Well, whaddya know? The new Batman movie isn’t perfect, but it’s actually good. And this is an assessment from someone who’s as burnt out as is humanly possible on movies that are either adapted from comic books or might as well be.
The movie’s isn’t quite the fabulous “rethinking” of the Batman mythos that it has been touted as, but it is about as far from the two Joel Schumacher films as possible, which most people will consider a positive thing.
However, Batman Begins isn’t far afield from the two Tim Burton movies — Batman and Batman Returns — that marked the first serious attempts to bring the comic book to the screen. It’s better structured than the former, not as quirkily personal as the latter, and somewhat less fanciful than either. Still, Batman Begins is not all that different in tone, which suggests that the much-maligned Batman Returns was guilty of nothing so much as having been made at the wrong time. When it was released in 1992, the film was attacked for being too violent, dark, scary and grotesque — and definitely not a film for young children.
The same criticisms could be could just as easily be applied to Christopher Nolan’s new film. The difference is that this time — after the quickly diminishing returns of the lighter Schumacher outings and the emergence of an increasingly “adult” approach to comic-book movies — that’s exactly the sort of film Warner Bros. wanted. And that’s what they got.
The most significant difference between Burton’s films and Nolan’s lies in the fact that the new film is less personal. In Batman Returns, the thrust of the material was more Burton than Batman, resulting in a movie that was perhaps more successful as a part of the filmmaker’s oeuvre than as a Batman picture.
Nolan — for good or ill — has made a more focused work that, as far as I can tell, is relatively impersonal for the director, except for the fact that the Batman/Bruce Wayne character certainly qualifies as a character as obsessive as those in his earlier films. But since Batman is by his very nature obsessive, this is perhaps more a case of the filmmaker simply being suited to the material, or at least that aspect of it.
As everyone who isn’t living in a cave (with or without bats) probably knows by now, Batman Begins takes the story back to its origins. That isn’t exactly a new approach, since Burton’s Batman did pretty much the same thing. The difference is that Burton merely sketched this background in, and used the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents as a plot point tied to the specific story line of the film. Here, the background is the crux of the story, and about half the movie is spent on Wayne’s gradual transformation into his alter ego.
Nolan’s screenplay, co-written with David S. Goyer of Blade fame, shrewdly structures the story in overlapping pieces covering various time frames in a cross-reference fashion, keeping all the developments from becoming tedious (at least for the most part). Some of these pieces work better than others, and some are great concepts that fall a bit short in terms of execution.
Young Bruce’s (Gus Lewis) fall down an old well and his encounter with a swarm of bats nicely establishes his fear of and fixation on bats. Magnificently effective on one level is an elaborate sequence where the Wayne family attends a performance of Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofeles during which the bat imagery in the production freaks out the young Bruce. The fact that Bruce’s panic causes them to leave the theater — an action that leads to his parents’ death — adds a dimension of personal guilt to the factors that turn Bruce into Batman. At the same time, the actual depiction of Bruce’s terror at the onstage events is rather flat and matter of fact, and fails to communicate that fear to the audience.
Also, the adult Bruce’s (Christian Bale) decision to leave the United States and take up a life of crime, because he claims he “needed to feel the fear,” is on the weak side and seems like little more than a device to bring him to the attention of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). And that brings up the most heavy-handed aspect of the screenplay, which is just too bound and determined to make sure that even the dimmest bulb in the audience gets the idea that everything associated with Batman is grounded in fear — as is everything else in the movie.
The scenes involving Bruce’s training under Ducard — in the mystic Orient at the compound of Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai), where Ducard hopes to recruit Bruce into the League of Shadows — sometimes seems like a contest to see how many times the word “fear” can be worked into the dialogue. (“To conquer fear you must become fear.” “You have learned to bury your fear with anger. I will teach you to confront it.” And, most torturously of all: “Fear has been your guide. But now you must advance or fear will keep you on your knees. We will help you conquer your fear. In exchange you will renounce the cities of man. You will live in solitude. You will be a member of the League of Shadows. And you will be without fear.”)
In short, it’s all about fear. And the film conveys this without successfully without the excessive verbiage.
A few other developments are equally dubious or just ill-conceived: Bruce fails his final test to enter the League because he refuses to execute a murderer, but in so doing he ends up killing 20 or so people, presumably including the murderer! There may also be too much setup concerning his transformation into Batman when he returns to Gotham City, but without this there wouldn’t be much for Morgan Freeman’s character, Lucius Fox, to do.
However, once Bruce is Batman, Nolan’s film is frequently brilliant — not in the least because Batman’s actions are kept at a minimum. His attacks on criminals are swift, brutish, out-of-nowhere and genuinely creepy. In the Burton films, there were hints that Batman was unhinged. Here, there’s no doubt about it. He’s a hero who is nearly as frightening as the people he’s fighting, giving the film an anti-vigilante undercurrent
As such, it may be the deepest Bat flick ever, which makes it unfortunate that the film pauses to include an out-of-place chase scene in the spectacularly ill-conceived new Batmobile and has serious problems with its villains.
With the exception of Cillian Murphy’s (28 Days Later…) marvelously theatrical and disturbing Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka “The Scarecrow”), the bad guys are rather lackluster. The performances are solid (even if we’ve seen Liam Neeson do this sort of thing too often), but they generally lack verve, and that hurts the film — though less so than the utterly uncharismatic Katie Holmes, who smirks her way through the whole thing.
The good guys, however, are very well done (which is unusual in this kind of film), with Bale an even better Bruce Wayne than a Batman. Michael Caine gives his best performance in ages as Alfred, and Gary Oldman gets near brilliance as Detective Gordon. Overall, it’s a case of the good far outweighing the bad, and while the screenplay is perhaps a little too straight-faced, it has just enough comedic bits to remain entertaining.
Plus, the movie has an impressive solidity that is lacking in nearly all such films of recent vintage. It’s not hard to tell why, either — unlike the movies that surround it, Batman Begins relies as little as possible on CGI effects, relying far more on traditional model-work and floor effects. There’s never anything even remotely cartoonish about its look. Going “backward” in this way, Nolan has in fact made a giant leap forward by creating a convincing comic-book movie.Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke