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Batman Begins (A Movie Review)

Batman Begins

Batman Begins


Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Mark Boone Jr., Linus Roache, Morgan Freeman, Larry Holden, Gerard Murphy, Colin McFarlane, Sara Stewart, Gus Lewis, Richard Brake, Rade Sherbedgia, Emma Lockhart and Christine Adams.

Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures.  140 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Fans of the comic Batman like their adventure served up dark.  Let’s face it, we are far from the Technicolor glitz of the campy 60s TV series.  In the comics, the character has become more and more somber over the years, with the graphic novel The Dark Knight becoming the high-water mark to this new sensitive Bat-characterization.

By the last series of movies helmed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton (starting with the 1989 film) the character had totally turned its back on any of the fun of the originals.  Instead, it was a brooding, noir portrayal of the man in Black.  While the camp slipped back into the series when Joel Schumacher took over the directing reigns from Burton, the popularity slipped away.  This may have been because of the lack of consistency with the main character (who went from being played by Keaton to Val Kilmer to George Clooney) or the increasingly strained stunt casting with the bad guys (Arnold Schwarzenegger?  Jim Carrey?)  Either way, the series seemed to plummet off a cliff, seemingly never to be seen again.

Well, you can’t keep a good bat down.  The good news is that Batman Begins is the best Batman movie yet.  The bad news is, it still isn’t all that great.

Batman Begins is a truly pitch black film.  Even Burton’s Batman films, which were known for their dim world view, seem like Pollyanna compared to this imagining.  If you talk to hardcore fans of the franchise, this was the direction that they wanted the new chapter to take.

Sadly, this darkness is both Batman Begins’ greatest strength and its ultimate fatal flaw.  The world of Gotham City and even Bruce Wayne are so dank and depressing that you can’t help but question whether it deserves saving.  Everyone is so serious, so humourless and so unhappy in their miserable existence that it becomes oppressive.

Ironically, one of the few characters who seems to actually enjoy and have a passion for life is the only one who will acknowledge openly that he is evil — a mob boss named Falcone played by Tom Wilkinson.  The other two characters with a pulse are a servant (Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler) and a middle-management executive (Morgan Freeman) who are also the only two people in the film who do not let the general rottenness of the city run their lives.

The supposed good guys, on the other hand, are tortured (Batman/Wayne as played by Christian Bale — if you can refer to anything so somber as “play”), strident (Katie Holmes is D.A. Rachel Dawes as a grim do-gooder and asexual love interest) or ineffectual (an almost unrecognizably subtle Gary Oldman as Sgt. Gordon, portrayed as a cuckolded and defeated lawman).

The first hour or so of the film shows us the genesis of Batman.  We see Bruce Wayne as a young boy falling in love with the servant’s daughter (who would grow up to be Katie Holmes) and witnessing his parents’ murder.  Due to his great anger over the injustice of their death, Wayne (for reasons that are not completely believable) abandons his family fortune and becomes a petty thief in Asia.

He claims that he is living with criminals to understand them and find a way to destroy wickedness.  While in solitary in a muddy jail, he is approached by a mysterious man (Liam Neeson) who promises to teach him to vanquish evil.  Wayne is taught the ways of the ninja, how to resist fear and to become a shadow in the world so that he can turn the horror that criminals use as their stock-in-trade back upon them.

Bale does a fine job of playing the character as written; living up to the promise that he has shown since American Psycho (and he looks incredibly fit so soon after playing the emaciated antihero of The Machinist.)

Batman Begins also made a conscious choice to make the hero the center of attention; in past incarnations it has been correctly pointed out the Batman sometimes seems like the straight man for more intriguing, over-the-top villains such as The Joker or Catwoman.  Unfortunately, the bad guys in Begins are so non-descript and uninteresting (with the exception of Falcone) that they never seem a real threat.  For example, the costumed bad-guy here is the rightfully obscure criminal The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), whose entire outfit is a burlap sack with eye holes and whose only power is spraying people with a madness gas that makes it look like he has maggots on his face.

The ninja assassins in the film are unfortunately by definition inscrutable and ephemeral.  In fact, this sense of constant invisibility extends to Batman and makes the fight scenes a bit hard to keep track of.  Everyone is in deep shadows and appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, so how can the audience keep track of who is doing what to whom?

Also, am I the only one that noticed that in the climactic scene at the end, Batman and Gordon proclaim a happy ending when they have only ended one part of a much larger catastrophe?  They may have stopped the bad guys from finishing their evil plan, but Gotham was still being ripped apart by a bunch of crazed criminals.  Nonetheless, our heroes decided it was Miller Time.

In the long run, Batman Begins is a fascinating, frustrating film.  It does succeed in creating a truly unique, atmospheric world.  The visuals are often stunning.  However, too much of the storyline just doesn’t quite make sense.

And, it really should lighten up, just a bit.  It’s called a comic book for a reason, you know.  (6/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: June 27, 2005.

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