Batman Begins Anew
Hollywood Finally Gets it Right
By Amanda Evans
Hollywood Finally Gets it Right
By Amanda Evans
I will admit it. I am having an affair. Deep affection has been the basis of this relationship since I was three years old and saw The Wizard of Oz on television with my grandmother. I love movies. Unabashedly, undeniably, and quite frankly, sometimes unrequitedly.
I love movies, and shell out $30 for tickets and popcorn, $20 for DVD's, and tell all my friends about the good movies I've seen, so they can also pour money into studio coffers. Yet I've often felt that Hollywood doesn't love me back. The movie industry doesn't seem to realize that it’s fangirls (and fanboys) like me that pay them oodles of cash so they'll keep producing quality fare. And we all want quality movies, movies that make your heart race, but at the same time don't insult with bad dialogue and horrid acting.
It seems that these Good movies are getting fewer and farther between. And to steal a line from Jerry Maguire, Hollywood just doesn't show me the love. So, when a movie comes out that takes my breath away, I appreciate it. Batman Begins is a Good movie. Capital G, emphasis on the good, movie.
Batman Begins is retelling of the Batman story. The movie starts with a very young Bruce Wayne falling into an abandoned well filled with bats and quickly moves onto the hows and whys of his parents' death. Wracked with guilt and a need for vengeance, Wayne tours the world and fraternizes with criminals, trying to gain an insight the criminal mind. Part of this education involves time in an unnamed Asian prison camp, where he is released into the hands of a mysterious martial arts group called the League of Shadows. After training with them and overcoming his inner demons, Wayne returns to Gotham, where he begins the transformation into Batman. Eventually, he fights the super villains, Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul.
The placement of super villains is pretty much where the similarities to the older Batman movies and television series end. For years, we were treated to deeply flawed recreations of the Batman story on television and film. Adam West in the 60's Batman television show was much too campy for such a dark beginning. Then there was Michael Keaton as Batman for the first movie; yeah, there's a good fit. Worse, Tim Burton's nihilistic style mucked up the fundamental story of the first two Batman movies by not going into what makes the character so great: Batman is human. And I am not even going to touch on Batman's three or four; it's just too painful. For years, the only telling of the Batman story that came close to getting it right was an afternoon cartoon aimed at the kiddie crowd. Not an auspicious beginning or middle for a beloved comic book hero.
This Batman movie worked for my money and my love. It throws us into Bruce Wayne's world. From the expertly handled death of his parents, to those first wondrous scenes with his new costumes and toys, to the very real moral dilemmas that face survivors of violence, viewers are shown just why and how Batman began and why we should care. While no one would ever dress up as a bat and fight crime, the audience certainly comes out understanding the urges that drive Wayne to do it.
The Batman comic books have always had a certain flair and appeal, perhaps because Batman is human and has no super powers to rely on, so any skill or ability he has must be earned or bought. Director Christopher Nolan took the basic plot and lovingly molded a movie that pays homage to those storylines, but isn't bound to them. Batman Begins breaks free of convention and gives us a superhero movie that is both dark and fun, and most importantly, meaningful. Wayne's journey from a man with no purpose to a man with a mission is chronicled, yet the movie never loses its moral compass in pursuit of big action sequences or pointless violence. It also never gets bogged down, or even slowed, by the weight of necessary exposition.
Decidedly liberal in tone, the movie touches on how poverty leads to crime and the responsibility that government and big business have to the people whose labor makes the city great. In the world of Gotham, violence isn't the solution to crime. Rather, it’s cooperation between honest government officials like district attorney Rachel Dawes and police officer Jim Gordon, and civic-minded citizens who want things to change for the better, like the Waynes, that push back urban decay and corruption.
Bruce's armor-clad fight against crime is put into context as part of a family tradition of civil service and law-breaking activism, dating back to his father's creation of a monorail that bound the city together with affordable public transportation, and even to the revelation that the Batcave was originally a stop on the Underground Railroad. In short, the movie doesn't paint anarchy or vigilantism as cool, but instead presents a comic book version of how a good social contract is supposed to work.
While many action movies are driven by revenge plots to justify the protagonist's violence, this one doesn’t quite fall into that trap, despite the fact that Wayne is started along his path by the senseless killing of his parents. The overarching theme here is the battle against fear, but while Batman overcomes his own fear and uses it as a weapon against criminals, he tempers it with a liberal compassion that prevents him from becoming just another thug, and prevents this movie from being a costumed remake of Commando.
After leaving Gotham, Wayne lives the life of a criminal but never becomes one. Likewise, when he returns as a costumed crime-fighter, he plays the role of vigilante without ever succumbing to vengeance. Batman has a conscience that prevents him from taking the easy route of killing the bad guys. It is this, not his athletic ability and expensive toys, that make him a hero.
While the story makes the movie, the most astonishing thing about the film is the cinematography. There were long shots of Wayne manner, gritty yet beautiful scenes where the camera moved into the city of Gotham along the monorail the Waynes built, and out-of-this-world views of the Batcave. One scene, where bats fill a building, made me gasp. Visually, the movie was a feast that made my brain drool with wonder and possibility. I walked out of the theater hard-pressed to think of another film that I found as beautiful.
Christian Bale was an excellent choice, and short of his overly husky Batman voice, I couldn't find flaw in his performance. When he says, "I'm Batman", I believe him. And unlike Keaton's sad attempt at this line, it doesn't make me giggle because it won't wind up being parodied on Saturday Night Live. Why? Because it lacks ridiculousness, despite the earnest tone in which it is delivered. Keaton just couldn't pull that honesty off without being campy. Bale is also pitch-perfect as Bruce Wayne, especially when playing the public persona of a spoiled, self-destructive playboy.
The rest of the cast was just as perfect, with one exception, and I'll get to her in a moment. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, and Cillian Murphy inhabit their roles. Oldman, in particular, made Jim Gordon come alive. I didn't recognize the actor at first, it was only in the car ride home that I realized that was the same person who played Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I immediately recognized the character as Gordon when he appears as a beat cop comforting a young Bruce. He's decades away from the more familiar Commissioner Gordon of the comic books and cartoon, but Oldman created a presence that went beyond physical appearance, and delved into who the man was.
Little bits and pieces like this are what made the acting in this movie. Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane was a particularly luscious choice, with his ability to make Crane come off as someone who was slimy, yet civilized enough to keep his institution running. Caine was brilliant as Alfred. Fatherly, funny, and real, everything that Alfred is supposed to bring to the Batman legend. Caine does this with grace and style, with more than a little everyman prowess is thrown in to boot.
Neeson was eye-opening as Henri Ducard, Batman's mentor and trainer, taking what could have been a cookie-cutter role and bringing an intensity and charisma that makes it credible. I can't say much more about him without spoilers, but suffice it to say that he fulfills an important rule of comic book characters explained in Unbreakable without coming across as routine.
The cast is rounded out by the unfortunate choice of Katie Holmes in the role of Wayne's childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes. Wooden and unconvincing, Holmes was out of place with the rest of the cast. She seemed to have two modes: her own Joey from Dawson's Creek, petulant and annoying, or Jill Hennessey from Law and Order fame, angry and emotionally distant. She even wears her hair in the same no-nonsense ponytail that Hennessey used in the first few seasons, but when she wants to be Joey, she lets her hair down. Unfortunately for Holmes, changing hairstyles is not the same thing as having emotional range. And her half-hearted smiles that come off like sneers are just reminders that she doesn’t inhabit the character. Holmes fails to detract from the movie despite this, but unlike every other character, she doesn’t add anything, either.
Nolan is a director with a proven track record of making good movies. This formula of putting directors with talent in charge of faltering franchises is one way to respect the audience. Harry Potter 3 is fine example of this. Even the directors of the Spiderman and X-Men movies got the movies right eventually, and that's because they drew on the creative portions of their talent. Still, Batman Begins surpasses both X-Men 2 and Spiderman 2, and Nolan deserves most of the credit.
One of the trailers at the beginning was for the upcoming movie, Serenity. It includes a phrase flashed across the screen trying to get people excited for this fall release, "Loved by millions of fans worldwide." This is an important lession: it's us, the audience, that loves movies, and if film-makers remember this and respect our love then we will gladly give them to money to make their visions come to life. If only all film-makers remembered to give shout outs to their fans.
Overall, I have to say I loved this movie. I enjoyed every moment and every scene. It was a movie that earned my love. It respected my love, and paid me back for it. While I am not saying Hollywood gets why they should respect their fans, Batman Begins is a movie that takes a step in the right direction.
5 out of 5.