Sunday Slugfest - Batman Begins

A movie review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, James Redington, Ray Tate



Keith DallasKeith Dallas 

The manner in which Batman Begins parades recognizable, respected actors throughout its story (Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, besides the leading stars Christian Bale and Katie Holmes) reminds me of how Superman: The Movie producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind stocked their 1978 movie with recognizable, respected actors (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, among others). Separated by 27 years, both movies use the respectability of their cast to dispel any prejudices the audience may have for superhero movies.

Although I enjoyed the performances in Batman Begins, the movie doesn’t need to be legitimized by its cast because the superhero aspects don’t emerge until late into its story. The first half of Batman Begins is a compelling character study where Bruce Wayne (directionless and devastated by his guilt over his parents’ murders, despite his claim that he’s associating with criminals in order to understand them better) gets recruited by Ducard (Liam Neeson) into Ra’s Al Ghul’s shadow army of ninjas. The movie takes advantage of a golden opportunity to present how and why Bruce becomes Batman. All of Bruce’s ideologies and fears are laid out and explored. The first half of the film is gloriously shot in Iceland (subbing for the Himalayas) and brilliantly edited with Bruce’s ninja training interrupted by flashbacks of his childhood. The Iceland vista shots echo director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister‘s underrated work on their 2002 film Insomnia (which takes place in Alaska). Therefore, the first half of Batman Begins isn’t a great superhero movie; it’s a great character-focused adventure film.

Batman Begins doesn’t become a superhero film until Dr. Jonathan Crane (played with a haughty aloofness by Cillian Murphy) demonstrates his Scarecrow “powers” on mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). For me, it’s a hokey moment that works better on the comic book page than cinematically. From that moment on, Batman Begins becomes a superhero film, which in and of itself shouldn’t be problematic. A Batman film is a superhero one, right? Unfortunately, the problem is that the first half of Batman Begins is so grounded and natural (I never use the term “realistic”) that it’s at odds with its second half. I was far more interested in Bruce’s transformation into Batman in the Himalayas than I was in Batman’s rescue of Gotham City from Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul. For one, the fight choreography in the later parts of the film was too tight and confusing. The quickness of martial arts melee was certainly conveyed, but I couldn’t figure out who was hitting whom. With each fight scene, I wondered if Batman was doing the damage or receiving it. Ultimately, I became distanced from the action rather than absorbed by it.

Also, much like Michael Keaton, Christian Bale is a great Bruce Wayne but only an adequate Batman. Physically, he doesn’t fill the costume in an intimidating way, and again, like Keaton, there’s something wrong about how the face fits the cowl. Bale’s chin protrudes in a weird way. Bale as Bruce Wayne is masculine, charismatic, brooding and willful; Bale as Batman is merely brooding.

Interestingly enough, Batman Begins removes Bruce’s scientific acumen and detective skills in favor of emphasizing his resolve and martial artistry. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox character embodies technological expertise and scientific intelligence. While purists may complain that this strips down Bruce’s complexity, I think it’s a move to keep Batman less “superhuman.” In the comic books surrounded by the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern, Batman’s encyclopedic and deductive mind serves as his “super powers.” But in Batman Begins, considering how the young Bruce spends so much time away from Gotham City and in Ra’s secluded Himalayan training camp, it would have been difficult to explain how Bruce could have become so technologically savvy. So wisely, the film’s creators let Lucius Fox be the man of science and Bruce the man of action. I’m interested to see if the Batman Begins sequels evolve Batman into a detective and scientist.

Despite my complaints about how Batman Begins concludes, I must stress that the first half of the film is cinematically and structurally brilliant. Thoroughly enjoyable. Is this the best Batman movie ever made? I’m not comfortable making that call because Tim Burton’s first two Batman were so stylized and ornate that to compare them to this naturalistic piece by Christopher Nolan would be to tantamount to comparing an abstract painting to a Hummer.

 




Michael Deeley 

The Batman movie franchise is rebuilt from the ground up. Most of the movie is spent on Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), training his mind and body to fight injustice. He’s traveled the world living and working with criminals. Although he did this to better understand his “enemy,” he began to see most criminals as desperate rather than evil. Wayne thinks he’s found kindred spirits in the League of Shadows and his mentor Ducard (Liam Neeson). But when Wayne refuses to execute a criminal, he becomes the League’s enemy. Wayne’s escape leads to the (apparent) death of Ra’s Al Ghul. Of course, this isn’t the last we see Al Ghul or his League.

Bruce returns to Gotham and prepares for his one-man war on crime. Aided by his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne Corp. scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Wayne creates the weapons and the persona of the Batman. He’s learned to use fear as his weapon. He’s not the only one; Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) has developed a fear-inducing agent and secretly distributed added it to a crimelord’s drugs. But Crane is only a pawn in someone else’s larger scheme. . . 

Christopher Nolan directed much of this movie like a horror film. The scenes of Batman moving through the shadows unseen and criminals suddenly vanishing successfully portray Batman as a fearsome predator. Bale plays both roles of Wayne and Batman perfectly. In fact, there are two Bruce Waynes: The one who’s obsessed with fighting crime, and the bored playboy shown in public. As Batman, he’s a psychotic who can’t be stopped. The rest of the cast, including Katie Holmes and Gary Oldman, play their roles to a tee. What we see is the evolution of a man from scared boy, to bitter teen, to lost soul, and finally into a hero. 

But not exactly a noble hero. This Batman strongly resembles the character as he first appeared in 1939. He is vicious, violent, and merciless. While he does not kill, he does leave a man in a deadly situation. This is not a hero that inspires. This is a driven, focused, disciplined warrior.

While this is the best written Batman movie I’ve ever seen, there were problems with the fight scenes. I could never see exactly who Batman was fighting or how. One of the things I like best about action movies is fight choreography. I like to see two (or more) people fighting each other. In Batman Begins, there are noises, flashes of black, and then the fight’s over. Perhaps Nolan was trying to show that Batman’s fighting style was quick and used the confusion created by his cape. To the audience, it’s a lot of quick cuts that don’t make sense.

I should also say Crane, as the Scarecrow, is defeated too easily. After several disturbing scenes of Scarecrow torturing people with his fear gas, he’s taken down by one of the supporting characters. I know the Scarecrow is physically weak, but there’s an unwritten law that only the costumed hero can take down the costumed villain.

I’ve heard people saying Batman Begins is one of the best superhero movies ever made. I agree. I’d put this in the top 10 list, after Superman, and before X-Men. I might even say it was better than Spider-Man, but I’m prejudiced. I think Spider-Man is a whiny little bitch. Batman is a scary S.O.B. who ordinary people need. Batman Begins perfectly shows how such a person can exist.

 




Kelvin GreenKelvin Green 3 bullets

You’ll find my email address at the top of this review. You’ll want to make a note of it most likely, as I thought this was a highly problematic film, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as everyone else seems to have done.

The film’s greatest triumph is that it utterly delivers on the title. It explains Bruce Wayne in a way that no other film version has done before, and after seeing this, you realise that that’s what’s always been missing from previous celluloid versions of the character. And it’s not just dry history either. The 1989 Tim Burton film and its sequel together recapped the origin, and told how Batman was born, but failed to explain why. This film does so, and while it may veer toward the pretentious at times as it does, it justifies the title.

However, this is something of a double-edged sword, as the filmmakers spend so much time and effort paying such close attention to the examination of Batman that the rest of the characters go to waste. Ducard is a bare nugget of an interesting character, as is Alfred. Here we have two father/mentor characters worthy of comparison, a fertile ground for drama, but both are given short thrift.

Ken Watanabe is similarly wasted in the Ra’s role. Given the fuss over his casting, you’d expect more, but on the other hand, his tiny screen presence does lead to a clever plot twist. Nonetheless, as by far the most watchable thing in The Last Samurai, it’s a shame that he wasn’t given more to do.

The biggest missed opportunity in the entire film is Gary Oldman as Gordon; here we have another interesting character but we are shown little of his personality and his relationship with Batman. Something that should be a core feature of the film, is barely sketched out. That it’s an actor like Oldman makes it even worse; it’s heartbreaking to see an actor of his calibre giggling like a child and delivering one-liners solely because that’s all that’s left for him to do. The problem here is the inclusion of Katie Holmes; she is clearly here only to provide some sort of female presence, and her character’s role in the film is far too similar to that of Gordon. One or the other of them should have have been cut from the film and the other given their scenes; given that Oldman is by far the better actor, and Holmes’s character is written out at the climax of the film anyway, it seems that it would have been sensible to bulk up the Gordon role. But of course, there wouldn’t be a demographically-pleasing female lead in the film, and that would be terrible…

However, all these sacrifices allow Christian Bale to make the most of his screen time getting to grips with his character, and he does so admirably. The first half hour or so, of the young Bruce Wayne in training, is the most effective and evocative part of the film, and Bale really nails the character and makes it his own, even though the entire sequence feels like it was lifted from Highlander. However, Bale is less successful as Batman; as soon as he puts on the suit, he immediately begins channelling Michael Keaton’s portrayal. The body language and mannerisms are absolutely identical, and it’s only Bale’s ridiculous Tom Waits growl that distinguishes the two. Bale’s impersonation of Michael Keaton is not the only debt this film owes to Burton’s version; from the moment the suit makes an appearance it feels like a remake of the 1989 film.

It doesn’t look like a remake, however. The film-makers have gone for a completely different design sensibility for this film, shedding the gothic excesses of Burton’s films and the day-glo nonsense of Schumacher’s “efforts” in favour of an overall look that owes more to Blade Runner or Seven. The sense of urban decay comes across very well, only slightly marred by the use of downtown Chicago for the overhead shots; the contrast between the grubby soundstages and the shiny downtown area is too jarring for it to depict the same city convincingly. The Scarecrow, a character that could so easily have been made ridiculous, is given a design that reflects the overall feel of the film, making him appear, appropriately, like the antagonist from a slasher movie. All in all, the more down to earth design of the film works in its favour, and it was an excellent choice. I’m also pleased to see (hear?) a major movie soundtrack that relies on the strength of the score, and rejects endless nu-metal blandfests, even for the credits; while the score could have done with some sort of central hero theme, it nonetheless works very well as a mood piece.

In the end, Batman Begins reminds me a great deal of Ang Lee’s Hulk; a bold vision, trying do something interesting with the superhero concept, and with considerable success, but that in its intense devotion to quality somehow misses the element of fun, the wish-fulfillment aspect of superhero fiction. As good as it was, this film didn’t do anything for me. There wasn’t that buzz of excitement that I felt when I saw Raimi’s Spider-Man, orUnbreakable, or, yes, the 1989 Batman.

Oh and DC? As an artistic company, surely you can come up with a better movie ident than just the Marvel one with a blue wash?

 




Shawn HillShawn Hill 4 bullets

What is it that makes Batman Begins a good superhero movie? It’s the seriousness with which Nolan and the actors involved approach the material. David Goyer has written a competent script, full of incident that progresses logically, and makes sure every gun dropped around the set in the first few acts is fired by the finale.

But that’s all it is, just a good script. It’s not really any more inventive than Tim Burton’s first film, certainly not as quirky and self-conscious as his second one. It’s also not the facile kitsch-fest of Batman Forever (which I found amusing, nipples and all) nor thankfully the truly wretched and mechanical Batman & Robin. But it’s not really these films I want to compare this movie to.

Rather, I take it up with the generally kitschy portrayal the DC heroes have received in popular media for decades. While the Wonder Woman series was tolerable in the light of other 70s programming (and Lynda Carter of course ideally cast), has anyone seen the wretched Wonder Woman pilot designed in the 60s, in the wake of the kitsch pop art of the Batman comedy series? A travesty that tried to locate Wonder Woman as a fantasy of a delusional feminist, it totally missed everything the character had to offer in favor of then-timely neuroses. Add that misconception to Hawkman selling candy bars, and various Justice League experiments on videotape over the years. Then think of the Superman films after number 2. Then think of Supergirl.

No, don’t. Just admit DC has not been doing a very great job of shepherding its valuable properties to the big screen. Marvel, in recent years, has triumphed over its competitor with little competition.

Which is why, when the new DC logo debuts right after the WB in this movie, coupled with some actual comic art graphics (that look a bit suspiciously like the Marvel movie signature), I thought “ah, someone has noticed.” Nolan, like Bryan Singer with the X-men, is an auspicious, creative, inspired director. One who takes this material seriously, who sees past the costume to the mythic resonance underneath. And with a pretty stunning cast, crew and cinematographer, he’s made a film that does more than deliver all the requisite Hollywood action movie beats. He’s revitalized a lackluster series that had lost touch with its roots. And he’s made a film about human character, emotion, desires and crisis. Just exactly as Raimi did with both Spider-Man films. We’re finally getting arguments on-screen again for why we need super-heroes, even 60 years after World War 2. And it’s not just “to contain the bad masked guys even worse than us,” which is what the X-men films sometimes say.

In Begins, the message is “society is corrupt, but individual integrity can still make a difference.” The casting director has trotted out Rutger Hauer to occupy the same role that Christopher Walken did in Returns -- that is, the greedy corporate bastard that allows for corruption to fester in a city he could save or improve. And unlike the Byzantine Gotham of the first movie (with Anton Furst’s brilliant, nightmarish designs), the icy northeastern clime of the second, or the bad taste exercises of the next two, Nolan’s Gotham is rather like …. a New York that spreads for miles and miles. A Chicago that is all girders and glass. A man-made infrastructure that contains and yet imperils the vital conduits of modern life: public railways and hidden water mains. Rather than delve into all the glories of the corporate and monied landmarks of this Ur city (the only one that matters is the centrally located Wayne Foundation), Nolan spends most of his time in the Narrows, the corrupt and hobbled-together shantytown of multiple stories that might be any ghetto on the planet. Though we only see the criminal elements of this nether world, we get hints of the family lives, the dreams and fears, of normal people living in poverty. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is the legal eagle who humanizes this world, especially in a climactic scene where she befriends the child that always appears to worship the hero in this sort of film. This is a more subtle kid than most, though, as most of his lines are etched on his face, emotive expressions that remind us (as Rachel does in words) of what really matters even in such a dark and deadly place.

Christian Bale has finally found a movie to house his perfect bod and haunted face; Michael Caine wrings the last bit of irony out of every line delivery by his ultra-practical Alfred; Cillian Murphy is a revelation as the manipulative Jungian predator Scarecrow (and far scarier out of his mask than in); Gary Oldman plays charmingly and wittily against type as the Quixotically noble Lt. Gordon; and Liam Neeson channels all bad daddies everywhere as Bruce’s first adult savior and later enemy. Those are just a few of the many refreshing character turns in this movie rich with top-notch acting talent. Also of note, as this fanciful archetype of fear moves with dispatch through his ornate and decadent city, are several hallucinogenic dream sequences that give us David Lynchian glimpses of yet other sides of many of our characters. Nolan is masterful enough to add yet another level between fantasy and reality the fiction he so expertly charts. If anything is keeping the movie from being a truly timeless film, it is that the old shopworn formulas are so clearly the structure that holds it all together. But with Bale on contract as the lucky title-holder of the newly vibrant franchise, I expect even greater things to come. 

 




James Redington  James Redington 

Fear.

Fear.

Fear that this would be Batman & Robin all over again.

My Fear is that the general movie going public will think that and avoid the masterpiece that this film really is.

If this weren’t a Batman film, this would still be a good film. That’s where it succeeds. Nolan, Goyer and the whole team behind this film have taken the story of Bruce Wayne (that has worked for the last 70 years) and transferred it onto the big screen in one of the most faithful adaptations since Sin City. Yes there are changes, but the core of the story and character remains the same.

I want people to see this film. I want them to not be afraid of the mess that was Batman & Robin. Hell, I might even go as far as to say it’s a shame we can’t erase the last 4 films from the public’s memory. There will always be a part of my heart devoted to Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns (I kinda see them as “elseworld” interpretations of Batman), and even a little bit to Jim Carrey’s Riddler – but this is Batman on film the way he was meant to be.

Christian Bale is Batman; he nails it in a way that has only been seen since Christopher Reeve as Superman and Michael Keaton’s Batman (not Bruce Wayne). As much as I loved Michael Gough, Michael Caine got Alfred spot on. The rest of the cast were very good, even the future Mrs.Cruise was okay. Nolan is a super director. I am completely jealous that this guy is so talented and so young, and British. My only slight complaint about the film is the fighting scenes could have shot a little further back so we could see Batman kick ass a bit more… at the same time I love the fact that we are “in” the action and things move very quick in the edit – keeps it dangerous. 

I wanted to make this a spoiler free review, but I can’t help it… half way thorough the film, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman… it’s amazing!!

If Superman: The Movie is a 5 bullets film, this has to a  - it’s the best version of Batman on film without a doubt.

 




Ray TateRay Tate 4 stars

Batman Begins is a very good Batman film. Christian Bale portrays Batman well. The performances of Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy and the rest of the cast are uniformly good. There are no major plot-holes in the ingenious script by David Goyer. The direction by Christopher Nolan exhibits skill and isn't without inspiration. The score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard enhances the tone, mood and atmosphere. 

Batman Begins will not make Batman fans forget about Michael Keaton or Tim Burton, the Batmobile of the two films nor the unique look of both. The score will not make one forget about Danny Elfman’s signature score for the Dark Knight, but really; how could it possibly do that? “Save Me” by Remy Zero in Smallville is a fitting new Superman signature song, but you can’t help smiling when the musical director begins infusing John Williams’ Superman theme to the series. 

Batman Returns is still in my opinion the greatest Batman movie of all time, and it is still in my opinion the best super-hero film ever made. Batman is its second, and if I were to lump them all together Batman Beginswould be third. However, comparing Batman Begins to the ground breakers is not fair. It’s better to separate the two from the one, and call this the beginning of a new cinematic Batman era. 

There was never any hope of a good third Batman movie in sequence. Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman sabotaged any chance of there ever being a third movie in sequence. They are hacks of the lowest order. They should be credited with creating Nippleman, and that’s not really something of which to be proud. Michael Keaton took one look at the script to Batman Forever and justifiably ran away. In a Charlie Rose interview, Mr. Keaton implied that he is proud of his two Batman films and in another interview, he said that he was aware that he will always be considered Batman. That’s how it should be.

So how does a Batman fan who believes Michael Keaton to be the best live action Batman of all approach a movie replacing him? The same way one would approach a new James Bond film or a new Doctor Who era: with some trepidation and the hope that the new guy doesn’t suck. On occasion, you find something better than you believed possible. Pierce Brosnan is my James Bond. Paul McGann is my Doctor. Michael Keaton is my Batman, but Christian Bale doesn’t suck.

Batman Begins plays fast and loose with the mythology that has created Batman, and this may upset fans even more so than the absence of Michael Keaton in the title role. Again, you have to approach a film based on something else as an imaginary story, an elseworlds, or a distinctive continuity separate from the source material. The Joker kills Batman’s parents in the first Burton/Keaton film, but so what? The method of execution is identical to that seen in comic books. He carries out this execution before he’s transformed by Axis chemicals, and it does give the first movie an extra layer of depth. If you want absolute adherence to the origin story, you’re still not going to find it in Batman Begins, but the spirit is there along with some tidbits from other eras of the Dark Knight’s history.

The film begins with the formative years in which Batman learns what he needs to become the creature of the second part. Now, this I thought would grow boring, but the writer and director do something interesting with these years. It’s not just Bruce being Luke learning from Obi Wan Kenobi. The beginning of the film informs the ending of the film.

The script is smart. The dialogue always interests, and Batman is not a humorless figure. He is however angry, and Batman’s anger ultimately creates the overall mood. I’m still not quite sure whether or not that this is a good thing. Sometimes it works. Other times it does not quite work. At least he is not totally consumed by anger even when in uniform. One nice scene involves Batman being human toward a young Gothamite. 

The way in which Batman is presented as a creature of the dark, likewise sometimes works and other times does not work. One has to understand though that Nolan and company are trying to distinguish themselves, and on that front they succeed. Nolan films Batman’s initial introduction to the criminal underworld as he would a horror film--with some unknown thing picking them off one by one. That works. A lot. Furthermore, it provides fun and laughable moments for the audience. You laugh with Batman because you cannot once identify with the criminals--his victims. You’re in on the joke. You know that Batman is trying to create this image of a terrible demon from hell coming to wreak unholy vengeance on evil men. 

When Batman stands still in certain scenes, the costume works against him. The problem lies in the ears and the cape. The original and second Batman outfits were both magnificent creations. The head-piece complete with long ears was dead-on. The new costume doesn’t quite fit the bill unless you can’t see all of it. The ears look decent in profile. From most angles, they work, but if you’re looking at Batman head on, your last thought before being beaten senseless is that he should probably sue his fashion designer. The ears really should be longer. At least, it doesn’t appear, as sometimes depicted in comic books, that he’s just wearing a helmet. The cape works when you see Batman use it as a make-shift parachute, but it doesn’t fuse with the mask or create the illusion of fusion, and this may be a personal bias, but seeing Batman standing still in that cape just makes me shake my head.

Christian Bale’s fighting technique is violent and effective, but there’s no distinctiveness to it. An identifiable style which would have been welcome. Michael Keaton’s Batman did have a specific style to his fighting. Andersen Gabrych in the last two good issues of Detective Comics spoke through the Tarantula to describe Batman’s fighting style as a form of mathematics. This fit perfectly. Marshall Rogers gave Batman a unique fighting style, and Jim Aparo also made the Batman’s style of fighting singular.

The motivation of Batman sometimes become lost in the film. At one point, he refuses to kill and explains that the accused deserves to be tried, but Batman’s later actions still lead to the man’s death along with the deaths of many others. Make no mistake: Batman behaves heroically in Batman Begins. You do not (as you do while reading the comics) question this Batman’s validity. Maybe the scenes in which the “innocent” escapes were left on the cutting room floor for time and will appear on the DVD, but if they were cut, I feel the director did a disservice to his project. Seeing the man escape was very important.

Batman’s interaction with various characters is a delightful change from the loathsome figure now flitting about in the comic books. His double-acts with Alfred portrayed stylishly by Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox all display splendid repartee and chemistry that helps forge the illusions created by film. That said, while I appreciate Lucius Fox having more interesting things to do, his character does take away some of Batman’s brainpower. The animated Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman were both scientists and fully capable of analyzing the components of the Joker’s Smile-X, for instance. They were also detectives, and Batman in Batman Begins does not get a lot of detective work to do in this story. This is yet the beginning of a new era. Perhaps in the second film, more will be done to make Batman as much of a ratiocinator and scientist as he is an action hero and strategist. No, he is not an “urban commando.” Put that out of your minds. This Batman deserves the respect of Batman fans. 

Batman succeeds like his counterparts in animation and in the previous era of Batman film in exhibiting multidimensional characterization. As implied in the review, there are different sides to Batman. Sometimes the script works against his want to be whole. His love interest Rachel, portrayed extremely well by Katie Holmes, is sadly almost perfunctory in Batman’s life. The character is fairly generic, but Ms. Holmes makes her special. The chemistry between Bale and Holmes is believable, but reasons behind Rachel’s actions are not. This part of the film is the most predictable and the least satisfying, but given how well the lion’s share has been crafted, that’s not a bad average.

Batman Begins ushers in a new era in which Batman once again prowls Gotham City to make it safe. The filmmakers have not forgotten the basics of the formula, and in fact you’re better off spending five to eight dollars on this movie than you are spending half as much to buy a Batman comic book (Dark Detective being the exception). As a lifelong fan of Batman and somebody who believes himself to be an expert in all things Batman, I can say without a shadow of doubt that yes, Batman Begins is indeed Batman.

 

 

Community Discussion