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Review: “Batman Begins”

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Produced by: Emma Thomas, Larry J. Franco, Charles Roven
Written by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer (screenplay), David S. Goyer (story)
Cinematography by: Wally Pfister
Music by: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Mark Boone Junior, Ken Watanabe, Colin McFarlane, Linus Roache, Sara Stewart
Year: 2005

 

I was planning on going through the whole story about how much the Batman franchise was in dire need of a reboot, but I quickly found that I was going on about so many things that didn’t need repeating. The basic and short version of the story is that, after two rather strong films (Batman and Batman Returns), Warner Bros. and DC Comics shot themselves in the foot by allowing, nay demanding, for the rather awful Batman Forever and Batman & Robin to be unleashed upon the tortured fans in the name of making more money off of merchandising, only for critical reaction to slam the films and tickets sales to drop. Instead of going forward with what was in hindsight the rather ironically named fifth film, Batman Triumphant, both companies decided to take a break from the superhero films business and think about where they’d gone wrong.

Of course, in that time, their rivals over at Marvel were apparently seeing this as a window of opportunity, and they began production on and even released several rather strong films over the following years, namely the two first films in each of the BladeX-Men, and Spider-Man trilogies, each with increasingly better reception from audiences and critics. At that point, it was clear that after years of being in the shadows, it was time for Batman to emerge once again.

Warner Bros. and DC reconvened and decided that what was needed was a serious, respectful take on the character. Coming off of the cult thrillers Memento and Insomnia, Christopher Nolan, then an unknown director from England, was selected for “reboot” of the Batman film franchise for the new millennium, and was teaming up with Blade series writer David S. Goyer for the project. If Tim Burton’s Batman departed from the mainstream perception of the character as a campy comedy act, Batman Begins would go a step further by basing it firmly in a more realistic and logical universe. This meant dropping most, if not all, of the more fantastical and supernatural elements and characters associated with the previous films and, in their place, substituting them with more grounded and plausible versions. This also meant that the design and feel of the movie was going to be far more gritty, turning away from the cold, expressionist set designs of the Burton films and the statue-filled, neon landscape of the Schumacher films and creating a world that we could recognize as a heightened version of our own, pretty much using Chicago as the basis and filming on location.

Perhaps the greatest departure of all, however, was the fact that Batman Begins would focus primarily upon its hero — an concept that, in hindsight, was hilariously ignored by all previous theatrical films except, of all things, the animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. There would be significant emphasis on Bruce Wayne’s development as a person who sees the injustices of the world and a focus on how he becomes a man who decides to stand up against crime and become a symbol of hope to the afflicted and of fear to those who would commit those crimes.

More than any film before it, this new film would take inspiration from some of the more obscure or glossed over parts of the Batman mythos. The film starts with Bruce reflecting upon his past while being held in a prison cell in the Himalayas. Already in the process of training himself for his return to Gotham, he encounters a mysterious man named Ducard, who belongs to a group known as the League of Shadows, a group seeking to purge the world’s evil, swearing allegiance to their leader, Ra’s al Ghul. Bruce finds his way into their organization with the hopes that they will provide him with the physical and mental training he needs. With Ducard’s guidance, Bruce is forced to confronting his past fears and learn to turn these fears against those who would stand against him.

In this time, we are treated to flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood and early adulthood, learning how his parents, primarily his father, had influenced him and loved him in the short amount of time that they had together, and, of course, we see how they were prematurely taken away, his parents needlessly being killed in front of him during a random mugging that he blames himself for. We see how this event created in him a need for revenge, and, for the very first time on screen, the death of Bruce’s parents actually carries a weight on both the character and audiences. Bruce eventually learns to channel this vengeance towards a pursuit for justice, but he quickly finds out that the League’s idea of justice is a complete slash-and-burn of all who stand in their way. After escaping the League and returning to Gotham, Bruce is now wiser, more skilled, and more determined than ever to set Gotham straight, but just as he begins to gain the upper hand with the criminal underground that created him, the threats against the city his parents were determined to redeem become even greater than he could have ever imagined.

While its sequel has undoubtedly overshadowed this comparatively subdued film, there’s no ignoring the fact that Batman Begins is a brilliantly conceived character study with very little holding it back from being an almost perfect live action Batman film — except for the fact that it’s not its sequel, which showed us how even near-perfection can be improved upon. But you can’t get to the second without the first, and everything from the gadgets to the villains to the supporting players to the plotting has a purpose and reason for being, while never distracting from the overall story of Bruce.

As Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale finds the right balance of putting on the facade of a grown-up spoiled brat and a tortured man seeking answers, At least in this film, the growling voice he uses as Batman isn’t nearly as pronounced or ridiculous as it would become in The Dark Knight. In fact, that scene where he aggressively interrogates a crooked cop who “swear[s] to God” he’s telling the truth and Batman growls back “SWEAR TO ME!” is 100% fearsome awesomeness. It’s hard to say that anyone else would have fit both roles quite so well as Bale, and while I do not doubt that there could have been, what’s done is done, and Christian Bale understands the character so well that I really have never questioned him as being the right one for the role.

There are plenty of moral pillars in the film to support Bruce, as well. Michael Caine is pitch perfect as faithful butler Alfred, and brings along with him some much needed brevity to the increasingly heavy material. And while she’s not quite as great, obviously, the unjustly maligned Katie Holmes is just fine as the newly created love interest, childhood friend, and increasingly pessimistic Rachel, who joins Alfred in reminding Bruce of his family roots. Like with Caine, Gary Oldman is also great as Lieutenant James Gordon (not yet commissioner, you see), and Morgan Freeman’s Wayne Enterprises inventor and gadget supplier Lucius Fox is… well, it’s Morgan Freeman. You know what to expect, and his casting as Batman’s Q is fitting here. They stand to remind Bruce of the good that remains in Gotham’s citizens. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Batman film without a few villains, but while previous films allowed their villains to not only overshadow the main hero but also struggle for scenery to chew amongst themselves, it’s refreshing to see villains that aren’t nearly as over the top and distracting while remaining impactful enough to be memorable and menacing as threats. Tom Wilkinson is ruthless as the crime lord who has the entire city seemingly wrapped around his finger, Carmine Falcone, and Cillian Murphy is chilling as Arkham City’s criminal psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. the Scarecrow).

As for the big reveal at the climax, well, I would like to point out that it’s probably pointless to hide the secret by this point, but in any case (SPOILER ALERT) — As Ra’s al Ghul, who may or may not have retained his comics counterpart’s eternal youth in some way, Liam Neeson is a commanding enough presence, though he never quite feels as morbidly obsessed with Bruce as his traditionally is, which results in the villain losing a bit of his intrigue. At this early stage in their relationship, however, it makes sense that, as the evil surrogate father figure, he’s so disappointed in his former protege that he’s willing to do all the things that Bruce’s father would not, which adds a bit of nice dramatically thematic flair to what could have otherwise felt like a dull and generic terrorist threat.

Nolan keeps all this heavy character development afloat with some pretty awesome action sequences, as well, perhaps the most astonishing being the race through Gotham City between the police and the completely reimagined Batmobile, known in this film as The Tumbler. I admit that when I first saw pictures posted online of this tank-like vehicle all the way back in high school, my friends and I scoffed at it. No way was this machine the Batmobile. It’s not streamlined and sleek, and it’s also missing the wing-like fins, too! But seeing it for the first time in a still image and seeing it for pretty much any time after seeing it action is like night and day, and the stunts they pull off with this marvel of a machine, completely without CGI, by the way, are astounding. The Tumbler is freaking awesome and is just one of the many awesome and reasonably realistic innovations Nolan made to Batman’s arsenal, followed by the memory cloth cape that explains how Batman is able to glide without a glider (actual science be damned, it’s believable enough). While not quite as action heavy as some other superhero films, the action that is there is exciting and thrilling, marred only by the heavy use of an overly shaky cam during hand-to-hand combat scenes, an effect which really only works well that one time when Batman makes his first appearance at the docks. That was also freaking amazing.

Oh! And that end? When Gordon talks about escalation and shows Batman the card? Chills. Freaking chills, man. What an awesome setup for the sequel. But that’s for another review.

As we currently approach the release of The Dark Knight Rises at the time of this writing, I wanted to reflect back on what came before. Some of you are nut cases and are probably taking Thursday off to watch the 3-film midnight showing, and I commend you for that — I do not have that luxury, unfortunately, so I, like most sane people, had to re-watch this at home. But you know what? It’s just such an awesome movie that, no matter the screen size, and  no matter what its minor flaws may be, Batman Begins is a masterpiece of film making and was instrumental in not only helping to keep the superhero craze alive, but in validating it to critics who had maybe written it all off as either a trend or fluff entertainment.

Spider-Man and its sequel may have had their brief moments in the spotlight as well-received films in their own right, but their legitimacy as films wasn’t solidified until Batman Begins came around to fight the injustices these films faced with critics and even paved the way for the first Oscar win for a superhero film, too, for The Dark Knight. DC may not be able to get too many quality film projects launched beyond Batman these days, but I can almost guarantee you that Marvel wouldn’t have gotten to the point of making The Avengers had it been for this film.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5

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