As my primary field of writing is about comics and their reflection of culture, I recently re-watched Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” with an eye towards seeing what lessons could be gleaned. I’ve often wondered what Bruce “Batman” Wayne could have done had he chosen a more mundane path than meting out justice with his fists, and I was startled to realize that the answer had been staring me in the face every time I’d watched the film before. He takes the great lesson of the film, which is repeated several times throughout the film, from his father, Thomas Wayne.
“Why do we fall, Bruce?… So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
– Thomas Wayne, Batman Begins
For as much as this theme means to the film, the better lessons Bruce could have taken from his father were delivered not through his words, but his actions. The death of Thomas Wayne is more than just a personal tragedy for a young Bruce Wayne. It robbed Gotham City of a leader who could showed the way forward for the world.
Infrastructure – Always Be Building
In the film’s opening act, Thomas spends a fair amount of time explaining the importance of the Wayne family’s contributions to Gotham. He does this while riding about a public mass-transit system that was built by way of a partnership between Wayne Enterprises and the city, and which doubles as a framework for Gotham’s water system. Thomas explains the importance of this system to Bruce, in that it ties together the wealthier areas of the city with lower-income areas, providing a slew of economic benefits estimated at between $1.5 million and 1.5 billion per year, depending on the size of the city. As a city the size of Gotham is likely to trend closer to the high end of that scale, its staggering to consider that in the two decades between when the Waynes are murdered and the climax of Batman Begins, the rail system generated anywhere between $30 million and $30 billion for the city of Gotham. Were a similar system to be built today, those same conduits could be used to deliver high-speed internet via fiber-optic cable or even wireless MESH networks such as that employed in Wisconsin’s capitol city of Madison, which would expand the benefits to economic growth by an additional 0.3% for each doubling over the previous benchmark.
Public Service – Give Back to the City
While Thomas Wayne could have gone into finance or gotten an MBA from whatever analogues to the Ivy League exist in the fictional universe of DC Comics, he instead chose to pursue a medical degree and spend his time saving lives in hospitals rather than maximizing profits. This is in stark contrast to the established trend among the wealthy and well educated, where a 2007 study showed that more than 47% of Harvard graduates sought to pursue a career in business and finance, rather than engineering, science, or medicine. Thomas defies this trend, an example which almost surely plays a hand in his son’s eventual decision to eschew the day-to-day management of the family company in favor of the arguably more altruistic enterprise of rooftop vigilantism.
Thomas Wayne’s Legacy
It could certainly be argued (and I have done so on occasion) that the life of Bruce Wayne could be seen as a disappointment by his father. While he has saved his city and his world on multiple occasions, he never really took his place as the civic leader he might have grown into. There are numerous stories of Bruce cutting ribbons at the latest charitable project of the Wayne Foundation, but one cannot help but wonder how a Bruce who focused his unparalleled intellect and resources on the civic problems of Gotham City might have accomplished. As a civilian, he never seems able to muster the same level of effort into improving the city as he does when he puts on the cape and cowl.
Perhaps someday we will see the story where Bruce, in his twilight years, willingly hands over the responsibility of pummeling Gotham’s bad guys and triumphs in the boardroom.
Until then, one of the great tragedies of the Batman is that he robbed the world of Bruce Wayne.