A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 7
2005, PG-13, 145 mins.
Bruce Wayne/The Batman: Christian Bale / Alfred: Michael Caine / James Gordon: Gary Oldman / Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman / Ducard: Liam Neeson / Rachel: Katie Holmes
Directed by Christopher Nolan / Written by David Goyer
It’s sort of miraculous that, in just a few short years, the Batman character will turn 70-years-old.
It’s even more revealing that - out of the four major, contemporary BATMAN films - only one of them has managed to modestly get the character right. It was a young, idealistic and persuasive artist, Bob Kane, and an inventive writer, Bill Finger, that brought “The Bat-man” to the comics world in Detective Comics #27 way, way back in 1939. At the time an interesting new super hero (an alien from another planet that leaped tall buildings in single bounds) was tearing up the comics world in high fashion, so the DC comics head honchos decided to follow suit with another costume clad hero that would marvel young readers.
When the masked “Caped Crusader” first made his appearance in the short, six page story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”, most readers were abundantly aware that something was very different about this character from the Man of Steel. Firstly, Batman was the night to Superman’s day - a shadowy, ominous, and dark foil to the light-hearted, earnest, boy scout worldview that occupied the last man of Krypton. Whereas Kal-El fought for truth, justice, and the American way, the Batman fought for much less moralistic endeavors. He did not fight crime for any real larger-than-life ideals as Superman did; no, Bruce Wayne was a new, different breed of hero, one that occupied an awkward medium between self-righteous super hero and deplorable and dissolute law-breaking vigilante.
That’s the key that makes Batman easily the most psychologically fascinating of all of the comic heroes. He has no powers. He’s essentially an ordinary man with extraordinary wealth and resources that decides to use them to finance his lifelong battle against crime after he saw his parents gunned down by a street thug as a child. I think that’s why he resonates so deeply for readers because he seems, well, oddly plausible, a character whose own twisted psychology does not seem out of our reach.
Batman became an instant hit with the comic readers, who soon found his down n’ dirty, grim and desolate world a fresh departure. It would take nearly thirty years for the Dark Knight Detective to make his way to the big screen in BATMAN: THE MOVIE, which was an appendage to the infamous, revisionist BATMAN TV series which stripped the character of all of his somber roots and turned him into a pop-culture campy farce, albeit done with a lot of skill, polish, wit, and well-intentioned humor. It would take until the character's 50th Anniversary in 1989 for a more faithful adaptation of Batman to make it to the big-screen in Tim Burton’s re-imagining of him. Shockwaves were sent through the industry world with the casting of comedian Michael Keaton in the title role, but when all was said and done, Burton’s film, although not completely faithful in story to the original comics, was very successful in terms of being faithful to the character’s tone and mood, not to mention that it ushered in the more recent and contemporary summer blockbusters as well as reviving the superhero genre that paved the way for SPIDER-MAN and company.
The 1989 BATMAN spawned three sequels of varying degrees of worth. There was BATMAN RETURNS, which maintained the first film’s dark edge while introducing two more dastardly villains for him to fight. Then came BATMAN FOREVER (with Val Kilmer replacing Keaton and Joel Schumacher replacing Burton) which slowly started to spin the character back to his unwanted campy vibes of the 60’s with its neon and colorful visuals and its complete inability to rein in less over-the top performances from its villains (in this case, played with insane exuberance by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones). Finally came BATMAN & ROBIN, the last Batman film, and the shameful and wretched Waterloo of the Batman film series. George Clooney (never less charismatic and engaging) played Batman who, once again, had to fight two super villains, this time played by Uma Thurman and a certain future Governor of California. The film clearly brought the once dark character back into his farcical roots. I mean, as soon as a nighttime, prowling vigilante was attending charity balls and whipping out his Batman credit card to purchase the services of a woman, then you just knew that this film was in dire trouble.
BATMAN & ROBIN marked the unfortunate end of a film series that once started promising and then slowly degenerated into mediocrity. This is an altogether shame, seeing that a character as intrinsically fascinating and unapologetically hard-core as Batman deserved an equally grim and stern treatment. The main problems with the last three sequels were their problematic failing to focus on the Batman persona himself. Now there is nothing really wrong with a campy treatment of the character (the original TV series and film are masterpieces of comic buffoonery), but to radically shift the tone of the first two films was like an A-typical stab in the back to most Bat-fans. The sequels' pervasive focus on the villains completely undermined what they could really do with exploring the dual role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. The man is clearly an unstable and neurotic nut job, and the first four films sort of focused on that, but it always seems of tertiary interest to the comic mugging of the camera that the villains engaged in. Overall, those films were the poster boys for “all style, no substance” films.
Thoughts of a fifth Batman film drew a great range of incredulous and spiteful reactions early on. But, let me be the proactive and honest chap that I am by saying that this Batman film gets everything right that all of the other films got painfully wrong. This Batman film is a not a sequel nor prequel either (as most media shows are trying to convince you that it is). Think of BATMAN BEGINS more as Batman Reloaded, a film that does all it can to completely forget the other lethargic films in the past franchise and instead starts things off fresh. The film truly is about how Batman begins, which tells the origin story behind the winged vigilante that’s not completely faithful to the original comics. However, what it does and does amazingly is liberally appropriate elements from the various comic incarnations and stories (most notably Frank Miller’s brilliant 1988 comic series BATMAN: YEAR ONE) to re-spin the original story overall. Everything feels familiar, yet breathes new life at the same time. And more importantly, we have a Batman film that focuses on Bruce Wayne himself and does not get bogged down by its visuals and villains. For that, BATMAN BEGINS is a sort of euphoric fanboy pill that we have all waited years to take.
BATMAN BEGINS takes us down the dark and depraved aspects of Bruce Wayne’s life, and in stylish and seamless flashback sequences that never feel intrusive or obtrusive, we get subtle snippets of Bruce’s life, from being a young boy to a confused young man and eventually to the caped vigilante he inevitably becomes. The film opens in an unnamed Asian nation where, surprisingly, we see a young twenty-something Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) enduring the brutal and harsh treatment a prisoner. Just how nutty is this future Batman? Well, he’s in there as a research assignment of his own into the nature of evil. However, he is soon “rescued” by a mysterious figure named Ducard (played by Liam Neeson in the type of mentor figure that he plays with so much effortless vigor and macho charisma). Needless to say, the Bruce of this time in no way is able to become the Batman that he wants to become. He’s rather wet behind the ears, and can’t even really defend himself against the superior Ducard. Bruce eventually wins over Ducard’s loyalty, and he subsequently takes Bruce on as his apprentice.
Ducard and his “League of Shadows,” presided over by the evil Ra’s Al Ghul (played by the great Ken Watanabe) have their own ulterior motive behind training Bruce. They want him to join their group in their amoral and highly questionable quest to ride the world of crime, especially in Gotham City, which has recently become overrun by the mob lead by Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Bruce learns everything from Ducard, from fighting, using his mind and body together in unison, as well as learning about the methodology and psychology of villainy. Bruce becomes an adept student to say the least, but when he fails to take on his final test (which involves assassinating a criminal in captivity), he escapes the enraged Ducard and returns to Gotham City with a plan. As a man, he feels he can’t shake Gotham “out of apathy,” but as a “symbol” he feels he can become incorruptible and powerful. But, how will he do this?
It seems that young Bruce was traumatized by two things in his childhood. Firstly, his parent’s vicious murder in front of him and a bad altercation with bats. This film wisely spends a great deal of time on both with the proper level of restraint, weight, and depth. His key fear of bats is what psychologically motivates him to adopt it as a symbol to promote fear in the fearful. Bruce does have a little help on his quest. He has his loyal family servant Alfred (in a very disquieting and effective performance by Michael Caine), not to mention his Q in his pocket, Lucius Fox (the always affable Morgan Freeman) who works at the secret “science division” of Wayne Enterprises.
Fox introduces Bruce to all sorts of items that will eventually become a part of his Bat arsenal, like his body amour, grappling gun, and a special prototype car that kind of comes across as a Hummer mixed together with a Lamborghini. Also, by quickly befriending a local Police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman, again chameleon-like) and an assistant DA, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce becomes "The Batman" and wages a war on the Falcone crime family, not to mention an evil new menace on the form of a wacky-out psychiatrist named Jonathon Crane (Cillian Murphy), who has a secret backer. Dr. Crane (aka The Scarecrow), is a devilish creation, who uses mind-altering drugs to induce the victim to visual manifest their most deeply vented fears. Now that’s evil!
BATMAN BEGINS was written by David Goyer, a self-admitted comic geek who obviously knows exactly what makes Batman tick. The film itself was directed by 35-year-old Christopher Nolan, who at first does not appear the most likely choice to helm a big budget summer blockbuster. He made one of the best films of our young decade in MEMENTO and also made 2002’s ingenious thriller INSOMNIA with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. Yet, the effective one-two punch of Nolan’s gifted and sensitive eye behind the camera and an astute screenplay by Goyer is more than sufficient to take this great character out of the cinematic ashes and propel him to limits that many Batman fans have only hoped for. What they both do so well is take the tapestry of Batman’s history (which has constantly been redone in various incarnations) and weave it into a cohesive and involving fabric that involves their own intuitive additions. We see who Bruce Wayne is, what drives him, his own inner demons, but they also have the patience to develop everything in the Batman mythos and give it plausible explanations, from the choosing of his symbols, the creation of his batsuit and weapons, even down to his batcave (which is finally a dark, damp, and decrepit hole underground) and the bat signal (which appropriately looks hazy and out of focus).
BATMAN BEGINS does not deconstruct the character, but rather takes time to explain him, something the other films felt largely negligible on. Also, the look of the film is not quite the gothic and art deco overkill that dominated the other films. Gotham City more or less looks like a real city that is slightly and subtly punctuated by visual effects (it was shot on location in Chicago). The overall look is flawless, and Nolan wisely knows that in order to ground this character in a respectable level of verisimilitude that it needs settings of equal veracity. The action and fight scenes themselves are quick, chaotic, and kinetic, done with hectic pans and dizzying angles (which, I guess, would be the sort of visceral feel of fighting Batman, it would seem). Also, the Batman character himself is not really glorified. He’s a figure that’s in constant shadow, a type of neo-horror villain that would otherwise be the monster in a slasher picture that jumps out of nowhere to attack the victims. BATMAN BEGINS is really the first film to get the tone of the character – he’s not a public persona, but a frightening symbol that lurks in his own enigmatic shadow.
Nolan, notwithstanding his visual and story flourishes, also supports the film with a great cast. I have always admired Christian Bale since I saw him in AMERICAN PSYCHO and he carried EMPIRE OF THE SUN as the young POW in Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama. He’s absolutely right for the part, resonating the dark edge and charisma needed as well as investing emotionally into the role of Bruce Wayne. He is the best cinematic Batman thus far, and also creates a nice front in his alter ego (he presents Wayne as a playboy, womanizing drunk to the socialites of Gotham). Oldman is also gently commanding as Gordon (finally, a Batman film that focuses a bit more in his integral character). Katie Holmes is also efficient in her thankless role of the love interest, and Cillian Murphy is slimy and eerie as his villainous alter ego. Possible the most interesting character outside of Bruce is his manservant Alfred. Michael Caine plays the role with a certain level of pride and common sense. He begrudgingly goes along with his master’s quest, but he more often than not verbally expresses his displeasure with it. He’s a man whose central preoccupation is maintaining the family name and integrity, and thus worries about how it possibly could be kept alive with its heir engaging in nocturnal activity. Caine here is charming, funny, and brings depth to his role, which is also refreshing.
BATMAN BEGINS not only rejuvenates the franchise. but gives it a complete and much needed overhaul. The ending of the film completely leaves the hint of sequels and new villains (think calling card, ‘nuff said), and I certainly hope that Warner Brothers has the dedicated foresight to get all of the participants back on board for the next entry. BATMAN BEGINS promises, offers up, and gives us everything that we could have possibly demanded in a Batman film. Whereas the other films led the character astray, Nolan and Goyer here do the character justice by investing in his psychology and what drives him. In this instance, much like Ang Lee’s HULK, BATMAN BEGINS is sort of an art house blockbuster, a larger-than-life portrayal of a comic character that has the persistence to focus on characters, emotions, and motive. It also wisely follows the model of the first SUPERMAN film by developing its character and not showing the hero until the midway point of the film. BATMAN BEGINS easily deserves high ranking alongside Richard Donner’s 1978 adaptation of Superman as the best of the comic adaptations. In a year populated by great escapist entertainments, like SIN CITY andSTAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH, this film version of the Dark Knight continues 2005's menu of grand spectacles. BATMAN BEGINS is not only the best film of the summer thus far, but it's truly one of the best films of the year...and one that constantly made me think, “Why the hell didn’t they get this right the first four times?”
what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the BATMAN films:
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) 2.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
4. BATMAN (1989) 1/2 5. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the BATMAN films:
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
4. BATMAN (1989) 1/2
5. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966) 1/2
6. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
7. BATMAN FOREVER (1995) 1/2
8. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) 1/2