Wednesday, June 15, 2005
DC Comics' Batman franchise is given a fresh start in Batman Begins (opening June 15 throughout San Diego) courtesy of director Christopher Nolan and actor Chritian Bale. The film takes us back to the beginning to find out exactly how Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight.
Back in 2000, there was talk of making a film called Batman Year One, based on the new Batman comics co-written by Frank Miller and serving up a darker vision of the caped crusader created by Bob Kane in 1939. Miller was going to adapt his work to the screen and indie director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) was scheduled to helm with everyone from Brad Pitt to Ben Affleck rumored to star. Miller's script generated hope among fans that a definitive Batman movie might be in the works. But that production stalled, Miller got fed up with Hollywood abandoned the project and was convinced instead by Robert Rodriguez to adapt his solo work Sin City to the screen. But the collected comics known as Batman Year One still provide the inspiration for what transformed in Batman Begins.
Batman Begins, as it's name implies, takes us back to the beginning. We get to see Bruce Wayne as a young boy enjoying the luxuries of being the son of Gotham City's wealthiest citizen. His loving father instills strong moral values in his son as well as a sense of responsibility toward others. Two events shape the young boy's life. One occurs when he's playing and falls down a well. His physical injuries are minor compared to the terror he feels when his fall lands him at the entrance to an underground cavern of bats that fly out en masse in a black wave over the boy. The other event is even more traumatic. Bruce sees his parents gunned down during a common mugging that occurs on the increasingly dangerous streets of an economically depressed Gotham. His parents' deaths haunt him, and leave him wracked with guilt over not being able to prevent it and anger because he desperately wants revenge.
But revenge is probably not something that his altruistic parents would have condoned. So Bruce is torn about what course to take. He ends up fleeing Gotham in order to travel the world in order to educate himself in the ways of the criminal mind. He seeks the means to fight injustice and to turn fear against those who prey on the weak and fearful. Bruce finds a mentor in Ducard (Liam Neeson who has also played mentor to Hayden Christensen in The Phantom Menace and to Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven). Ducard teaches him physical skills and mental discipline. Then he tries to recruit him into the League of Shadows, a mysterious vigilante group. But it's at this point that Bruce makes a discovery-he still has a sense of compassion and it is his compassion that separates him from the criminals he pursues.
He returns to Gotham to find the city ravaged by crime and corruption. Wayne Industries, once a beacon of philanthropy is now in the hands of Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer) who's more interested in profits than people. The city seems run by mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) who's aided by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathon Crane (Cillian Murphy in a deliciously evil turn). The only two people that Falcone doesn't seem to own are detective Jim Gordon (an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman) and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce old childhood friend.
Knowing that he must honor his father's legacy and do something to help Gotham, Bruce decides on a plan. With the help of Alfred (Michael Caine), his trusted butler, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a techno wiz at Wayne Industries, Bruce creates Batman, a symbol of justice designed to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. Without super powers but with the aid of super gadgets and technology, Bruce sets out to right some of the wrongs in Gotham. But in creating his alter ego, he also condemns himself to leading a dual life and hiding his true goals and ideals from the outside world and even those he loves, like Rachel.
Batman Begins reboots the Batman film franchise in a refreshing manner. Gone is the silliness of the Joel Schumaker films (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin) and in itys place is a darker, more serious approach that tries to root the comic book tale in some level of reality. Batman is intriguing because he's the only popular superhero without any super powers. He enters his crime fighting career knowing that he's all too human and Batman Begins tries to emphasize this. This Batman gets hurt and physically banged up. His batsuit and gadgets offer protection but not total immunity from physical harm. As played by Bale, Bruce/Batman becomes a very human character and one tormented by personal demons and dark desires for revenge. Bale far surpasses those who came before him in the role, especially George Clooney and Val Kilmer. Michael Keaton, the Batman of the first two Tim Burton films, was far from perfect but he did allow the character some fitting darkness. Plus those first two films did have the benefit of Burton's eccentric production design.
Casting is a real strength in this Batman film. In addition to Bale, there are wonderful performances by Caine and Freeman as Bruce's only friends and collaborators. These two old pros create great rapport with their young cohort and the scenes shared by them are the film's best. On the side of evil, Wilkinson is fittingly smug and despicable. But it's Cillian Murphy (better known for his work in 28 Days Later) with his surreal blue eyes that delivers the truly creepy performance. As Dr. Crane, who will turn into Batman nemesis Scarecrow, Murphy creates the perfect villain. In a film about fear, he's someone who uses fear to control others.
The Nolan-Goyer script avoids the jokiness of the earlier Batman films. They have some one-liners (such as Bruce asking if a cool armored vehicle he wants as the batmobile comes in black) but they are not designed as the hokey zingers of the earlier films. Although there's definite humor, humor is not a priority in this film.
Although Batman Begins does many things well, it also suffers from some flaws, mostly of a structural nature. Goyer (who did a brilliant job of scripting Marvel Comics' Blade but a lousy job of directing Blade Trinity) and Nolan choose to start Batman Begins not with Bruce as a child but rather with him as a young man in the midst of his journey. This proves to be an awkward starting point and forces the film to jump back in time in a rather forced fashion. Plus the film feels very much like its title implies as a beginning. If this were a mini series, this would be the two-hour kick off. The villains and love interest feel tacked on here and added only because the formula requires them. But Falcone is not develop well enough to really be the villain of the piece, and Crane's transformation into Scarecrow is only hinted at in the end (but hopefully he will return in the planned sequel, Bale is definitely signed on for three movies). Batman's real nemesis in this story is his own personal demon. In addition, the love story (if you can even call it that) is totally superfluous and the film's final scenes come in a messy rush of action.
Nolan, best known for his indie hit Memento, is an interesting choice of directors. He has a good feel for character and mood but is less adept at the action. He succeeds best with the scenes of Bruce and his inner circle and with the villains. But he seems unable to make any of the scenes with Rachel or Gordon work as anything but filler. In addition, Nolan fails to really play up the particular dilemmas of Bruce living a dual life especially when it comes to dealing with Rachel. As rich playboy Bruce Wayne, he strikes Rachel as a silly man that his father would be ashamed of. So his torment is that he loves her and wants desperately to reveal his identity. Both Superman and Spiderman had to wait through almost two whole movies before their beloved could link their two personas but not this Batman. He gets to spill the beans before the final fadeout and that's too easy. He needs to hold fast to that secret a little longer because that duality is part of what's interesting in Batman.
Batman Begins (rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and thematic elements) delivers the best Batman to date. It's not quite the best comic book adaptation to hit the screen (films such as Superman, Spiderman, Blade and Sin City succeed better overall) but it lays excellent groundwork for a sequel.