Damn, don't you hate it how life sometimes gets in the way of blogging? I know I do – sort of. Well maybe not that much. Except for times like these when I actually have a lot to write about, yet even in my unemployed state, I don't seem to have enough time to sit down and do it.
Moving on: About a year ago (it was March 25 of last year, to be exact), upon reading some casting news in the trades, I wrote the following: "If the next Batman film/prequel/whatever-you-want-to-call-it (and currently the title is Batman Begins) is not one of the best action films of all time, I'm going to be shocked." the course of the past year, as news and teasers and trailers filtered in, my excitement did not diminish. And finally last night, doing something I rarely do – attend an opening night of a blockbuster film; too damn crowded – the time was here and Batman Begins had begun.
I hate going into any movie with high expectations. They almost always manage to disappoint one way or another. I do my best to clear my mind and not consider any reviews I may have read and leave my expectations at the door, but I'm also conscious of the reality that doing so completely for anyone really is impossible. Maybe that's why I wasn't so horribly upset by the latest Star Wars like so many people, but all I find myself saying about Mr. And Mrs. Smith is how ultra-disappointed I was. (And more detail on those films will come in a future post.) I also am neither a comic-book movie, action movie nor, specifically, Batman, fanatic. I don't mean any negative connotation from "fanatic" or even freak; and I love great comic-book movies, great action movies and the Batman character. But I don't have a shrine in my room to any of these things, and I'm as likely to get super-excited over a film with none of these qualities. (Case in point, before Batman Begins there was a trailer for The Constant Gardner, the next film from Fernando Meirelles, the incredible talent behind the absolutely brilliant City of God, and while it's of course only a preview, it looks absolutely amazing!) In fact, I'm not even a huge fan of the original Tim Burton-directed Batman movies. I thought, as often happens in his films, that Burton let his brilliant visual sensibility get in the way of telling a good story; that the first movie didn't really have much to do with Batman, himself; and, having read the original, very good and much darker screenplay by Sam Hamm, that it was a missed opportunity. I think there is some greater fondness for the Burton films now that we've suffered through the Joel Schuhacker ones, and they were fun; I just never thought they were a brilliant reinvention of the character.
I mention all of this (yes, at length, I know) because Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins did something movies rarely if ever do: it blew my expectations right through the roof. I didn't just love Batman Begins; I'm in fucking awe of it. My friends and I turned to each other after the film and were that weird combination of speechless and babbling. I kept repeating, "What the hell is wrong with this picture? What? Nothing!" There were two lines of dialogue that annoyed me, and one I don't even remember.
I've read plenty of reviews, before and since, and I'm seriously confused as to whether or not I saw the same movie as some critics who had less-than-enthusiastic reactions. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but what I keep finding in every negative review I've read is not a person critiquing the film as much as being upset that the Batman Nolan gives us is not exactly the Batman this person specifically wants.
And to be fair, maybe that's why I love this movie so much. Because this is exactly the Batman I want; it's exactly the story I want; it's exactly the action I want. This is how a franchise and a character should be re-imagined. Re-invented! With substance. With style. With story. With themes. With personality. With character. And with an absolutely brilliant and supremely creative filmmaker pulling the strings. (Please please please … will someone involved with the James Bond series pay attention. I know I've been harping on this, but Batman Begins is how it should be done. Hell, hire Nolan. Get rid of Martin Campbell. Get the right lead. You've already picked the right story in Casino Royale. Please let me leave that film next year – or whenever – as excited as I was after this one.)
For all the criticism of summer blockbusters that comes from mainstream critics and (occasionally holier-than-thou) cinephiles alike, it baffles me how someone could potentially not enjoy this film. As much as Sam Raimi has been (justifiably) hailed for Spider-Man and its even better sequel due to his ability to bring a comic book to life with multi-dimensional characters, emotion and actual storytelling while not losing any of the action-packed excitement expected from such a film, Nolan does him at least one better. Yes, I'll admit some of the philosophical psychobabble at the beginning gets slightly heavy-handed, but it's rarely actually distracting. And the first third of this film is so brilliantly constructed, straying from simple linear storytelling to really juxtapose the boy Bruce Wayne's history with his older conflicted self, developing and determining his place in the world, throwing you into the story and flying along – seriously, the first act of Batman Begins, at least as it exists on the screen since I don't know if the screenplay is constructed exactly the same way, should be utilized in screenwriting classes as an example of how to write and construct exposition without simply boring and telling the audience everything.
Basically, Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer did three fundamental things that help make this movie so great:
First, the damn film is about Batman. I know some reviews have criticized the lack of an engaging villain: you know what? There is plenty of peril in this movie, from multiple sides. And one of the things it actually does really well is keep the identity of the primary villain secret: not only is he not a focus of the film, he's hidden until the end. I don't want to give things away; I'll just say I was more than satisfied with the way it all plays out. The problem with the first four Batman films is that they lived and died by their villains. Most people who love the first movie do so because they think it looked cool, had a great score by Danny Elfman and featured Jack Nicholson in a tour-de-force performance as The Joker. But that's what the whole movie was about: The Joker. It should have carried that title. More time was spent on his development and origins than Bruce Wayne/Batman's. In fact, The Joker is most definitely the protagonist in Batman. The same can be said for every other film in the franchise. For that matter, bigger stars were cast and more excitement created over the people playing the villains (Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzeneggar) than the people putting on the cowl (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney). I don't mean to say a great villain isn't important, but he/she also doesn't need to be primary.
Batman Begins creates a believable (within the realm of the film) storyline explaining Bruce Wayne's persona – it creates a complex character who is a recognizable real person; an actual human being experiencing and suffering from the same emotions and personal dilemmas that could affect any of us should we somehow find ourselves in a similar situation. He's not simply a billionaire do-gooder playboy who puts on some tights to fight crime in his spare time. He's much more than that.
And this leads into the second vital thing Nolan and Goyer did which I have also seen ridiculously criticized by some: Batman is a superhero without super powers. He's human. The source of his strength is mental and emotional; his willingness to stand up for what he considers justice even in the face of his own terror. But he's also conflicted. He's ferocious. He's not smiley happy friendly neighborhood superhero. He has to sometimes control his own rage, and he's constantly fighting his own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy.
Batman has always been popular for these reasons, not in spite of them. This is a debate that comic-book fanatics (and people who have spent a lot more time with this issue than I) constantly debate: who's the greater superhero – Batman or Superman. But more important than who's better is how they're different. They're virtually opposite sides of the same coin. Superman is virtually perfect. If it wasn't for that little problem with Kryptonite, he would be perfect. Batman is anything but. Batman is a tortured soul, the "Dark Knight," and he doesn't have super strength or invincibility. He just has a lot of money and some kick-ass gadgets.
Both Batman and all of Gotham feel much more real this time around. Where Burton and Schumacher's respective Gotham Cities were highly stylized and art directed, Nolan's is much more organic. The slums are literally devoid of color while the wealthier parts of the city feature buildings that gleam like diamonds in the night sky. But all of them (even the somewhat obvious extreme digital creation that is "The Narrows") look very "real." They look like places real people live without exaggeration in any direction.
Additionally, all his gadgets, where he gets them, what he uses them for, why he needs them – it all makes sense. Everything in this movie is explained and, at least within the universe of this film, very real. His inspiration for the character (even if some find it slightly trite) makes perfect sense. His development of the costume does as well. It's not just a rubber suit: it's actual top-secret military weaponry. The cowl isn't simply to protect his identity and give him the look of a bat: it's actually body armor. He never meant to have a cape, until he found the advantage in it. And the car – well, just wait until you see the car.
The third element grows right out of the second, and that is how dark and emotionally complex Batman Begins is. As much as it has summer blockbuster characteristics, it by no means follows a strict big budget action movie formula. Does the film have a happy ending? It depends somewhat on what you consider "happy." (Again, I don't want to give anything away.) Is happy justified simply by whether or not Batman saves the day? Or do we find ourselves caring as much, if not more, for him and the individual characters? Does it all get wrapped up in a nice little package, one where we don't even need to see the sequel to know what will happen to all these people tomorrow? Not the film I saw. And as I alluded to earlier, this Batman has some issues, to say the least.
How this Batman is different from all the others can actually be shown in one short scene, featuring one brief exchange: Batman has temporarily placed corrupt-cop Flass (Mark Boone Junior) into, shall we say, a compromising position. In one exchange, Batman roars at him with such ferocity, in a way that would have been completely out of place in any of the other films which featured a titular character who was more calm, cool, detatched … even emotionless.
Don't think that Batman Begins is just a dark depressing movie filled with emotional turmoil, though. It's not. It may not have the multiple sarcastic one-liner quips we've become accustomed to in these kinds of big budget action movies, but it does have humor, sometimes situational, sometimes from a line or two of dialogue. And it usually arrives at just the perfect moment, either to break the tension or enhance the action.
Nolan is served brilliantly by an amazing and flawless cast, one in which every character actually serves a part in the story (shocking!) and has a persona. Most importantly, Christian Bale was an inspired choice. He literally does become someone else underneath that costume. He sounds different without sounding "put-on." Yet all the while, one can see where the Bruce Wayne personality feeds Batman and vice-versa. He carries this film exceptionally well.
It was also a joy to watch Gary Oldman play a normal good-guy again, as opposed to some over-the-top psycho. Michael Caine's butler Alfred is also wonderfully utilized as opposed to simply being a figure standing in the background knowing the big secret. He is a vital element in Bruce's development; a father figure who keeps Bruce going when he otherwise may not. Also fantastic are Liam Neeson as Bruce's mentor and teacher, Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falconi, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane (also the Scarecrow). Morgan Freeman is basically great in everything, and while his character, along with that of Rutger Hauer who plays the Wayne Enterprises CEO, s probably the most underwritten and simple of the primary characters in the movie, they're both a lot of fun to watch. And as for the apparently bewitching Katie Holmes, she's fine. I didn't dislike her, I didn't love her. In some respects, she has the one thankless character; the person who really, maybe even more than Alfred, becomes Bruce's moral center – a symbol of goodness that he can't ignore. I don't know that Holmes could have done much more with the role than she did, and I don't think there could really have been more added to the character without it getting unnecessarily in the way. Holmes and her character Rachel Dawes simply both did their jobs.
When I think of what a movie could and should be, I wind up with something like Batman Begins; an example of a filmmaker using every last element and advantage of cinema to excite and thrill artistically and intelligently. Nolan manages to combine storytelling and style. The film is breathtaking to watch (a fantastic car chase culminating with the Batmobile's -- it's never really called that -- stunning arrival at the Batcave, and a single shot at the end of the climactic action sequence are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Last year, a very different film had a similar effect on me for the same reasons. The sound design, the music, the costumes, the art direction, the characters, the story, the individual plot elements – they all work together to create one cohesive film that left me wanting so much more. Not only did I want to see the sequel immediately (and if Warner Bros. doesn't give Nolan and Bale whatever they want to come back, they really don't know what they have), but I want to see this movie again now.
Batman Begins isn't a perfect film – there are very few of those – but it's as perfect a Batman film as I can imagine, and for that I not only thank Chris Nolan, but also that Warner Bros. exec who had the guts to greenlight such a major property for the studio with a filmmaker who could give them more than simply nine-digit grosses and a huge opening weekend, but also an actually brilliant movie.