In anticipation for The Dark Knight, I finally got around to watching my HD disc of Batman Begins. After hearing oodles of comic book nerds complain about Katie Holmes, and Gordon driving the Batmobile, I wanted a fresh look to see if it’s as good as I remembered, or if it was just great compared to Joel Schumacher’s bat-nipple camp-a-rama and Tim Burton’s Gothic take, which concentrated more on the villains.
I wanted to see how this held up after Iron Man. The movie still has the weak points of Katie Holmes’s superfluous Rachel Dawes and Gordon’s goofy Batmobile adventure, but other than that, it’s one of the best superhero movies yet made. Christian Bale gives a nuanced performance, only dipping into the well of Patrick Bateman when he’s expected to play the sleazy playboy. We meet him as a man consumed with the desire for revenge, whose morals barely keep him from killing the man who murdered his parents in broad daylight. This is where we first meet fiery Rachel Dawes, the one Assistant D.A. in town who can’t be bought. Her fury at Bruce’s attempt at vengeance is what sends him on his pilgrimage to find what he must do. He first confronts mob boss Carmine Falcone; he tried to corrupt the young Wayne heir by putting a hit on the man who killed his parents, and this adds a layer of depth to the story. When faced with Falcone’s brute power and control over every element of justice in the city, Bruce realizes that facing him head-on is a death sentence for him and the people he cares about. He has to find another way. He needs to learn how the criminal element works.
This eventually leads him to China; a place he can disappear and infiltrate a gang of thieves, and toughen himself for the battle ahead. He is still aimless and confused, picking fights with groups, penitence for letting Rachel and his parents down. When Liam Neeson and the Brotherhood of Shadows find him, he is once again tempted down the wrong path, and this second time it nearly works. The movie’s complexities are what make it so good. We spend a lot of time watching him train, and such montages are commonplace, but here they build a bond between Bruce and his mentor, making the inevitable betrayal hurt that much more. While having three villains hurt the previous Batman movies, here they are woven together, using each other for their own purposes, creating a singular enemy unbeknown to some members of the triumvirate. It’s clever, and works much better than teams of rival super-villains ganging up for shallow reasons.
Bruce has allies as well; we see the young Detective Gordon as the lone good cop in a sea of corruption, and trusty Alfred kept things running for him while he fled his problems. Michael Caine is the real glue that holds the film together, since we believe everything he says and he’s wise enough to know how far to push the comic relief. Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox “Q” character together give us a foundation to make the ridiculous comic-book world believable. Yes, the latest reboot of the Batman franchise is much darker, but in essence it is still a rich man who dresses up to fight crime. The film takes great pains to justify the bat costume, and succeeds- but Caine and Freeman’s little smirks and grins at Bruce Wayne’s issues help us along as the ears get explained as communicator antennas, and the cape– shown in The Incredibles to be a deadly bit of foppish extravagance– here becomes a hang-glider, so the bat has more tricks up his belt than the grappling hooks we’ve seen since the Adam West days.
The film also dips into the true reboot of the Batman that began when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. The bat-a-rangs aren’t little flying deus ex machinas, but more akin to ninja shuriken, made by hand on a grinder as painful, untraceable calling cards. It’s too bad we never see a criminal in the E.R. biting the bullet as a nurse pulls one out of his forehead with a pair of forceps. The new Batmobile most resembles the crazy riot tank Miller used from DKR, toned down into a cross between hot rod and Tonka Toy, tapping into every male moviegoer’s inner 6 year old. It’s even sillier than the ridiculous Burton-era vehicle, but when we see it in action, plowing through concrete and stomping squad cars like a monster 4×4, all is forgiven. Miller also wrote Batman: Year One, which brought the series back down to earth in the gritty streets, and built Batman again from the ground up. It’s from here that we get Carmine Falcone— played with delicious glee by Tom Wilkinson– and the Chicago setting for Gotham makes an above-the-law don running the city utterly believable. Gordon’s sleazy partner is underappreciated, and looks like he came from a Serpico-inspired cop movie from the 70’s. Just one look at him with a badge, and you know the city is corrupt top to bottom.
We get to see Batman learn the ropes, too- his first foray into crime-fighting isn’t all that perfect. He does get better, and his first strike at Falcone has us on the edge of our seats, showing how he strikes fear into the hearts of criminals and uses their panic against them. Nolan also took inspiration from the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, which was surprisingly brutal. When Batman pulls a bungee jumping act to get a corrupt cop to talk, it’s something we’ve never seen him do in movies before; he always had a supernatural ability to appear where crime was occurring, and he never had to do any sleuth work. Batman’s roots are in Detective Comics, after all.
The fight scenes are a bit forgettable, reminiscent of the Bourne movies, which make better use of the close-up, jarring quick-cut method. Nolan does keep the fights nasty, brutish and short as they ought to be, especially when he’s up against multiple opponents. They seem believable and real, and you’re never wondering why they don’t just gang up on the good guy… they are. This foundation once again prepares us to accept the unreal, such as Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. He’s yet another over-the-top character reined in perfectly to fit the film’s dark world, a mob-bought psychiatrist with sick fantasies of his own. The film does have flaws, but they aren’t with its villains, but its heroes.
Gary Oldman plays Gordon perfectly, but he is given very little to do except establish that he is not corrupt, and that he’s willing to help this unconventional vigilante clean up the city. He’s almost too much of a milquetoast everyman, and it feels like Oldman wanted to veer away from his over-the-top villain characters, and plays it too bland. When he echoes “I gotta get me one of these,” last uttered by Will Smith in Independence Day, it hits a sour note. It was the wrong thing for the beaten-down good guy to finally pipe up and say, when he sees the bad guys getting taken down.
I hadn’t seen Katie Holmes in anything since Go and The Ice Storm, and she seemed fine in those. Here she’s not given much to do except be a one-note character, chiding Bruce for his selfish moping, and not living up to his parents’ heroic philanthropy. I’d like to blame this on her future as a Scientologist baby factory, but it feels like the script. Unless there’s a lot of bad acting on the cutting room floor. It would have taken a great actress to do much with so little screen time and dialogue, and we all know Katie Holmes is not that actress.
That’s a small nitpick at what is a great script, executed with panache by Christopher Nolan, who wouldn’t have been my first pick for a Batman film. I was really interested when Darren Aronofsky was attached, and The Fountain remains one of my favorite underappreciated films. His Batman would have certainly looked interesting, and seeing Year One through the gritty, paranoid filter of Pi would have been something, but I think Nolan was obviously the right choice. Memento‘s complex web of motives is evident in the trifecta of villains in Begins; the noir edge of his masterpiece Following translated well to gritty Gotham.
The movie wisely never shows the bodies of its villains, and gave us a 3-year tease for the next one, all beginning with that little Joker card in an evidence bag. It set the bar high for superhero movies, and is on par with my other favorites- Iron Man, Spider-Man, and 1978’s Superman. Even if you include non-hero comic book movies like Sin City, A History of Violence, 300, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, it’s high on the list. We’ll see if Zack Snyder’s take on the uber-graphic novel Watchmen takes its place next year. The Dark Knight is assured to be as good if not better than its predecessor, but Superman is in the emo toilet in Bryan Singer’s incapable hands, so Watchmen is our only hope.