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Batman Begins

A Review by Tyler Foster

So here's my advice: stop making comic book movies "for the fans." It seems the more references and little winks at the longtime readers that get packed into a comic book flick, the less the movie connects with the average audience. Maybe it's the whole round-peg-square-hole dilemma of putting 50 years of comic backstory into two measly hours, but it's probably more that in such fanboy fervor, directors forget about the structure, character and drama of the movie they're actually making. I don't know if Christopher Nolan read Batman comics before he jumped onboard, but Batman Begins resonates with the impact of honest filmmaking, going beyond genre affairs and inside jokes. This is the real deal.

Of course, there's no better place to start than Batman's origins, told for the first time on the big screen. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne, who goes from millionaire playboy's son to troubled mind with two gunshots after his parents are killed by a street thief. Looking for the answer to the question of what to do with his life, Wayne leaves Gotham City and travels the world, finding something in Ducard (Liam Neeson), who is looking to train Wayne with the intention of letting him lead Ra's Al Ghul's army. But when such an offer turns out to be less than savory, Wayne finds himself traveling back to Gotham, looking to find some way to protect his now-corrupted home and turn it into the metropolis his father always wanted it to be.

Batman Begins plays like two comic books comprising a single story arc, one half featuring Wayne in training with Ducard and his troubled past, and the other his return to Gotham City as a crimefighter. It's wise of Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer to hold off the bat-man's appearance until the middle of the film, giving the film the character development and dramatic buildup the movie needs to really hit home. Other directors would have succumbed to the pressure of showing the title character early to maximize the amount of stuff that can be fit into the running time, but Nolan wants you to care about his characters, which means more than a simple hello and some quick exposition.

Even more so than watching Darth Vader come to life -- one of the greatest screen villains of all time -- the genesis of Batman is an amazing experience to watch. Maybe Batman has an unfair advantage because less is known about his superhero transformation, but nonetheless Nolan can send chills down the spine with the mere appearance of Gary Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon, the discovery of an empty cave, or the tiniest piece snapped onto the Batsuit. It all fits so wonderfully, right down to the movie's somewhat open-ended conclusion. Even the Batmobile, which people have been bashing left and right since pictures appeared online a year ago, is amazing to see in action, leaping buildings and slamming through concrete walls.

As this (and all my reviews) are spoiler-free, I can't delve into the details of the rest of the plot, such as The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) or his maniac plans, the character of Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) or the movie's third act. But I can tell you the movie doesn't introduce anything it doesn't use brilliantly. Scarecrow's scheme actually feels like a danger not only to our hero but a happy ending, with Nolan directing his mad-scientist horrors with a tripped-out flair that's deeply menacing, moreso than Magneto or Doc Ock could even dream of. As for the supporting cast, from first appearance to exit Michael Caine makes for a wonderful Alfred, Katie Holmes is perfectly passable as one of Bruce's old friends, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox is one hell of a mentor figure. Like all good mentors, no advice is given without a devilish grin.

"You still haven't given up on me yet?" Bruce asks Alfred. Alfred smiles. "Never." That must be good news to Warner Brothers, trying to steer the remnants of their most iconic film franchise back to box office success. There are two kinds of classics: pop art classics, movies aware they're movies, that work on some almost self-serving level as pure entertainment, and then there are true masterpieces. Sin City was great, but it only registers as a stylized blip on the radar of Batman Begins, which doesn't bother setting aside energy towards gaining "real film" status but simply achieves it. Christopher Nolan, cast and crew deserve to be proud -- despite what you might hear in comic books, it's not easy bringing heroes back from the dead.

Starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson and Morgan Freeman
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Warner Brothers Pictures (2005) | 134 Minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements

***SPOILER ALERT***

What I Liked

• The performances. A real fantastic ensemble, perhaps the best in any of the movies yet. For sure Christian Bale is the best Batman yet. There is one scene in particular, in which Batman is interrogating a criminal, that showcases how Bale ditched the stoic-as-hell routine for something a lot more human. Gary Oldman plays against type as a cop who brings everything together and does it damn well. Cillian Murphy, who’s turned in three fine performances in a row now (28 Days Later & The Girl With the Pearl Earring being the others), has all the pseudo-charms of a young hotshot working in law...with a great evil twist as the villain Scarecrow.

• The car. I was so worried about how it might turn out, but it makes for my favorite action sequence in the film. Just watching it tumble and crush over police cars was a real treat. They had a real vision beyond action figures when they decided on the design for the Batmobile

• Visually brilliant. Gotham City looked great in that they didn’t make it overly-bleak so it was a believable city, not one that only exists in green and gray and rains all the time. And by the way when it does rain, it’s great. Ra's Al Ghul’s Iceland place was great as well, especially the open ice arena outdoors in which Bruce battled Ducard. The Blue Flower drug lead to some real innovative camera and effects work, although the “ooooh I have red eyes!” bit was a little overused. You think the people of Gotham would have some more diversified fears.

• Although it felt odd at first, what with Bruce at a prison and Ducard thrown right into the story, the movie doesn’t waste any time getting to where it needs to go. Not many 2 hour 20 minute blockbusters are paced as well as this was.

•Some great truly great scenes to watch. The building of Batman’s arsenal, Batman construing the scheme to foil Falcone by dropping hints to various characters, the murder of Bruce’s parents and the afformentioned interrogation scene.

What I Didn't Like

Far too many cheap one-liners and spots of crummy dialogue. Several attempts to establish Alfred as comic relief made me cringe. The flick has tons of action-cliché one-liners strewn throughout, yet it's unfortunate that my two favorite action sequences in the film were tainted with shitty one-liners. The car chase had too many cutaways of cops spouting off cheesy one-liners (“It’s a giant...black...tank,” “Hey...who is this guy?!”) and did Scarecrow really have to actually say “You should lighten up” before throwing a lighter? I really loved the look of Scarecrow riding on horseback, but that FDR quote was a massive groaner. And yes, we even had the pleasure of hearing lines such as “I gotta get me one of those!” and “Hey, nice ride!” in response to the Batmobile. Over and over I kept being reminded of the nonstop Mr. Freeze gags in Batman & Robin, except I didn’t have the phrase “Oh silly Arnie,” to help me bury them. And not to mention the constant spurting off of self-help advice by characters, especially Ducard, who seemingly can only speak in lame nuggets of wisdom. The Bruce and Rachel scenes took a cue from Anakin/Padme in being rather unwatchable, mostly consisting of dull monologues from Rachel about how Bruce should improve his life. I remember being pleased to see that Batman Returns was not only going to be directed by Christopher Nolan, but written by him as well. Yet if I had seen this prior to seeing any of Nolan's other work, it would be hard to believe he was ever nominated for an Academy Award for writing.

• I wanted so badly to see more of the action sequences in the movie, but for some reason, Christopher Nolan decided to show the action sequences in very quick cutting tight shots. The biggest example of which was the fight on the dock with all of Falcone’s guys. I felt like I was hearing a cool fight but only seeing nothing but the blur of a quick moving camera. Just about every single action sequence besides the car chase suffered from this.

• As great as this cast was, I’m not really sure what the point in casting Katie Holmes was. Looks wise, I didn’t have any trouble believing she was the District Attorney of a major city. Yet her unmemorable, sappy performance not only stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise fine cast, but has her taking third to Nicole Kidman and Kim Basinger as far as Batman's damsels in distress go.

• And then they are the various problems in the story I disliked. I really don’t buy that Batman could somehow program the Batmobile to do everything needed for Jim Gordan to do his part in the finale of the film. Not to mention that the movie expects us to accept the plot twist of Henri Ducard actually being Ra's Al Ghul as valid and plays it up like a huge twist. I mean, they fooled me...but...would you mind explaining to me why? What? No? Okay...I guess we're supposed to buy it then...thanks. And I couldn't believe that the main plot to destroy Gotham City involved the use of the corny "superdehydrator." First off, I'd already think this plot device would be lame in the first place, but I find it amusing that nearly the same exact machine was used in the 1966 campy-as-hell Batman movie! And yet, there it is, recycled for this "new, brooding Batman." And how about that finale? I could've asked for a better finale than the little tiff we got on the Gotham City monorail. And about that leave-the-door-open ending...come on...we’ve done The Joker before folks. Hell, The Joker in the first movie is still my favorite part of any Batman movie ever. Sure, we’ve entered yet another stylistic-phase for this franchise, but it’s still the same franchise. I think it’ll take a great casting decision for me to feel any better about rehashing my favorite part of this series.

All In All

Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty to really enjoy in Batman Begins, but contrary to the mass-praise it's received, I really thought it was just an OK installment in a movie series in which I’ve never understood what all the fuss was all about. My expectations going into the movie were varied. While I wasn’t that sold on what I had heard or seen in the trailers, I was excited about the idea of Christopher Nolan completely re-inventing the series. I was hoping it would result in a great film so that other series’ I enjoy but are in dire need of re-invention (a la Alien and James Bond) would receive huge, succesful overhauls from young filmmakers. And while Batman Begins is definitely a more solid installment than the three that proceeded it, it's no successful overhaul.

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