chris kilby -> RE: Batman Begins (20/8/2012 5:01:18 PM)
I'm even later to this party than I was to The Dark Knight Rises, but what the hey...
Where does he get those wonderful toys? It’s a question which clearly has bugged Christopher Nolan for years. Well now we know – he gets them off that guy in The Shawshank Redemption who can get you anything. Even a Batmobile!
A straight origin story (albeit one told in the anything-but-straight, disjointed narrative style of Jean-Luc Godard or Nic Roeg which only settles down into something more linear and conventional once Citizen Wayne arrives back in Gotham City), Batman Begins is the first Batman film actually about Batman. An idea so obvious it’s a wonder no-one thought of it before.
Actually, someone did. Batman Begins owes a lot to Richard Donner’s Superman – the episodic structure, the stylistic shifts determined by location, the all-star cast - even if, tonally, it is its exact opposite. Which is ironic since Tim Burton’s Batman only got made because screenwriter Sam Hamm deliberately avoided using the Superman template which had mired that version of The Dark Knight in development hell for over a decade. Hamm wanted to avoid lengthy training montages of Bruce Wayne doing push-ups. Yet here we are, twenty years later, with a Batman movie which is basically a two-hour training montage. But what a training montage!
The Batman’s been a lot of things over the years. He’s been camp. He’s been dark. He’s been camp again. He’s even been shite. But he’d never been real before. Well, real-ish. Where Tim Burton gave us the hyper-stylised, mock-Goth fantasy version, Christopher Nolan has opted for verisimilitude - the appearance of a plausible pseudo-reality which is more French Connection than camp desecration.
Nolan carefully builds his Batman from the ground up, rationalising everything as he goes – why a mask, why a bat, and, yes, where he gets those wonderful toys. (In a nice touch, Bruce Wayne has to order thousands of the components which make up the cowl just to avoid raising suspicion.) But he introduces the iconography gradually, perfectly timing the debuts of The Cave, The Suit, The Wheels and what will become The Signal for maximum dramatic impact like the master showman he is.
The Batmobile’s real introduction is the standout setpiece of the entire movie – here, a black… tank accompanied through the streets (and over the rooftops!) of Gotham by Hans Zimmer’s iconic score from Black Rain. Well, if you’re gonna steal, you’re as well stealing from yourself. And it’s still a great piece of music.
Then there are the fanpleasingly iconic shots of the cape billowing in the wind and a stunning money shot of The Batman perched atop the spire of a vertigo-inducingly tall building like a gargoyle which elicited gasps in the cinema. For this Batman is self-consciously self-mythologising; very deliberately turning himself into a symbol. An icon. A legend.
What, in anyone else’s hands, would be a pointlessly reductive and mind-numbingly tedious exercise which just got in the way of the story, in Nolan’s hands becomes the meat of the movie itself and something very special indeed.
But Nolan’s in no rush. (Not until The Batman enters Arkham Asylum, certainly, and the film simply does not let up until its thrillingly visceral roller-coaster climax.) It’s easily an hour before we see Wayne in the batsuit. One of the triumphs of Batman Begins is we don’t care. This Bruce Wayne is an interesting character in his own right – a trick Iron Man was to repeat a few years later, testament to just how influential Nolan’s approach to this sort of material has been. For the first time ever on-screen, The Batman isn’t overshadowed by scenery-chewing, OTT bad guys.
It’s about time too. Few characters are as endlessly fascinating or psychologically complex as The Dark Knight Detective. There are hints early on here that young Bruce Wayne is in danger of going down the Travis Bickle/Bernie Goetz road to self-destruction before he is saved from himself by, er, a fanatical cult of vigilante ninjas. Did someone say “realism…”?
Batman Begins is a perfect match of director and material. Christopher Nolan’s films are all about identity – Following, Memento, Insomnia and subsequently The Prestige and Inception. But he can talk about “realism” all he likes. Batman Begins still demands a tremendously willing suspension of disbelief from the audience – we are still talking about a guy who dresses up like a bat, after all. But then, what film doesn’t…?
So why a mask? And why a bat? Fear is the key. In a neat twist, this Batman turns his own Indiana Jones-like childhood phobia of bats against his enemies. Fear is a weapon and a major theme of this movie and of the post-9/11 era it reflects. 9/11 casts a very long shadow over Batman Begins – a bin Laden-like villain, the al Qaeda-like League of Shadows (SPECTRE reconfigured for the modern world as a fanatical cult), and an evil plot (to literally spread fear) which is 9/11 2.0 in all but name. Early drafts of the script were even subtitled: “Intimidation Game” which sounds like an alt. gameshow from hell. All fright my loves…?
Although Mind Games would be more like it. Nolan knows a thing or two about “theatricality and deception” himself and does like playing games, not least with the audience’s heads. A late-in-the-day reveal comes as a real surprise yet is so obvious if you’re a comics fan (and even if you’re not, probably) that I’m still annoyed I didn’t see it coming. Talk about hidden in plain sight. Why, Nolan – I oughtta…! (He’s also a master at disguising exposition as dynamic action – that sword fight on the ominously cracking ice of a frozen lake.)
Something else Nolan does is turn apparently inherent problems with the super-hero film genre itself on their heads. Multiple villains have long been the, uh, bane of super-hero movies. Super-sequels especially – the dreaded “Too-Many-Crooks” Syndrome! Yet Batman Begins has four of them, starting with a mugger and gradually working its way along the criminal chain to a gangster, a super-villain and finally a charismatic global super-terrorist – THE cinematic uber-villain of the early 21st Century having finally usurped the Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer from his throne. Clearly, it’s not the size of your rogues gallery, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Ra’s al Ghul was an inspired if not immediately obvious choice of villain. Not widely known outside the comics-reading ghetto, crucially, he carried no baggage from previous films as most moviegoers had never heard of him. Ra’s is more Bond villain than super-villain - “Gentlemen. The time has come to spread the word. And the word is… panic”; “Now if you’ll excuse me I have a city to destroy.” Originally conceived in the early seventies as a more realistic, Moriarty-like figure in a successful attempt to rescue Batman from the camp excesses of the sixties TV show (the phenomenal if short-lived success of which almost destroyed the character), Ra’s helped turn The Caped Crusader into The Dark Knight. So it’s apt, having once saved his surrogate son from the shadow of Adam West that Ra’s should return to rescue him again, this time from the ignominious clutches of the dreaded Schumacher!
Indeed, Bond has been a large and growing influence on Nolan’s blockbuster career. Inception was a virtual love letter to OHMSS and if Spot-The-Bond Reference in The Dark Knight Rises was a drinking game, Withnail & I would both urgently require liver transplants! While this influence is less overt in Batman Begins it is there. In the exotic globe-trotting. In the villain’s grandiose plotting and private army. And in the figure of Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox – Batman’s “Q” in all but name.
But the biggest influence on Batman Begins by far is the seminal graphic novel, Batman: Year One. There is a lot of Frank Miller’s noir masterpiece in there - Flass, Loeb, Jim Gordon’s portrayal as a born again badass, an iconic set-piece involving bats and the pieta-like tableau of the young Bruce and his murdered parents. But, crucially, there’s a lot that isn’t. Nolan is true to the spirit of Frank Miller without being slavishly devoted to the point of the over-awed adoration which made Watchmen such a sclerotic cinematic experience. And, crucially, Miller isn’t Nolan’s sole inspiration. Ra’s al Ghul was a Denny O’Neil creation and “Henri Ducard” is a nice acknowledgement of Batman screenwriter, Sam Hamm, who created the name (if not the character) for the Detective Comics 50th Anniversary issue back in 1989 – the year of Batman’s release.
Something else Batman Begins shares with Superman is its large, all-star cast. Rutger Hauer is an obvious tribute to Nolan’s favourite movie, Blade Runner. Every shot of the incongruously shanty town-like “Narrows” cries out “Blade Runner!” too. Especially when it’s raining. (Or “shonky town” judging by some of the model work…) And further down the ranks are some great character actors like the always sweatily-reliable Mark Boone Jnr. And who knew that Batman was Ken Barlow’s grandson…?
Katie Holmes (as new addition and love interest, Rachel Dawes) came in for a lot of predictable stick as the cast’s supposedly weak link. But she’s OK in the token underwritten-female role – a recurring feature of Nolan’s boys’ films and his Achilles heel as a writer. Even if, inevitably, she’s a little on the young side to be a high-flying assistant DA. (cf: Superman Returns’ supposedly hard-bitten Lois Lane who must have been all of twelve when The Man of Steel went on sabbatical for ten years.)
Tom Wilkinson, of all people, is something of a revelation as a snarling gangster. So often typecast as emasculated husbands and downtrodden, middle-aged angst personified, this must’ve been a dream come true.
Cillian Murphy is icily creepy as a corrupt psychiatrist with secrets of his own and unexpected links to The Batman’s past – compensation for being the reputed runner-up in the race to fill the cape, presumably. And being a psychiatrist in this context, inevitably there is talk of “Jungian archetypes.” Jung and Dangerous? Or The Jung Poisoner’s Handbook…?
Liam Neeson is taking on almost Mount Rushmore levels of monumental gravitas these days. Like Charlton Heston with acting chops. Or a small planet with a beard.
It goes without saying that Gary Oldman is great as Frank Miller’s bold reinterpretation of Sgt Jim Gordon (still years away from that promotion to Commissioner) as the one clean cop in a city that likes being dirty. It’s nice to see Oldman hold the ham and play a recognisable human being for a change after one or six OTT bad guys too many in recent decades. Too bad he looks like Ned Flanders, though - okily-dokily!
Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy takes itself very seriously indeed (and, following Schumacher’s camp-astrophic Bat-rocity, it was about time too!) but it’s nowhere near as humourless as some critics bafflingly insist. The wonderfully wry and insouciant Morgan Freeman as the sardonic Lucius Fox is drier than one of James Bond’s Martinis: “Expecting to run into much gunfire in these caves?” and “I don’t think they ever tried to market it to the billionaire, spelunking, base-jumping crowd.”
But If Lucius Fox is “Q” to Batman’s 007, then Michael Caine’s Alfred is both The Dark Knight’s acerbic conscience and the Trilogy’s light relief - “What’s the point of all those push-ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?” So what exactly does Bruce Wayne do with all his time and money? It’s a nice, ironic touch that while one surrogate father teaches Bruce to be Batman, it is Alfred who teaches Batman to be Bruce - driving sports cars, dating film stars, buying things which aren’t for sale - more shades of Citizen Kane - in the forlorn hope that if his master starts pretending to have fun he might have some real fun by accident. Which of course raises the crucial question: which is the mask? The Batman or Bruce Wayne? And speaking of The Batman’s surrogate father (and themes of identity and duality), when Gordon says he’ll get his car, that IS Liam Neeson’s voice growling “I’ve brought MINE!” Isn’t it…?
Marking a return to Alfred Pennyworth’s comic book origins as a tough, no-nonsense, John Bull-like cockney, well, who else were they gonna call? Caine’s deadpan delivery of (the ad-libbed?) “May I suggest you try to avoid landing on your ‘ead” has the usually taciturn Christian Bale visibly cracking up in the background!
And Batman Begins is Bale’s show all the way. Rumour has it the studio was reluctant to cast Bale after a string of flops and Nolan had to really fight to get him. But thank god he did or we might have been lumbered with the likes of Freddie Prinze Jnr! Nolan was right and Bale has more than earned his cowl. His alarming weight loss (for The Machinist) followed by his even more alarming weight (and muscle) gain for this reminding everyone that this Batman is being played by no less than another DeNiro. For Bale is without doubt the finest actor to don the cape yet. We’ve come a long way from Adam West – Holy Oscars, Batman! (Dang. Sorry. Swore I wouldn’t do that.)
Bale said he became “a beast” in the suit and it shows. His Batman is a truly terrifying, almost primal figure, roaring at a quaking Mark Boone Jnr like a wild animal – Jung, free and single-minded, you could say. Bale’s Batman is as brutally efficient as his fighting style which has come in for a lot of stick from people just looking for things to complain about. True, sometimes it is hard to tell what’s going on in the impressionistic fight scenes. But that too is attributable to Nolan’s “realistic” agenda. Real fights aren’t anything like the glamourised Hollywood version we’re so accustomed to.
There is real pain etched on Bale’s face when Bruce has to act the drunken arse to save the lives of his guests. It’s interesting, though, when Bruce sneers at the conspicuous charity of his fellow rich “philanthropists” in The Dark Knight Rises it suggests what he said to them here maybe wasn’t that far from the truth after all. But Bale gets some deadpan laughs too – “Does it come in black?” “Anyone who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues.” And “You know how it is. You’re out at night. Lookin’ for kicks. Someone’s passing ‘round the weaponised hallucinogens…”
But no film is perfect. (You don’t say!) There are plot holes - How does Alfred get The Batman down off that roof? Wouldn’t a giant microwave, well, cook everyone anywhere near it? But I don’t see them ever being an issue with anyone…
The League of Shadows only really exists to make Batman’s undeniably extreme (and illegal) methods seem almost reasonable by comparison. The same way Bat-flicks always feel the need to conjure up “non-canonical” female love interests just so no-one thinks our rubber-fetishising hero is gay or anything. Dr Frederick Wertham still casts a long shadow too, it seems…
Nolan’s foreshadowing isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle either. “It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.” Nolan does this a lot. (“Why do we fall…?” “You still haven’t given up on me?”) And while it is a bit obvious and on the nose, the dramatic payoff is still undeniably powerful – my favourite bit actually. A real hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment.
And this is strong stuff for a 12A certificate – one character’s fear-induced hallucinations (especially how he sees The Batman!) being literally the stuff of nightmares. Then there are the escaped serial killers lurching out of a literal fog of fear like zombies… (I’ve always said Tim Booth out of James has the eyes of a killer!)
But if there’s a legitimate criticism of Batman Begins, it’s the more set-bound comic book fantasy elements do sometimes sit awkwardly with the location-shot realism. Something which presumably struck Nolan himself hence the almost entirely location-shot (and even more “realistic”) The Dark Knight. Looking back on Batman Begins with the benefit of hindsight, visually, it almost looks like a transitional film, halfway between the set-bound, impressionistic Gothic fantasy of Tim Burton and the Michael Mann hyper-realism of what was to come.
Nolan is famously averse to CGI (and, it turns out, 3D) only using it when absolutely necessary and then sparingly. He doesn’t over-rely on it, using it to augment what is already there, not to dazzle the eye. And it is seamless. Batman Begins is one of the best “invisible” effects movies since Citizen Kane – another classic where the audience isn’t even aware they are watching special effects. The bats, for instance, have to be CG – there’s simply no other way they could have been achieved what with insurance cover for rabies being through the roof at the moment! But they don’t look it.
Which highlights another great thing about Batman Begins and Christopher Nolan’s "keepin' it real" filmmaking philosophy. It’s nice to see actual sets for a change. It feels like ages since I saw them last in a summer blockbuster. You don’t need CG to achieve this kind of epic scope, epic scale and epic sweep. You just need some stunning locations – Iceland doubling for China. A majestic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard doesn’t hurt either.
Batman Begins ends with an ominous warning about the dangerous escalation represented by The Batman’s theatrics and a teasing hint at a possible sequel which could just be another nod to Batman: Year One. There’s also a recurring, blond-haired, Anime-eyed moppet, who remains intriguingly nameless, and could yet prove to be of future significance to the franchise. [Or not.]
So was Batman Begins The Most Successful Reboot Ever? It certainly proved influential, arguably inspiring the glut of similar reboots which followed, starting with Casino Royale. Which is kinda ironic when you consider the enduring influence Bond has had on The Dark Knight Trilogy
Batman Begins was frankly a revelation (in every sense) after the gaudy, neon-lit car crash that was Batman on Broadway aka: Batman & Robin - the fanboys gave a name to their pain… And it was Schumacher! And, yes, for this fanboy, Batman Begins was almost a religious experience with all the awe and wonder that implies. I could have wept with joy it was so good. Almost too good to be true, in fact. Cos you really get the feeling watching this for the first time that finally, after all these years, someone had done Batman properly. Batman Begins was the film I’d wanted Burton’s Batman to be all those years ago.
Mark Kermode is right – and it’s not often I say that. Nolan is an arthouse director trapped in the body a blockbuster director. The Anti-Bay. The Anti-Schumacher! And not a Bat-nip or Bat-butt in sight - where does he get these wonderful films?
(It’s still a rotten title, though. Batman: Origins or Genesis of The Batman would have been better. How about The Batman Menace? No, I've got it… Batman Royale!)