Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the film version of Batman. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have brought to a new audience the notion that a superhero story can be more than a boys tale of towering dualisms: right and wrong, good and evil, chaos and order. Of course, these dualisms are the very things which make the superhero so provocative, and the merging of the normal and the fantasical into one central figure, a secret identity (which, interestingly, describes the normal aspect of the character; his or her day-to-day life, itself a secret) is itself a dualism. But what is implied by the notion of this secret?
The secret is something which should be hidden. It denotes something which should not see the light of day, either an embarassment or something of such importance that it should not be known. It also points to a private life which is radically different from the public life of the superhero. It places emphasis on the superhero, the side of the dualism which carries with it the most weight. The secret identity sheilds the superhero. Though our hero wears a mask, the secret identity is in a sense more of a mask than any cowl or cape. The notion of a secret identity sheilds us from the superhero's true self. In this sense, the public life of the superhero is the secret identity, while the private life of the superhero is the things he does in public. Great feats which a normal person could only ever dream. And he does so beneath a cape or a cowl, making the private public, and the public private. This overturning of the natural order is the first fantastical element of the superhero.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is a mask for Batman. Towards the end of the film, his love interest even spells it out explicitly when she says that they can't be together because he is wearing a mask. Bruce Wayne is a playboy millionaire, a shallow and vacuous mask, while Batman carries all the pain and anger of a boy who saw his parents killed in front of his eyes – of a social crusader who is at once a symbol of hope and a symbol of fear. But what does it mean to be a symbol, a sign?
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne thinks that by unleashing the Batman on the streets of Gotham he can affect radical change through such a radical act. The subversion of the public and the private is the first step in this process, as the inner rage and turmoil becomes that which is most public, yet at the same time hidden behind a bat. This is in respect to the act of becoming the superhero, but past that, Bruce Wayne's explicit reason in becoming the Batman is because of his belief in the power of symbolism, the power to transcend mortality. He says as much to Alfred early on in Batman Begins, explaining how as a man he could not do what he intended to do. But as a symbol he could affect the change that he sought.
By creating the Batman symbol, a bat, his childhood fear, he hopes to translate the fear that he felt when he fell down the well as a young boy, which caused hundreds of bats to swarm around him. The symbol of the bat holds for Wayne a primordial fear – and it happens right before his parents' murder. The secret origin of the Batman is linked back to these primordial moments. When Bruce Wayne encounters swarming bats again during his quest to find such a symbol, he embraces them, standing up with arms outstretched as they swarm around him. They are his hope. The bat becomes a symbol of two aspects; one of hope, and one of fear.
There is one other aspect to the symbol of Batman that also comes into play. Bruce Wayne's hopes for Batman as a symbol can be classed as a structuralist view of the sign. In this system, there is a dual aspect to the sign. There is a signifier and a signified, which produce a sign. Batman can be said to be a product of such a sequence, as the signifier (Bruce Wayne) idenifies the bat (signified), in the hopes of producing a sign of both fear and hope, depending on which side of the right/wrong dualism you happened to find yourself on.
Structuralism has often been criticised for being atemporal, and Bruce Wayne's view of the symbol of Batman is as an eternal one. Or, if not eternal, certainly a ceaseless one, as it is assumed by Wayne that Batman will come to signify fear (and, secretly perhaps, hope). It is assumed that his authorship of the sign, his intentionality, will play out once the Batman begins.
And in Batman Begins, that is the picture we are given. Even the villians of the story reflect these aspects of the Batman sign. Take the scarecrow, who uses a fear toxin on his victims, mirroring Wayne's intention for the Batman to be a symbol of fear. This is even realised in the film, when the fear toxin is unleashed over a section of Gotham city, and the figure of Batman is transformed under the influence of the toxin (in a kind of, we are led to believe, mass hallucination) into an altogether more terrifying figure, flying above the city, wings outstretched, and fierce glowing red eyes.
The main villian of the film, Ras Al Ghul, perhaps mirrors the Batman symbol more completely. He is said to be eternal, but ends up being mortal, a man. This dichotomy of immortality and mortality is comparable to the Bruce Wayne / Batman dichotomy, and the view of the Batman symbol as a set structure, atemporal in the fact that there is an assumption that Batman will always symbolise these things. There is an idealism which runs throughout the film – perhaps this is natural in anything which could be defined as a beginning. The city of Gotham itself even reflects this mortal/immortal theme, as it mixes an old stylised vision of a city from a film noir with a modern feel.
At the end of the film, we are given the slightest hint that something is slightly awry with all this symbolism and structure. Gordon mentions something about ascalation – how the introduction of new weaponry by police forces can lead to a similar action on the part of criminals. He then shows Batman a Joker card, implying that this could be an escalation of a similar vein. In this scene, we get a hint of the temporal nature of the sign, and its implications. With that scene, we get a hint of what's to come. In that scene, any idealism with regards to the symbol of the Batman disappears.