With Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan undoes a decade of damage done by Warner Bros.’ stooges by centering the story around the goddamn Batman. Like Tim Burton, Nolan applies all of his auteurist fetishes to the beloved character, but they’re a far better fit for the “realistic” approach he attempts. Issues of obsession, identity, memory, self-delusion and repetition – favorite themes of his found in more concentrated form in Memento and The Prestige – litter the screenplay, co-written by Nolan himself and Blade Trilogy mastermind David S. Goyer. By bringing the story back to the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s life, and the circumstances of his transformation, a live-action Batman movie, for the first time, has a clear and focused narrative. Everything is explained, but never to the point of exhaustion. The costume, the vehicle, each gadget, every single facet is painstakingly explored so you care more about Bruce Wayne and his plight, so that there is no disconnect between him and his alter-ego Batman. It’s an approach that has become shorthand in Hollywood in recent years for “better movie than we would’ve got in the 90s”, or, the franchise “reboot”. The guys in charge of Iron Man, James Bond, Star Trek and pretty much every other franchise/character out there definitely took note.
The new Bruce Wayne, the guy we have to care so much about, is Christian Bale, who carries the movie on broad, capable shoulders. Used to playing unhinged (American Psycho) and badass (Equilibrium) he combines the two in Bruce, whom he can easily play at age 17 and age 27. The movie’s first half is non-linear, jumping back and forth between various stages of Bruce’s growth. Bale gets the many faces of Bruce Wayne down pat – the party-going playboy, the menacing bully that is his version of Batman and the real tortured soul we see most of the time. There are a lot of great moments to point out involving Christian’s version of Bruce Wayne – the hotel buying scene is an obvious highlight, not just for the goofy fun it is at first (“Bruce, you haff moar hoteeeels to buuuy!”) but the way he instantly slips into “real, sad Bruce” mode when childhood friend (and party pooper) Rachel Dawes walks in on the middle of his antics. He changes gears seamlessly, from carefree and ditzy to guilty and lost.
The scene where Rachel slaps him for his attempt to get revenge on the killer of his parents is the start of this. When Joe Chill gets assassinated in front of him his vengeance is wrested from him. He was going to use a gun, something that Rachel reminds him his father would be ashamed of. Through repeated flashbacks, usually initiated by the stethoscope memento, it’s clear Bruce idolized his doctor father, whose company built most of Gotham including its tram system. Much is made of how great a man he was and Bruce wants to take up the courageous mantle of the father whom he so admired and misses. His father was a doctor, a healer – now Bruce as Batman is the healer, the one who must cure Gotham of, as Lt. James Gordon yells about near the end, “all this poison!”
Even in death Thomas Wayne is the center of Bruce’s moral compass yet he’s not the only old guy to influence Bruce’s direction. Where would Bruce be without Alfred, the the family butler, now the surrogate father. Played by Michael Caine, with a swaggering cockney-accented flair (“I thought I might prepare your suppah.”), Alfred actively participates in Bruce’s life instead of sitting back to occasionally offer dollops of insight, though he does that as well. He becomes a willing accomplice, someone who doesn’t want to see Bruce lose his way again. He really cares about upholding the saintly Wayne tradition too, and says so before Bruce’s birthday scene (that’s symbolic: BATMAN’S BIRTHDAY. DRRR). When Bruce, beaten and exhausted asks if he still hasn’t given up on him, Alfred’s “Nevah!” gets me every time.
Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is where Batman (sigh) gets all of his wonderful toys. He provides Bruce with every gadget he needs to become Batman, each item explained as R&D prototypes that will never see use in Army combat. Their interactions provide some of the movie’s more playful moments – they’re practically flirting – and a new deviation from the usual mythos. Batman’s identity has always been closely guarded in the comics and the cartoon yet at the same time he has a whole team at his disposal – Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, etc. In Batman Begins the ones in the know are Alfred and Lucius, then eventually Rachel.
Oh, and Bruce’s trainer, mentor and rival father figure Henri Ducard, who turns Bruce from a self-pitying ball of anger beating up prisoners, into a ninja, a “wraith”, unseen and feared – the idea of fear is a huge part of Batman Begins. Ducard, atop his mountain ninja training ground, forces Bruce to conquer his fears, a noble endeavor though there are hints at Ducard’s true, malicious nature when he challenges Bruce’s devotion to his father, calling Thomas Wayne a coward for failing to protect his family.
Bruce: “The man had a gun!”
Ducard: “Would that stop you?”
Ouch. To be fair, Thomas was a just an M.D. with no formal training in the Himalayan Ninja arts. Still, in the beginning Ducard quickly endears himself as a gentlemanly badass with a sad past to boot. He had a wife whom he loved very much until the criminal element took her away from him, a past more in line with … well, with R’as al Ghul, but how could that be when that character is already introduced as Ken Watanabe? And why is R’as pronounced “Roz?” In the animated series it was “Raysh.” Denny O’Neil, the creator of the character, proncounes it “Raysh.”
In any case, the Ducard/Al Ghul mix-up is a sleight of hand, the kind of trick Nolan loves to play. Liam Neeson plays a formidable villain, whose casting plays on the audience knowledge that he often plays the fatherly mentor, most famously as Qui-Gon Jinn in Phantom Menace. Bruce follows a similar Jedi path in the training segments that fill the first half of the movie. At first it seems Ducard’s lessons are righteous and just. Ducard is set up as the proto-Batman, full of handy theatrical tricks like gas bombs and he wears those familiar gauntlets with three spikes. He teaches Bruce ways to use fear and invisibility to become a force criminals will reckon with. Then he wants Bruce to kill, which is a line he will not cross. He discovers Ducard was training him just to be a cog in a bigger scheme to destroy Gotham, rebels and escapes back to Gotham City, which is under the stranglehold of mob boss Carmine Falcone and his drugs.
Carmine Falcone, like every man with too much power in this movie, yaks on and on about the “power of fear”, even so far as saying the ever-familiar “you always fear what you don’t understand.” Yet with a mobbish growl and an evil sneer he does it so well. Tom Wilkinson has too much fun playing an awful crimelord with judges, cops and the scum of the city in his pocket. He disappears completely in the role I often forget he is in the movie.
Falcone is Bruce Wayne’s first target in his war on crime. Upon his return to Gotham Bruce completes his preparations. He tells Alfred he needs to become a symbol of fear for criminals, yet a symbol of inspiration and hope for the citizens. Then the movie goes through the logic of becoming an urban superhero. He has the training and the know-how but traversing all those tricky fire escapes and rooftops, ehh, it’s a little difficult. So he gets his gadgets and his electric cape. He makes batarangs, which are more like ninja stars in this case. He experiments with the cape forming strange Edward Bathands. After he meets James Gordon, the one cop in the whole city who isn’t corrupt, he fumbles and falls. This is a Bruce who makes a lot of mistakes. Like I said before in the Gotham Knight review, wounded Batman is best Batman. And this Batman gets wounded.
The absolute highlight of Bruce’s journey to Batmandom is when he finds the Batcave. It’s the first thing to screw poor Bruce up. In the beginning when he’s a young kid he falls (Bruce has a thing for falling all the time) into the cave and gets freaked out by bats. Fear is born. It’s a memory that haunts almost as much as the death of his parents. Bats were even a part of the opera his parents took him to see that night (Jesus, Thomas, what were you thinking?). Grown-up, a full-blown ninja, seething with purpose, Bruce finds the cave again and is greeted by bats, swirling around him. He crouches. Then stands, and faces his fear. And fuckin’ embraces them. The music swellllss and at the movie’s midnight showing in 2005 Batman fans cheer and applaud. Mmf, this movie feels good.
And it gets even better. Suddenly the movie turns into Alien – understandable given Nolan’s love for Ridley Scott. The point of view switches to Falcone and his mobsters on the dock. Crime is going like it usually does until guys are sucked up into the darkness. One by one, guys just disappear screaming. Everyone’s freaked out of their wits. One guy looks up and sees something, black, shapeless, until it crashes down on top of him. Everyone is taken out by this creature until he shows himself to Falcone, after pulling him out through the roof of his car. The cops show up, confused how such a big bust could happen. Gordon walks up to Falcone, chained to the face of a pier’s searchlight turned on – that thing must be hot. He looks up at the clouds, the rips of Falcone’s coat forming the vague shape of a bat. Gordon gets the idea for the bat signal, Batman stands on the edge of a skyscraper looking over his city like a vigilant gargoyle and the music is a fluttering set of triumphant strings and the midnight crowd, once again, goes wild. This is perhaps the peak of the movie.
From this point on the movie’s blockbuster plot kicks in. A wormy employee runs into warn the guy in charge of Wayne Enterprises, Edward Sleazebaganno I think his name is, that some science-fictiony microwave emitter nonsense got stolen. This bothers Sleazebag (played to great sleazy effect by Rutger Motherfucking Hauer) but then so do puppies and candy canes. The rest of the movie is action, action, action which is fine and fun even if the script suffers a bit.
The next villain Batman deals with in the huge climax is Jonathan Crane. The bastard, played by Cillian Murphy has been worming around the whole movie and he is awesome. His scenes are brief but he’s incredibly memorable. He employs a special nonchalant kind of evil, creepy yet controlled. With his perfect looks, suit, piercing gaze and condescending attitude he’s a villain you can’t help but love. Or hate. Or love to hate! That’s not cliche, right?
So, the plot also involves Crane’s special fear toxin which he terrorizes his patients with. He pours it into the city’s water supply underneath Arkham Asylum so the microwave emitter can vaporize all the water in Gotham and drive all of the people mad with fear gas. It’s a classic Batman plot – the animated series version of Scarecrow did it and Jack Nicholson’s Joker used gas too. Why there has to be microwave emitter middleman is beyond me. I guess Gothamites don’t drink their tap water. Oh, that’s right. It’s a binary compound or whatever. Thing?! Ugh.
Well, Crane doesn’t even officially become Scarecrow until Batman gives him a dose of his own medicine in the other marvelous Batman-beats-up-criminals scene. By this time the thugs are aware there’s a Bat out there beating up their kind. They say things like “I hear he can disappear” and ask “Is it true he can really fly?” It’s such an excellent wrap-up of the what Batman is doing to the minds of his enemies. And Cillian’s “the Batmaaaaan” line is fucking great. The set is terrific too. A big wide open basement with a gushing gash of water in the middle, surrounded by catwalks and concrete, it’s the perfect spot for a Batman beatdown.
The escape from Arkham Asylum is straight out of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Thousands of bats, SWAT guys after him, yeah. Pretty cool.
Then the summer movie spectacle sets in. Batman zooms away in his new Tumbler Batmobile, Gordon says “I GOTTA GET ME WUNNA DOZE” and Rachel wigs out from fear toxin exposure. What follows is the Batmobile jumping across rooftops as cops slap themselves silly and say dumb shit. It’s all fun to watch for the first time but upon repeated viewings the outbursts lose their charm. Why do summer tentpole movies see it fit to stick in little stupid jokes in all their action scenes?
“IT’S A BIG BLACK … TANK!”
“FLYYYYING ON ROOFTOPS!”
“At LEAST tell me what it looks like … nevermind.”
Serisously, who laughs at this?!
So after he racks up millions in property damage and screams “RACHELLL!!” Batman swoops in, helps her out and gets ready for his birthday party. Why he thought a birthday party would be a good idea at a time of extreme crisis is unknown but Bruce does get to get rid of his guests in a lovely fashion. His “sycophantic suck-ups” speech is gold and it looks like Bruce relishes it until an old guy who works for his company mentions the apple’s fallen far from the tree. With a twitch of his eyebrow, Bruce realizes he could damage his parents’ name and he would feel even guiltier.
Not that that matters at the moment since Henri Ducard just showed up with a band of mean-looking ninjas ready to torch Wayne Manor. Ducard reveals himself to be the real R’as al Ghul and makes reference to the possible supernatural quality of his survival – a nod to the Lazarus Pits of the comics, which R’as uses to refresh his immortality. Imagine R’as to be a battery and a Lazarus Pit the battery charger and you get the picture. In the comics/cartoon however R’as has been alive for centuries and each dip in the pit not only grants him an extra lease on life it drives him crazy for a short amount of time. The episodes of craziness built up over history leaving R’as with the peculiar notion that humanity is a pestilence that must be purged from the surface of the planet. Like any good villain, his idea has some merit and he backs up his crazy plans with some rock hard evidence. He has lived through the majority of mankind’s existence and has seen it do some truly shitty things. It took away his wife and he wants revenge. Surely, this is something Bruce can relate to only Bruce, a gentler physician like daddy Tom, wants to cut the tumor from the patient and hope for the best. R’as wants to raze the whole bastard and start anew.
Aside: Unfortunately there’s no mention of R’as’ daughter Talia, who shares a romance with Bruce Wayne in the comics/cartoon. I’m sure Goyer and Nolan chose to ignore her and all the possible entanglements she would cause in the plot. Comic/Cartoon R’as wants Bruce to sire a child with Talia because a.) R’as is nuts and b.) Bruce is the greatest detective athlete in the world. Mm-mm, that’s some prime DNA. Still, any chance of seeing her in the inevitable third installment? Please, WB? Cast Jennifer Connelly too~ =3
In their reunion R’as outlines his plan, which is surprisingly very close to his comic counterpart. R’as wants to accomplish a small apocalypse, the destruction of Gotham, of a place he believes is beyond saving. He mentions they’ve done this before, that the whole process is cyclical. They’ve sacked Rome and burned London to the ground and Gotham is next. Bruce says it just needs more time but R’as rebukes: the city is too corrupt. He’s infiltrated the SWAT team, Arkham Asylum, every part of the city’s infrastructure. He also – and this is one of the movie’s more out-there revelations – manipulated economics to get Bruce’s folks killed. By drawing Gotham into a recession crime increased leading to city’s sorry state. It’s unusual for a mainstream movie to make a “poverty equals crime” correlation but it sounds awfully improbable for a shadow group to be so powerful. It’s also a bit of stretch suddenly laying the blame for the death of the Waynes on R’as al Ghul. Then again, Liam’s speech sells the idea. It’s so deliciously calculated it’s tough not to embrace the comic book madness of it.
The chaos that follows is nice and apocalyptic, with all the accompanying imagery. R’as sets off the microwave thingy and Scarecrow’s fear toxin causes panic and hallucinations throughout the city. The pressure of the water vaporizing causes the street to explode from underneath and people are lost in fog watching their nightmares come to life while criminals run free chomping off ears, brandishing knives and moving about all threatening-like. Scarecrow shows up riding a flaming horse and you know things just got bizarre. Until Rachel blasts him away with a well-aimed taser shot.
Batman himself is a frightening image of the apocalypse. The pointed ears, the flowing form, the deep growl – it’s not tough to figure out who he might resemble. Or what. He appears at a time when the world is its shittiest ready to dole out judgment and punches to the head. When he doses Crane with his own toxin Crane sees him as a demon, pitch flowing from his spiked, gritted teeth, angry as hell. He looks like an Uruk’hai who’s seen some rough time. As Crane’s toxin covers Gotham City regular citizens look up at Batman, gliding over them, light replacing his eyes and mouth and screaming like a banshee. The opera that Bruce and his parents went to contain similar strange images of winged beasts flying around.
The craziness continues and continues until it’s all down to a rough and tumble fistfight between R’as and Batman aboard a speeding train. R’as once again presents himself as the evil father repeating lines that Thomas Wayne once said to young Bruce – “Don’t be afraid.” Batman, fed up, gets the upper hand and throws R’as one of his one-liners before blowing out the back of the train with an explosive and offering R’as a few seconds to escape alive. Rather, R’as closes his eyes and accepts his fiery fate.
The end of the movie wraps everything up fairly quickly. All the various subplots get solved and Bruce and Alfred stand atop the burnt rubble of the manor expressing their plans to rebuild. Rachel knows who Bruce really is but leaves him with the promise that once Gotham no longer needs Batman she will return. Before that Bruce rummages through the wreckage for something. He finds the stethoscope, the memento, now burnt and falling apart. Unlike Leonard Shelby in Memento, who burns his dead wife’s belongings to try to forget, Bruce holds onto his reminder. Its touch brings back glimpses of dad and the look on his face seems content. Bruce wants to remember who he is Batman for.
Nolan wanted to make Batman Begins as close as he could to Blade Runner, so much so that he reportedly screened the movie for the entire cast and crew before filming began. The similarities are mostly cosmetic. Gotham looks best in the slums, rainy, and vaguely South Asian. The city is an endless urban void with no beginning or end. There are no towers spewing flame but shots of the skyline show thundering clouds over the horizon with a similar sense of foreboding. The thematic settings are similar: an ambiguous, noirish figure cleans up the place and there are plenty of notions of identity, corporate control and class. Casting Rutger Hauer, Roy Batty himself, is an obvious nod to Scott’s classic.
Unfortunately, Batman Begins never reaches the brilliance of Nolan’s inspiration because it’s hampered the major tenets of summer blockbusters. Much of the dialogue and one-liners are recycled – repetition laid bare to the fore – so that the entire third act sounds like a reprise of the previous two.
“You never learned to mind your surroundings!”
“It’s not what you say, but what you do that defines you.”
The old bum. “Nice coat.”
“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
“Didn’t you get the memo?”
“Fear fear fear fear fear fear fear fear.”
It’s all used as comeuppance or as sly winks. Like, hey, remember that? That was said elsewhere in the movie. It’s never as forced or groan worthy as “HURR AGGRESSIVE NEGOTIATIONS” in Attack of the Clones but the script is clunky in spots. The runaway train setpiece is another example of the movie bashing its audience over the head with summer popcorn flim flam. It was already done much better in Spider-Man 2 the previous summer although the BIG DUMB EXPLOSION at the end is impressive for a model. What’s really irksome and silly is the whole sequence is interrupted by Begins‘ oddest, most ancillary character – the old “THE MAINS ARE GONNA BLOW!!” guy. I don’t know why this guy has to give running commentary on the state of “the mains.” How many times do we have to see the same guy yell “It’s gonna blow!” It’s jarring, dumb and, yeah, it’s hilarious. I wish he was cut out entirely but at the same time I’m sort of glad he’s there to give Begins some flavor of summertime stupid. He sticks out like the Old Gay Butler in Spider-Man 3.
And that’s really all the criticism I have for Batman Begins. It’s a terrific Batman movie, certainly the one I and many fans the world over have been waiting forever for. It ranks as one of my greatest movie theater experiences if just for the incredible, final scene. James Gordon, who I always forget is Gary Oldman because he also vanishes inside his role (underneath thick glasses and a thick mustache straight out of the comics), introduces the Bat Signal and talks to Batman about how tough it’s going to get from here on. The battle’s won but the city is arguably, worse off than it was. But Batman’s there to make it all better and Gordon says with a hint of a smile there’s “hope on the streets.” Then he offers Batman an example of the “escalation” he’s talking about – a card. He flips it over and it’s – holy shit, it’s a joker card. The theater.
Standing ovation. The greatest sequel set-up of all time. Batman hops on the edge of the roof, says Gordon will never have to thank him and he glides into the camera. The title slaps us silly in the face (there was never a title at the beginning!), we sit through the credits for the names and the music and we file out, praising Christopher Nolan and the incredible ensemble cast and crew as the men and women who saved Batman.
Months pass. It comes out on DVD and it never leaves the player for a while. The Prestige comes out and it’s like Nolan can do no wrong. He’s the second coming, the greatest living director today. Spielberg? Scorsese? M. Night? Hacks, all of them. Rumors about Batman Begins 2 begin to circulate. It sounds like everyone is returning except Katie Holmes – awesome. And the addition of Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent – YES! – and – wait, what? Heath Ledger as the Joker?! The fuckin’ … Knight’s Tale guy?!
What the hell can he possibly do?!