Wednesday 19 October 2011

Batman Begins (2005)

Much like the very long wait for this blog post, there was a very long wait for Batman to hit the big screen again. Specifically, an eight-year wait. Eight years before another Batman film was finally released after the universal drubbing that was laid on Batman & Robin. During that time, Warner Bros. pursued a number of different avenues and approached a number of different directors. Straight adaptations, original storylines, there were a lot of ideas flying around. Eventually, in 2003, Warner Bros. asked director Christopher Nolan, who achieved much acclaim for his 2000 film Memento, as well as his 2002 remake of Insomnia, to take the job. Accepting the role, Nolan opted for an origin story for the Batman, and playing it out in a more realistic setting than had been tried before. The result was the 2005 film Batman Begins.

When Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was a boy, he witnessed his millionaire parents being murdered, which led him to become obsessed with revenge. After disappearing to the East, where he is trained by ninja cult leader Ra’s Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Ducard (Liam Neeson), he returns to Gotham City, now decayed and overrun by organized crime and corruption thanks to Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Seeking to find the injustice in his city, Wayne uses his wealth and skills to adopt a new persona, one that will strike fear into the hearts of evil men. He becomes Batman.

Right from the off, Christopher Nolan had one pretty clear idea that he was going to build his Batman venture on. Although he has said that he loves Tim Burton’s Batman films for their distinctive style and atmosphere, Nolan still regarded them as an exercise in (superb) visual style over character and drama, which I rather agree with. As such, Nolan made the decision to locate the action within a more realistically drawn world. Taking a cue from some of the more gritty and sober titles in the Batman comic oeuvre, Nolan planned to tell the story of how a young boy, born of a wealthy family, grows up somewhat twisted and haunted by pain and guilt when that family is killed. The overall story that runs through the film is a mixture of different elements from the comics, like Bruce Wayne’s early life and world travels where receives his training (The Man Who Falls), his dealings with Carmine Falcone (The Long Halloween), and his first forays into crime-fighting (Year One). Each of these titles were possessed of the more grounded tone that Nolan was aiming for, and presented a great array of characters and themes to play with.

For help on the script, Nolan worked with writer David S. Goyer, who already had some success with comic book adaptations like Blade and Blade II (we’ll just pretend Blade: Trinity didn’t happen), and who worked the basic chronology of the events from the canon material into a complete story. The pair eventually finished a script that works very well, with each maintaining a sensibility that is unique to themselves but without competing for attention. The idea of fear, an incredibly important part of what the Batman is, is regularly considered for how it can be used. Gotham is a city populated by those who are afraid of something, with only a select few having the willingness to use it to their advantage. Carmine Falcone uses it to maintain his criminal empire; Scarecrow uses it to control his patients/victims; and Batman uses it to destroy criminals and restore order. And therein lies another conflict: both Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul would use fear as a weapon to restore order to chaos, but where Batman’s fearful wrath is more precise and defined, Ra’s Al Ghul is more malevolent and fascistic, looking to turn everyone into a panic-stricken wreck. This nicely underlines just how fine the line is between the two. Indeed, there was a time when Bruce and Ducard were close enough to be family, filling the need for a father figure in Bruce’s life. That Bruce then severs this link, rejecting this surrogate patriarch, both shows his resolve and that he isn’t quite as prepared to become his own man as he thinks. It’s another facet that adds a wonderful sense of texture to proceedings, showing you just how important Thomas Wayne was to young Bruce. In fact, that they spend a full hour developing Bruce Wayne as a character is an indication of just how much importance they place on this aspect of the story.

It’s one of the things I appreciate the most about Batman Begins, and it’s something that most people I know also like: they explain everything. Not just on a level of the emotional and psychological draws on what it takes to turn Bruce Wayne into the Batman, but just on a level of practicality. In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Joker asked that often-quoted question, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” In Batman Begins, Nolan finally answers. Be it through dummy corporation purchases, his own tinkerings or what is effectively embezzlement, it shows how the Dark Knight assembles his arsenal of gadgets, his suit and… his car. It’s a mixture of the practical and the theatrical that dictates what Batman uses to fight crime and one thing is for sure, if you’re going to take on an entire city’s criminal underworld by yourself, bring a tank. Enter the Tumbler, Nolan’s Batmobile on steroids, a hulking 100mph monster. I’m going to take a moment out from trying to be a grown up here and do this…

The Tumbler is freakin’ awesome. It’s a tank! A tank! I don’t care what it costs, I want one and I want one now! And if Morgan Freeman could be the one to teach me how to drive it, that would be great, thanks.

Anyway, back to mature mode. There’s not a single thing shown that’s wasted. His bat-ears aren’t just for decoration, but to hide a radio receiver; the cape isn’t just for show, but is capable of becoming rigid and used as a glider; and the cowl isn’t just to hide Wayne’s face, but it’s a fully functional helmet. This is the manner in which someone goes to war, not with Bat-nipples, but with Kevlar and a damn tank.

If there was one aspect of doing a Batman film that likely gave Christopher Nolan some pause for thought, it was the design and overall look of the film, particularly in the creation of Gotham City. As I said before, Burton made something special in his films, and Nolan was very open of his admiration for the styling. In Batman Begins, Nolan had to create a look that was distinctive, but also still plausible in his more realistic world. He has done a fine job. Filming on location was a huge part of this, going to places like Chicago, London, Hertfordshire and Iceland. He also had his production team, led by Nathan Crowley, pull design elements from various cities around the world, covering various architectural disciplines, in order to create a sprawling cityscape that looks aged and lived in. The most consciously stylised part of Gotham is the Narrows, the slum area of the city, a grime-covered, dirty brown mess. The difference between this portion of the city and the rest of it highlights the scale of the corrupt devastation that covers Gotham. Arkham Asylum is in the Narrows and, much like the poisoned water supply that flows from its bowels, it’s from here that the fear and despair spreads. I’ll say that I still prefer the superb visual creation of Burton’s Gotham, so excellent in evoking an oppressive atmosphere with little budget, but Nolan’s is at once the more believable one, and still capable of instilling an effective atmosphere, too.

The music of the film would also have provided a challenge. Danny Elfman’s work on Batman and Batman Returns have become so intrinsically connected to the Dark Knight, that it’s near impossible to separate them. Even Elliot Goldenthal’s music for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin has its own distinctive flair. However, considering this film was about wiping the slate clean and reinventing the filmic mythos of the Batman, the pressure was probably a little easier. Nolan hired two fine composers for the score - James Newton Howard, who would handle the more collected character-based scenes, and Hans Zimmer, who would take the action-oriented beats of the film. Honestly, I think the music for Batman Begins is excellent, and much of that can be found in the simplicity of the primary Batman theme. In the themes from Elfman and Goldenthal, the Batman theme is a more traditionally complete theme, whereas the Howard/Zimmer effort is altogether simpler. It’s just two notes, the second being three notes higher than the first, but therein lies a great flexibility. The whole tone of the piece can change with the subtlest shift in orchestration or chord structure. Nothing can take away from Elfman’s work, but this is still superb stuff.

The casting of Bruce Wayne/Batman was a big issue, because it always is with these films. There are certain roles that just seem problematic when it comes to who should fill them because it’s likely to draw snorts of derision from some people regardless of who is cast. Weirdly enough, the role went to someone who actually auditioned for the role of Robin in Batman Forever - Christian Bale. This is a great choice, because Bale is a fine actor, possessed of great physical presence and intensity. It also served as an interesting echo of a previous role. Bale played Patrick Bateman in American Psycho five years prior to Batman Begins, a wealthy and rather goofy yuppie whose nocturnal antics showed him to be a crazed psychotic… not exactly a million miles away from Bruce Wayne. Of course, Bateman was just an entitled lunatic; Wayne has legitimate cause for his mania, and Bale doesn’t let this side down. You can see the various conflicts within him, being torn between losing himself in his anger and bitterness and holding himself as someone worthy of his father’s name, between being taken seriously by his old friend Rachel and being seen as a flippant yuppie douche. Bale shows these different aspects pulling at him, but never to the point of inaction. And to that end, there’s his Batman. The most important thing about Batman has always been how intimidating he is, which Bale carries off nicely. His interrogation scene where he has his victim dangling upside down high above the street is great stuff, particularly his growling delivery of the line, “Swear to me!” The Bruce Wayne/Batman actually seems more like a complete character in this film, being that you can feel sorry for him, be annoyed with him, want him to kick ass, and maintain his compassion throughout, and Bale carries all of this wonderfully.

The supporting cast of this film is the kind of thing people make up as a fantasy roster for ‘what if’ films taking place in their own head. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache… Christ, there are 15 Oscar nominations amongst this lot alone. Michael Caine gives us a version of Alfred that I much prefer to versions of old. Michael Gough was a great, dignified presence in the previous films, but that Alfred was rarely seen to be much more than a butler and assistant to Bruce Wayne, even making some baffling moves like showing Vicki Vale into the batcave in Batman. Hell, the best we ever get as to how important he really is Bruce’s life comes from Batman & Robin, and that’s just sad. In Batman Begins, Alfred is more than a butler; he’s a conscience, a guiding hand, someone who does as much to protect Bruce from himself as Bruce does to protect Gotham from criminals. Morgan Freeman is great, too. Just look at him, you can see just how sharp Lucius Fox is, and how funny he is. Freeman is really funny in this film. Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon is a rock of decency and integrity, understated and wholly dependable. Again, he’s turned a character of convenience from previous works and made him a person. Liam Neeson is a really interesting choice since he plays someone who is very similar to, but clearly different from his role of Oscar Schindler. He’s smart, classy, distinguished, but he’s a dark soul, driven by the very megalomaniacal sensibility that Schindler sought to undermine. Cillian Murphy is always bankable, and does some quietly creepy work as Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow. Rutger Hauer does a great smug corporate scumbag, Ken Watanabe is an very unsettling presence (I don’t think that guy’s eyes close once in the entire film), and Linus Roache gives a solid (though generally overlooked) turn as Thomas Wayne.

There are two performances I want to highlight, though. I actually think Tom Wilkinson’s performance is a bit off. To me, he seems like he’s putting on an act, and it’s just never sat right with me. Now, I suppose you could consider that Falcone himself is putting on some sort of tough guy act (he constantly refers to how scary he is, which isn’t really something scary people do), that he should be less convincing as a frightening bad guy when compared to the legitimate threat of Ra’s Al Ghul. However, what this does is make him less of a hurdle for Batman to overcome, and brings down the comparative threat level of Ra’s. Plus, to play with the notions of how convincing Falcone is as a bad guy by having Wilkinson be less believable in the role is something that I think rather exists outside of this film’s purview, given its realistic desires and all. In the end, it still seems to me like an otherwise excellent actor doing a rather hammy imitation of a Chicago crime boss.

Then there’s Katie Holmes, who most people regard as the weak link of the film… I don’t think she’s that bad. She’s better here than she is in a lot of her other roles. The problem with Katie Holmes is that she always looks like she’s a kid. Because she looks so young and is known to most people through her days on Dawson’s Creek, that’s how many continue to see her. Whilst Michelle Williams has grown since her days on the Creek and matured as an actress (and one I’ve yet to see give a bad performance), Holmes hasn’t, still seeming like a child playing grown up. Now, in fairness to her, she actually does pretty well in Batman Begins. She makes a concerted effort to project a sense of maturity and capability in line with the character of Rachel Dawes. The worst that I can really say about her is that I can see her trying to be Rachel, rather than just seeing Rachel. Not really a total triumph then, but she still deserves credit for giving a performance above her usual standard.

I will say that there are some other kinks in the show. For example, a lot of people didn’t appreciate the so-called “shaky cam” approach in the fight scenes. Honestly, this isn’t something that I noticed and so it didn’t bother me, though Nolan clearly heard this critique and chose to change it up for the sequel. Also, the whole microwave emitter device seems too unexplained to work for the purpose shown in the film. The idea is that it uses “focused microwaves” to instantly vaporise an enemy’s water supply, which is how it gets used by Ra’s Al Ghul for nefarious purposes in the final act. Given its capabilities, wouldn’t a giant microwave emitter instantly cook everything in its path? Wouldn’t water, oil, paper, plastic, metal, even people get heated immediately when the thing is turned on? That’s kind of a lot of explaining to hang on the word “focused”. There’s never any explanation given about how this isn’t the case, with everything resting on the likelihood that no one would notice this detail amidst all of the ass-kicking and riots. I certainly didn’t think of it the first time I watched it, but it’s something that sneaks up on you. I suppose that you could just say, “it’s a comic book movie,” which could buy you some leeway, but this does somewhat rest contrary to the more realistic aspirations of the film.

Despite these problems, I will maintain that Batman Begins is a great film, where almost everything is considered and handled in a manner both stylish and intelligent. There’s a wealth of talent throughout the whole endeavour and it doesn’t disappoint as an action film or as a character study, complete with concerns about the nature of fear as a weapon and the line between justice and vengeance. What’s more, this film gave Batman back his dignity and restored the hopes of people who had all but given up on seeing a proper Batman back on the big screen.

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