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Director Christopher Nolan tackles the challenge of re-starting the Batman franchise by delving into a physiological take on the Caped Crusader’s origin story that had never been fully realized in the comics. His approach involved an all star cast lead by Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and takes a realistic approach in explaining how and why a billionaire would dress up like a giant bat and take on the underworld of crime.
I am a Batman fan. I’m pretty passionate about it I’d say, but by no means as crazy as some of the other fans. I’ve read a good portion of the “good” Batman comics. And by good, I mean a mixed bag of stories from the start of his career all the way through today’s latest graphic novels. This film, kicks Superman: The Movie’s ass. Hands down. Now, that’s not being bias I assure you. Batman Begins has the edge of modern day film making technology, but that’s not what makes these films great. Characters and stories that are loyal to the source material are the reasons why Superhero films stand a cut above the rest. If the little cartoon drawings and funny books can make people so obsessed that they are emulate them to the point that they spend thousands of dollars on costumes worn on days other than Halloween, then you know there’s something there. Batman Begins showcases those reasons perfectly and opened up the comics world to what us fan boys call “normies.” I’m going to give a nutshell review in a single sentence right here: See this movie. Now the reason I do this, is because Christopher Nolan is notorious for being a master of “twist endings” and this film has unexpected turns every 5 minutes. So if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look. The rest of the review will contain spoilers that will essentially ruin the biggest twists of the film so tread carefully.
The Story: Structure is one of the most important things in storytelling. It isn’t always the what, the who and the how that are important. This story demonstrates all of those and still hits the appropriate marks when things should happen. Almost everyone and their sister know how and why Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. His parents get shot in an alley way in front of him as a child. Wait…1989’s Batman covered that but kind of left the whole “bat” thing in the dust. And they also forgot about why Bruce feels like he has to protect other people by some means other than donating money to the police force of the city. This film, however, nails it perfectly. His parents are in the alley way because of Bruce’s fear of bats, thus he feels responsible for their deaths. The police force, sans Jim Gordon, is corrupt and doing a poor job at helping things, and furthermore, the good who want to make a stand are being intimidated by a crime boss who owns the city. It gets to the point where Bruce decides “enough is enough.” To start his journey, he travels the world and infiltrates criminal organizations as a foot soldier so he can understand their mentality.
This leads him astray as he succumbs to his anger and resorts to just surrounding himself with criminals and beating them senseless without affecting any real change other than his own personal feelings. It is at this point where the story introduces “Ducard” who offers Bruce a chance to become a leader and use his anger to make real changes in the world. Bruce, lost and willing to take any encouragement he can get, joins The League of Shadows, an underground ninja cult dedicated to the eradication of corruption throughout the world. A master named Ras Al Ghul, who instructs Ducard in training his army, leads the cult. Bruce studies and trains for months, while Ducard grooms him to be his greatest student. As the time approaches to face his final test, Bruce falls back on the philosophy of his closest family and friends from back home as his own self standards. Ducard, upset that Bruce will not execute a criminal offers him an ultimatum: Kill or be killed. Bruce stands by his decision and turns against his mentor, fights off Ras Al Ghul and burns the temple to the ground. And yet, amongst Ras Al Ghul’s accidental death from falling lumber, Bruce still manages to save his unconscious mentor and leave him to a local villager for care. The story then shifts gears and goes back to Gotham, highlighting Bruce’s creation of Batman. All the bases are covered from how he makes the suit, acquires gadgets and forges alliances. After a few scuffles with The Scarecrow, Bruce is re-introduced to his former mentor, Ras Al Ghul, who was really Ducard all along. This return of the villain sets the precedent of Bruce’s problem of not killing his enemies and having them return to cause more problems. The film ends with a climatic battle between two heroes of different ideals and a tease of what’s to come that’s so good, I still get goosebumps thinking of the final Batman / Gordon rooftop moment. Acting:
Michael Caine - Alfred: Taken to a new level in these films, Alfred is no longer just the comic relief and someone to have Bruce spew out exposition to. No, he’s a moral guide that keeps Bruce in check when he over steps lines and does his best to be a surrogate father and raise Bruce in the vain that his father wanted.
Gary Oldman – Jim Gordon: Alright. Time for me to be bias for once. Gary Oldman is the man. No, he IS the man. The greatest actor of our time and I feel as though because he’s not some teen beat “Brad Pitt” cover model that he is often overlooked. Gordon, while having limited screen time, is used to the best of his ability and is no longer a bumbling, incompetent man who relies on Batman for everything from cleaning up Gotham to flying through giant question marks in the sky. He is a man torn between his personal morals and the changes he can make with both hands tied behind his back.
Liam Neeson – Ducard / Ras Ahl Ghul: The film respectfully neglects an aspect of the characters comic mythos, which is the best way to do it. The character encompasses the same beliefs without the Lazuras Pit, a sci-fi twist in the comics that allows the character to rejuvenate his body but causes him to go temporarily insane. Instead, the film dances around the idea but never directly (or indirectly for that matter) claims that such a chemical exists. The character is much stronger because he is a personal reflection of Bruce Wayne and helps to contrast the two of them, making them both more interesting. Ras is ruthless in his beliefs, as is Bruce, and the disagreement between them is the core relationship of the characters. Thus, the plot is largely based around their opposing ideals creating a perfect story that keeps an audience interested and entertained.
Katie Holmes – Rachel Dawes: An original character created by the storytellers, Rachel is understandably the weakest character in the film as she is basically there for women to identify with (though, I’m not sure I know many women who liked her character that much). Although many critics and fans like to rip on Katie because of her “Dawson’s Creek” past, seeing her as a actress muscled into the film by WB Execs, I stand by my point of view that she did the best she could with the role and was actually quite likeable. Granted, standing next to Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Sir Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson she doesn’t stand that much of a chance to shine with the role she’s given. However, if you don’t think Katie Holmes can be a great actress – I strongly recommend that you see a film called “Pieces of April” where she proves that she can act her way out of a paper bag.
Morgan Freeman – Lucius Fox: Not given all that much of a purpose, other than to be Bruce Wayne’s “Q”. But still does a fine job is bringing some humor to the film and keeping some nods to comic book fans.
Tom Wilkinson – Carmine Falcone: Wilkenson’s Italian accent threw me off a bit at first but it’s since grown on me in the 82 subsequent viewings of this film. Falcone is a man who represents everything Bruce is trying to stop. He corrupts, murders, steals and hurts so many to the point that it’s crushing the city. Also, another lovely nod to comic book fans of “The Long Halloween.”
Cillian Murphy – Jonathon Crane/ Scarecrow: Magnificent. I only wish his role had been larger. Cillian was a perfect choice for the spineless (pun intended) Scarecrow. While he is pretty much a 2nd rate villain throughout, he still holds a threat level that makes you sit up in your seat every time he’s on screen.Directing: Christopher Nolan is comic book movie God. I’m sorry, he is. Robert Rodriguez came close with Sin City, as did Zack Snyder with 300, but Nolan not only translated comic book literature to film, he added to it. The mythos of Batman has been forever changed because of the film and not many people can do that to a character who’s been around for over 60 years. And then furthermore, when you see films of this genre, the audience knows a lot more than they should. They know Lois Lane will never die because Superman will always save her. Yet, in this film, the final train fight between Batman and Ras had me sitting on the edge of my seat worrying about whether or not Batman would save the city. That, my friends, is damn good storytelling.
Cinematography: Wally Pfister does a fantastic job of photographing the film. It’s crisp, it’s clear and it shows you what you need to see to get the emotion across if not the plot. The only criticism that I can agree with is the coverage of the fight scenes being shot so close. For the initial reveal of Batman it works, but as the film goes along it becomes annoying as the audience is dying to just sit back and watch Batman kick all kinds of ass. The close up shots exceed in creating an impact level that returns fights to a much more violent and threatening place.
Production Design: Gritty, grimy and the way Batman should be. The city is decaying without someone standing up for it and so Batman’s sleek technology is a kick in the face of the crime and is a very artistic way to showcase Batman’s contrast to his city at this point of battle with his war on crime.
Editing: Ok, this is my biggest overall qualm with this film. I hate the editing. Nolan is notorious for having a “fragmented” way of storytelling. Which is fine. It cuts out the boring parts of the story, but physical continuity cannot be ignored as it is so much. Shots are so fragmented at some parts that it takes you out of the film because you feel like you missed something. Shots come off as random and unsupported, almost as if you were watching a documentary.
Score: Danny Elfman made the Batman theme. There is no topping that in Batman. It’s the equivalent to Christopher Reeves as Superman. It just don’t get any better than that. Sorry folks. BUT, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard give him a run for his money. The score is strong and uplifting. It matches the mood and tones of the film and it’s scenes and conveys the right emotions while still being memorable. Although Batman is never given an official “theme”, when the “bat flap” sound effects are heard with the mighty banging of the drums…..you know who the music is for. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time and hearing a piece of the score from Begins, looking to my mother and saying “Is this a new Batman?” and she replied, “They don’t make those anymore thank God.”
Special Effects: There were special effects in this movie? I didn’t notice. Nolan is a true film maker. He never skimps on the real live action things, implementing CGI and visual effects only when absolutely necessary. Mostly he uses green screen for background plates that you would never notice (See: Windows during train fight). Everything is top notch in every stunt and completely believable.
In closing: Batman Begins is an art film disguised as summer block buster. Everything serves the story and helps to establish great characters in a believable world, while still pushing the boundaries into fantasy. Fear Toxin and a machine that evaporates water around it (but oddly enough makes no impact on the 80% made of water human bodies around it) are so forgivable that you’ll fall prey to the great story and characters that are hidden within it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance. If you have seen it, go watch it again. You know it’s just that damn good.