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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lead up to Dark Knight Rises: Reviewing Batman Begins

What's up everybody? It's been really busy around here lately, let me tell you- dog days of summer indeed! At any rate, I'm continuing my lead-up to The Dark Knight Rises (which is just over a week away now!) by reviewing the one that started it all. I'm going to frame this review in a similar format as my Star Trek reviews, just for the sake of consistency (should that be my template for all reviews? I'm not sure yet). Now, I'm already on record saying that its a great, fantastic movie, so you may know where this review is headed overall. But, if you enjoy Batman in general or the Nolan movies in particular, this review might just entertain you, or make you shake your head and say "Oh boy- another Internet critic". Either way- I'm cool with that. So, away we go...

Personal Background: I need not go into my love of all things Batman (I did that in my last posting, if you are curious). When it was announced that they were "re-booting" the Batman series of movies- nobody actually knew what this meant, as this deliberate reboot had not actually been done before. There were all kinds of questions and speculations: who would the villain(s) be? Is it part of the old series or not? Who would be Batman? Well, those questions were only slowly answered- of course, Bale was every body's favorite pick, and his casting boded well. But when they announced 2 villains, that was upsetting- and then it was uncertain- Liam Nesson as Ra's? No- that's Ken Wantanabe...

At any rate, there was confusion and uncertainty. Now, I was excited to see this movie, but the summer of 2005 had lots of genre fare that I was equally looking forward to: Star Wars Episode III, War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead, etc. Batman was just one on the list, not the main one. After the debacle of Schumacher ruining Batman, I hoped that it would restore Batman, but it was a guarded optimism. So, finally seeing Batman Begins- I was floored. The acting was great, the action was fun and realistic, and the story was great (if slightly overstuffed at the end). More important, it was the sophistication of the production. The thought behind it. The WHY Bruce Wayne became Batman- no, it is more than his parents' murder. The HOW he does it- building the suit, re-establishing himself in Gotham. Finally, the hint of the IMPLICATIONS of him becoming Batman was also established (which would play out in the sequels to enormous effect). I was thrilled coming out of the theater- I knew Batman was back.

Basic Plot: The movie, is without a doubt, an origin story, though it is impeccably handled and in fact, integral to the plot. Vital as a matter of fact. Told partially through flashbacks, a young, wealth, sheltered, and impressionable Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a low-life thug, Joe Chill. The boy is hopelessly cast adrift spiritually- the murder has scarred him for life. As he grows older, he begins to seek something- perhaps vengeance, perhaps closure, maybe justice, or even just a reason, an understanding.

After several dead-ends, Bruce ends up in Asia, in the lair of the League of Shadows, headed up by the mythical Ra's al Ghul and his subordinate, Henri Ducard. They tell Bruce that they can give him the tools he needs to fight crime, as that seems to be his goal. Ducard says that tougher measures must be used to fight evil. Bruce believes this too, and he comes to trust Ducard, and trains with them. Finally, after much trial, Bruce is to be intimated into the League when they reveal their 'true' nature- they will cross any line to fight crime, including murder. Bruce rejects this, fights back, and escapes from the League.

Despite the disagreement, they have indeed shown Bruce a path- he will fight crime using all the skills at his disposal- his mind, his physical strength, his money, and above all, his symbolic example. Once back in Gotham, Bruce begins to build up "The Batman"- he gains allies, including Alfred, his butler and surrogate father, Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend who has become an assistant DA, Sgt. Gordon, one of the few honest cops in Gotham, and finally, Lucius Fox, head of the "Applied Sciences" division of Wayne Enterprises. We see Bruce work on creating the costume, the batcave, his tumbler/'batmobile', all of the methods he will employ, and finally, just how he intends to bring down organized crime boss Carmine Falcone. The first sighting of Batman is like a bolt of lightning for Gotham: a shocking change that is both vital and a bit scary.

However, it is not clear sailing for the Batman. The head of Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane, Dr. Jonathan Crane, has plans for Gotham that don't involve Batman. Crane, now thinking of himself as "The Scarecrow" has developed a 'fear toxin', with which he can induce mass panic. Working with an unseen partner, Crane begins to act against the city. Can a newly established Batman stop Scarecrow in time? Can Batman root out Crane's mysterious benefactor? And will Batman inspire change in Gotham City itself?


Themes/Concepts: Now, here is where Batman Begins differ from so many other comic book movies. Batman Begins has two feet- one planted in the realm of "comic book movies", complete with an origin story, some humor, and of course a "big scheme" at the end that must be foiled. But, if that is typical "comic book movie" stuff, the other foot of Batman Begins is in another place entirely. Many have said (for good and bad) that director Christopher Nolan took Batman and made him realistic. Well, that's a yes and no, actually. Nolan has kept many of the trappings of "comic book movie", but his other foot is in the realm of reality- a crime fighter dressed as a bat is absurd, but, Nolan asks, "What if this person existed"? What would motivate a man to do this? How would he operate? How would his friends/family react? How would the community at large react? And what toll would such activities take on the hero and those around him?

Nolan asks all of these questions in Batman Begins, in both obvious and subtle ways. It is these questions that ground the movie in realism. While fear toxins, shadowy ninjas, high tech microwave emitters and the like are comic book trappings, the questions that Nolan asks are not at all regular "comic book movie" fare. Now, of course, the GOOD comic books themselves have dealt with these issues for decades, but Hollywood has looked at "comic book movies" as guys in tights tussling and making the studio money. Popcorn entertainment at best. Nolan's approach takes on more serious aspects, as I said, things that comic authors have done for some time, but Hollywood hadn't. The questions I mentioned throughout this article are part and parcel of Batman Begins- addressed explicitly or implicitly. Themes about the role of fear are prevalent- how it limits us and can possibly elevate us. How symbols are important to individuals and society as a whole. How people can make a difference to those around them.

However, there is one theme that is huge in this film, beyond all that, and it is one that is relevant to everyone, Batman fan or not. The title "Batman Begins" is both about the "origin" of Batman but also about something else. When we first see Bruce, he is just a kid- slightly mischievous, and very rich, but otherwise a regular kid. His parents love him, and they try to teach him (his father's "Why do we fall" ethic). However, when they die, Bruce is traumatized AND cast adrift morally. His father would have been his moral teacher, but now he's gone. As we see Bruce grow older, we see him trying to build his own morality, his own set of beliefs. We see this person gain a moral code from those around him- Alfred tries to show him the importance of friends and family ("There are those of us who care about your future"), Rachel tells Bruce the difference between justice and vengeance (Her anger at Bruce's thoughts on killing Joe Chill), a young officer Gordon teaches Bruce something of simple kindness and dignity (right after his parents are killed). However, Bruce has been permanently darkened by the tragedy, and he seeks out more answers. He joins criminals to "learn" their ways (he says he lost the easy assumptions about crime). Finally, he learns from the Ducard that he has the strength to fight back, and Ducard teaches him how (fear, deception, the physical side of combat). Ducard also teaches Bruce that society's weakness only breeds crime and that laws are just too insufficient to stop/punish crime.

The movie, really then, is interested in how Bruce develops a moral code. How does he differentiate from right and wrong? How will he walk that fine line that is a vigilante while being a symbol of hope? Batman Begins seeks to examine those questions. Now, the climax for Bruce's character development actually comes early in the film- Ducard and Ra's want Bruce to prove his loyalty to the League of Shadows by executing a criminal, and then Bruce will help the League to destroy Gotham outright- it is too morally sick to survive. Here is the vital point- what will Bruce do? He must now look at all the (sometimes contradictory) moral lessons he has learned. He rejects the League, believing there MUST be a limit. He can only be willing to go so far, but no further- there must be something to differentiate him from the Joe Chills of the world.

But, can anyone live up to their moral code fully? Can anyone be a paragon of such moral virtue? Batman's morality may be murky, but he has a code and rules, nevertheless. This is the meaning of the end of the movie. Of course, it turns out that Ducard IS Ra's al Ghul (loved that twist in the movie, BTW), and he is behind the Scarecrow's fear toxin, which Ra's plans on using to purge Gotham. In the final battle, Ra's is trapped in a situation of his own making, and Batman lets him stay there: "I won't kill you. But I don't have to save you". Ra's dies in the crash, but the city is saved. Now, some fans decried this (very understandably), however, in the real world, could Batman have not lived up to his morality just once? Doesn't everyone fall short in their own moral character?
Batman's failure to save Ra's will have implications in both The Dark Knight (which I'll get to in my review) and undoubtedly in The Dark Knight Rises.

Batman Begins isn't just the beginning of Batman, but the beginning of a man's moral journey. Yes, he will stumble and fall short of perfection. But he will also "pick himself up again"...

Characters/Acting: The story may straddle a fine (and tricky) line between comic book heroics and reality, but the actors do a fantastic job selling it. Of course, Christian Bale is fantastic as Bruce and Batman. You have no doubt that this man is so driven by his convictions to do these things. His pain is palpable, his bravery is inspiring. Bale does it all so well, that it is hard to imagine anyone else ever being the character again. Some have criticized his Batman voice, but I disagree- Batman IS scary. He can't sound like Kevin Conroy in real life. I think the "Bat voice" is what he would need to have to be effective. At any rate, Bale nails the role in all the right ways- smart, strong, driven, guilty, everything this complex character should be.

Liam Neeson is fantastic as Ducard / Ra's al Ghul. Truth be told, I've never been a Ra's fan. Yes, I "get" the character, but I've never liked his stories. And that Lazarus Pit crap? Come on. Here, though, Nolan gives us a good take on Ra's. He's what Bruce would be if he falls too far- and Neeson gives it his all to show that. When he tells Bruce why he is "in the mountains", the pain on his face is all to familiar to Bruce. Neeson's anger. frustration, and pain when Bruce begins to waver on the League of Shadows is fantastic and shows just how high the stakes are for Bruce AND Ra's. Finally, when Ra's reappears to attack Bruce, Neeson invests the character with bitterness, cynicism, but also genuine disappointment that Bruce did not "see the light", so to speak. Neeson does a great job being Batman's mentor and his adversary.

The rest of the cast is equally top notch. Michael Caine's Alfred is a working man's version (more on that with TDK), but he shows clearly that he cares about Bruce, and feels his pain. Alfred isn't just Bruce's butler- he is his friend, his advisor, and occasionally, his moral beacon, and Caine handles all of that with his characteristic aplomb. Gary Oldman was not my original first pick for Gordon, but he did well playing the only honest cop around, reacting to the Batman in equal measures of hope and fear, in many ways being "the average person" viewpoint. (However, Oldman proves to be a fantastic pick in TDK. His work there is nothing short of a revelation).

Cillian Murphy is downright creepy in his small role as The Scarecrow- the limited costume works to enhance the deranged nature of Crane. Tom Wilkinson plays crime boss Falcone with the right mix of evil and arrogance. Rutger Hauer and Morgan Freeman are both excellent as Wayne executives, with Hauer's haughty Bill Earle looking to sideline Bruce while Freeman's Lucius Fox becomes an important asset to both Bruce and Batman- and Freeman handles the role with grace and humor quite deftly. Finally, Linus Roache is great in his brief turn as Bruce's father. In just a few scenes, he makes sure that you understand why Bruce looks up to him so much, and why his senseless murder leaves a hole in Bruce's life that will never, ever, be filled. The only weak link is Katie Holmes, and even she isn't bad, she just isn't quite up to the game that everyone else is bringing to the table.

Special Effects/ Action Scenes: Now, most of the effects here are practical, which are always nice. They used computers to widen the city up, and models/cg to do a part of Gotham's slums. Yes, there is some CG work for the Tumbler chase and all the bats, and the effects of the fear toxin, but it is very convincing and never overused. The sets are all fantastic- they are evocative of Gotham but never comicbook-y. The Bat suit looks great, though I miss the yellow around the bat symbol... No, its fine.

The action scenes themselves are a bit messy, particularly as Batman takes the fight to criminals. Some have said that Nolan dropped the ball here- but I'm not so sure. Realistically, a common criminal MIGHT see Batman for like a 10th of a second before Batman takes them down. The criminals are never quite sure what he looks like or anything, so the clipped fight scenes are OK by me- the only add to Batman's overall effect.

Musical Score: The score, by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is amazing in its suitability to Nolan's Batman. It may not have the "memorable factor" of Elfman's Batman '89 theme, however, their themes are grand and operatic, making Batman larger than life and darkly heroic. Their theme for Ra's is haunting and low. The music for the action is quick and matches the action very well. Funny enough, I loved Newton's score for Unbreakable, and I thought then that he'd be great for Batman. Somebody listened to me, it seems :-) The score is great an haunting.

Lasting Legacy:  First and foremost, it brought Batman back and made him a serious movie character again. Make no mistake, he looked to be "dead and buried" thanks to Batman and Robin in 1997. Nolan and company brought him back, restoring respect to the abused character. Additionally, Nolan does it by focusing on some serious moral questions while also making it entertaining. Finally, they also do it without making you feel like it is just another "superhero franchise". It feels fresh, unique, while paying respects to the traditions of the character.

Batman Begins also created the concept of a "reboot". Such an idea did not exist in Hollywood before, surprisingly. Now, due to the success of Batman Begins (and later TDK), all studios are looking at their old properties thinking "can we reboot this"? In 2006, we had the excellent Bond reboot Casino Royale, and 2009's Star Trek. Of course, rebooting has been a double edged sword, with studios trying to reboot things that either shouldn't be rebooted (they are talking about a Twilight reboot already!) or should be given a bit more time before a reboot (Spiderman).

Between X-Men, Spiderman, and Batman Begins, it was apparent that comic book movies could succeed. Nolan's showed that if you do it with thought and care, and with a stellar cast, comic movies could be amazing. No doubt, Marvel's current success can be traced back to Batman Begins- look at Iron Man's casting and use of "flashback origin" for proof of that.

Finally, Batman Begins' legacy includes its sequel, The Dark Knight. This successor will take the questions asked in Batman Begins and explore them more fully, while taking them into new and fascinating directions. It all has to do with a mysterious card Lieutenant Gordon finds at the scene of a robbery and his own personal fears over "escalation"...

Can't wait to review TDK, but I'll have to re-watch it first...


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks city. I'm working on The Dark Knight review now- it should be up by Wednesday at the latest.