Movie review friday: Batman Begins
Note: I wrote this ages ago, but never managed to post it: every time I started to, I ended up rewriting and adding and expanding, never quite finishing. But seeing as how the movie has been out for over a month now and it probably gone from most theaters, I'm just gonna put it up as is. I apologize in advance for the rather poor organization and some half-finished thoughts.
As I mentioned last week, I finally got around to seeing Batman Begins. It was a nearly perfect film — exactly what I wanted out of a Batman movie. But a warning before we go further: I should point out that I really like Batman. I've read a most of the seminal storylines in the comics. I watched the Adam West version as a kid. I've seen all the movies. I've read a few books on the history of the character. I've seen all of the animated versions. And I have a whole raft of thoughts and emotions and opinions about this movie. So if comics aren't your bag, please: give up now: this is going to be long. Also, there are mild spoilers below, so if you do like Batman but you haven't seen the new movie yet — stop reading and get to a theater.
Batman Begins in the Canon
People have long said that the animated Batman series from Paul Dini (1992, 1993, 1997, 1998) were far more mature, more accurate, more believable and more honest than any live-action Batman has ever been. And I have always agreed with that assessment, until now. With Batman Begins we finally have a movie Batman that is at least as good as the animated versions.
Personally, I’ve always been fond of the Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. After all, I saw it when I was 13. And it was heavily influenced by one of the greatest Batman stories of all time: The Dark Knight Returns. Despite the controversy around his casting, I liked Michael Keaton — I thought he made a fine Bruce Wayne and accurately played him as slightly unhinged. I thought the design of the movie was wonderful. And I thought the story, while not outstanding, was good enough. But after Batman Begins, I can see the 1989 movie’s shortcomings much more clearly.
David Goyer and Christopher Nolan have made all of the right choices for a Batman origin movie. Most importantly, they’ve gotten to the essence of the character in a way that no one else has managed. At the core, Batman is about fear. Everything unfolds from that central emotion. It’s one of the earliest (all the way back to 1939) and most consistent ideas about Batman: he chooses to his costume in order to make criminals afraid. And Batman Begins picks up that core truth and weaves it into every frame of the movie. We see Bruce Wayne tortured by fear. We see Carmine Falcone defined by his ability to inspire fear. We see the criminal’s fear of Gotham’s new vigilante. We see Scarecrow chemically inspiring panic. We see a city overwhelmed by fear.
This central aspect of the character seems so obvious in retrospect, but Tim Burton largely ignored it. Instead, the 1989 film focuses on Batman as a disturbed, abnormal freak whose particular fetish just happens to put him on the side of justice rather than opposing it. Which, if you think about Burton’s oeuvre, makes total sense for him, just as fear makes sense as Goyer and Nolan’s central theme, in the light of their past work.
Nolan and Goyer also managed to draw inspiration from some of the best Batman stories. The scene where Batman summons the bats to cover his escape from Arkham comes straight from Batman: Year One. This Batmobile is clearly inspired by The Dark Knight Returns. The scenes with Gordon and the scenes with Carmine Falcone draw on Year One and The Long Halloween.
Batman stories have an advantage over most other superhero plots: at the end of the day, the hero is just a man. He’s not an alien. He’s not a mutant. He’s not a god. He has no powers. In fact, the only thing about him that is more-than-human is his obsessive, nearly-psychotic desire to bring criminals to justice. He really is an anti-hero, and the best Batman stories recongize and examine the inherent ambiguity.
The cast of Batman Begins is amazing. Just look at this list: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Morgan Freeman.
Christian Bale plays a perfect Bruce Wayne and he makes a credible Batman. He’s certainly a better physical choice than Michael Keaton was. He fits the visual template of year-one Batman. My only complaint is his gravelly Batman-voice. It’s just a little too artificial. As far as I’m concerned, Batman can only sound like Kevin Conroy.
Gary Oldman is great as Jim Gordon. He completely disappears into the character (though the glasses and the mustache help). He is so successful that my friend Jason didn’t even realize that it was Gary Oldman in the role until I told him.
Cillian Murphy, an actor about whom I knew nothing, was a inspired choice for Dr. Crane. His eyes are simply terrifying.
Linus Roache created the best version Thomas Wayne that I’ve ever seen. Bruce’s father is generally pictured as a powerful, untouchable, Teddy Roosevelt figure to whom Bruce feels he is unable to live up. But here we have a slight, humble and gentle man. his obviously close relationship to his son makes Bruce’s loss feel even more wrenching and psychologically damaging.
My biggest single complaint about the movie is Katie Holmes, both her character and her performance. However, though she has a fair amount of screen-time, she has very little to say. The character is almost completely unnecessary. It’s seems incredible that she could carry the emotional significance which Bruce invests in her. And it seems equally incredible that Batman would reveal his identity to her as casually as he did. I truly hope that we don’t see her in the next movie.
The first fight scene, about five minutes in, between Bruce and the other Chinese prisoners was brilliant. That was my first clue that Nolan had created something really special. It’s always been hard to get Batman’s fight scenes right. In the 1989 Batman, Michael Keaton is so mummified by the latex suit that he can barely throw a punch. But you never notice that problem here, though Christian Bale’s armor is no doubt equally cumbersome.
But I love the way Nolan’s fight sequences are shot — frenetic, close-up and savage. I normally dislike that style in most sci-fi movies; it tends to obscure the interesting bits of the fight choreography: the swordplay or the kung-fu or the super powers. I would prefer to see the full wonder of those superpowers.
But Batman, of course, is not superhuman, and so this shooting style works perfectly. Despite his normal human limitations, we have to be made to believe that Batman can take on dozens of opponents simultaneously. The close-up camerawork gives us the visceral impression of violence while relieving us of the burden of trying to figure out exactly how he pulls it off. We see the fist impact and hear the bones crunch. The fights are fast, tight and brutal. They look honest. They look believeable. They look like they hurt.
Even better, we are spared the cinematic convention of twelve thugs in a circle each politely waiting their turn to take a swing a Batman. In Batman Begins, we see Batman swiftly, silently, and terrifyingly pick off his opponents from the shadows, one by one. The fight scene among the shipping containers is the best example of this. We never truly see what’s happening. We just hear noises. See shadows moving at the edges of the frame. As AICN said:
Half the time you never know where Batman is coming from. The focus is on the victim (criminal) instead of the hunter. Sometimes the blackness that grabs them comes from above, behind, beneath, beside… but never where you expect it…. You don’t see what’s hunting you… you can hear this flapping sound, something heavy moving beyond the edge of light and no matter where you fire, when you stop, you hear that sound somewhere else entirely, then suddenly bam he’s got you.
My only complaint in this area is that Batman shouldn’t fly. They managed to explain it well enough this time, but it’s just not necessary. In the comics and the animated versions, Batman tends to swing on cables, or use some sort of jetpack, either of which is more believable that the cloak-becomes-a-glider trick. But no matter the technological explanation, I’d much rather just have Batman melt away into the shadows, or step off the roof and disappear. It fits so much better with the character.
The setup for the next film was brilliantly done. This scene is usually tacked on so ham-handedly to most comic-book movies, which must inevitably set up for a sequel, justified or not. But in Batman Begins it’s beautifully written; it carries real weight and unpacks one of the most important questions in the Batman canon with a deft metaphor that non-fans can instantly grasp. Gordon talks to Batman on the roof about escalation. He says (paraphrased), “when cops start using semi-automatic weapons, the crooks get automatics. If we start wearing body armor, they get armor piercing rounds. Now we’ve got guys running around in masks.” Gordon asks a crucial question, one that is at the core of 1989 movie and the Arkham Asylum storyline. To what extent is Batman responsible for creating the psychos who run amok in Gotham? Nolan and Goyer take a very definite stand on this question — Batman is definitely culpable to some substantial degree. It fits in very well with Nolan’s decision to make Batman an anti-hero. It will be interesting to see how they expand this in the next two films.
Along this line, it’s also illuminating to look at how the Scarecrow functions in this film. For most of the movie, he is, I think a sane and rational, though evil, person. He’s a scientist who created a biological weapon and he uses it on people. Perhaps he is psychopathic. But we have indication that he’s schizophrenic or detached from reality. He doesn’t dress up in costume, or have a secret identity. The mask is very carefully explained as a tool used in conjunction with the chemical to inspire terror. Crane uses it to manipulate his victims’ minds, not his own. But after Batman hits him with his own chemical agent (note which of them is the actor and which is the victim), Dr. Crane is clearly different. At that point, we see the Scarecrow become a full-fledged personality. This is the first example of the theme explained by Gordon — Batman creates his own nemeses. Gordon asks the question in the abstract, but Nolan and Goyer have already given us a very concrete example.
I am also very interested to see which villains appear in the next movies. Scarecrow is still alive and loose. Gordon shows us the first glimpse of the Joker, so presumably he’s coming in film two. And R’as Al Ghul is (if you know if you have read the comics) immortal, so one assumes he will come back as well. (He’s also the best and most interesting of Batman’s villains, and I would hate to write him out so early.) So we have at least three villains who have been introduced and are likely to appear in the next film — though I wonder how many a single movie a sustain.
P.S. Wanna know who’s the richest guy in comic books?
P.P.S. Or what it would cost to become a superhero vigilante?