Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, July 6, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2005)

4. Batman Begins

Batman is one of those iconic characters, universally recognized and beloved, that will never go away. Nothing can kill Batman. Not Darkseid, not Joel Schumacher. After that filmmaker buried the franchise for a few years, it was inevitable that Warners Brothers would resurrected it, mostly because there’s too much money to be made but also because people can’t resist telling stories about these characters. And because WB has no fucking clue what to do with their superhero properties, they handed this vast universe over to Christopher Nolan.

The movie sets about reintroducing Batman, at least in live action form anyway, to a new generation. It does this mostly by retrofitting the character for Nolan’s gritty, realistic style. Previous Batman movies had almost been more focused on the villains but “Batman Begins” does a novel thing. It focuses on Bruce Wayne as a character. His psychology, the inner rage that drives him to become a superhero, and his guilt over letting his parents die forms the film’s emotional backbone. We watch Bruce’s journey from his childhood home in Gotham to a Chinese prison, where he ends up being trained in the art of Batman-ing by a secret cabal of ninjas. Fully trained, he returns to Gotham, slowly perfecting his skills and abilities as the nighttime defender of the city. Naturally, his quest to stop the local mob bosses puts him in conflict with a globe-spanning conspiracy.

With a captivating main character, Nolan is allowed to build an intricate plot. The film naturally introduces a number of elements and interesting story angles before bringing them all together in the last act. It’s not exactly revolutionary nor hard to figure out that the primary threat introduced in act one will show up again in act three, but when most superhero movies focus on special effects, it is nice to find one with such solid plotting. Because this is a Nolan film, there’s even a little non-linear storytelling floating around, some lengthy flashbacks to the past.

This is a two and a half hour long movie, which is pretty long. The entire first hour of the film is devoted to retelling Batman’s origin. The hour flies by briskly and the writing makes it easy not to notice, even if there’s not much action and you find yourself wondering how much longer it’s going to be before he puts the Bat-suit on. When Wayne finally gets back to Gotham, it’s at almost exactly the first hour mark. The second half of the movie, set in the brownish urban decay of Gotham, when contrasted against the white mountainous Chinese setting of the first half, almost feels like a different movie. You could probably chop the first half off, thrown in a quick, expositionary montage, and not loose anything. There’s a lot of quiet humor here too, little one-liners or funny aside. It helps deflate any pretensions or self-seriousness that might have brought the movie down.

Especially since the second half of the flick kicks so much ass. It would be easy to say that Nolan’s heart is more in the mystery plotting then in the action movie theatrics, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Some of the action scenes, such as Batman’s climatic fight with a Ra’s al Ghul or a horde of ninjas, are too choppily edited. However, there are some amazing set-pieces in this film. The shipment container fight, which doubles as Batman’s big coming-out moment, is as good an introduction as the character has ever gotten. When he descends out of the shadows and takes down a large group of thugs, the film really finds its groove. When Batman pulls Tom Wilkenson out of a car and growls “I’m Batman!” that’s when I’m thinking, “Fuck yeah!”

There are other strong moments. Batman’s first confrontation with Scarecrow in a cramped, abandoned apartment is pretty badass. The film makes it believable that someone that skinny and frail could get an advantage over the Dark Knight. The run through Arkham, which involves grenades blowing through walls, is nicely kinetic. All of this leads up to the Tumbler chase. I wasn’t really sold on the idea of a Bat-Tank at first, but the movie shows off how well that can work. Especially when you’ve got it rolling over cars and flipping police cruisers. After that, the action in the final lap feels a bit underwhelming but by that point the movie has you. All of this is pretty impressive for what’s essentially a character study with some action trappings around the edge.

The cast helps a lot and provides the film with the emotional footing Nolan isn’t always great at. Upon first viewing, I remember being blown away by Christan Bale’s performance. That was before his constant intensity had grown a little tiresome. All that aside, he’s still probably the best Batman we’ve had. He definitely brings an amount of layers to the part and, unlike some other actors, actually seems to consider the part a dramatic challenge. I’m not a big fan of Asshole Bruce Wayne though, the public persona the character puts on. Especially since it just ends up reminding me way too much of Patrick Bateman. The gravelly Batman voice probably could have been better but it’s easy to ignore, unlike in the sequel where it became a serious issue.

The supporting cast makes up for any, mostly minor, issues I might have with the leading man. Michael Caine is a great Alfred, as wise and supportive as the character should be, but with a twinkle and humor in his eye. Gary Oldman, who plays over-the-top so well, masterfully underplays it as Commissioner Gordon. He really seems to be a normal guy somewhat confused by the fantastical events unfolding around him. Cillian Murphy betrays his pretty boy good looks by being legitimately sinister. I’m not a big fan of this movie’s version of Scarecrow, at least on a visual level. A dude with a bag over his head isn’t very intimidating. But Murphy does make it work. You can see a level of calculation behind those big blue eyes. Morgan Freeman doesn’t expand much pass his typical shtick but his Luscious Fox is a source of warm humor. Also, as a fan, it’s nice to see Rutgar Hauer show up in such a big movie. His gravelly meanness is put to good use. Liam Neeson is as solid as ever.

The only performer in the movie that doesn’t really work is Katie Holms, go figure. She never sounds realistic when voicing Nolan’s dialogue, which is frequently a mouthful. (Honestly, if the cast wasn’t so capable, I think you’d hear more complaints about the sometimes awkward dialogue.) The romantic subplot is easily the weakest aspect of the movie and never really pays off. That final scene between Holms and Bale is especially dragging. Apparently being Batman isn’t good enough for this bitch.

There are some qualms I can take with the movie. The nightmare sequences, brought on by the Scarecrow’s fear toxin, never really work. They mostly just throw some trippy camera angles and spotty CGI around and call it a day. Nolan would, surprisingly, not make a very good horror director. Gliding CGI Batman also comes off as a little silly, and far too noticeable. The score is pretty bland and lacks the strong main theme any superhero should have. It’s not bad over all though, adds some intensity, serves its purpose, but is mostly forgettable. The repeated theme of fear is mostly just talk too. This is a character study, first and foremost, and an action flick secondly. Any complaints don’t really distract from the whole.

The ending is perfect. The scene of Gordon and Batman on a rooftop by the Bat-Signal seems to set up a universe full of mythic potential. And when Gordon hands him that evidence bag with a Joker card in it, that gets me so friggin’ pumped for the sequel. It makes me imagine an awesome sequel where Batman kicks a lot of ass, saves a bunch of people, and fights awesome villains that, while being realistic, don’t loose the comic core that make them interesting. I hope that quiet humor sticks around and the movie doesn’t loose sight of being entertaining to a bunch of heavy, pretentious themes. I also hope they don’t cast some pretty boy asshole as a humorless Joker. It’s a shame this was a stand alone movie.

“Batman Begins’ isn’t the best Batman movie that could be made but it’s probably the best we’ll ever get. If nothing else, it shows that Christopher Nolan can keep the aspects that make him an interesting filmmaker even while working within a giant summer blockbuster. [Grade: A-]  

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

I've been a lone detractor since this damn thing came out. I think it's Nolan wearing another man's clothes -- if that metaphor scans. He (for the most part) elegantly produced a run-of-the-mill superhero film. The script isn't as smart or precise as his previous works, the narrative loses power in the second half, Bruce Wayne as Batman is somewhat impenetrable in terms of his moral choices, and Rachel is a wholly unlikable bitch (outside of Holmes's performance).

The best I can say about it is that Wayne's training and rise to the cowl interested me a little, and the realistic aesthetic Nolan was pushing for was working. Once Bale puts on the Batsuit and his fattened face pushes through the mouth hole, the film suddenly gets... stupid, pushed too far into unrealistic territory and filled with smarmy fanservice. The Russian vagrant he gave his coat to years before just happens to be nearby when Wayne fully realizes himself (and is awkwardly insterted as a stationary object in an otherwise kinetic scene). Batman just gives some kid his highly classified equipment so they'll believe he saw Batman? Every cop during the car chase can't shut their stupid mouths and constantly comment on the action we can clearly see. Scarecrow has a retarded hallucination and is later taken out too easily by Katie Holmes. Alfred decides to crack wise instead of helping Bruce get the flaming piece of wood off his chest. Commissioner Gordon can drive the tumbler proficiently with no previous training or even practice? Batman leaving Ras al Gul in the out of control rail car IS the same thing as killing him.

On top of all that, it failed to engage me. I was just waiting for the damn thing to be over with. There are aspects of it I like here and there, choices that work and that I admire, but watching it from beginning to end is a chore and too many things piss me off. It's my least favorite Nolan film to date.