Friday, July 25, 2008

Batman Begins - Retrospective Review




The Dark Knight just snagged the most lucrative opening weekend in box office history, and although the X-Files movie and the new Will Ferrell / John C. Reilly comedy are opening up, it seems likely that Dark Knight will in its second weekend outgross both of them put together. America has Bat Fever, baby! So I figured it a good opportunity to "wind the clocks back" three years and retrospectively discuss Nolan's first Bat-caper, Batman Begins, in lieu of the Caped Crusader's latest film (with very minimal Dark Knight spoilers, in case any silly person hasn't seen it yet, but full Batman Begins spoilers).

I said at the time that Batman Begins was my favorite movie of 2005, and although I'll admit I've been wrong in my initial judgments of a few movies in the past (No Country for Old Men is better than I initially gave it credit for, Superman Returns is worse than I initially gave it credit for), that's an opinion I stand by unflichingly - it's my favorite of '05 and like its brand new baby brother The Dark Knight is also one of my favorite films of all time. Which is funny, because going into this movie I really didn't care about Batman or the Batman mythos. At all. In fact, I still honestly don't care about the Batman mythos in the comics or graphic novels or Animated Series or old live-action variations - I just love the so-called "Nolanverse." While I think The Dark Knight is a slightly better film altogether, Batman Begins is closer to perfect in light of its goals and except for two flaws which I will explain briefly, is as close to perfect as all but a few movies I've ever seen. So why does Nolan and Bale's first movie rock so goddamn hard?

In a word: ambition. I've seen Batman & Robin; I know the dreadful, grotesque spectacle that Chris Nolan had to follow up to. Some people have compared Batman Begins and Casino Royale in terms of their quality as reboots, but Die Another Day, while silly and flawed, is Citizen Kane next to Batman & Robin. Nolan had his work cut out for him with this movie, and although artistic integrity and storytelling excellence has paid off extremely handsomely with The Dark Knight, it's impossible to accuse him of just being out to make a buck. He wanted Batman Begins to be something special. He wanted a talented, all-star cast. He wanted to pony up the budget necessary to shoot in Chicago. He wanted his special effects to be invisible, his story to have thematic weight, his art design and cinematography to be gorgeous beyond the limitations of a "comic book movie," and his movie to be dark and true to the spirit of Batman.

"Dark" is perhaps the first word the critics seemed to gravitate towards three years ago with this movie, which is curious because between it and the Batman movies that proceeded it, it has the lowest body count by far (even I think including the toddler-aimed Batman & Robin), with just six on-screen deaths - Mr. and Mrs. Wayne, Joe Chill, fake "Ra's al Ghul," Rachel's boss Finch, and Ra's al Ghul. But it goes to show that the cinematic concept of "darkness" transcends literal violence (which many wannabe "gritty" filmmakers have yet to figure out) but is more about thematic density and atmosphere, and the Gotham presented here feels more grounded, real, and dangerous than any previous iteration, and Bruce Wayne's moral journey and conclusion not to kill, while not quite Shakespeare (or The Dark Knight for that matter), is more in terms of depth than most action movies at the time asked of you as a viewer.

But while Batman Begins is more ambitious as a reboot from beneath-scratch, I will say that The Dark Knight is certainly more thematically ambitious. Begins is really more of a character profiling / character study of Bruce Wayne, the genesis of Batman, and how he begins to take on Gotham's underworld, and the morality and philosophy therein is mostly contained to the first act and important only inasmuch as how it effects Bruce Wayne. The Dark Knight, from the end of the first scene to the last frame before the end credits, never ceased having thematic depth and being a commentary on the natures of morality, order, justice, and chaos. Consider the two films to be the mirror images of each other - The Dark Knight is centrally a work of themes, philosophy, and morality that happens to have some terrific action scenes, whereas Batman Begins is a terrific action movie that happens to have some thematic density.

And if you rewatch Batman Begins after seeing its sequel I think you'll be struck, as I was, when you realize how wildly different the two films are. A lot of producers and directors - in fact the vast, vast majority - settle for their sequels (be it action, drama, horror, or comedy) to be straight-up retellings with no structural changes that just have a new, slightly stronger villain or new jokes. Not Nolan. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are INCREDIBLY different stories - one is a superhero origin story almost entirely centered around the protagonist, and one is a ensemble crime epic analyzing the moral fabric of a city. They happen to share seven characters (albeit six actors) - Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, Rachel Dawes, the Scarecrow, and Commissioner Loeb - but Batman Begins is about Bruce Wayne only and the city and the other characters only matter in how they effect him and the development of his alter-ego, Batman. In The Dark Knight Batman is much more of an observer (elements that pervade the entire first film, like his parents, are never even brought up), and the backbone of the story is Gotham City and Harvey Dent. And while they do have different villains (and the stakes are upped from Ra's al Ghul to the Joker), neither of them wants to "rule Gotham" as all the old villains did; each espouses a completely different philosophy on his central goals.

The two movies even look completely different. Gotham feels recast as surely as Rachel Dawes does - In The Dark Knight, Gotham is Chicago, period. It's filmed in a bright, wide, open fashion and no attempt is made to hide the atmosphere of the city. Batman and the Joker have a showdown on what is very, very obviously LaSalle Street. Nolan wanted his gritty, Heat-inspired crime epic to be in a real city and in this movie there is no reason to think that Chicago just doesn't exist in this universe, with Gotham City, Illinois standing in its place. In contrast, Batman Begins takes place in a Gotham that, while far removed from the obvious soundstages of the Burton era, is darker, narrower, more gothic, has a tiny splash of art-deco flavor. Look at the scenes where Batman confronts Flass in the alley or the scene where Joe Chill guns down the Waynes to see what I mean - it's Chicago, but not obviously; it still feels like a fictional place. The main color motifs are also different. The Dark Knight is hued with shades of blue from end to end. Even in the scenes that don't take place in Gotham, blue is very, very clearly the featured color of the movie, whether light or a near-black hue of it. In contrast, after returning to Gotham in Batman Begins, rich golds and blacks are the colors of the day. Blue is nary to be found. So that right there makes the atmosphere palpably different.

But speaking of Rachel Dawes - as you may have predicted, Katie Holmes' pallid interpretation is easily the biggest flaw of the movie. She needs to be believable as two things - the one peer Bruce Wayne cares about, and a competent, aggressive attorney who Gotham's criminal underbelly loathes, failing sorely at both. Some of her line readings are just flat-out bad ("Enjoy your party, Bruce, some of us have work to do!" and "This is the third of Falcone's thugs you've had declared insane and moved into your asylum!" leap to mind), her chemistry with Christian Bale is passable at best, and it's a shame they didn't think of hiring Maggie Gyllenhaal back when they cast in '04.

But outside of Katie Holmes - wow.  One of the best goddamn ensembles in any film, ever. The cast must have cost a lot to put together, but it was worth it because the talent on display is just staggering. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Wilkinson in one goddamn movie? I mean, shit, that's just not fair to the other movies! The cast here is so fucking good that you actually have brilliant actors like Rutger Hauer and Ken Watanabe filling out the edges of the story, and everyone delivers a top-of-their-game, fiery / intense / funny / scary / whatever they need to be A+ performance, with no telltale "we're in a comic book movie" winking at the camera whatsoever. The acting outside of Mrs. Cruise is perfect (okay, and maybe the "it's gonna blooow!" water main operator, but who cares).

The only other problem I have in the film is the final fight in the subway between Batman and Ra's al Ghul. It's perfect in terms of tone, atmosphere, drama, and performance but it just doesn't feel very well choreographed and the super-quick cutting and overly in-your-face! camera angles give me a few nasty Michael Bay flashbacks. That's the only action scene where it bothers me, though. The earlier training swordfight between Bruce and Ra's al Ghul is very well-shot and well-choreographed, as is duel between Bruce and fake "Ra's al Ghul." The first attack on the criminals by Batman is similarly quick-cutting to the final fight, but Nolan's explanation is that this is to show the chaos and terror of fighting Batman from the criminals' point of view and I totally believe that (plus "WHERE ARE YOU?!!" "Here." is incredible), although that explanation doesn't fly for the ending fight since Ra's would not panic or become terrified while fighting Batman. And the Batmobile chase at the end of the second act is a wonderful bit of good old-fashioned blockbuster filmmaking action.

There are a couple other gripes some people had, like Christian Bale's growling Batman voice and the technology of the microwave emitter at the end. But neither bother me in the least, because A) Bruce Wayne is a celebrity and it makes sense that he needs to disguise his voice (plus I'd be fucking terrified if a giant man bat speaking in that voice started beating the hell out of me), and B) Gadgets and mild fantasy are a part of the Batman world, and while a microwave emitter like that is a bit sci-fi, it's no more outlandish than Bruce Wayne's suit or a mysterious clan of ninjas that have sacked all decadent cities for a thousand years. Suspension of disbelief is no problem for me there.

But for whatever flaws the film might have the place it succeeds in beautifully, flawlessly, and with utter filmmaking perfection is in structure. "Structure" seems like a strange thing to label as a film's best element, but in Batman Begins it's just perfect. Nolan spends the first half-hour laying down the Batman mythology and backstory like greased lightning, and what could be dull in other hands rockets by with thrilling speed thanks to the three intercutting stories of Bruce and his parents' murder as a child (which also lays down the story of Gotham, its poverty, the train, and Bruce's fear of bats), Bruce's botched attempt at vigilante justice against Joe Chill as a young man (which also lays down Carmine Falcone's hold on the city and the Rachel relationship), and his training in the east as an adult and conclusion not to kill (which also unknowingly at the time introduces our primary villain and his motives) - Nolan's practice with unique narrative timelines in Memento pays off richly in the first act of this film. The structure of the first thirty minutes is absolutely terrific, every shot, every line, it's all relevant, all pays off, it's just virtuoso screenwriting.

And after that, we arrive in Gotham. What's really interesting here is the use of villains. Three major villains - Carmine Falcone, Jonathan Crane / the Scarecrow, and finally Ra's al Ghul, each of which seems like the Big Bad at first and each of which turns out to be using the former. And it's flawless; the story manages to stay centered fully on Bruce Wayne / Batman even while juggling the three bad guys, largely because each plot flows so seamlessly into the next. Falcone and Crane are working together at first, but then Batman shows up and captures Falcone for the cops. Crane doesn't need Falcone anymore so he gasses him and moves on to finish the plan himself. Then Batman takes Crane out via Crane's own fear gas and Ra's al Ghul, who it turns out was Crane's master all along (and who we met and developed in act one), shows up to take advantage of Crane's work and finish the plan, sending us rocketing forward to the climax. Sam Raimi attempted three villains in Spider-Man 3 with Sandman, Venom, and Harry, and compared to this it really just feels haphazard and lazy. And that Begins does this all while fleshing out other great characters like Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Lucius Fox and weaving in seamless action scenes and Bruce continuing to hone his abilities, persona, and gadgets is really a marvel. The structure is perfect, and the reveal of the Joker card in the final moments is just the beautiful cherry on top.

So as you can see, I really do love this movie. It's the complete package of wonderful mythology, a truly amazing cast, peerless structure, timeless characters with solid heroes and villains, a great soundtrack, entertaining summer blockbuster action, and gorgeous cinematography and design. And although comedy is nearly not as central to it as Spider-Man and Iron Man, there's even a hearty laugh or two amid the darkness ("What would you call that?!" "Damn good television." and "It's a black... tank!" both leap to mind here). I would place it in my top fifty films of all time, and if only they had cast Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes and the final fight was better shot and choreographed it could be in the top forty. But those are flaws in casting / acting and staging / editing, respectively, not found in Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's script.  Viewed as a work of character development, mystery, and structure, I would place the screenplay to Batman Begins right up there with Die Hard and Back to the Future.

And I only like it more in retrospect of its sequel. It can partially neuter a film for me if the same story is told again in sequel form, even if it's still entertaining, but these two completely independent films supplement each other wonderfully as totally different stories tied only by a few characters. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight form what is thus far probably the best duology since Star Wars' sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, came out twenty-eight years ago.



5 Stars out of 5

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