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Batman Begin Again!

by Aaron on July 17, 2008

in Movie Reviews , Theme Week

  • Title: Batman Begins
  • IMDB: link

Diehard fans of The Dark Knight have long since given up on a cinematic treatment that gives us a definitive Batman.  We all long to forget Adam West’s camp-o-rama, Burton’s Batman was just weird and violated some central tenets of the Batman mythology, and Schumacher?  Well, the less said the better. (Two words: Bat Nipples).  So news that Christopher Nolan was giving us a Batman: Year One tinged reboot of the series was met with equal anticipation and dread.  Nolan is certainly a genre-fan favorite, considering the success of Memento, but he’s otherwise unproven, and the superhero film is not an easy one to get right.

This time out, Christian Bale dons the cowl as Bruce Wayne, but this time out we’re given a Wayne who has not yet become the Caped Crusader.  Tormented by his parents murder, and consumed with unfocused rage, Wayne has abandoned his life as a billionaire trust-fund kid and traveled the world trying to understand the criminal mind.  When we first meet him, he’s let himself be incarcerated in a Tibetan prison, where he spends his time honing his fighting skills on the various inmates until the intervention of Ducard (Liam Neeson), who engineers his release and offers his guidance and tutelage.  Wayne accepts and begins the training that will eventually lead him from being an obsessed vigilante-in-training to the mythic powerhouse of Batman.  Wayne ultimately rejects Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the League of Shadows, as their cynicism and murderous ways can’t be reconciled with Wayne’s belief that people can ultimately be redeemed.

Wayne returns to Gotham City to reclaim his birthright as the heir of the Wayne fortune, but must contend with the financial maneuvering of Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer), the CEO of Wayne Industries, his unresolved feelings for childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who is now a prosecuting attorney, and the intricacies of becoming Batman.  He’s helped by long-suffering butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and research engineer Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), who provide moral support and technological means, respectively.

Who doesn’t love a good rope?

On his first outing in the fabled suit, Batman gets involved in a plot involving a local crime-lord who was involved in his parent’s murder (Tom Wilkinson) and the corrupt (and psychotic) psychiatrist Stephen Crane (Cillian Murphy), who happen to be involved in the machinations of Ra’s Al Ghul and his plot to destroy Gotham City as a warning to the world.  Throughout this, Batman is working alongside skeptical police officer Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the man who will eventually become his greatest ally.

A bit convoluted, I know.  And truthfully, the first and second halves of this film make for an uneasy story.  However, the absolutely perfect casting of Christian Bale, and his nuanced performance as a young, untested Bruce Wayne make for such compelling storytelling that, by the time the Batsuit is revealed and the action kicks up into high-gear, you’re so invested in the film that you just let go and give in to the roller coaster ride.  Batman/Bruce Wayne is such an interesting character that it’s a shame it’s taken so long for a director to understand that the internal conflict of a man living two wholly separate lives is what makes him so compelling. Thankfully, Nolan understands this and succeeds where no other director has. Namely, he’s given us a Bruce Wayne who’s actually more interesting than Batman.  As fans have long known, Batman is the real identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask, but when the suit (in all it’s clunky, awkward glory) is finally given screen time, Nolan and writer David S. Goyer’s script have seemingly forgotten all about intricacies and settle merely for set pieces and high-octane action.

It’s hard to defend this version of Batman as a young and uncertain hero-in-making, as his first outing is a flawless exercise in instilling fear in the hearts and minds of criminals.  But for the remainder of the film, we’re given not a glimpse of Batman as master detective, and indeed he merely follows the path laid out in front of him with all the major revelations coming not from his intuition, but from the exposition of other characters.  Gordon gets similar short thrift as his introduction as the last honest cop in Gotham, and his initial encounter with a not-yet-Batman Wayne shows us a man who’s willing to deal outside the law to bring justice to his city, but once again as soon as the action kicks in Gordon is reduced to playing a semi-comical sidekick.  Thankfully, Oldman reclaims the role in the final moments of the film, just as Nolan seems to recover his grip on the story as a whole.

Freeman and Caine are exactly what fans have wanted from those characters, instilling respectability and class to roles that could easily fall into camp stereotypes. Freeman could read the Satanic Bible onscreen and he’d still come across as the most likeable and charming man on the planet, and making him Batman’s Q was an inspired choice of casting genius. He lends gravitas to a role that would otherwise be unremarkable.  Caine is especially effective as the proper and long-suffering butler who, incapable of leading Bruce from his chosen path, can at least lessen the damage he does to himself.  It’s a great take on Alfred as a character, as we’re shown a man who cares deeply for Wayne, but never once attempts to act as a surrogate father.  His trademark wit is put to excellent use as his lines constitute the only moments of lightness and humor in an otherwise relentlessly dark film.

Neeson takes a cookie-cutter role filled with fortune cookie dialogue and makes it workable, but let’s face it:  Playing the stern but wise master is just about the only thing he’s done since Phantom Menace.  It’s easy to dismiss this role as kind of a nefarious Qui Jon, but he’s a capable enough actor to instill his scenes with a believability that lessens the impact.  Wilkinson lends an old-school toughness to his role as Carmine Falcone, which is just hammy enough to make him an endearing (though still menancing) mobster.  Murphy has the truly thankless role as the skeevy psychiatrist who will become The Scarecrow (one of my favorite Batman villains), and his portrayal of Crane is so slimy and creepy that it’s a wonder that anyone would let him near a hospital without being strapped up himself.  Sadly, his character is given the same treatment as the rest, as once the action kicks in he simply disappears behind a faceless mask and has little to do but act freaky.

That leaves Katie Holmes.  I still can’t fathom why studios insist on shoving a romance down our throats when we’ve obviously shown up for capes and explosions, but thankfully Nolan has the good sense to only tease us with a romance.  Batman aint’ got time for the ladies, and while Wayne still feels something for his childhood friend, there’s no room in this plot for lovey-dovey.  Nolan and Goyer appease the studio and bow to the fans by giving us a Rachel who is less a love interest than a moral barometer for Wayne, as it should be.  Holmes is still to baby-faced to effectively pull off a hardened assistant D.A., but the film doesn’t spend enough time on that for it to really bog anything down.  She’s easily the least capable actor of the cast, but she’s certainly not helped any by clunky dialogue she’s forced to dispense.

I know it seems like I’ve found a lot to dislike about Batman Begins, but let me assure you, there were enough moments of pure brilliance that by the time the final credits were rolling, I was an enthusiastic supporter of this film.  Indeed, it was all I could do to keep myself from flooring the gas pedal to weave in and out of traffic; my adrenaline was so high after this film.  The monkey wants a Batmobile sooooo bad, and this version is easily the coolest ever designed.  More tank than car, the new Batmobile was cool enough to warrant a purchase of the model, so I could have it on my desk.  (Yes, I’m a nerd.  I’m fully aware of this.)

In my perfect world, Batman Begins wouldn’t have shown the suit until the last frames of the film, as this version of Batman’s origin was so compelling that I wanted Nolan to continue to explore it, but if this film is any indication of what’s to come, we can look forward to a franchise that not only entertains as summer popcorn fare, it might just have the chance to deliver a great film to boot.  Put away your lightsabers and put on your capes, kids.  Batman just became king of the summer.  It may not make the cash that Sith did, but it’s 100 times a superior film.  And after all, how often do you get to say “Man, I wish Rutger Hauer had a bigger role”?

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