“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Since the beginning of the 21st century, no genre has undergone as radical a paradigm shift as superhero movies have. Think about what we had to represent the genre. Richard Donner’s “Superman” was the first modern one, but it didn’t fully transcend the trappings of its comic origins (it doesn’t help that the character of Superman is overrated…there I said it). After that series’ collapse, Tim Burton was given the opportunity to take the immortal Batman out of the campy rut the character was in since the heyday of Adam West. It was the first time we were given a glimpse of the Batman from the comics and graphic novels in a major movie, but it still was kind of silly, as if the creators were hesitant to fully break away from the “comic book” trap and explore the thematic heft Batman carries to the fullest extent. These impulses grew with each of the original four movies, until the cinematic hell of “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” were unleashed. Batman, the dark, tortured vigilante who was obsessed with restoring justice to a chaotic world, was reduced to a Halloween costume, dealing with pun-wielding cartoons for villains and…nippled suits.
But one movie started to change things for the better. It’s weird to think it, but Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” is one of the most influential movies of the last decade. Finally, a talented filmmaker was willing to take superheroes seriously, dealing with their issues and explore the themes of bigotry and isolation that the series was known for. Superhero movies had the chance to be great drama and action-filled extravaganzas if they wanted to. Five years later, Christopher Nolan, the maestro behind the neo-noir mindfuck that is “Memento” and the underrated “Insomnia,” was given the oppurtunity to bring Batman back to life on the big screen. Anyone who saw Nolan’s previous films, even his very first movie “Following” (which I HIGHLY recommend), knew that he was into characters who become obsessed with finding justice or closure for something, even if they become compromised themselves. While the latter part of that wouldn’t become apparent until “The Dark Knight,” it does prove that Nolan was the perfect person to find the haunted soul and tenacious vision that defined Bruce Wayne, and Batman, and “Batman Begins” is a stirring testament to that.
“Batman Begins” is an origin story. Yes, that is my informed deduction of the plot of a movie that has “Begins” in the title. Anyway, these are usually a mixed bag with comic book movies, which I think is due to the fact that some are more interesting and essential than others. Batman’s origin defines everything he does, especially in Nolan’s series. We meet Wayne when he is 8 years old, and he falls down a well in his backyard, which happens to be the home of hundreds of bats. He is traumatized by this experience, but his father, who is a philanthropist who devotes his life to helping Gotham City in every conceivable way, gives him some sage advice:
“Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
But young Bruce falls even further in despair, when his parents are murdered behind the opera house during a botched mugging. He is consoled by a caring young cop named Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his family’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Bruce lets his guilt and rage fester within for years, until we meet him again as an adult college student (Christian Bale), who thinks murdering the thug who killed his parents will bring him some much-needed catharsis. But his lifelong friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who is an assistant D.A., tells him that revenge and justice don’t mix. Bruce responds by throwing away his wealth and goes into a self-imposed exile in Asia, where he lives as a criminal in order to gain some understanding of their psychology. He is recruited by Ducard (Liam Neeson), to join the League of Shadows, an ancient order of warriors hellbent on bringing justice down like a sledgehammer on anything or anyone that opposes it. Ducard and the enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) train him to use his fear, anger and guilt as a weapon, to channel those emotions into becoming a symbol of justice and reckoning: but one key detail leads to Bruce’s separation from the League: he refuses to kill, he thinks justice is about setting a standard for morality and staying above the criminals. Bruce returns to Gotham seven years later a changed man; he starts putting together the symbol of justice he was trained to be; something that would turn fear back on the criminals who recklessly wield it; a vigilante without jurisdiction, an incorruptible symbol.
Which is exactly what Gotham City, which is corrupt to its very bones, needs. Gordon, now a lieutenant, is the lone beacon of decency; he is surrounded by apathetic and corrupt cops who have given into the influence of mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Bruce, with the help of weapons expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), begins building his guise that would become the nightmare of every criminal in Gotham; Batman. Bruce chooses to become a bat because bats scare him, and he wants his adversaries to feel that fear. So he begins stalking the criminal underworld, dismantling the Falcone organization and giving some optimism to Gotham’s law enforcement.
That is a ton of set-up to wade through, but Nolan effortlessly finds the pathway through all of it to get to the heart of this story. The first part of “Batman Begins” is told in a non-linear fashion; he cuts back and forth between Bruce’s childhood and his training with the League of Shadows. This adds some immediacy by forcing us to ask why this guy is doing what he does. Asking the audience to consider the motivations of Bruce by not laying them out chronologically forces us to analyze him more, making his character more compelling. Bale gives Bruce Wayne, who without the mask was an afterthought in previous adaptations, plenty of gravitas and depth with and without the mask. In a smart bit of writing and acting, Bruce throws people off the scent that he could be Batman by altering his voice when in costume and acting like a spoiled, self-centered playboy when he’s around Gotham’s elite. It makes perfect sense for the character and Bales sells all these personas effortlessly.
Batman is human. He makes mistakes; we see him getting hurt jumping off of rooftops, trying to forge an alliance with Gordon (Oldman, playing way against type, is excellent as always), and trying to lead a normal life and develop more of a relationship with Rachel (Holmes struggles with some cumbersome dialogue and isn’t believable as this character). As a result, “Batman Begins” is a very accessible movie, one that even those who are adverse to comic books (like me) can delve into without being crushed by the mythology. Except for Holmes (who isn’t terrible, just miscast) the entire cast is excellent; Caine is funny and sensitive as Alfred, Bruce’s only friend in the world and Murphy is very creepy as Dr. Crane, who is revealed to be the nefarious Scarecrow, who takes part in a plan to make the residents of Gotham go insane by poisoning the water supply.
What Nolan has done with the Batman ethos was to ground it in reality. When Bob Kane created the character in 1939, he didn’t envision him as a garish cartoon fighting even more cartoonish villains with a plethora of stupid gadgets. Batman is a detective, using his brain to fight and solve crime. This movie, even more so in its sequel, is a return to that characterization. His gadgets are simple; a hookshot, a beacon that summons bats, a Batmobile that looks like a tank and not a black phallic symbol. Batman is not a superhero; he is a representative of the oppressed, someone who can fight evil and take the consequences. Also, Batman and Gordon develop an important relationship, the only two beacons of light in the pit of despair that Gotham has become.
Gotham looked like a gothic playground in the previous movies, and not a real-life suffering metropolis. Shooting on location in Chicago and London, Nolan creates a dirty, rotting urban landscape; it is shot with a lot of dark browns and burnt oranges, with steam coming from the sewers (shades of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”). We see these people suffering, and why it is so important that Batman rise up and save them.
While Nolan succeeds in creating compelling characters and a rich, textured universe, he is like his hero; still working out the kinks. He had never directed an action movie before, and man does it show. As great as a lot of “Batman Begins” is, it horrendously edited at times. An early swordfight between Bale and Neeson is borderline incoherent. A mishmash of unnecessary cuts and odd camera placement; the camera shouldn’t be at Bale’s feet when he’s swinging a damn sword. Things improve as the film progresses with a fantastic car chase and the finale involving a train on course for the Wayne Enterprises skyscraper, but Nolan is still adjusting to working on such a large canvas.
“Batman Begins” is still a great movie because it restores what the previous movies destroyed: Batman’s sense of danger and more importantly, the character’s dignity. It continued the trend of comic book adaptations taking their world’s seriously; these movies aren’t just for fanboys; they can be enjoyed by anyone. It isn’t a smooth transition; but Nolan’s goal was to clean the slate and take Batman to the heights he is capable of. The foundation is in place.