Countdown to “The Dark Knight Rises” #1: “Batman Begins”
The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film (or so he says), is opening, as you might have heard, this Friday (or, to be technical, Thursday night at midnight). To mark this, I’m running my reviews of his first two Batman films, which I wrote for a fanzine called CAPRA (Cinematic Amateur PRess Association). After each review, I’ll mention some things I’ve picked up from subsequent re-viewings of the movie, or that I missed in my review. Before that, however, I have a request and a caveat. I know there are people who have seen the new movie, but I won’t until Friday (possibly Thursday at midnight, depending), so while I welcome comments, please don’t include spoilers in them. Now for the caveat; normally, I’d want to run this as I originally wrote it, but since I wrote this review in tandem with reviewing another movie (Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain), I will be tweaking my introduction somewhat. Here’s the original review:
–As countless people have pointed out, one of the most important parts of any society is the myths that carry them. As countless others have pointed out, pop culture myths seem to be the norm these days, as opposed to classical myths (although it’s often true the former can come out of the latter). Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins deals with the superhero myth, and does it very well.
–Nolan’s movie (which he co-wrote with David Goyer) is the first Batman movie that’s actually about Batman, as opposed to the guest villain. It’s also aptly names, as this takes us to the beginning of the Batman myth. It’s not just seeing, once again, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) seeing his parents killed. It’s the time between that and when he first became Batman that interests this movie. After he’s cheated out of revenge against Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents, by Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the mobster who controls the city, Bruce heads to the Himalayas to find himself. There, he ends up in prison, and catches the eye of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious figure. Together with Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), they head a secret society, and they train Bruce physically, mentally, and spiritually. But Bruce soon finds out they’re true vigilantes, who want vengeance rather than justice. He rejects this view, and soon escapes from them.
-Back in Gotham City, Bruce, along with Alfred (Michael Caine), the family butler, aims to both re-establish himself as Bruce Wayne, and establish himself as Batman. For the former, he takes a a silent role at Wayne Enterprises (now being run by a corrupt Rutger Hauer), and begins to cultivate the reputation of being a rich if indifferent playboy. For the latter, he enlists the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who runs the science wing of Wayne Enterprises, and serves as his Q (the Batmobile is now a tank). He also reaches out to two people from his childhood; Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), who as a cop was kind to Bruce right after his parents were shot, and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), his childhood friend, who’s now a prosecutor. She currently has her hands full dealing with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who successfully helps criminals like Carmine Falcone stay out of jail and in Arkham Asylum by having them declared insane. What she and Batman only later find out is Crane, under his alias Scarecrow, is actually making them crazy through drugs that bring out their innermost fears. Batman must not only battle the Scarecrow, but also must face an unexpected enemy.
-My favorite screen version of Batman has long been the excellent animated series on Fox about a decade back, which gave Batman the gritty tone of the original comics (as well as Frank Miller’s updated versions), as well as a believable Bruce Wayne (we could really see here Bruce Wayne was the mask Batman was wearing). Many praised Tim Burton’s operatic style in the first two movies, but I found it overwrought (the second one was also confusing). And Schumacher’s campy style in the next two became arch, off-putting, and just dumb (for all its faults, the campy TV show was rarely arch). Also, all four of the films essentially took Batman, possibly the greatest character ever created for a comic book, and made him sit on the sidelines. Nolan avoids both of those traps. This is the first film where Gotham feels like a real city, rather than a triumph of set design. Wayne Manor is still a mansion, but it feels lived in, and the lighting and tone are darker than in any previous Batman film. As for the latter, Nolan, Goyer, and Bale all get inside Batman’s head, showing the demons driving him, as well as the face he puts to the outside world. Bale, of course, demonstrated in American Psycho how well he could play people who show the outside world a happy mask while showing the audience their inner turmoil. If he looks a little too to-the-manor born to be convincing as someone who winds up in Tibet, it works because no matter how hard he tries, Bruce Wayne (and Batman) is always going to feel left on the outside. And Bale is in his element both as the driven Batman and the casual-seeming Batman (“A guy who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues,” he sneers to a date). And rebounding from The Machinist nicely, he’s buffed without being overdone.
-As with the first film, Nolan and Goyer set up a symbiotic relationship between hero and villain. Just as Bruce uses his childhood fear – bats – as a way to strike fear in the hearts of criminals in becoming the Batman, the Scarecrow taps into other’s fears to gain control. Mostly, Nolan and Goyer are successful, but they falter in other ways. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache) is set up as a Rockefeller type – rich but charitable – and Roache tries, but it just comes off patronizing. It’s good Nolan and Goyer take things seriously, but the film admittedly could have used more humor (as when Fox shows off the tank that will become the Batmobile, and Bruce asks, “Does it come in black?”). And whatever you think of her off-screen behavior, Holmes, a good actress, is out of place here. She doesn’t even have good chemistry with Bale. However, she’s the only bum note in the almost absurdly overloaded cast. Caine, Freeman, and Neeson may have had their fill of playing mentor figures, but they do well here (and Caine and Freeman add much-needed humor as well). Oldman brings his trademark intensity to playing a good man for a change, and never makes him sappy. and Murphy is quite chilling as the Scarecrow. At the end of the movie, there’s a set-up for the sequel, which is clumsy, but at least you can say Batman Begins recharges the franchise.
So, obviously my review simplified quite a few things, and left other things out. I could say it was due to space and not wanting to give anything away, but in all likelihood, it was because I didn’t do the research (not mentioning, for example, that “secret society” that Bruce joins at first is the League of Shadows). To be fair, though, there are a few things I didn’t pick up on first viewing, such as:
-I mostly know the character of Ra’s al Ghul from the 90’s animated series (where he was voiced by David Warner), and on that show, he called Batman “detective”. Partly, this may have been a tip of the hat to the fact the comic book Batman originally appeared in the series “Detective Comics”, but it’s easy to forget Batman is, when you come right down to it, a private detective. He may not get money from it (to be fair, he doesn’t exactly need it), he may use more hi-tech means than the traditional fictional private eye does to solve crimes (again, to be fair, he has the means, wealth and access to do so), and he doesn’t indulge in the aberrant behavior fictional private eyes sometimes do (at least as Batman; as Bruce Wayne, he pretends to be a playboy and such), but Batman otherwise has a lot of the aspects of a private eye, right down to his somewhat awkward relationship with the police (except for Gordon). The previous movies, with the possible exception of Burton’s first movie, didn’t remember that, but Nolan’s movie does, showing Batman (or sometimes Wayne) listening in on conversations, trying to follow leads, and having both success and failures in that regard (not knowing who’s behind Crane’s drug shipments until it’s almost too late, for example). That’s one example of the grittiness Nolan brings to the film, and what I like about it.
-Starting somewhat in the 70’s, but really continuing in the 80’s, the Batman comics, apparently to justify why Batman was necessary in a society like Gotham and feeling the Rogues’ Gallery he faced (and the police couldn’t defeat) wasn’t enough, decided Batman was also there to offset the fact the police force, and maybe even the government, was corrupt on some level. Although this probably seemed like overkill to some – and wasn’t used as much in the animated series – it was another way of making the story edgier, and Nolan runs with that idea here, from Gordon refusing a payoff from his then-partner, Flass (Mark Boone Jr.), to Rachel lecturing Bruce about how society has fallen since Falcone and his element took over and good people did nothing (this part comes off as heavy-handed), and to Falcone himself telling Bruce he could kill him right in front of judges and politicians he’s bought and no one would bat an eye. This corruption also plays a major role in The Dark Knight, and will presumably play a part in The Dark Knight Rises.
-That aspect of the movie leads to what I think is the movie’s main theme, which is; must you destroy society in order to save it? As a consequence of that corruption mentioned above, Gotham is now a city of rampant crime practically run by Carmine Falcone and his associates, and Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows basically see it as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah that needs to be purged so that it can start over and become good again. Bruce, on the other hand, argues there are enough good people (or people trying to do good) like Rachel, Lucius, Gordon, and of course Batman, that will steer Gotham on the right path, and make it worth saving. This could have played out several ways, but I think Nolan’s straightforward approach makes it work, so for the most part it doesn’t feel preachy.
-The two major criticisms of Nolan’s Batman movies, as far as I can tell, seem to be this: (1) the fast cutting of the action scenes is another example of the so-called “chaos cinema” that is killing action movies, and (2) all the weighty themes brought to bear are more than a tad pretentious for a comic book movie (or, as so famously said in The Dark Knight, “Why so serious?”). For the first point, I also am not a fan of fast cutting the way it’s most often used in action movies, particularly those directed by Michael Bay. However, there are a few directors who know how to use it, and Nolan is one of them. Plus, as he explains on the special features of the DVD, being Batman tries to present himself as someone who is feared because you never know when and where he’s going to appear, it makes sense you, like the criminals he faces, can’t always see him. And again, in my opinion, none of this sacrifices coherence. As for the second point, there is an inherent condescension in saying certain genres can’t tackle weighty themes (of course, you should question how well those themes are presented), but more to the point, the Burton films (which the Nolan naysayers seem to embrace) also tackled them. Take a look at Pauline Kael’s review of Burton’s first Batman film; she talks about how that movie is also about the battle for the soul of the city, and while she liked the movie, her fault with it is the serious themes it brings up (the relationship between Batman and the Joker) aren’t developed enough to bring the grandeur the movie is reaching for. I just happen to think Nolan does bring those themes out better, and yet, as I demonstrate below, he doesn’t sacrifice entertainment value.
-One thing I definitely got wrong in my original review was saying the movie lacked humor. It’s true, of course, Nolan and company were going for a more serious tone in reaction to the campy tone of the Schumacher films. It’s also true the result is a lot of the dialogue by Nolan and Goyer is a little too on-the-nose, though the actors for the most part put it over (except, unfortunately, for Holmes). However, there’s still quite a bit of humor, and not just in the bantering between Bruce and Lucius Fox (Bruce claims he wants to borrow a bulletproof Army suit for “spelunking”, to which Fox replies, “You expecting to run into much gunfire in these caves?”) and Bruce and Alfred (we find out Bruce left his fortune to Alfred in his will, and Alfred cracks Bruce can borrow the Rolls whenever he wants). There’s also the situational humor of cops reacting to the new Batmobile (“It’s a tank!”), the dark humor of Scarecrow, prefiguring in a way the Joker (telling Batman, after he’s sprayed him with his fear gas, that he could use a drink, before pouring alcohol on him so he can set him on fire), and Bruce with his playboy act (buying a restaurant so his dates can swim in the aquarium). None of this goes towards the campiness of the Schumacher films, but it does provide a balance.
Part 2 has my original review of The Dark Knight, plus new thoughts on the film.