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.
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?
WARNING- SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT
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?
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.
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"...
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.
Can't wait to review TDK, but I'll have to re-watch it first...