Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Batman Begins

Batman isn't really like other comic book characters. The heroes of comics are recognizable by their strengths. Think of the X-Men - those are characters defined by their special abilities. Even their names - Pyro, Wolverine, Storm - reflect their talents. Even characters with downfalls or shortcomings, characters like The Incredible Hulk, who comes to see his superpower as a curse, are still uniquely strong, powerful creatures.

But Batman is just a man. What's more, he's a man defined by his weaknesses. He's still emotionally damaged by the loss of his mother, he's alienated from the very people he has sworn to protect, and in Christopher Nolan's brilliant reimagining of the character, Batman Begins, he occupies the extremely thin line between vigiliante lunatic and protector of the common man.

It's not an easy balance to pull off. In the past, some filmmakers, like Joel Schumacher, have tried to highlight the campy side to the story, in order to get past the essentially cold, aloof and unrelatable nature of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Others, like Tim Burton, have set the stories in a cartoonish, imaginative fantasy world, to downplay the silliness of a man in a bat suit fighting villains dressed as penguins and cats.

Nolan, on the other hand, chooses to take the movie deathly seriously, and to allow Bruce Wayne's inner conflict to take center stage in a film that reinvents not just the character of Batman, but the entire world he inhabits. It's a complete triumph, the first film ever to realize the Batman character and his environment properly on screen. It's not just the best Batman movie ever made, but probably the best comic book movie ever made.

This is the origin of Batman played as the Bruce Wayne coming-of-age story. As we open, he's an angry, cynical, bitter young man who has allowed the murder of his parents at a young age to excuse a lifetime of wasted potential. He wanders around the world, living as a criminal, hoping to gain some insight into the criminal mind but not having any clue how to apply it. Bale is a marvel in the role, from a standpoint of physicality but also how he allows Wayne to seethe. Michael Keaton always played Bruce Wayne (and Batman, really) as essentially even-tempered, a man who fought crime out of a promise made to his dead parents long, long ago. Val Kilmer and George Clooney seemed to put no real thought into understanding the character whatsoever.

But Bale's Bruce Wayne isn't really such a nice guy - he genuinely hates criminals and criminality, he resents his family's massive wealth and how he's defined by the name "Wayne," and we finally get to see some of that "billionaire playboy" side of his personality the other films delicately left out. It's a terrific performance, and he really does inhabit the role. Hopefully he'll be portraying this character for some time to come.

He's just one member of a truly phenomenal ensemble. I'll get more into some of these performances later, but this is a film that boasts entertaining, lively and fun performances from Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer, Gary Oldman and, in a memorable turn as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow, 28 Days Later star Cillian Murphy. This movie's gonna make that guy a star.

What's most amazing to me, apart from the fact that Nolan was able to convince all those actors to appear in a Batman movie, is how much of the mythology of the character they managed to fit into a 140 minute movie. We get to see Batman's origin and training with Henri Ducard (Neeson), his introduction to the League of Shadows and initial partnership with the mysterious R'as al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the murder of Wayne's parents and the aftermath, including its economic impact on Wayne Enterprises, Bruce's return to Gotham City, his first adventure as Batman, his development of the Batcave along with butler Alfred (Caine), the design and creation of the Bat suit at the Batmobile by Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox (Freeman), Wayne's budding relationship with Police Sargeant Jim Gordon (Oldman), Wayne's budding relationship with the fetching young District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), the creation of Bruce Wayne the billionaire playboy as an alter-ego, the inside of Arkham Asylum, the activities of Gotham's biggest mob boss (Tom Wilkinson) and the origin of one of Gotham's most feared villains, The Scarecrow.

Has any comic book movie managed to translate so much of the detail while still telling a coherent storyline? I mean, sure, the X-Men films bring a lot of characters and backstory with them, but they haven't gone nearly as far in exploring the world of the mutants as this film goes in its initial half-hour. And they've had a whole extra film! As well, a movie like Daredevil couldn't manage to tell one straight-forward story based around its central character. In Batman Begins, we have material that's both more familiar and more complex, and yet its streamlined into a near-perfect adventure film easily enjoyed by both comic fans and the completely uninitiated.

And the action! Some of the set pieces in this film top even Raimi's remarkable work in Spider-Man 2. There is an extended police chase of the Batmobile through the downtown area of Gotham that easily tops any action scene from any other Batman movie, and that's not even the film's conclusion (which I won't spoil for you). My one complaint in this arena would be that, in the close-up fight scenes, Nolan uses a quick-cut technique that obscures the action. It's too jumpy and it's hard to follow. My friend Ari explained that he felt the usage was appropriate, as Batman's movements are so fast, they are inherently hard to follow exactly. This makes some sense, but I still would rather see Batman giving a guy a karate chop rather than a Bat-shaped blur colliding with another blur.

But this is a minor complaint. Most of the action is quite clear and fluid. Additionally, the technique used to demonstrate the effects of the Scarecrow's hallucinatory "fear toxin," that drives much of the third act of the story, is remarkably effective. It's like something out of a feverish horror film, a trippy and even terrifying blend of CG animation and deep, gutteral sound effects. Like the rest of the effects work in the film, it's expressive without being overwhelming, giving the film a slickly realistic look that's occasionally punctuated by vivid visual trickery.

I could keep going on and on, but I think the biggest point I'm going to make is that Nolan and his co-writer David Goyer quite simply get this character. They know Batman, they have a clear idea of how they want to depict him and Gotham City on screen, and they present their vision in a visually stunning, technically superior and emotionally charged adventure epic. At times, this feels less like a comic book movie than a more old-fashioned adventure film, in which larger-than-life heroes battle to the death over grand ideas.

I liked Burton's films, particularly the defiantly strange Batman Returns, but it always felt as if the raw materials of Batman's world bored him. He didn't care about setting up big action scenes, or choreographing fights, or exploring the various uses of Batman's remarkable equipment. The Joker asked in the first Batman where he got those wonderful toys, but you never felt like Burton cared that much about them at all. He just liked Batman's German Expressionist cityscape and the ability to explore the freakhood of Jack Napier, Oswald Cobblepott and Selena Kyle. Nolan and Goyer, on the other hand, are energized by the association with these classic characters, and they use the iconic status of images like the Bat Signal to enhance the emotion and intensity of the film.

Batman Begins shares in common with this summer's other great triumph, George Lucas' frequently remarkable Revenge of the Sith, a grandiose yet nuanced conception of action filmmaking. These are not films that aim for minor pleasures, but carefully calibrated thrill machines. They are BIG FILMS, and they work because of their bigness, not in spite of it.

At the end of this film, Nolan pretty clearly sets up a sequel, and I have every confidence this will turn into a series of terrific entertainments. No other film in this recent renaissance of comic-inspired films has come close to capturing its chosen character as potently or faithfully as The Dark Knight in Batman Begins.

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention the first time around the lovely score, oddly credited to both James Newton Howard AND Hans Zimmer. There's no singular, iconic little theme tied to the character as in Danny Elfman's 1989 score, but it's elegant and subtly unsettling background music that really sells the films big moments.]


justin said...


Great review.

Lons said...

Thanks. There was a lot I wanted to talk about that I didn't get to, mainly because I wrote the thing at 4 am. I really wanted to get into the similarities between BB and Revenge of the Sith, but that I can probably leave for another blog post.

jordan said...

the fact that this film is so brilliant makes me realize that the sequel is going to be MIND BLOWING. nolan seems like a director who grows with each passing film, and so i have no doubt the dark knight will be THE batman film. great review, by the way.