Monday, August 20, 2012

Batman Begins

I remember an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly from 2001 postulating a mash-up between two dark knights: Sparta, a demonic avenger from the video game Devil May Cry, and Batman. I remember the writer compared the assets of both fighters. Sparta had powers of the underworld beyond human comprehension while Batman had a utility belt and a "rubber suit with nipples." Eleven years and three movies directed by Christopher Nolan later, it's hard to remember just how low Batman had stooped in the public eye following Batman and Robin. Batman Begins (2005), the first of the trilogy directed by Nolan and starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, is where the character's rehabilitation to respectability began.

The origins of Batman are well known to any comic book fan. As a child, Bruce Wayne watched his parents get gunned down in an alley, and as an adult, he pledged their fortune and his life to fighting the crime that has seemingly infected the very soul of Gotham City. Inspired by a childhood incident, he adopts the moniker of Batman, remaining in the shadows to strike fear in the hearts of those who prey on his city.

Most film versions of Batman use this material as background, a few lines of exposition and maybe a flashback or two to explain Bruce Wayne's motivation. Batman Begins spends the better part of an hour before showing Batman in his iconic costume; most of that time is devoted to exploring the psychological factors that drive Wayne to donning the cape and cowl: his parents' murders, the assassination of their killer before Wayne can exact revenge, traveling the far corners of the world to learn about fear and crime, his training and induction into the League of Shadows under Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and his transforming his childhood fear of bats into a symbol to terrorize the corrupt. Just as we see him arm and equip himself with the technology of Wayne Enterprises with the help of Lucius  Fox (Morgan Freeman), we're seeing the psychological building blocks of who Batman is being assembled. Always at his side is his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), to serve as his conscience and remind him of the family legacy.

Unlike Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, Nolan strips away the gothic and fantastical elements of the Batman universe and replaces them with a grim, gritty, and somewhat believable (or at least credible) atmosphere. This Batman is grounded in urban realism, more in common with a gangster movie than a comic book. The Batmobile is more of a clunky tank than a sleek vehicle, Bruce Wayne is shown carving his Bat-arangs with a saw, and Gotham City looks more like a real city, complete with filthy alleys, homelessness, and squalor  (previous incarnations of the city were clearly inspired by the likes of Blade Runner and Metropolis, borderline futuristic crossed with film noir).

This is also probably one of the most fully three-dimensional presentations of Batman seen in a movie. Whereas Michael Keaton was presented as a twitchy neurotic, Val Kilmer a standard action movie hero, and George Clooney an overlooked bore, Bale gets the chance to show multiple sides of the Dark Knight: morose young adult, determined student, the public appearance of an irresponsible playboy, the gruff fighter, and committed behind-the-scenes. He's not quite the dark, brooding one yet, but he's clearly on his way; it's still early in his crime-fighting career, and he's yet to be mentally or emotionally scarred.

The villains are a mixed bag. On one hand, the actors playing them (Neeson, Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, and Tom Wilkinson as crime boss Falcone) take the roles seriously, restraining from going overboard into campy histrionics, and they all serve a thematic purpose: Falcone as the last of the traditional criminals before the arrival of the supervillains, Scarecrow as the embodiment of fear and the corruption of authority (an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist on the take who uses a gas to bring people's fear to life), and Ra's Al Ghul as the Batman's mentor-turned-enemy, a man who believes what he does is just, and is a warning of the path Bruce Wayne does not want to go down.

But, the villains aren't really used to their fully advantage. Ra's Al Ghul in the comics in an immortal (and Arabic) who has lived centuries, but in the film, after spending the first act in disguise as Wayne's teacher, he vanishes from the narrative, only to return in the third act for his final scheme. He's definitely a character I would have liked to have spent more time with. Less fortunate is the Scarecrow; when the movie first came out, I remember finding him creepy, but compared to his presentation in the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum (in which he's downright chilling as emaciated Freddy Kruger-like being), he doesn't make as much of an impact as he should. The film really doesn't take advantage of the hallucinations his fear gas causes.

Another thing that bothered me: Batman's expulsion from the League of the Shadows occurs when he refuses to execute a prisoner. I'm happy this Batman does not believe in killing, but we saw how close he was killing his parents' murderer. His transition from eye-for-an-eye avenger to protector seems curiously glossed over; I don't recall him mentioning his code until Ra's puts him on the spot.

The action scenes are serviceable but not stellar, relying too much on disorienting shaky-cam effects and quick cuttings. This is one aspect Nolan would improve upon this movie's sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knights Rises. But here, the strength is more on the exploration of Bruce Wayne, who he is, and why he does what he does.

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