[July 2012 Update: Revisiting my original review of Batman Begins, I remember just how dazzled and awestruck so many of us were by Christopher Nolan's reimagined Batman. He showed us what a superhero movie could do, and how much it could ask us to consider.
Then, The Dark Knight raised the bar even higher.
But there have been other Nolan films. And the grim, ominous tones—in the storytelling, in the imagery, and in the simple musical motifs—have begun to feel redundant. Inception, for example, had some good ideas but they were, for this moviegoer, swamped by its overbearing self-seriousness. I hope Nolan finds some new colors, some new musical notes, so that his past triumphs sustain some of the gravity they had when they landed.
With that in mind, here—with a few small repairs and clarifications—is my original (and very long) review of Batman Begins, which arrived around the same time as Star Wars, Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith.]
1. An Imaginary Dialogue
Imagine a meeting between Bruce Wayne in his Batman get-up and the newly transformed Anakin Skywalker.
“Hey there, Dark Lord!”
“Greetings, Dark Knight!”
“You too! Capes are cool, no matter what the Incredibles tell you.”
“And that head gear, that’s impressive.”
“Well, in my case, it’s keeping me alive. Your bat-mask-that’s more a costume than a life-support system.”
“True, but both masks have the same effect on their enemies — they inspire fear. And they distract from the fact that we’re really messed-up, wounded human beings underneath.”
“Uh-huh. Speaking of wounds, I’m sorry about your parents. Gunned down in front of you by a crook… that’s rough. You know, my mom died in my arms after being abused by Tusken Raiders.”
“I heard about that. I can understand your anger, your desire to make things right. You lost your trust in the Jedi. They were a confused bunch, weren’t they? Poor judgment all around.”
“You walked away from your mentors too, if I’m not mistaken. The League of Shadows. I rather admired them. But you… you got good combat training from them, and then you became a free agent.”
“So many people think I’m just consumed by a desire for revenge. But I’m not a vigilante or a terrorist. I’m striving for justice, for the kind of world where kids won’t suffer the way I suffered. I’d be glad to cooperate with Gotham’s government, but they, like the cops, are corrupt to the core.”
“Hmm. I guess that’s where we differ. I’m happy to keep questionable company, so long as it gains me access to ultimate power.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I use fear to keep Gotham City in line, but you use fear to keep the star systems in line, Ani!”
“Don’t call me Ani.”
“You know what else we have in common?”
“What’s that, Bat?”
“Brunettes. We love ‘em. They love us, but only when we’re behaving ourselves. When we start kicking butt, they get weepy and walk away.”
“We’re so much alike. Why do you get cheers, while I’m reviled as one of the worst villains in history?”
“Well, for starters, I try to save lives. I show mercy. You chopped up a room full of younglings.”
“Right. There is that. But that’s why I rule the galaxy, and you’re just a fly-by-night crimefighter. You should join me, Bruce. Together we could rule the galaxy.”
“Uh… no. It’s not in my character to align myself with tyrants.”
“Think about it. You’ve already decided that justice can only be achieved by force, by determined human beings. You’re like me — you refuse to look to any higher power for help. You believe human beings, at their best, can save the world. We’re not so different.”
“No, I’ll never join you.”
“Because my director is Christopher Nolan, and a powerful ally he is. Your director, well…”
Okay, enough kidding around. Let me tell you about Batman Begins.
2. The Review
When the end credits of Batman Begins rolled at the film’s sneak preview in Seattle’s Pacific Place theatre, the place exploded in applause. The fanboy next to me stood up and shouted out the name on every Bat-fan’s mind. No, not “Batman.” He roared, “Christopher Nolan!!”
There’s a good reason for his outburst. Nolan has directed and co-written (with David Goyer of the Blade movies) what the most sophisticated, most ponderous Batman film ever made. Surprise, surprise… the movie’s about Batman! It’s about who he is, what made him, what drives him, and what his mission has cost him.
Director Tim Burton turned the great Caped Crusader’s adventures into a disappointing (albeit entertaining) freakshow, in which psychotic villains consistently stole the show from Batman by flaunting their outrageous personalities. Granted, Burton’s version had its pleasures. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman remains reason enough to revisit Batman Returns regularly. But did we care much about those characters?
Later, Joel Schumacher melted down Burton’s modest achievements, turning a decent franchise into a trashy, glitzy, empty costume party on steroids.
That’s all history now. Batman has the movie his fans have always dreamed about.
Taking its tone, its realism, and its unflinchingly bleak view from the classic comic volumes by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli known as Batman: Year One, Nolan’s epic feels like a gritty Michael Mann film about tough guys, bad cops, vigilantism, and revenge. Nolan clearly cares deeply about Bruce Wayne’s past, plight, and motivations, and thus, so do we. He even finds explanations for the Bat-accessories. We know now where that batsuit comes from, and to some extent we know how it works. We know where the Batmobile comes from. We even meet the mastermind behind Batman’s gear.
Nolan’s film highlights more than any other version that this entirely human hero finds it easier to be Batman than to be Bruce Wayne… that Batman is the real human being suffering under the burden of heavy baggage, and that the Bruce Wayne who struts around in tuxedos, a smugly smiling super-playboy/millionaire/mover-and-shaker, is just a disguise for the misery.
Batman Begins packs so much story into two hours, they really should install seatbelts in the theatres. Few films have ever covered so much narrative ground so quickly and efficiently (Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind). It’s like watching one of those high-speed videos of a building being erected from the foundation to the top of the tower—we watch the myth of Batman constructed from scratch before our eyes.
You probably know the basics: Young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed, and he inherits the vast wealth, the mansion, and the glory. But his anger and loss drive him to try and rid the world of such crooks. Realizing that he can’t work within the law, due to corruption and confinements, he takes his own road, by night, confronting, terrifying, and dismantling the criminal underworld piece by piece, relentlessly unsatisfied.
Nolan’s story starts with these building blocks and, inspired by many details from Batman: Year One, elaborates a much more complex and enjoyable mythology.
Now we know that Mr. Wayne becomes resilient, aggressive, and fearless by wandering in the back alleys of the world’s criminal networks, and that he trained with ninjas in a covert operation called the League of Shadows (an organization that inevitably reminds us of Al Qaeda). When he learns from the head honcho, Ra’s Al Ghul, that the League occasionally comes out of hiding to overthrow decadent societies, he must decide whether to ride with the bad boys or go his own way. Wayne bails, choosing a lonely but principled path… the defender of justice instead of the hand of judgment. He returns to Gotham just in time to interfere in the dirty dealings of a criminal mastermind named Falcone and a psychiatrist who’s more messed up than his patients.
Christian Bale is Christopher Nolan’s superb choice to play Bruce Wayne. Bale’s unforgettably intense performance as the young lead in Steven Spielberg’s underrated Empire of the Sun remains one of the great performances by a child actor. Since then, he has refused to go for easy, flashy fame. Over twenty years, he’s slowly developed a reputation for strong, complicated, muscular performances in unconventional films like American Psycho, Metroland, and The Machinist, with a few low-profile action flicks along the way, including Reign of Fire and Equilibrium.
Bale’s days of obscurity are over. Here, he finally fulfills his potential to be a major commercial movie, delivering one of his most surprising and complex performances, and reinventing an American icon. His version of the caped crusader is distinct in many ways. Before him, only Michael Keaton made Bruce Wayne interesting, and he did so by turning up the quirks and giving Wayne an edge of insanity. Bale plays Bruce Wayne as a brilliant mess, a paparazzi-happy celebrity who is clearly miserable and lost behind the egomaniac facade. He’s as interesting during his day job hours as he is during his nocturnal heroics. One minute he’s an indulgent, amoral playboy, cavorting in the high life with foreign supermodels; the next, he’s a master of stealth, a deadly martial artist, an overgrown adolescent trying out new and expensive toys, or a daredevil, testing the limits of his courage and his strength.
As Batman-in-action, Bale makes us understand why bad guys fear the Dark Knight. He’s so intimidating that he could send all previous “Batmen” running merely by greeting them aloud. The thing that seals it—his voice. When he talks to one of his enemies, watch his mouth—it looks like he’s having to muster all of his resolve not to just rip out their throats with his teeth, tempted to take an all-too-literal bite out of crime. He’s a fierce, harsh, punishing figure. When he’s not in action, he crouches, clenched like a fist waiting for something to punch. This is a Batman who takes “theatricality” seriously.
Fortunately, Bale doesn’t have to carry the movie on his own. He’s got a fantastic supporting cast.
Best of all is Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon, the world-weary, battle-scarred cop whose desire to do his job well puts him in good stead with Batman. Oldman, so famous for playing psychotic villains, finally gets a chance to impress upon us that he can be a memorable good guy as well. What a delight to see him again. He’ll be a great asset in the sequels. (Please, Nolan, keep him around for the sequels.)
Michael Caine is surprisingly restrained and effective as Alfred, the butler with a deep and fatherly affection for his reckless employer. Morgan Freeman makes a strong impression in very few scenes–understated, funny, clearly enjoying himself. Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s childhood sweetheart; she’s as cute as… well… Katie Holmes (and she’s a much stronger character than Rene Zellweger’s Mae Braddock in that other early summer movie about a muscular good guy fighting muscular bad guys.) Liam Neeson seems content to continue playing combat mentors, but he’s much better here as Bruce’s fight coach, Henri Ducard, than he was in Kingdom of Heaven or the Star Wars prequels.
The villains may not be as cosmetically enhanced as those in Burton’s films, but they’re every bit as engaging. As the League of Shadows’ head honcho, Ra’s al Ghul, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) oozes menace (even if he is, once again, playing a master warlord who will be bested by his young, white, American trainee). Tom Wilkinson (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is delightfully nasty as a crime lord who’s so greasy, he could give Morgan Spurlock nightmares.
And then there’s Cillian Murphy in what amounts to an application for the job of The New James Spader. As a particularly twisted shrink, the head of the infamous Arkham Asylum, Murphy is lasciviously wicked and perverse, and he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. Last seen as the somber lead in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Murphy reveals impressive range, and his casting agent will be very busy in the days to come.
There are other pleasant surprises. (Rutger Hauer! And he’s come full circle: Instead of wreaking bloody revenge on corporate devils as he did in Blade Runner, he is one!)
Christopher Nolan distinguishes himself amongst comic-book film directors by focusing so intently on storytelling and character development that he forgets almost entirely about special effects. Sure, there are flourishes of animation here and there, but you hardly notice them. This is a drama as much as an action movie, furiously interested in ethical dilemmas. Like his cult classic Memento, it’s full of flashbacks; like his last film Insomnia, it digs deep into its characters’ psyches.
There are, of course, obvious political implications in the film’s plot about terrorist organizations and a culture of fear, but you don’t need me to echo what everyone else is pointing out.
What’s most interesting to this viewer is Nolan’s bold assertion that a hero who executes justice is not enough. We need a hero who has the power to withhold justice… who has the power to suspend a punishing blow… who can entertain the thought of mercy and forgiveness. Nolan intuitively understands the importance of grace in the vocabulary of a true savior, even if his hero never gets much opportunity to exhibit that trait… not yet. Batman certainly isn’t looking heavenward for help, but as a symbol of divine justice, he strikes some resonant chords of truth. We can only hope Nolan explores this further in a sequel.
For the first time, I found myself really rooting for Batman. He follows a genuinely heroic character arc, with echoes of Christ-like sacrifice. (He even shares a moment with Gordon that is pulled directly from a conversation Christ had with Peter… the famous “Who do you say that I am?” exchange.) He’s tempted by a devil. He dies to his old self. He descends into the hell of a criminal underworld and becomes acquainted with grief. He descends even lower, facing his worst fears in the Batcave. And finally, he rises, transformed, to carry out justice and put his life on the line for the people of Gotham… people who clearly don’t deserve him.
I’d be an irresponsible critic if I didn’t note the film’s flaws, and it does have them. The fights, for instance, are at times underwhelming. They’re filmed in such quick-edit, close-up fashion that you wish the camera would sometimes pull back so you can see what Batman looks like when he fights. On the other hand, the use of darkness and concealment is very effective. For once, when the “idiot principle” goes into effect and you have a bunch of terrified dummies walking around and sticking their noses into dark corners, you’re actually hoping that the monster in the darkness will take them out.
Continuity and editing errors are occasionally distracting. There are moments when the mouths moving do not match the words being spoken.
And finally: The conclusion is dissonant with the rest of the film primarily because it’s such a typical “bad guy threatens to blow up the world” finale. It’s the least satisfying part of the film.
But Nolan makes up for that lapse with a slam-dunk epilogue. He closes the picture with a bold stroke that basically crushes the previous Batman films and tosses them in the bin. That scene must feel like a gut punch to anyone who worked on the Burton films. Nolan asserts that he can cover whatever ground he wants in the future… and that he’ll do it better than we’ve seen before.
I have confidence that, if the audiences show up and the studio realizes their good fortune, we will see Nolan, Goyer, Bale, and company do just that. While I still have some affection for Burton’s work, I now humbly concede that Nolan is the master of the Dark Knight from here on out.