Saturday, July 14, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 7 - Batman Begins

In 1997 "Batman & Robin" destroyed the first Batman franchise.  In 2005, "Batman Begins" built a whole new one.  And for most of the world, we haven't looked back.  Christopher Nolan, Modern Master(TM), was tapped on to revive the franchise, and what a revival he did.  In a sea of mostly mediocre superhero films, Master Nolan's Batman films were simply a set above, utterly excellent action films that show the world what superhero films could be at their very best.  Just compare "Batman Begins" to "Fantastic Four", the other big superhero film of 2005.  Then you'll see the magnitude of what has been achieved here.  If you're wondering why I'm doing all this Batman madness, the answer lies somewhat in childhood memories of the old Burton-Schumacher films, somewhat in the Batman cartoons, but mostly in how completely awesome Master Nolan's movies are.

The funny thing, of course, being, is that in 2005 I purposefully avoided seeing "Batman Begins".  My logic was that "Batman Begins" made no sense - how could Batman begin when he already began in 1989's "Batman"?  This was the first example of a reboot that I can personally remember, fourteen-year-old me assumed at the time that this was yet another pointless remake in a time where there were dozens of pointless remakes, my mind going back to the rather pathetic 1998 American "Godzilla" movie or the hideously awful 2001 Tim Burton "Planet of the Apes" or to really dig to the bottom of the barrel, 2004's nonsense remake of "The Stepford Wives".  I don't have a very high opinion of remakes personally, especially remakes to perfectly fine movies like "Batman", my thoughts being that if Warner Bros wants more Batman films, they should just make a sequel.  What I didn't understand at the time was that Master Nolan actually had a new and very awesome take on the Batman story.  When you're dealing with a character as eternal and archetypal as Batman, you should let new visions and new voices come in and tell their stories, especially when they might be a goddamn genius like Master Nolan.  Unfortunately well... Hollywood's gone a bit insane with reboots lately, but that's another story altogether.

Honestly if every new incarnation of the Bat is as innovative and brilliant as "Batman Begins", I hope Warner Bros keeps making Batman movies until the day I die.  After that they can start making Green Lantern, I won't care particularly, I'll be dead.  I'll be watching movies in Heaven, which as we all know, are nothing but endless John Ford marathons*.  But that's all looking into the deep future, for right now, "Batman Begins" was a fantastic movie, and led the way directly for the even more fantastic "The Dark Knight".  Even without its indomitable sequel and the upcoming third one, "Batman Begins" would still be one of the best Batman films ever made.

In 2003 when Christopher Nolan was picked by Warner Bros to create "Batman Begins", he had only directed two previous major motion pictures:  the excellent mindbender, "Memento" and the decent crime thriller, "Insomnia".  Nolan had to build up the Batman mythos entirely from the ground-up, since the entire continuity of the Buton-Schumacher series had been thrown into a cinematic trash can someplace.  Thus for inspiration, Burton and writer, the B-movie alum David S. Goyer, looked directly to the comics.  The tones of a corrupt city and corrupt police force were built from "Batman: Year One", the crime family influence was drawn from "Batman: The Long Halloween", and the globe-trotting training story of Bruce Wayne came from "The Man Who Falls", a Batman comic I had never heard of until I started writing this paragraph.  Unlike "Batman", which simply opened with Batman being Batman, this movie actually wanted to show the origin story of Bruce Wayne, and depict his slow kung-fu evolution into a superhero.

Obviously George Clooney would not be reprising his role as Batman in the new movie - he famously offered to pay back the ticket price for anybody dissatisfied with "Batman & Robin", which I don't think made him any friends at Warner Bros.  So instead Nolan chose Christan Bale, a former child star but most famous for playing the yuppie maniac Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" (which is still his best role, by the way).  Michael Gough had less than eight years to live, so Michael Cane came in as Alfred.  Gary Oldman was the new Commissioner Captain Gordon, in order to let the character be somewhat competent instead of the fat fool from the previous movies.  Since all movies need a love interest, Katie Holmes came in as Rachel Dawes, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne but also a Gotham assistant DA.  And for the first time in movies, we have Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the manager of Wayne Enterprises and a super genius mechanic who builds all of Batman's gadgets on the down-low for his boss.  And since all the movies need a villain, Nolan picked out the Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul**, since they were arguably the biggest Batman fores to remain unfilmed.

There was a conscious effort in "Batman Begins" to make it a movie about Batman instead of a movie that happened to have Batman in it, which was the unfortunate plot ulcer that devoured the 90s series.  Specifically this movie avoids telling the supervillain origin stories, and instead focuses on Bruce Wayne's journey to Caped Crusaderdom.  For that reason, the first half of the movie takes place in a nonlinear narrative, running between Bruce Wayne's tragic childhood in Gotham and his training in the mountains of China under - the classic mentor actor - Liam Neeson.  You actually get to see Bruce Wayne interact with his parents, specifically his father, Thomas Wayne, when most Batman stories just cut to little Bruce standing under the streetlamps with his parents already dead.  Thomas Wayne was pretty much the perfect father, compassionate and kind, leaving an bat-opera the second Bruce gets upset.  (My dad would have told me to shut up and let me suffer until he got his money's worth.)  The guy even dies with sage-like calmness, never losing his cool once.  But this messes Bruce Wayne up something fierce, so he goes on a globetrotting adventure to mingle with criminals and learn lots of kung-fu, until Liam Neeson comes along to teach him the meaning of justice.  And more importantly, ninjar skills.  The movement between these two story threads allows the film to cover a great deal of backstory for Bruce Wayne, but the story momentum keeps up nicely.

Unfortunately for everybody, Liam Neeson is working for Ra's Al Ghul a curiously Chinese warlord who leads an army of ninjar.  Ra's Al Ghul has decided that Gotham is a miserable crushing pit of crime and misery.  It thus needs to be destroyed, and who better to do it but the Prince of Gotham himself?  Bruce Wayne has a few things to say about this, so he burns down Ra's' palace, saves Liam Neeson, and returns home to Gotham to be a superhero.

The second part of "Batman Begins" is a linear narrative with Bruce Wayne using his new Batman persona to take on the crime lord Carmine Falconi.  Then it turns out that Gotham is under attack from much much worse things than gangsters, and thus it becomes time to battle lots of supervillains and their deranged plot drive Gotham mad with the Scarecrow's fear gas.

I guess I should discuss the acting in this, since it is a movie after all.  Christian Bale does a fine job as Bruce Wayne, playing the role the best he could.  His previous movie was "The Machinist", where he was an emaciated insomniac, so Christian Bale had to bulk up a hundred pounds in six months, which is just... holy shit.  He's not a perfect Batman since I always thought his face looked funny under the cowl and his Batman voice is as hilarious as it is fun to parody.  "I'M BATMAN!!!"  "RATTLE THE CAGES!!!"  "SWEAR TO ME!!!"  I love doing the Batman voice, its awesome.  Thank you, Christian Bale, that voice really was a gift to snarky motherfuckers like myself.  And really, even the best Batman actor will never quite get the role right, unless they put Kevin Conroy in the cape.  I mean, yeah, Conroy is nearing sixty but he'd still do for my "Batman Beyond" movie.  Cillian Murphy gets a chilling turn as Scarecrow.  Michael Cane is of course, Michael Cane.  Liam Neeson is Liam Neeson.  Gary Oldman is Gary Oldman.  Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman.  There's really nothing to say, they're an all-star cast of supporting characters.  The one weak point is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, who doesn't have much chemistry with Christian Bale, but passes for me.  Its not like this is a love story anyway.

Christopher Nolan's Gotham is a much different beast than that of the previous Nolan-Schumacher films.  The Master decided that the new Gotham shouldn't be a stylized fantasy urban nightmare town, but instead look like a real modern city.  A lot of people praise the realism in Nolan's Batman films, since they do get as close as one possibly could get to making a superhero make logical sense in the real world.  They even explain the need for a Batman:  Gotham is so chewed and eaten by corruption that only a millionaire dressed like a Bat could ever save it.  The crime lords rule with impunity, at one point Carmine Falconi boasts that he could shoot Bruce Wayne in the head and nobody would dare arrest him.  And there are deep soulless slums so dangerous that the police will not enter without a full riot brigade.  Still, as believable as it all is, I can't help but feel that creative possibilities were lost.  Especially in the Batmobile, which looks nothing like any proper Batmobile would look, instead its a nasty tank with none of the fine sweeping elegance of previous vehicles.  Worse, nobody even says the word "Batmobile" once during the movie, because I guess Nolan thought it sounded gay.

For all the realism of Nolan's "Batman Begins", the final plan of the big bad doesn't actually make all that much sense to me.  For a poorly defined reason, Ra's Al Ghul wants to blow up Gotham, because it represents a decadent civilization that needs to be trimmed.  The League of Evil has been doing this sort of thing for thousands of years.  Of course, this is completely insane, but it doesn't even make sense.  Ra's points out that Gotham is sick and full of crime and poverty and has a shitty baseball team, but then he mentions that its his Evil Forces that manipulated the world economy and forced Gotham down to Detroit-levels of misery.  Its like smashing your wife's car to prove to her that her car is a piece of shit.  Do you think she can argue with that logic?  The villain's plan is also an interesting mixture of the evil plans from "Batman: the Movie" and the 1989 "Batman".  Instead of simply gassing the city with fear toxin, they instead sneak it into the pipes, steal a massive water vaporizing engine from Comodore Schmidlapp's boat, and then vaporize the waters to drive everybody insane.

The villains are awesome.  I definitely did not guess that Liam Neeson would turn out to be the real Ra's Al Ghul, he's Qui-Gon Jinn, the nice Jedi Master, he wouldn't hurt you... until he does.  (I guess it was because I didn't notice that Liam Neeson had wingtips for about seven years, I thought he just had a weird haircut.)  Its a shame Nolan is going for realism in his Batman trilogy, since this means that Ra's can never jump into his Lazarus Pit and never come back from the dead and appear in "Batman 3" as the surprise final boss.  Oh well.  But my favorite villain was Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow, since in this movie he can drive you completely insane in seconds.  Carmine Falconi is nothing but endless swagger and arrogance until two seconds of the fear toxin.  "They scream and they cry... much as you're doing now."  Unfortunately Nolan never seems to have much respect for Scarecrow, since he first gets his ass kicked by Rachel Dawes, and in "The Dark Knight" will get crushed in the first five minutes.

More innovative, I think, is the new Batman fighting style.  Previous Batman movies simply had Batman walk in and overpower his foes with brute strength and ridiculous gadgets.  Nolan didn't want Batman to flip out ice skates out his feet or the Batmobile to suddenly shrink itself thinner or climb up buildings or anything obviously impossible like that.  So Batman is a ninja, he overwhelms his foes through fear and using strategic movements to crush them one foe at a time.  There are new gadgets though, since Batman can now glide using his cape - this is all dubious in terms of raw physics, but it sure looked cool.  Advancing film technology allowed Batman to really take his place in a 3D combat environment, almost as if a Batman could actually exist in the real world.

While the action is good and the acting is decent, "Batman Begins" leaves a bit of room for improvement which "The Dark Knight" hugely picks up on.  For one, as much as I liked their attempts to bring up some overaching themes into a superhero movie, you kinda zone-out the fiftieth time somebody mentions "justice" or "fear".  I get it already!  Batman as a persona is built out of the psychological fears of Bruce Wayne, including his own inadequacies as a child being unable to protect his parents from evil.  The character of Batman is more than just a wild vigilante, he's actually working towards a higher goal of bringing down those criminals who cannot be fought by any other means.  What is Batman but fear personified and weaponized against your enemies?  Which, ironically, is exactly what Scarecrow and Ra's are doing.  But still, even though this movie goes a bit out of its way with the tortured hero business, it does give the movie a deeper weight and meaning that Batman sorely needed.  Nolan was fighting the ghost of Joel Schumacher with this production, so just to prove that this wasn't going to be a stupid movie made to sell toys, he had to make Batman mean something greater than just a cereal box brand.

The worst sin of "Batman Begins" though is the TOTAL WASTE of Rutger Hauer!  Rutger Hauer may be my favorite actor of all time with incredible roles in "Blade Runner", The Hitcher", and "Flesh + Blood", and he just keeps on getting more gritty and menacing as he gets older.  He could have been a perfect supervillain, instead he just plays a dick plutocrat that likes to bully Morgan Freeman.  Uch.

Upon release, "Batman Begins" was not the megahit that its sequel would be, instead it came back as a nicely respectable blockbuster, beating out the sales record of "Batman & Robin" at least.  I don't recall this being a very big movie either upon release, since I was able to pleasantly ignore it until watching it on DVD and then realizing what an awesome movie I had missed.  It was no failure, but compared to most Batman films, it ran weirdly under the radar.  Usually a Batman movie is going to be the most explosive event of the entire year, instead "Batman Begins" got beaten by "Star Wars Episode III", "Harry Potter 4", and that fucking heinous "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" remake***.  But either way, it was a satisfying production for Warner Bros, who made enough money to greenlight a sequel.  Christopher Nolan definitely had plans for another Batman movie, as seen in the final sequel hook moment where Gordon hands Batman the Joker card.

Speaking of Joker cards, what's next week?  Yeah, next week is "The Dark Knight Rises"!  But before I go to the movies to see that, I have to rewatch "The Dark Knight", the biggest, most successful, and most popular Batman movie of all time.

* Heaven, despite what you might have read in the funny papers, is actually rather dull.  The only sports are golf, polo, and squash, and all the music is vintage jazz.

** How do you pronounce "Ra's"?  "Batman Begins" pronounces it like "Rahs".  But "Arkham City" pronounces it like "rAYsh".  Can we get our Al Ghuls in order here?

*** Tim Burton has really fallen a great distance since his heights of "Batman Returns" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas".  Its a damn shame.


  1. So if you had a choice would you pick batman returns or the dark knight? yeah i know its hard.

  2. Apparently, Ra's Al Ghul is a Arabic sorta name, in which case it would be pronounced "Rahs". Then again, if we were going for a strictly correct pronunciation then the R would be trilled like in Spanish, and the "Gh" would not be a hard g like "Ghoul", but this horrid gutteral gurgling sorta sound.

    Still, to answer your question, "Rahs" is probably the best.