The Hero We Create: 9/11 & The Reinvention of Batman

By Joshua C. Feblowitz
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 6/11 |

On the lowest tier in the Gotham power structure is the mobster, who is interested in the same goals as most of Batman’s nemeses: wealth and power. These goals, derived from a wholly capitalist worldview, appear as a common thread across most of the early Batman comics. No matter how complex the plot, no matter how evil or nuanced the evil genius’ plan, villains are almost always most interested in robbing a bank or seizing power for themselves.52 In Batman Begins, Carmine Falcone represents this simplistic yet still terrifying layer of Gotham’s underworld. Falcone does not understand the full implications of his criminal activity. His conversation with Dr. Jonathan Crane reveals his role as an ignorant subordinate: despite having garnered some information regarding Dr. Crane’s criminal activities, he still knows little about the drugs he has been smuggling and nothing of the central terrorist plot to destroy Gotham. His ruthless yet simplistic nature serves as an example of the most basic criminal element.

In contrast, the Scarecrow represents a different sort of criminality that is based upon a bizarre combination of mental instability and scientific curiosity. The Scarecrow takes sadistic delight in the torment of others, and this is his motivation for promoting the cause of the terrorist Ra’s al Ghul. However, the defeat of the Scarecrow again highlights the dominance of the third level of criminality: . Although the Scarecrow is the most iconic villain in the (he appeared as early as 1941 in Batman comics, while Falcone and Ra’s al Ghul did not emerge until 1987 and 1971 respectively), his defeat is perhaps the most anticlimactic moment in Batman Begins.53,54 After the release of the chemical weapon in the Narrows, the Scarecrow, riding a horse, terrorizes that p of the city. Yet, in what would seem to be a key moment of the film, Rachel Dawes, cowering in fear along with a young child, thwarts the Scarecrow’s attack using only a Taser. Batman himself is conspicuously and meaningfully absent in this scene. The gendered implications are clear: the fact that a vulnerable female character protecting a child can defeat this villain with a simple weapon of self-defense is meant to suggest the Scarecrow’s impotence. The rapid, unceremonious, and anticlimactic defeat of this character effectively diminishes the power of the “criminally insane” archetype that dominates the plots of so many superhero films. In other words, the moment of the Scarecrow’s defeat is designed to be anticlimactic, and the purpose of the anticlimax is to reveal his subordinate role.

The ignominious defeat of the Scarecrow and the simplistic ignorance of Carmine Falcone both testify to the primacy of the terrorist as the highest level of evil. Ra’s al Ghul manipulates these two layers of the criminal underworld and takes his place as the supreme villain of the film. A similar criminal hierarchy can be observed in The Dark Knight. Both mobsters and white-collar criminals are once again at the mercy of a far more powerful force: the terrorist, embodied here by the Joker as played by Health Ledger. The film opens as the Joker carries out a brazen robbery, stealing bags of cash from a bank controlled by the Gotham mob and killing off the petty criminals that assist him. Likewise, the sinister Chinese banker Lau, who initially steals from the mob, is later burned alive atop a mountain of cash by the Joker. Both layers of criminal activity are supplanted and manipulated by the terroristic Joker. In addition to providing complexity to each film’s plot, this hierarchical arrangement of criminal elements demonstrate the supremacy of the terrorist as supervillain.

Ra’s al Ghul

Of the two villain-terrorists of Batman Begins and Dark Knight, Ra’s al Ghul is the more blunt personification of terrorist ideology. The dominance and influence of Ra’s al Ghul’s organization establishes terrorism as a supreme evil that subordinates and controls lesser forms of criminality. In Batman Begins, this shadowy figure orchestrates the plot to destroy Gotham City and save the world from Gotham’s corruption and moral depravity. Ra’s is the leader of the secretive League of Shadows, a reclusive group dedicated to correcting perceived injustice in the world. Despite the presence of other criminal elements, Ra’s al Ghul is given the most primacy in the film by far. It is clear by the film’s end that he is the orchestrator of events and that the secondary criminals are simply pawns in his larger game.

The League of Shadows is an organization that works literally “in the shadows” to manipulate history and “correct” wayward civilizations by facilitating their destruction. Ra’s al Ghul goes so far as to claim that it was the League that sacked Rome, spread the Black plague, and burned down London.55 The worldview of the League has much in common with modern day Islamic extremism. The League of Shadows attempts to “restore the balance” of civilization by destroying societies mired in greed, excess, and immorality. This is highly similar to the purported motives of Islamic extremists, who scorn Western and immorality and hope to upend Western hegemony in favor of a new (and moral) world order. Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic fundamentalist author upon whose writings much of Osama bin Laden’s worldview is based, claims that the world is “beset with barbarism, licentiousness and unbelief” that represents a danger to . Additionally, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, one of bin Laden’s primary goals is to make the US “end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture.”56 Thus, with respect to their goals, modern-day Islamic terrorists have much in common with the fictional Ra’s al Ghul.

Even Ra’s al Ghul’s name itself has significance in the context of 9/11. The name comes from Arabic and means literally “The Demon’s Head.”57 Although Ra’s al Ghul originated in a Batman comic from 1971, the choice to use him as Batman’s primary nemesis in the 2003 film is a telling one. Passing over numerous iconic villains including the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin, the creators of the film choose instead to appropriate an obscure character of Islamic origin for use as the central villain.58 Neither Henri Ducard nor the original Ra’s al Ghul (the two characters that were fused to create the post-9/11 Ra’s) had substantial recurring roles in the comic book series. Despite this, Ra’s is instrumental in the birth of the new Batman.

The creators of Batman Begins depict Ra’s al Ghul as a sinister and highly intelligent villain who subscribes to his own conception of unequivocal justice and morality. “If someone stands in the way of true justice,” Ra’s states plainly, “you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.” This dramatic statement has many drastic implications. It blends justice with and also implies the existence of an objective and unequivocal form of morality. In addition, Ra’s philosophy condones outright murder. The phrase “walk up behind them” is an especially telling indication of how Ra’s and the League view the world. The inclusion of this phrase implies the ruthless nature of the League’s members and also frames the victim of their “justice” as defenseless. It is one thing to fight against an enemy to achieve a goal; however, it is quite another to murder an unsuspecting victim. In addition, the word “simply” as well as the idea that the victim “stands in the way of true justice” implies a dichotomy of right and wrong and an idea of unequivocal and universal “justice.” The ruthlessness of stabbing someone in the heart also suggests a degree of violence and swiftness that transcends any idea of a struggle. This worldview is quite similar to Netanyahu’s conception of terrorism as including the “systematic murder, mayhem and menacing of the innocent.”

The rejection of human compassion is an issue of central importance in the philosophy of Ra’s al Ghul. When Ra’s al Ghul returns later in the film, he mocks Bruce for unwittingly saving him. “I warned you about compassion,” he says gravely, implying that Bruce should have killed him when he had the chance. In addition, Ra’s warns Bruce earlier in the film, “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” His message is clear: no enemy can be defeated if compassion imposes rules and limitations on the pursuit of justice. In his words, Bruce “lacks the courage to do what is necessary.” What is “necessary” in the mind of the terrorist Ra’s al Ghul is the pursuit of justice with utter indifference towards those who stand in the way, whether they are innocent or guilty, adversaries or bystanders. Compassion for those who are killed in the pursuit of justice is, in the mind of Ra’s a Ghul, a “weakness.”

Finally, Ra’s al Ghul’s sinister plot to destroy Gotham bears a chilling resemblance to the events of September 11, 2001. These parallels are captured most succinctly by film critic Michael Marano who, in his essay “Ra’s al Ghul: Terrorist as Father Figure,” describes the apparent allegory that exists within the film. Speaking of Batman’s primary foe, Marano writes:

Ra’s again plays on modern anxieties. He’s the head of a shadowy international organization hidden in the mountains of who, at the climax of the film, seeks to overthrow established social order by driving a multi-passenger transportation device into a skyscraper in the heart in a major American city. Sound familiar?59

The only way these parallels between Batman Begins and 9/11 could be stronger would be if the film dared to migrate from the realm of analogy to the grotesque by using a plane or dual Wayne Towers as part of the central plot. Along with the clear terroristic elements of Ra’s’ moral philosophy, this readily apparent allegory establishes Ra’s as closely allied with the real extremist terrorists of the modern era.