The Will to Act: The Moral Dilemma of Ra's al Ghul
Your training is nothing! The will is everything...the will to act."
Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy remains the most critically acclaimed treatment of Batman in film - and for good reason. In just three films, Nolan grapples with a whole host of issues faced by the post-industrial world. In this new series of articles, we'll be walking through some of Nolan's finest characters and examining their grim and often troubling worldviews.
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the Dark Knight franchise.
There are few actors who can bring the pangs of modernism to the screen like Liam Neeson. While he's known for adrenaline-junky films like Taken and fantasy flicks like Excalibur, Neeson is a heavyweight in philosophical dramas like The Grey and agonizing spiritual-dilemma films like Silence and The Mission. The Irish actor was the perfect choice, then, to bring to life Nolan's vision of Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins.
Ra's first appears in the film under the guise of Henri Ducard, apparently a servant of the immortal ninja warrior Ra's. Eventually, however, Ducard reveals that he and Ra's are one and the same; and that the pseudonym was merely one of Ra's many uses of misdirection and deception. Despite his use of deception, though, the audience is never encouraged to hate Ra's. Instead, Nolan makes it clear that Ra's is in many ways the prototype for Batman.
If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely...a legend, Mr. Wayne.
Ra's is the one who teaches Bruce Wayne to confront his feelings of insufficiency and fear following the death of his parents. In a scenario arranged by Ra's, Bruce opens a wicker basket containing a swarm of bats, forcing Bruce to "bathe" in his fear while under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. The scene establishes Ra's as Bruce's spiritual guide into the depths of his soul, wherein Bruce uncovers the resiliency needed to become the Batman.
Unlike Bruce, however, Ra's is not able to reemerge from his journey into his inward darkness. Tormented by the loss of his family at the hands of criminals, Ra's views destruction, rather than rebirth, as the natural fate of humanity. Ra's refers to his crusade of destruction as "the movement back to harmony," suggesting rather darkly that human society is a disruption of the natural order of the world. Ra's thus echoes the malevolent sentiments of would-be "cleansers" of human life throughout history.
Much of what makes Neeson's portrayal of this character so very compelling, however, is that Ra's is able to point to very real examples of the problems he perceives with Gotham's culture. When Bruce protests that destroying Gotham would end millions of lives, Ra's responds coolly that "only a cynical man would call what these people have "lives," Wayne. Crime, despair... this is not how man was supposed to live." Bolstering the deadliness of these ideas is that they are not merely philosophical dilemmas for Ra's, they are problems with solutions. Ra's is not merely someone who believes academically that the world is meaningless, he is an individual who treats others as though they have no meaning apart from his own abstract ideals.
Yet Ra's underestimates the power of human hope. In the climactic scene of the film, Ra's mocks Batman with a knife to his throat while they battle on board a train prepped to destroy the city. "Don't be afraid, Bruce," Ra's jeers, "in the end you were just an ordinary man in a cape, and that's why you couldn't fight injustice - and that's why you can't stop this train." Unbeknownst to Ra's, however, Batman has arranged from an ordinary detective to derail the train, and Batman escapes leaving Ra's to his fate.
The scene is the final fulfillment of the film's earlier warning when Bruce first rejects the teachings of Ra's. "Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share," Ra's chides. But Bruce is adamant, "that's why it's so important. It's what separates us from them." In the end, then, Bruce refuses to embrace Ra's dictum that all that matters is the will to act. The will to refrain from action, to wait, to hope - this is what distinguishes the grim but compassionate Batman from the nihilistic and destructive Ra's.