Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Review: Batman Begins

That's right . . .

Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes
Year: 2005

I have been waiting to see Batman Begins for two years. I stumbled across a Batman fan site right around the time that Chris Nolan was signed to direct, and from the moment I heard the news, I knew this was going to be one to watch for. Then the news kept getting better. I liked American Psycho for one reason: Christian Bale. Look at that cast list above and pretend Katie Holmes isn't on it. Can you say "perfect?" I followed the news about the film all the way until today. And now I am going to say it:

Batman Begins is the best comic book movie ever made.

It tells the story of . . . who am I kidding? If you don't know the story of Batman you don't need to be reading.

That said, I can assure you that you have never seen the story of Batman told like this, and this is the way it should be told. First of all, the movie is dark, and not only because scenes are often set at night. The movie is about anger and revenge and the struggle to stop evil without becoming evil in the process. It is also frightening. Instead of ice-skating around and riding surfboards (if you never saw Batman and Robin and missed these gems, count yourself lucky), this Batman operates like a horror movie villain, snatching people unseen, knocking out lights, always in the shadows. The Scarecrow's fear gas is seen in first-person, and it's not at all pretty. Especially when you're under the influence and Batman's nearby.

I think it is also important to mention that Batman doesn't appear throughout the first half of the film. This allows Nolan ample opportunity to explore his background through direct narrative in training with Neeson's Ducard and flashbacks to earlier periods, the atemporal style reminiscent of his brilliant work in Memento. The delay also gives the audience opportunity to see Bruce Wayne, making his transformations both into Public Bruce the Asshole and Batman the Avenger all the more striking when they occur. Christian Bale's Batman is a creature possessed, speaking an unexpectedly angry growl of a voice and moving like something between a stealthy puma and a pissed-off lion.

With a cast like this, it is hard to name a standout, but I am going to anyway. Gary Oldman was the most unexpectedly inspired choice as Jim Gordon, and in my opinion gave an incredible if lamentably brief performance. He was the audience's link to the world of the film: the one good cop in a corrupt Gotham City, the unbelieving witness and accomplice to Batman's rise. And when he gets behind the wheel of the urban tank batmobile, Oldman exudes a combination of glee and terror that you can't help but feel with him.

Was there anything wrong with Batman Begins? Of course. No film is perfect. The dialogue at times got a little speech-heavy. While I wouldn't echo some critics in saying that Katie Holmes is "unwatchable," she's certainly the weakest link in the cast and barely believable as an assistant district attorney. But otherwise, I have no complaints. I've read that some didn't care for the fights being shot close-in, so it was hard to tell what was happening. I didn't mind, and in fact I liked that it didn't devolve into a series of wire-worked kung-fu stunts.

I have to keep comparing this to other great comic book films. Both X-Mens, the original Superman, Spider Man 2. And while it's certainly arguable, I have to admit that Batman Begins has them beat. The reason is depth. With these other films, you might get good writing and good acting. You'll get more than just guys in tights and choreographed fights. You'll have meaningful characters. But Batman Begins does such a tremendous job of distilling the pure essence of more than sixty years of history into two-and-a-half hours that it makes these other films seem almost shallow in comparison. You really know why Bruce Wayne transforms himself, you feel the drive that he has. Batman and Spider-Man have essentially the same origin, with a dead family member and the need for revenge. But look at the character arc and emotional content of the Spider-Man films and then watch Batman Begins. Batman is a little more grounded in reality since he has no superpowers, but the idea of a masked man in a bat-suit is pretty ridiculous. But in Batman Begins you believe it in a way that no other comic book movie has achieved. And I say that as a huge fan of all of them! It's not at all that they did a bad job, it's that Christopher Nolan did even better.

And if you've seen the ending of the film, you know the best is surely yet to come.



  1. Well, when you put it like that, I guess I'll try to catch this one in the theaters (which reminds me, I still need to see Sin City...).

    I have always thought Batman was the best "super-hero", especially the darker and driven Frank Miller Batman.

    Just thinkin' out lout--I'm sure someone has written something about Batman as a metaphor for class-warfare. The wealthy beating the crap out of the unwashed & ignorant criminal (urban) class. In fact, I'm tempted to write a parody story of a Klan Batman raiding black neighborhoods...

  2. Speaking of class warfare, there's actually a lot of backstory in Batman Begins about Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father. In the comics, of cours, he never had much backstory, so this is all Nolan/Goyer invention, and it's great stuff.

    Apparently, Gotham was in a depression and he used his personal wealth to help out, building an incredible monorail mass transit system, among other things. There's a scene aboard the train where he explains to Bruce that he hoped that by doing something good for those less fortunate, he would inspire other rich people to do the same. He's actually a character for the first time in this film, rather than just a guy who gets shot. That altruism and wanting to inspire people to help others is very much part of what ends up driving Bruce to become Batman.

  3. I liked that aspect of his father's character development. It made it hurt all the more when he got shot by the type of person he was trying to help. It's such good development that it fed directly into Batman's/Bruce Wayne's motivations for being the way he is...mixed in with his feelings of guilt for leaving the opera early.
    *stating the obvious*