Thursday, 26 July 2012

Batman Begins (2005)

I was one of those people who was super-excited for Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) long before it came out. As soon as I learned that someone was smashing Blade Runner and Batman together I knew something gorgeous was in the works. I went to see the movie four times, which is a lot for a 17-year-old with a 20$/week allowance (Mom, if you're reading this, shame on you), and I considered it money well spent. It was, after all, my generation's first superhero film.

Well, let me qualify that. The Millennials technically had other superhero movies -- Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), the godawful Catwoman (2004, names withheld to protect the guilty). They weren't all bad, and some of them were even good. X-Men can be credited with kicking off the 2000s wave of Marvel Comics blockbusters that, for better or worse, we've ridden to the present. But these movies didn't have much to say to us. They were for us, but they weren't about us. Batman Begins removed the tongue from the cheek of superhero adaptations. There was nothing retro or nostalgic about it. It wasn't just a comic book movie, it was a Real Live Film. Superheroes hadn't had a Real Live Film since Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), which came out when my friends and I were in kindergarten, so is it any wonder we went bonkers for Nolan's take?

Or maybe I should say we all went BATTY! Ha ha ha.
Batman Begins cashed in on the 2000s ninja craze by transforming Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe/Liam Neeson), a Arab-caricature also-ran from Batman's rogue's gallery, into a badass ambiguously Tibetan/Nepali martial-arts guru type who leads the "League of Shadows" and schools the globetrotting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) on the secrets of ninjitsu. Is this reworked character any less an oversimplified ethnic mishmash than the original Ra's? Not really, but thankfully these scenes don't last long, as it only takes Bruce Wayne about five minutes to burn down the League of Shadows' secret lair and return to Gotham City. The movie picks up some steam as Wayne crafts his Batman persona with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Soon he's ready to suit up and start clearing the streets of baddies, all the while romancing cardboard beauty Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Not too surprisingly, Ra's Al Ghul pops up again (at Bruce's birthday party; talk about adding insult to injury) to destroy Gotham. Batman summarily kicks his ass, and everyone's pretty impressed except Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who worries that Batman's vigilantism will inspire newly masked criminals (you don't say). The End (until 2008).

Still, all I see when I look at Christian Bale in a tie is Patrick Bateman.
I tend to hold Batman Begins in higher regard than either The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) or The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012). All three films are worth watching, but the latter entries merely follow through on the world Begins created. Frankly, whoever had the balls to green-light Begins deserves a medal. Imagine how badly this movie could have tanked, trying to transform the inherently silly into something grim and nihilistic. TDK and TDKR knew that audiences bought Nolan's formula once and would likely do it again: Begins enjoyed no such assurance that filmgoers fed a steady diet of Batman camp since the 60s would take to its dark mise-en-scene. Batman Begins raised the bar on what comic book films were allowed to be. If you enjoyed Kick-Ass, Watchmen, V For Vendetta, you have Begins to thank for kicking open the door. Nolan proved that cineastes don't need their comic books shiny and easily digested.

In its own modest way, Batman Begins was a Hollywood landmark. That can be the kiss of death for a movie. The first film to try something new often gets it completely wrong, and it's up to later films to polish the formula. The Jazz Singer was the first sound film, and it was racist, maudlin garbage. Gun Crazy ushered in a new era of screen violence, but you could sound its depth with a popsicle stick. Begins, however, is actually good on its own merits, apart from having just "done something new". The casting is inspired. By enlisting A-list actors for B-movie roles, the characters are lent a measure of dignity; Alfred is not just a butler, Gordon is not just a policeman. Given cartoons -- literally -- to work with, Caine and Oldman create real human beings. (Christian Bale might be the worst misstep in this regard; his Bruce Wayne is satisfactory, but he never gives Batman much oomph.) The mise-en-scene is gorgeous, and never strays towards kitsch. Begins looks both tasteful and expensive --- not just when the Batmobile is chasing down its foes, but also when dozens of couture-attired guests attend a birthday party at the magnificent, mausoleum-like Wayne manor. This film never stops looking like one its makers cared about.

In fact, Begins might have been better as a silent movie. The script is jarringly mediocre. When lines clunk -- and clunk they do, loudly and with frequency -- it's all the more wince-worthy because this is not just "a comic book movie." Predictably, its structure is bloated -- half an hour could easily be pared. Worst of all, Rachel Dawes, the major blight on the series, gets her big day out here. Whoever thought it was a good idea to approve this character? Given the dozens of much more interesting romantic interests Bruce Wayne pursued in the comics, who on earth saw fit to create an entirely new heroine for this movie -- and then forgot to invest her with any trace of personality?

All in all, Batman Begins gets a 4/5. It's not perfect, but it's the most polished and best-constructed film in the franchise and, while its sequels do it justice, this is the film that built their world. It's a movie that deserved to become a trilogy, and god knows that that's a rare beast.

Hellooooooooo, Cillian! <3
SCENE STEALER: Heath Ledger's legendary performance has been justly lauded by fans and critics alike, but that shouldn't overshadow the fact that Cillian Murphy turns in a Scarecrow who's nearly as good. This villain was traditionally one of the silliest of the franchise: someone to pull out when you couldn't get the rights to the Joker. As Murphy plays him, however, he's a charmingly soft-spoken sociopath, who despite not actually needing to be in the movie (looking back over this entry, I notice I didn't mention him once in the plot writeup) was so deliciously watchable that Nolan brought him back for both sequels. Which he also didn't need to be in, but Murphy's performance remains enjoyable, even if he is largely unnecessary.

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