In June of 1997, a distraught, younger version of yours truly got braces. To counterbalance such a potentially catastrophic moment in my life, as a treat, my mother took me to see a film I had been desperate to see for quite some time: Batman & Robin. After months of reading magazines and soaking in rumors such as Julia Roberts was going to play Poison Ivy, there was not a film I was more excited for than this follow-up to Batman Forever, a film I thoroughly enjoyed in 1995 and saw three times in theaters. As the movie concluded and the theater lights came on, your fragile narrator could not even begin to reconcile what he had just witnessed. For a few weeks, he remained indifferent to the spectacle of George Clooney's Bat nipples, and even left the film on his Christmas gift list. Then... it began to sink in.
Even after Batman & Robin destroyed my unabashed enthusiasm for all things in general, I still remained interested in a sequel for some time after. Remember "Batman: Triumphant'? Rumors of Jack Nicholson's Joker providing a cameo in Batman's nightmarish hallucinations after an encounter with the Scarecrow, as played by Steve Buscemi? Madonna as Harley Quinn? Thankfully, all of these rumors never came into fruition and Joel Schumacher was essentially scolded and scalded as to never touch anything Batman ever again.
And eight years have passed since the world stopped turning. Upon the success of X-Men, a flood of superhero films (generally Marvel) entered the market place, each one placed against the stain that is Batman & Robin. An overly saturated era of masks and celebrity films. The dark times. Spiderman 2. The Punisher. Hulk. Daredevil. What chance do superhero films have, when the good people do nothing? And then—the plastic wrap was removed and this new rejuvenation of superhero films actually generated sparks and flares for a new Batman — a Batman before Two Face killed Robin's parents and Batgirl was Alfred's niece. Eight years I have waited for a Batman to erase the tart taste of Batman & Robin -- for two years I have waited, like I have not waited since childhood, eagerly for Batman Begins.
On an entertainment level, Batman Begins winds up and sucker punches a film like Star Wars [Episode III] — plain and simple. In short, the way director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer approached this prequel/origin story with such a nuance and regard for Batman's mythology is how George Lucas should have handled his Star Wars. Batman Begins is all the best moments of the new Star Wars trilogy, in a sense. The way one looks as a scruffy beat cop named Sgt. Gordon, knowing he will eventually become the Commissioner of Gotham City, and gets such immense satisfaction from his mere presence is how we should have felt watching Natalie Portman's Padme prance around, with the knowledge she will evolve into the tragic mother of Luke and Leia. Bruce Wayne's evolution into Batman is so much more riveting than Anakin's descent into the Dark Side in Star Wars — which is a huge credit to the filmmakers and actors in Batman Begins, and a discredit to the clumsy, bumbling toy makers over at Skywalker Ranch.
But one fanboy's appreciation of this entertaining interpretation of Batman, and its relative success over Star Wars' failure, does not begin to articulate the achievement of Batman Begins. This storytelling is more akin to something like Lord of the Rings than Star Wars, anyway. It is a film with a mind — a big budget fantasy that primarily deals with complex thematic elements. This film can be appreciated, not simply by little boys-turned-men dedicated to the mythos of Batman, but by persons interested in a bridge between intellectual and commercial cinema and by people willing to engage in a fiery cinematic discussion of universal moral issues.
The entire film is a set up to explore how Bruce Wayne develops the ethical bridgework to become the man he does. We all know the basics: how he watched his parents violently murdered, how he first encountered a legion of Batman, etc. Much of his journey—at least on film—has largely been left blank. Even before Bruce Wayne decides to put on the cape and cowl, his morality has been shaped by his experiences with people who personify certain moral perspectives. Initially, Wayne's butler Alfred continues the “do good” tradition begun by Wayne's father before his death. Later major toughguys like Carmine Falcone spark Wayne's desire to explore the various moralities of the world, to leave Gotham City and try and understand the criminal mind. Justice is perceived by many characters in different ways—whether it be the typical conception of justice personified by district attorney Rachel Dawes (prototypical Christian, Democratic fusion of justice) or a more diabolical interpretation presented in Ra's Al Ghul. Wayne studies under Ra's Al Ghul—not only does he learn how to fight, disappear and all those other practical tricks implored later on while as Batman, but he is also exposed to a radical mentality that viciously combats criminality and espouses moral absolutism. Ra's Al Ghul's plot for cleansing those who are unfit for society's law (or his definition of society's law) and his later targeting of Gotham City are, in essence, acts of terrorism.
With overt allusions to 9/11 (Ra's Al Ghul emphasizes fear and threatens Gotham City because of what it symbolizes), Batman Begins begs to question not only the role of Islamic fundamentalism, but also the specific actions of those who seek to annihilate a certain group or people based on their ideals and actions. In this age of global terrorism, and an increasingly front to destroy those cells of terror, by what restraints do the freedom fighters hold themselves? What is morally justifiable in the fight against terrorism? And Batman, despite his reputation as a vigilante, appears to the median in a morally foggy world and an ethically centered film.
Of course, like in any good superhero flick, there exists clear cut bad guys. However, there is a dimension present in these villains which is absent in your average, regular arch nemesis. What makes a great villain is not how radically absurd or flamboyant he is in relation to the hero, but how strikingly similar the two are in ideology. And... of course... a great villain should also be threatening, if not scary, in either appearance or mentality. Batman Begins succeeds in being a superhero film with strong allusions to horror films of old. The relationship between Scarecrow and Ra's Al Ghul mirrors Dracula and his insane slave, Jonathan Harker. In fact, like Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt before him, Ra's Al Ghul is constantly placed within the context of being a vampire.
Nevertheless, the true “monster” of the film is Batman himself. His growing understanding and application of fear makes him the true standout of the film. Whereas other Batman films had an over-the-top villain present to overshadow the Dark Knight, here the focus is completely on Batman. The villains are subdued. While every secondary character—from Gordon to Rachel Dawes—contains a level of plausibility, their individual moments of glory are brief. Development of secondary characters has been foregone to completely articulate Bruce Wayne and his transformation into Batman.
This film contains many magical moments, several hopefully that are not merely reserved for Batman enthusiasts, but also appeals to a mainstream audience, as well. This film largely succeeds in getting the audience absorbed and empathetic with Bruce Wayne's journey and self realization. While by no means a comedy, Christian Bale's deadpan portrayal of Bruce Wayne keeps the film lively. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, two of the best veterans still working today, also compliment the film with their witty deliveries. The human element and interactions of Batman Begins overshadows the majority of the fight scenes and action sequences. Between the loud swashbuckling, the most admirable moments in the film are the monologues, the tender exchanges and superb acting. Today's editing and fight sequences leave a lot to be desired, frankly. They are consistently convoluted, nauseating and takes people out of the film's story. Nevertheless, this is certainly the type of film crying for a sequel—it would be a shame to have devoted so much set up and foundation for a defunct series.
Many have commented that this film, in its attempt to portray Batman's origins in a realistic light, is far too somber and self-serious. This complaint is less credible when one comes in knowing what to expect (a different kind of action film) and what not to expect (Batman & Robin). That is essentially what Batman Begins is all about: to re-begin what was destroyed eight years ago and begin completely fresh. Hopefully this film will do what contributed to the successes of the Spiderman and Lord of Rings series: get people involved in the characters, and carry that continuity from one film to the next. Continue to develop Gordon, make Harvey Dent the district attorney. Batman Begins is already ahead of the pack—acting wise, intellectually and in relation to the source material—it needs to stay that way.
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