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Batman Begins
posted June 21, 2005

Batman Begins
A Film by Christopher Nolan
Playing in Cinemas

Batman Begins is a fair to decent 1970s-style action-adventure movie starring Christian Bale as a billionaire playboy who hopes to heal his community by beating the shit out of people while dressed as a giant bat. The film's main strength derives from director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer's decision to stare down the monumental goofiness of such a concept with enough good natured intensity to make you want to give their movie multiple benefits of the doubt.

Instead of devolving into murky fantasy, Batman Begins embraces many of the outsized elements of the superhero tradition and attempts to give each one a rational explanation -- although admittedly, sometimes that explanation is only as deep as "ninja stuff". An even harder to swallow group of ideas (the costume, basically) is lumped under a blanket of "theatricality." This subverts the fantasy leanings by making them an over-the-top distraction that diverts outside observers from the superhero's goals and relatively limited resources. That ploy actually works pretty well, although the details eventually rattle against the movie's sides. It's more like you appreciate the filmmakers' effort to deal with how stupid some of this stuff can be. Most people will buy the explanations for the duration of the movie.

imageThe smartest element the creators borrow from the 1970s Superman movie, this film's spiritual forefather, is to place the audience in the hands of experienced actors. That movie's Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Glen Ford become this film's Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman. They give Batman Begins a weight it doesn't always deserve. It's only when you stop enjoying these veteran hands and start thinking about the ideas behind the genial delivery system that you realize the movie rests on some shaky ideas. The creators may not intend for the movie to contain some ugly, blunt notions about the futility of psychoanalysis in the judicial system, for example, but it's hard not to go there when your bad guy is overtly manipulating that system. Other than that, I quite liked the very pretty Cillian Murphy's laconic dickishness and practicality as a bad guy who uses his "superpower" to fuck with people rather than beat them up. He provides a service rather than a strong right arm. There should be more bad guys like him.

There are a few things I liked about Batman Begins enough that I'll remember them. I really liked a scene where Batman interrogates a dirty cop by hauling him several hundred feet in the air and screaming in his face. That seemed like it would actually be effective, plus I hadn't seen something like that before. I liked a scene where Batman jumps out of a window, rolls around a bit like a turtle to put out some flames and then runs away using his little pulley devices to gain an added moment of respite -- that scene clipped right along and seemed to reflect a rational way of conducting business given the bounds of what we'd seen so far in the movie. I generally had no problem following the fight scenes despite the way they were filmed, which I'm told was a complaint that many reviewers and fans had about the movie. The first scene with Murphy's Scarecrow using his power against Tom Wilkinson's crime boss was nicely done as well, eerie and outsized in a film that's so measured and controlled this pops out.

As with most modern films, there were a few scenes confusing enough to startle me out of the movie-going experience. Early on, Bruce Wayne shows his aversion to being an executioner by murdering a bunch of ninjas and blowing up their house... with the guy he refused to kill in it. Although Batman gets points for thinking out of the box on that one, he gets debits for joining the "distinctions only I understand" club. Later, the bad guys trot out a fake version of a character that just looks sad, a used Pinto to the previous character's Rolls-Royce, like the League of Assassins or whatever came to Bruce Wayne's house to get revenge because he killed their only good copy. I'm also not sure why Batman needed to jump onto a train near the end of the movie when he simply could have timed the action that ultimately brought about his victory. Things like that.

It's hard for me to gauge performances in a movie like Batman Begins. I'm not invested enough in the Batman comic books to judge whether someone matched what a character "should" be like. Christian Bale projected enough of an oily even keel while playing Batman you can imagine him doing weird things with his spare time yet not being caught while doing so. There was one moment of bad acting that affected the overall film. Generic love interest and moral center Katie Holmes was given a scene where her character finds out her childhood friend and potential one true love has returned from the dead. She fails to do anything memorable with it. That scene, had it come off, would have added some punch to the story; it's hard to believe that what we're given was the best take. Later, Michael Caine's Alfred is given one unholy mouthful of a line where he refers to a thought he had in an earlier scene of which we're unaware of until right then. Just trying to wrap your mind around it nearly stops the film cold. Very few of Alfred's various issues or takes on things were developed, period, which is weird in that he's the main character's co-conspirator. Gary Oldman as Sgt. Jim Gordon was solid, and some of the movie's most effective humor was watching his frustrated civil servant grow accustomed to getting things done.

In a way it's good to hear that the movie may fail to make its money back through domestic box office. That means the story might just end here, where it probably should. The Batman "story" as much as I understand it seems to be about Bruce Wayne getting his shit together enough to start fighting a comic book version of "the good fight." The battles themselves are interesting primarily as spectacle, and verge upon outright dullness because the totality of Bruce Wayne's personality is oriented towards beating up things -- making for few personal places any conflict can safely echo. I could give a shit about what Batman looks like fighting the Joker or under what circumstances he would adopt a child and train it for combat. You keep going, and Batman ends up fighting super killer whale women, like in the last issue of a Batman comic I bought at a quarter bin. Or a campy state governor. In fact, one reason why Batman when filmed has slid into camp so easily is because camp affords directors an avenue through which to keep stories visually interesting when the insides drop out. Not that it's any easier over the long term playing things serious. The more adventures Batman has on film, the more exposure audiences get to the untenable sides of the whole superhero set-up.

If the comic book people were to take anything away from this movie it might be to make Batman a little less of a dominating badass -- the kind of thing that satisfies 14-year-old Steven Seagal fans -- and to make him less of a psycho and more of a driven guy dealing with early childhood trauma in a considered way. I'm not sure that's been done in a long, long time. Even the beautifully drawn Batman: Year One gets most of its character moments from Jim Gordon rather than from Batman. But other than maybe some adjustments as to its lead, what the comic book does is too different from what a film like this encompasses to even suggest one can comment on the other.

So I guess in the end I liked Batman Begins just fine, even though I had pretty low expectations going in. It was almost dignified when compared to some of the past efforts to put superhero crap on screen, and got where it was going mostly by engaging in dramatic problem-solving -- more like problem-bluffing, really -- rather than trying to make some overall point. I would gladly watch it again some day on a rainy afternoon, although I can't blame audiences for not being excited about seeing it in the theater.