Batman Begins

And then THIS incredibly momentous thing happens, and then…
Christopher Nolan
Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes
The Setup: 
Batman’s origin story and a little adventure.

Having seen The Dark Knight and liked it like most everyone, I was vaguely curious to revisit this one again. Then I found it for $5 and here we are. I had seen it in the theater and liked it well enough, without fully feeling like I understood all the relationships, who the bad guy really was, and what he wanted to do. Anyway, now I get it, and here we go.

After a logo introducing the movie, we meet young Bruce and his friend Rachel Dawes as young kids. Rachel is already insufferably sanctimonious, a quality she really grows into as she matures. Bruce falls down into an old well and gets attacked by bats, then wakes [it was a flashback!] in this Asian prison, where he soon gets into a fight, and kicks the asses of multiple prisoners. You see, Bruce has this thing about hurting criminals, and apparently got himself into a prison so he could… hurt criminals. This is what Liam Neeson as Henry Ducard says when he mysteriously shows up to ask Bruce if he wants to come train at his elite school for crime fighters. All he has to do is pick a blue flower from this hill and bring it up to the school, which he does. They ask him what he wants, and he says "I seek to fight injustice." There's a lot [LOT] of claptrap about how you can use your fear to turn other's fear into a weapon and use the power of illusion and theatricality, to the point where I started thinking… "Well for all this talk of turning fear against one's enemies, it sure seems, from what I recall, that Batman instead uses a lot of punches and kicks and gadgets and tanks."

Anyway, soon we flash back to Bruce's boyhood again. First he and his mom and dad are riding on this huge elevated train system [which I don't think we glimpsed at all in The Dark Knight—did we?] that his Dad built in order to bring the city together and help the lower classes. Bruce's Dad was basically the best, most selfless guy in the history of the universe. All train lines converge at Wayne Tower, which is where his Dad's business is. After this is a nice introduction to Gotham City, rendered here as a completely unrealistic, science-fiction metropolis. Later, at home, we are introduced to Michael Caine as Alfred, the butler. Mom and Dad take 8-year-old Bruce to the opera [bad idea], but the production has a large bat-related segment [between this and Quantum of Solace, it's interesting to speculate on what Hollywood thinks really goes on at operas], which makes Bruce scared and want to leave. The parents get mugged on the way out, and both are killed—and none of it wouldn't have happened if Bruce hadn't been such a pussy! Getting scared at an OPERA with a few bat-like segments. Douche. Anyway, at the police station, he is comforted by Gary Oldman as the future Commissioner Gordon. Bruce inherits everything, and Alfred is suddenly pushed into the role of his caretaker. Young Bruce confides that it's his fault that his parents got killed, which Alfred pooh-poohs. Then, back at training, Ducard is telling Bruce it's not his fault—it's his DAD'S fault! And I agree! He shouldn't have been so indulgent, and should have told Bruce it's JUST an OPERA, suck it up and act like a man!

We now move to when Bruce is a young man, and the killer of his parents is about to be released. Bruce is about to kill him as he's led from the court, but someone else does it first! He then confides this to Rachel, who has grown into the mousy, mousy reality of Katie Holmes, and she slaps him! Twice! She takes him for a tour of this slum [apparently located on a level just below the nicer streets of Gotham?], and tells him that vigilantism is wrong, you have to operate through the channels of the law, and by the way, his father would be ashamed of him. Rachel is a Sanctimonious Sally through all of the proceedings here, to the point where you want Bruce to turn around and just tell her to FUCK OFF. Bruce, you don't need that girl and all her whining! This might have worked had they chosen anyone—for the love of God, ANYONE—but Katie Holmes. Okay, this woman is lecturing Batman on right and wrong, and frankly, I don't believe she knows a single thing about anything that isn't related to choosing the best bronzer. She's also supposed to play an important role as a moral foil to Batman, and basically she's a particularly ditzy cheerleader. She also doesn't do ONE SINGLE THING except bitch and moan and whine and complain. Thank God they had the sense to ditch her for Dark Knight, and bring in Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is naturally sanctimonious, smug and superior anyway, so she works with the role, and also seems as though she is a) over the age if 16 and b) knows more than how to match an eye shadow with a base. Bruce tries to kick some gangster butt [Tom Wilkinson waltzes in and steals the show], but is kicked on his ass, and promptly disappears to China.

So as kind of a final exam Bruce has to crush up the blue flower he picked and smoke it, then fight a bunch of identically-dressed guys doing synchronized military-style movements. First, you'll notice that Bruce pointedly does NOT inhale—he just puts his nose down into the bowl. Second, you will notice that although Bruce is supposedly high, all that happens is the background vibrates a little bit. I suspect both of these measures are to diminish the threat of seeming to send pro-drug messages to innocent young minds that might be permanently warped by seeing this movie. I also don't understand what's really going on with his big test—he has to show how he would handle it if he were trapped inside the music video for Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation?—but ultimately he passes. As his final acceptance into the scouts, he has to kill a criminal, which he refuses to do. This is supposed to be the main crux of the film—that Batman does not kill—but I feel that this scene is muddled. First, we're so accustomed to villains and even heroes casually killing people [and even Batman causes a number of seemingly fatal car accidents later in this film] or showing blatant disregard for public safety. And we are ALSO so used to heroes taking this or that moral stand—that you can be watching this scene thinking "What's the big deal?" This appears to be such a big deal that it causes a schism with the brotherhood or whoever, and he needs to get out of there fast. He tosses a tiny lit arrow that causes the entire complex to explode, fights all the others off, and rescues Ducard from the burning complex. This is supposed to be a very important moment, kind of the crux of the film, but is handled in a sort of perfunctory way, to the point where it can finish while you are still asking yourself "So wait, what was his beef with these guys again?"

I had been playing along with this movie up until now, but here is where I took a serious step back. For one, the structure of the film thus far is "And then THIS incredibly momentous thing happened… and then THAT incredibly momentous thing happened…" It's just one incredibly important thing after another, and everything is shot portentously and underscored with music that drives home how very, VERY important everything is. Yes, I understand that these first forty minutes are packing a lot of crucial history in before we start this movie's episode, but on the other hand, it makes it apparent that this is just a comic book with pretensions. The second, BIG distancer, is that I'm sitting there watching the home of the monks explode in massive fireballs and suddenly it occurs to me—the place is made of stone, wood, and dirt—WHAT is exploding? Sure, they have a few firecrackers to create distractions, but this place is going up like a munitions storehouse. Sure, I know, it's just a movie, and that's fine, but I believe this disqualifies the movie from being taken very seriously as anything but, well, a comic book. If it is claiming this openly that it's all about the big action moments, whether they make sense or not, then it's just a well-done action picture, and not "Great Cinema," as one particularly unctuous site refers to it.

So forty minutes in, Bruce returns to Gotham, and the story proper begins. On the trip back, he confides his crazy vigilante scheme to Alfred, which made me kind of snicker, since as far as we know, Alfred knows nothing of Bruce's avenging impulses, and yet reacts to the idea that he's going to dress up and fight crime as though he were going to pursue Rugby. He's not home long before he discovers an entrance from the mansion down to the cave underneath, and has his 'born again' moment as he is surrounded by bats but isn't afraid anymore. Oh by the way, the cave was a spot where they would hide escapees on the underground railroad! These Waynes really are moral beacons, going on way back. I'll bet we find out they plotted to kill Hitler. The board of Wayne Industries, who thought he was dead, gives him a token job, and he meets Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, former friend of his father's, who has been banished down there. He shows Bruce some of the things they've been working on, that will turn into the Batsuit, a cape that will allow him to glide, and the Batmobile. Meanwhile, at home, Alfred handles buying rare items from exotic catalogs. During Batman's first fight with multiple villains [they kept the "I'm Batman" line from Tim Burton's version], you'll notice that we just hear a lot of whooshing, we don't actually hear the impact of punches. I assume this is one of the strategies they have of toning down the impact of violence.

Eventually Cillian Murphy shows up as Scarecrow, a bad guy who is using this hallucinogen that can drive people insane with one whiff—although it barely seems to bother him when it's used on him. Is this supposed to be because he's already insane? Anyway, it may just turn out that he's merely a pawn in a larger battle. But first Batman gets drugged and set on fire [awesome! I love it when superheroes get their asses kicked!]. Then Susie Sanctimony gets drugged and we have a big Batmobile chase—the Batmobile now being akin to a tank. I have a bit of a problem with all the collateral damage of this chase, as Batman drives a number of police cars into crashes which, although we don't see it, surely kill their drivers. Soon after this Alfred vents his beef with Batman, which is not that his crusades kill passers-by and cause massive property damage, but that he's doing it as a personal vendetta, instead of for more noble reasons. There is kind of a funny joke when Bruce goes out on a mission just as a party at his mansion starts, and after a huge, bruising, involved adventure, gets home and has to go straight back to the party.

So it turns out someone from Bruce's past is behind the big plot, which completes a nice irony—he feels it's his fault he couldn't save his parents, and that resulted in his being Batman, but now, a father figure whose life he DID save, almost results in his death and the destruction of Gotham City. It all has to do with a technology that vaporizes water, and another nice ironic touch is that Wayne Enterprises developed this weapon. It all leads to a big fight on the elevated subway, and overall it's cool, but I have two problems with it. One, unless I'm missing something, the whole back of the train mysteriously comes apart for no reason, and JUST at the right moment. The second was brought up by someone I work with. He said "Isn't the human body 60% water? And they're fighting RIGHT BEHIND this huge microwave machine that is vaporizing all the water within 100 feet?" And I had to admit he had a point there. Then, when it's all over, the wretched Rachel shows up to cock-tease Bruce, telling him that she really loves him… but none for him, until he drops this whole Batman thing. And then Bruce punches his fist through her face and out the back of her skull.

It was fine. It was decent for a superhero movie, but I think, given all the hype this series has been getting, it's important to keep separate LIKING this series from the illusion that it is BETTER than it is. It's a good comic book movie, but it's still just a comic book movie. There is no deep psychology of character—just COMPLICATED psychology of character. Bruce has a moral code and a daddy fixation, but that is about the extent of his character. Several other characters may have more depth than in other superhero films, but that doesn't make this Bergman. Furthermore, these characters live in a sort of science-fiction world with its own rules, and often have to do unexplained things, such as Alfred just accepting that Bruce is going to dress like a bat and go fight crime without batting an eyelash. The story has internal resonance and a good shape, particularly considering the challenges of having to marry Batman's backstory with a current crime-fighting episode, but, as with Memento and The Prestige, Nolan lets the dense piling-on of details and complications give the illusion of depth and richness.

After watching this again, I was wondering if, in a few years, I'm going to watch The Dark Knight again and find it seriously reduced in my estimation. I suspect that is precisely what will happen. This is a very good superhero movie that takes its subject with uncommon seriousness and has a better shape than most, but it's still just a superhero movie.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you want a decent action movie.


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