or purely sexualized.

10 comments:

xonii18 said...

I'm a gigantic dorky Batman fan and have been since I was three. But when I heard that line about how the death of his parents was his FATHER'S fault, I went ballistic. What about his MOTHER? Isn't she just as responsible for her life, her choices, her spouse and her son as his father is?

That still makes my blood boil. I fast forward past that scene.

I think the reason that Dent went for his son is to parallel the relationship that Bruce had with his father, striking a deeper cord in the Batman, as well as the fact that boys usually aren't targets. For once, it wasn't a dead woman in the refridgerator.

It is a male-oriented movie. Maybe if Catwoman comes along, it will open up the franchise a bit.

D said...

Well, I have to say first, that it's not the death of the parents in "Nolan's Batman".

Every incarnation of Batman has that as his motivator to become the Batman. Pretty much every night he goes out, he's not going out to fight crime, he's going out to try to stop that first bullet.

Just like every incarnation of Spider-Man starts with Uncle Ben being killed because of Peter's selfishness.

In a way, both characters, though not directly responsible, still blame themselves.

Anyhow, I really think you can strike the Wayne Enterprises from the record. Naturally, when speaking of the company, it'd be in terms of Thomas or Bruce. It was Thomas' company, not Martha's.

Frankly, though, I'd figured you'd be somewhat pleased to have men cast in positive parental roles, regardless of which child they're parenting.

Most films emphasize the role of the mother, and the father is usually completely absent, or not important at all.

Saying Gordon might love his son more than his wife isn't all that far-fetched. I mean, most parents DO (or at least should) put their children before themselves.

However, I'm still of the mind that the kids will always fall second to the relationship between the parents. After all, if you let your relationship fail, the kids suffer for it. But that's not a common viewpoint, and it's neither here nor there to this particular post.

I think the characters harassing Bruce about his father make sense, because it's not that they're upsetting him about his dead father, it's more that his whole life he's tried to live up to the man his father was. Any thought that his father was weak, insufficient, or not good enough, would strike him hard.

His whole life he lived and enjoyed things that his father earned, without him being around anymore. He'd probably been told by countless people what a good man he was. In his mind, I'd assume he thinks he's got an impossible task to achieve, just to be someone close to what he was.

At the end of the day, though, comic book films ARE marketed in the masculine, because the main audience is going to be males. Sure, some women will go, but not in the sheer numbers that men do.

I shall go now, because I've waxed dork on comic books long enough.

Lindsay said...

My point is that the film collapses "parent" with "father," making them synonymous in a sense. There's so much emphasis and repeated mentioning of Thomas, but Martha's role in raising Bruce and her part in society (she had to have one, whether in her career or in her social life... There's some things in the comic mythology about her professional life) is virtually ignored.

At the end of the day, though, comic book films ARE marketed in the masculine, because the main audience is going to be males. Sure, some women will go, but not in the sheer numbers that men do.

I've said this before in posts about comic book movies (or action movies or historical movies or basically any other film genre that's not romance), women enjoy going to those movies. Women like good plot lines, action sequences, even a movie about a comic book. I don't feel like I'm one of the strange, random women out there who just happens to like movies that are traditionally marketed to men. I'm not sure why the media (and right now, it seems, politicians) doesn't recognize that women don't vote with their vaginas. Women don't buy things with our vaginas. Women don't go to see movies with our vaginas. Women are not one issue voters. Women go to comic book movies and enjoy them. I was just as excited to see The Dark Knight as the men I went to see it with.

Sadly, because that idea persists in society, Martha Wayne will never have as big of a role as Thomas Wayne. And it's really unfortunate.

D said...

Sadly, because that idea persists in society, Martha Wayne will never have as big of a role as Thomas Wayne. And it's really unfortunate.

Martha has less of a role because, like I said, Thomas owned the company, Bruce is trying to be the man his father was.

Martha didn't own Wayne Enterprises, nor is Bruce trying to grow up to be his mother.

That said, I pointed out that yes, women will go see these movies. But not in the sheer numbers that men will.

Just like some men will see movies marketed to women, but not in the numbers women will.

Lindsay said...

Martha has less of a role because, like I said, Thomas owned the company, Bruce is trying to be the man his father was.

Martha didn't own Wayne Enterprises, nor is Bruce trying to grow up to be his mother.


So Martha's role in raising Bruce and her presence in the movie is ignored because she didn't work at Wayne Enterprises? I think that's a thin excuse for ignoring the role of women (and mothers) in comic book movies, or only keeping it to a sexualized presence.

It's not simply Thomas' work ethic that Rachel, Ra's or Falcone refer to; it's who he is as a person, something that easily could have been extended to Martha. By saying "parents" but only meaning "father," the movie does itself a disservice. It makes it all about Thomas and not the family as a whole. It tells audiences that Nolan's Batman franchise is about men's relationships with other men, and that there is no place for women except to be lovers and plot motivation for men.

D said...

So Martha's role in raising Bruce and her presence in the movie is ignored because she didn't work at Wayne Enterprises? I think that's a thin excuse for ignoring the role of women (and mothers) in comic book movies, or only keeping it to a sexualized presence.

It's that she's less important to the character's development. It's not unreasonable to say one parent had more influence than the other.

Also, for every example of father-son you find in a comic, I'll find you one of mother-son.

Martha Kent. The relationship between Superman/Clark and Martha has always been strongly portrayed, and his devotion to his mother always highlighted.

Aunt May/Peter Parker. Yes, I know that's not his mother, but it's the only active mother-figure in his life, as he was raised by his aunt and uncle.

Yes, Uncle Ben may have been the driving force for him to use his powers in a heroic way, but it's not because Uncle Ben was given this super masculine relationship, it's because his failure to use them in a heroic way got Ben killed.

(For the record, you can use the women in refrigerators idea all you like, but in all of comic-bookdom, only ONE character has ever STAYED dead. And that's Uncle Ben. A male.)

It's not simply Thomas' work ethic that Rachel, Ra's or Falcone refer to; it's who he is as a person, something that easily could have been extended to Martha.

Well, my point is, he's trying to be the man his father was. Not the woman his mother was.

Since he inherited his father's legacy, he's trying to live up to filling those shoes.

It makes it all about Thomas and not the family as a whole. It tells audiences that Nolan's Batman franchise is about men's relationships with other men, and that there is no place for women except to be lovers and plot motivation for men.

And most movies paint the father as absentee, or completely useless to the plot. Switching it around for once isn't a bad thing.

I'd lose count trying to find all the movies where the father wasn't present, wasn't named, or wasn't important.

D said...

Oh, and I meant to add: (If you can do so, just merge it with my other comment. I don't know how they look when they arrive on the other side. I don't blog.)

In one of the most male-dominated entertainment medias, (video games), in the first "Silent Hill" game, the protagonist was a single father, trying to rescue his daughter.

Two rather rare occurances, in mainstream and not-so-mainstream media.

(This plotline was changed for the film, making it a married mother, searching for her daughter, a much more typical setup).

So, the positive relationships between father and daughter have been explored, even in the storylines of video games.

There's not so many father-daughter in comics, more mother-son, really.

Mistah J's Girl said...

First of all - THANK YOU for this, it's utterly marvellous.

Second of all - holy cow, you have a lot of patience to deal so reasonably with 'd's' ignorance and arrogance. I know there are people out there who don't understand sexism, misogyny and male privilege, but I'm still staggered when I witness someone arguing in favour of the male-dominated focus using all the reasons it's not okay as why it is okay - and being completely oblivious to it.

Thirdly - I'm a female comic book geek and I take it you're aware of Barbara Gordon and her significance to the Batman Universe? In my mind, it was utterly unacceptable to use Jim Jr instead of Barbara. Jim Jr is a non-entity in the comics; it's Barbara who makes the difference. To my mind, there is nothing that reflects media sexism in these films more than giving Jim Jr such a prominent role and Barbara none at all.

FINALLY, Jeph Leob, who Nolan drew much inspiration from, highlighted the Martha-Bruce relationship in several stories. Once again, Nolan makes an essentially sexist choice in the changes he makes.

Jennifer-Ruth said...

Here from the Carnival of Feminists.

I'm a massive comic fan myself, especially the bat books.

You hit the nail *right* on head here. Martha might as well not have been in the movie for all that she mattered.

I also want to second what Mistah J's Girl said in the comment above. Why did the choose use Gordon's son and NOT his daughter? His daughter, Barbara, who will grow up to be Batgirl and later Oracle - one of the most important characters in the whole DC Universe. She wasn't even *named* - what reason is there for this? A lot of the audience would have known who she was and what she would become, yet the script ignores her. In favour of...well...a character who never does anything.

Of course, it makes no sense when you think of it rationally. Then you remember that Hollywood finds it hard to make a film without rampant sexism throughout and that this is just yet another example...

It's a pity, because the films are otherwise awesome (I fear about what they will do to Catwoman though)

Anonymous said...

i consider myself as a feminist but i have to agree with D's point. the whole point is that is that Bruce was trying to be the man his father was. in fact, i was happy that this movie portrayed a father-son relationship in a somewhat positive light, because we usually have many movies portraying fathers as absent or abusive.
In the Dark Knight, we have many references to the negative relationship between the Joker and his father. and it is also possible that Gordon finally screamed for his son because it was the last straw from Dent, not because he did not love his daughter or his wife any less.