Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Focus: Batman Begins

Between 2005 and 2006 I wrote seven reviews and one interview for the website Film Focus, which sadly has gone to the great Internet Archive in the sky. Thanks to Joe Utichi for employing me in the first place and letting me re-post the stuff here, which I’ll be doing over the next week.

Batman Begins
Reviewed 14 June 2005

[In brief]
Bruce Wayne has messed it up big time. He’s dropped out of college, fallen out with his girl, run off from home, even started thieving… Now he’s ended up in some miserable little prison thousands of miles from anywhere, and the inmates all want him dead. And why? Well, when he was little he had a nightmare, and it got his mummy and daddy killed. If only someone could help him face his fear, to control it, use it… That way he could get back home and sort stuff out. And not just his inheritance and that nice girl he liked. He could probably clean up the whole city...

Even in fancy dress.

[In full]
To a large extent, superhero movies – like Bond flicks, or romantic comedies – are about reshuffling standard, generic elements. They promise something familiar yet new. Batman Begins is no exception. A lot of the ground – Bruce Wayne’s efforts to be better than those he battles, to face his parents’ killers and choose justice over revenge – were well-covered in both Batman and Batman Forever. There are overlaps with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and not just in how he (literally) learns the ropes, wins over the authorities and keep his girlfriend sweet. Batman Begins boasts a remarkably reminiscent fistfight aboard an inner-city train, and the final one-on-one with the baddie is similarly emblematic of the bigger battle for the city itself.

So it’s all very well being well-written and directed and acted, and exciting and funny and cool… What’s actually makes this one different?

For one thing it’s far bleaker than Spider-Man, perhaps more so than even Tim Burton’s arch-goth vision of the Dark Knight. It’s not ‘magical’, not ‘comic-book’, less Batman + Robin as it like Christopher Nolan’s previous, bleak movies, Memento and Insomnia.

In that, it owes a lot to the comic book Batman: Year One, by David Mazzucchelli and Frank Miller – prior to his creating Sin City. Wayne and Jim Gordon seem the only men left in the city with scruples, the only men willing to make a stand against the endemic corruption of everyone – judges, policemen, everyone. Gotham City, like Wayne himself, needs to recover its soul.

The villains of Batman Begins aren’t costumed freaks, even if their plans are a bit whacky. Dr Jonathan Crane still has his work clothes on as Scarecrow; he just pulls on a mask, like any other hoodlum. Wayne’s parents aren’t gunned down by the Joker (this time), but by a down-on-his-luck crook called Joe Chill.

But what makes the film especially ‘realistic’ (compared to other superhero movies) is the muted use of CGI. Oh, it’s still spectacular: watching it at IMAX, the car chase, with the cops in hot pursuit of the Batmobile, is eye-popping! Yet, while Spider-Man’s web-slinging though New York had a comic-book gloss, here the effects are rarely ostentatious. The car chase looks like they really are chasing about in cars. Real ones. Scarecrow’s nightmarish mask is probably the worst CG offender, but we only ever see it sparingly. That’s the secret. Batman, likewise, appears onscreen only fleetingly for his first few appearances, which just makes him that much more powerful. The shadows and sound effects do all the work for him. As they should.

The film is keen to deal with the actual mechanics of being Batman. As well as seeing the military labs from where all his crime-fighting gear comes, as well as seeing his suit and his car and his weapons as military hardware, we’re even told how the invoicing is done, and why he’s always got spare bits of Batsuit when he needs them. The biggest explanation of all, though, and the one that really grounds the film in ‘reality’, is just why a bloke dressed up as a flying rodent might not be such a silly idea.

Yes, it’s stuff we’ve had before in previous Batman movies, but Batman Begins really tries to make it credible. Fear is the motivation of both goodies and baddies alike; overcoming their own and exploiting that of others. We see tough guys rendered imbecile by too much of a nasty scare, while a room full of ninjas is nothing to Bruce, so long as he’s conquered his nightmares. They’ve even changed his parents’ last night out to fit in with the theme – they’ve not taken their already traumatised son to a cheesy old Zorro film, but instead to some weird, scary opera.

It’s good, though, that the Jedi-like stuff where Bruce learns his tricks is dispensed with early on. Montage of ninjas, and training out in the wilderness, and hard-won zen wisdom usually comes in the middle of rights-of-passage films, and it’s always rather humourless, dour and macho. Batman Begins is done with them in the first half hour, and when Alfred (Michael Caine) turns up to collect Master Bruce, a much better movie kicks off.

Alfred’s straight-forward, keep-buggering-on attitude is the film’s real heart. He shares the best gags with the other careworn older men – Morgan Freeman’s Fox and Gary Oldman’s Gordon. And yes, Oldman is easily in the same class as the other two. Still, for all it’s grounded in this good-naturedness, the film is still extremely male. There are strong supporting roles for Liam Neeson, Linus Roache, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Rutger Hauer – enough to keep you guessing about which of them might get most of the plot – but there’s only really one woman in the whole thing.

Katie Holmes is fine as the stubbornly-moral district attorney, disappointed by Bruce’s wild lifestyle. The mix of love and anger and despair she feels for Bruce works very well. But Bruce’s mother gets less to say than his blink-and-miss-her nanny. And then there are only the window dressing ladies Bruce chats up or takes to dinner… women who are playthings, not people.

It also loses points for misjudged schmaltz. Batman stops to give one of his gizmos to a wide-eyed little boy (worried his friends won’t believe who he saw), and the boy then turns up again later (conveniently), to be saved from the midst of a riot. Yeah, the child actor is okay, does the wide-eyed thing well, and manages to act his lines rather than just repeat them. But it feels too much of a sop. Yes, we can believe that the streetkids would love Batman, but not that he’d stop for them, or – much worse – volunteer his top-secret toys.

Bale, however, is excellent. He does looks a bit podgy and uncomfortable in the Batman mask, but this is the first film where the Bruce Wayne persona doesn’t seem as tortured and messed-up as the Dark Knight. It’s a delight to see him work just as hard, to think just as quickly, in maintaining his playboy persona as he does when beating the crap out of villains.

The film nicely dovetails the gains made to the city by Wayne as businessman with Wayne dressed up in rubber, hitting bad guys. It ties it in with his family history – his father helping ease the city’s troubles (even, it seems, with his death), and his ancestors helping freed slaves during the Civil War. That sense of public duty offers a more realistic solution to urban decay than we might have gathered from just the fighting. On first appearance, Batman saves the day by… well, despite everything the film seems to have been saying, it’s all solved by someone firing a gun.

But the fight isn’t over. As Gordon says, Batman making a stand as he has will only escalate the problem. We’re left with the promise of bigger fights to come, with crazy villains. And in costumes. Maybe there’ll even be some women, as well.


Tara O'Shea said...

What I really loved about BB that set it apart from other retellings of the origin story is how Bruce and Alfred are equal partners in creating Batman. We've never really seen their relationship like that before, and it's such a welcome change for me. In a way, it's closer to Bruce and Terry in Batman Beyond, which is part of why that series is my fave of the DC Animated next to JLU, and Return of the Joker is one of my all-time fave Batman films.

Also, as an adaptation of Year One (much the same way TDK is an adaptation of The Long Halloween minus Selina Kyle) is how Nolan chose the right bits to adapt. I love that the Gotham City we're introduced to is mired in decay and ruled by the mob, because it harkens back to the root of the 1940s comics. Falcone is an effective villain because you can believe the corruption and rot are a real, credible threat from which Gordan and Bruce are trying to reclaim the city. And I like how it sets up the power-vacuum filled in the second film, and how Joker steps in not to gain power or wealth, but to take away the city's hope. he's like an agent of Chaos (not in a Get Smart way, but in the old DC Comics Lords of Order and Chaos way).

I totally agreee about the suckitude of Martha Wayne being an easily forgettable a footnote, tho. I hate that the loss of his parents is really only shown as the loss of his father. Invisible Disney mothers are one of my big pet peeves.

Le Mc said...

I remember you noting the lack of female characters in your review of TDK.

BB & TDK made me the Batman fan I am today, which is how I got into "Mythological Dimensions" book in the first place ... so the films are fairly important to me.

Good review.