After a nearly two-week hiatus, I’m climbing back on the blogging wagon. I really should say something about the execrable Kelo decision. And I’m tempted to jump into Will, Brad, and Julian’s fascinating exchange about utilitarianism. But instead, I’ll complain about Batman Begins. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
Early in the movie, the Legion of Shadows is presented as a vigilante crime-fighting society. It fights evil, but is willing to employ unsavory methods to do so. Specifically, its leaders have concluded Gotham breeds so much evil that it must be razed entirely. Now, that’s not my complaint. The best villains are those who think they’re in the right, and the excessive willingness to crack eggs to make omelettes has a venerable history in literature (think Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).
So, how does the Legion set about destroying Gotham? After Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) reveals that he is the real Ra’s Al-Ghul, the Legion’s chief, he explains to Batman that the Legion has been trying to bring down Gotham for decades. And what tool did they use? Economics, he says. The Legion engineered a depression to create an underclass that would turn to crime.
Now hold on a cotton-pickin’ minute. The Legion wants to destroy Gotham because it’s a crime-ridden cesspool. Okay. But how did it get that way? If Al-Ghul’s story is true, the Legion made it that way. Before the Legion started mucking with Gotham’s economy, it was presumably not so criminal and corrupt. The Legion created the crime problem, and then used the problem to justify the overwrought solution. Oh, and by the way, the out-of-control crime is also part of the solution, since the plan involves letting fear-crazed felons tear down the town.
In short, the Legion is both diabolical and utterly incoherent. Incoherent villains are rife in the movies, of course, so I normally wouldn’t complain. But in this case, the Legion is supposed to be frightening precisely because it seems rational in its own fanatical way. Bruce Wayne finds the logic of the Legion’s position compelling, as indicated by his own willingness to remain a vigilante (even after saving Gotham from destruction). Making the Legion irrational cheapens it as a villain.
Incidentally, I don’t share Joe Salerno’s objection to the idea that a depression could be engineered. Although the movie does not specify the economic tools used for that purpose, it’s not hard to find them. Lousy Federal Reserve policy would do the job, as Salerno admits, but there are microeconomic routes as well. To make an economy crumble, you simply have to undermine the factors that create and sustain it. Outlaw the sale of valuable goods and services, thereby fomenting a blackmarket. Stop enforcing contracts and property rights, or enforce them in a haphazard and unreliable fashion. Raise taxes to discourage productivity. Erect regulations that stifle business formation and employment.
What is more objectionable is Al-Ghul’s suggestion that the Legion’s plan was stymied by the generous philanthropy of people like Bruce Wayne’s father. If you’ve succeeded in weakening the foundations of a strong economy, as per the recipe above, then philanthropy won’t do much good. Giving people free stuff doesn’t create wealth, and thus cannot address the root of the problem. At best, it will slow the decline; at worst, it will encourage more dependency.
But the film doesn’t delve into these topics, and that’s probably a good thing. With the Legion’s methods of economic destruction unspecified, I’m free to imagine there’s actually a coherent underlying economic theory. What I find more difficult to get past is the internal inconsistency of the Legion’s plan to destroy Gotham for evils deliberately stoked by the Legion itself.