Directed by Christopher Nolan
Possibly the greatest comic book character ever created, Batman suffers from a wretched history of cinematic adaptation. Batman Begins goes a long way to correct that imbalance. Christopher Nolan’s Batman captures the mood of the character as portrayed in the DC comic series – and he does it not by mimicking the comic books in his production design but by giving the film a more realistic look. This Gotham – some exteriors were shot in Chicago, with a digital overlay of a monorail commuter system – looks like a reasonably realistic 21st century American city. The bat cave is gorgeously dark, wet, wondrous and full of bats – like a real cave!
A little Batman film history: although I admire Tim Burton as one of the greatest directors alive – he’s an incredibly gifted visual artist who happens to work in film – his two Batman movies (1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns) displayed a tragic lack of understanding of the source material. He viewed Batman as a “comic” (as in funny book) character and, therefore, highly stylized and quite silly. Michael Keaton is a talented actor but was miscast as Batman – the character should inspire fear. Who could be scared of Michael Keaton? The two Tim Burton movies, I’ve come to realize, are good movies if I step out of my personal history as a life-long Batman fan. If I just saw the movies – never having spent hundreds of hours as a child reading the comics -- I’d have loved the movies. The two Joel Schumacher movies (1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin) are another story. Take away Tim Burton’s visual flair, add a “boy wonder” who’s actually a grown man (just a little shorter) and you have those high-budget embarrassments. Mind you, I still enjoyed sitting through them but I couldn’t help but felt frustrated at how they turned out compared to what they could have been. And don’t get me started about the TV series starring Adam West.
Warner Brothers stuck their neck out in casting relative unknown Christian Bale as the lead in this film. Batman Begins not only cost a reported $160 million to make but Batman is probably their most valuable media franchise – but it’s a distressed franchise -- in need of a comeback. They made a huge bet and I believe they did the right thing -- Christian Bale makes not only a suitably scary Batman but a tormented and focused Bruce Wayne. He’s by far the best – and, importantly, most appropriate actor to play this legendary character.
One of the smartest things that the filmmakers did while preparing to make Batman Begins -- I’m almost sure that they did this – was to go to school on the two hugely successful Spiderman movies, in particular with regard to how the Peter Parker character was developed. By putting so much emphasis on how the “civilian” half of the character is defined – and brilliant casting in the case of both Spiderman and Batman Begins -- the drama is grounded… humanized. Without really understanding Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne, all you have is a vigilante dressed in spandex… with lots of special effects and action sequences. In this movie we don’t even see him dressed as Batman until over an hour into the film and even then Bruce Wayne is on screen more than Batman. The key to understanding Batman is seeing how he was traumatized as a young boy – by the violent death of his parents and an incident (he was trapped in a hole filled with bats) – and how he developed his penchant for vigilantism on a trip to Asia, where he studied martial arts with the League of Shadows, an ancient vigilante group led by Ra's Al Ghul (kind of a monk-guru-cult leader played by Ken Watanabe.) The movie is about 2 ½ hours long – the principal reason: the long introduction to Bruce Wayne. Most films give the main character and the situation 25 to 30 minutes to set up. I this case it’s over an hour – but it’s time well spent because it grounds the story in Bruce Wayne’s personal history.
When I saw trailers for Batman Begins, one of the few things I didn’t care for was the Batmobile as a tricked out Humvee. I’ve always preferred my Batmobiles sleek, sexy and nimble. Bruce Wayne drove a Ferrari in one scene – and I still think that a Ferrari could be a great starting point in building the ultimate Batmobile. However, having seen the movie, I must say I’ve been won over by this militarized version of the most storied car in the history of not only movies and comics but fiction in general. The action scenes with this Batmobile are thrilling – classic summer-movie action guaranteed to please the young audience – the people who actually attend movie theaters. Not only the intimidating look of the thing, but the sound – those scenes are the kind of thing that can make hard core fans go back for repeats.
The production design and cinematography are beautifully done but in a mostly dark sort of way. Some early scenes of Bruce traveling in the mountains of Asia – on his quest – were shot in Iceland – the scenery looked unreal, but you can tell it’s real – computer graphics haven’t gotten the good yet. The Asian-influenced fight scenes involving Batman were cleverly handled – they showed mostly the effect of the fabled Batman on the bad guys, with just little glimpses of Batman moving so fast you can just barely see him.
The one big mistake the filmmakers made was casting Katie Holmes as Gotham Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes. OK, cast Katie Holmes as the love interest – she’s beautiful, charming and seemed to have good chemistry with Christian Bale – or have a female DA character, played by an older actress who can sound like a credible DA. But don’t cast Katie Holmes as the DA. The only scene in the film that made me roll my eyes was one where she’s discussing the preparation of a case against a crime kingpin with another DA… terrible miscasting.
Another thing I would have done differently: the League of Shadows is portrayed as a “bad vigilante” group – presumably to contrast with Bruce Wayne as a “good vigilante”. I would enjoy seeing a slightly nastier, morally ambiguous Batman. In Batman Begins the police are only concerned about Batman’s activities because they aren’t getting credit for the arrests. I’d like to see Batman as a vigilante driven by frustration with the criminal justice system. It could be an opportunity for an interesting exploration of the morality of vigilantism in the face of a judicial system that bends over backwards to protect the rights of the accused at the expense of the victims. For that reason, I wouldn’t set up these bad vigilantes as the biggest villains of all – the contrast makes Batman too much of a goody-goody. The League of Shadows is very well done – Liam Neeson makes a great bad guy – and the production design and fight choreography surrounding the League looks great. I’d just like a nastier Batman... so the contrast they create is counterproductive.
Other than my misgivings about the League, the villains in Batman Begins are very well conceived and played. Cillian Murphy is great as Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow) – his performance strikes just the right balance – Scarecrow is a very weird, demented psychotic brandishing a weaponized hallucinogen – but he never crosses over and becomes too cartoony. Likewise, Tom Wilkinson resists the urge to go overboard with his Gotham kingpin, Carmine Falcone.
Michael Caine is simply perfect as Alfred – funny, quick-witted. The Alfred character also helps to remind us of Bruce Wayne’s personal history. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to insert a “Q” (from James Bond) character in a Batman movie, but Morgan Freeman is just so good – he inspires confidence and helps to explain where Bruce gets all of his gadgets. In the comics, he makes them himself and only Alfred knows his secret identity.
I say: “long live the re-born Batman franchise.” I’ve heard that Christopher Nolan has agreed to do three Batman movies – and I really hope that applies to Christian Bale as well. Batman Begins is about as good as it gets for summer action movies – it’s strongly grounded in character and story and sports plenty of high-tension action. If you are any fan at all of Batman or action in general, you’ve got to see it on the big screen.
Photographs are copyright Warner Brothers.
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