Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

My relationship with Batman over the years has been something of an odd one, since I am not much for comic books or superheroes. I was initially attracted more than anything to the 1960s television show, which of course has little to do with Bob Kane’s creation for DC and everything to do with engaging, half-crazed satire. I also liked the extremely low-budget ’30s serials, enjoyed the animated show that came along a few years after my obsession subsided a bit and, to a lesser extent, Tim Burton’s two movies for the franchise. I even have a fondness for the early comics I’ve had the fortune to read. More than anything, though, I liked my Batman action figures. It was all about toys, really. And all of these things have such disparate pop culture significance that the connection of a common idea between them is almost coincidental. I rarely think of the television series in conjunction with the animated show, the serials with the movie, etc. But I do think underneath it all, there is something about a guy morally assured yet fucked up enough to run around a city in a bat suit. That’s why I like Batman, really. I don’t like Superman, because who gives a shit? And I don’t care either way about Spidey, the X-Men, the Hulk, whoever else, because Batman… he’s just this guy, you know?

I caught Burton’s Batman Returns on cable not long ago and I swear he must have re-engineered the damn thing behind our backs, because back in 1992 when I was nine it seemed so damn cool and now it seems so damn stupid. I kept asking myself, why why why why why? Why wasn’t I changing the channel? I never figured it out. The last time I saw the first Batman I still liked its stylish insanity to a degree and certainly the way it reveled in its garish pseudo-German Expressionist menace, but it was really a movie about Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton (and Prince), not Batman. Schumacher’s movies I won’t talk about except that they were a bit like hiring the writing staff of Step by Step to redo the TV show without all that messy competence to clutter things up. I’ve always said (and I still say) that the best movie ever made in association with Batman is the one, yes, from 1966, which goes beyond even the scope of the series in its utterly wild, breathless trip to the moon with the audience. Adam West as Bruce Wayne quoting hammy Edgar Allan Poe while courting a Russian vixen who is actually Catwoman, Batman fighting off a shark with “Shark Repellent,” Batman running around the docks of Gotham City trying to find a place to get rid of a bomb, and of course, the priceless, uproarious and truly brilliant ending. Rarely in pop culture has anything so bizarre (and not only that but a sophisticated, intricate kind of bizarre) been placed so bluntly upon so broad an audience… and so clueless a critical consortium.

I saw Batman Begins on its opening screening on one of the most exhausting days of my life up to that point (I drove straight there from an interview for a very coveted job which I did not get, after not sleeping the night before), and then again almost a decade later. I do not like it nearly as much as the 1966 movie and I don’t think it’s a Time Capsule film, but the fact is the Adam West flick wasn’t a Batman movie, and it dawns on me now that none of them were. This one, for better or worse, intends to be Bob Kane’s Batman on celluloid. Inevitably, it’s been reframed now by its two extremely successful sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises; viewing it as much as possible on its own terms, it’s easier to take — less impressed with itself — but it also seems wholly inoffensive now. It’s just as talky and boring as the other Nolan Batman films but it’s a bit easier to see that it’s aspiring toward film noir.

It was always ridiculous to me how much more serious the cartoon take on Batman was than the early ’90s live action efforts; that problem is finally corrected here. The movie is not humorless by any means, but it doesn’t become what was then the archetypal Comic Book Film, if you know what I mean — although it generates a few new dour stereotypes of its own. Again, Batman’s just a guy, and this movie follows that guy, and it still seems over the top every now and then, but mostly it succeeds in pushing forth the unnerving reality of the world Kane once envisioned. So we have a dark film, which makes sense — I am convinced that if you are going to sell the idea of Batman, you cannot go halfway toward anything, as both Burton and Schumacher did. You must be absolutely serious or willing to go completely off the handle. There is no room in between to sell a story that requires so much from the audience.

The movie brings in a Longest Day-style who’s who of Great Male Performers in Hollywood Today. The fact that Alfred Pennyworth is played by, for crying out loud, Michael Caine speaks for itself. (Imagine casting James Earl Jones as “intimidating bouncer #4? and you’ll get my drift.) They’ve made Alfred an actual character here, which shouldn’t be considered that much of a feat, but thanks to Burton and Schumacher, it jumps out at you. Gary Oldman is genuinely delightful as Gordon and serves across the series as the consistent beating heart in an increasingly off-the-rails narrative. Morgan Freeman is Batman’s very own Edna Mode, Liam Neeson an amusing a piece of stunt casting as Bruce Wayne’s “trainer”, and Rutger Hauer and Cillian Murphy and on and on and on. It leans more heavily on its supporting cast than the sequels, which is to its credit. Katie Holmes is in it too, and I guess it could be worse; while I have nothing against her, her performance style seems mismatched and of course her role is too plainly the classic-plastic female part always obligingly carved out in films of this nature.

I only noticed in subsequent years how much Nolan gets a kick out of making great actors emit a lot of really bad exposition, but this proves that it didn’t start with The Prestige. Poor Michael Caine: “In the Civil War, your great-great grandfather was involved in the Underground Railroad, secretly transporting freed slaves to the North. And I suspect these caverns came in handy.” Poor Liam Neeson: [everything he says]. Almost beside the point here is Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne. His character’s arc seems hackneyed. Based on my limited exposure to early Batman comics, the original stories seemed a bit more organic than the screenwriterly business of “why do we fall” and the awkwardly repeated bat motif. Still, Bale is superior by default to Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. His Batman first appears after exactly sixty-two minutes. Some thought this was bold, I think it’s a symptom of bloat, but somehow the results do seem to provide fan service in the sense that this was (and is, extrapolating to the sequels) what a lot of those drawn to the Batman “idea” have always wanted. Big Moments regarding his origin and the death of his parents are handled with a mythological push despite their distance. For his part obviously Nolan, whose real breakthrough this was after the buzzed Memento and medium-sized disappointment Insomnia, sees this as the story of a city, and for once Gotham does feel like a real place.

Unlike the two Dark Knight pictures, Batman Begins also enjoys some sort of a sense of fun, especially during the fittingly destructive Batmobile sequences. In the theater nine years ago I groaned at Gordon saying “I gotta get me one of those” and “I’M BATMAN” and the “didn’t you get the memo?” stuff but in hindsight, the moments when Nolan lets his guard down and allows himself to make a silly but sinister popcorn movie work better for me that the sensation, more egregious in the followups, that we’re supposed to take all this very, very, very seriously.

The biggest debit to Batman Begins if you discard its destiny as the source of two comically overpraised films is Nolan’s action scenes; while not completely awful, they are quite a distraction in terms of their editing style. The first one comes about thirty seconds into the film and it looks just like all the others; a messy jumble of quick cuts of thrashing and falling men. As most people know, I hate fast cutting when it conflicts with the need for the audience to know where the hell they are almost as much as I hate constant close-ups. And the scenes are all zoomed too far in to even tell who we’re looking at. Unfortunately, in the years since the movie was released this incomprehensibly has only become a more pervasive technique; I blame video games and Fred Zinnemann.

The second biggest debit is that the film’s vision of good-hearted wealthiness is almost insultingly idealistic and Rockwellian. I guess that’s partially inherent to the Batman concept, but really, this narrative is Reaganesque: “a millionaire creates a nice train for people and even works at a hospital while letting other Americans run his company, only to get shot by an irresponsible streetwalker. It just goes to show, an honest hard-working patriot tries to give an inch to the nefarious have-nots only to be walked all over, to have his beloved city and company destroyed and to end up murdered. Personal responsibility doesn’t come from getting handouts! It comes from taking pride in your work and livelihood and dressing up as an eccentric cokehead at emo Halloween” etc. What I’m saying is, in the end we all know that Whit Stillman is the only proper director for the Batman saga.

[Expanded from a review posted in 2005.]

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