Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Batman Begins

Unlike a lot of people (I suspect), I have a very, very specific idea of what kind of art I love best: a subversive/dark sensibility, with a strong commercial bent. This is what I like about old spaghetti westerns, The Warriors, Fight Club, etc. It's also what I love about Christopher Nolan, and my favorite of his films (so far), Batman Begins.
Had you told me a couple of years ago that the director of Memento and Following was going to revive the Bat-franchise, I would have thought you crazy. Nolan seemed like too much of an artiste for lowly comic-book adaptations. Not that there's anything wrong with Batman--inner comic book geek aside, Batman is arguably one of the greatest fictional characters ever created. He has gone strong as a media icon for over seven decades now, with literally thousands of stories written about him, and has thusly been given levels of characterization that dwarf "greater" characters. The billionaire whose philantrophist parents were gunned down before his eyes, Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to a war on crime, while trying to keep what soul he has left intact, fighting conflict all the while. Does Batman attract greater trouble to Gotham by his flamboyant nature? Is it right for him to enlist partners (especially younger ones) in his war on crime? Will he ever be free of the Bat, and be able to live a "normal" life as Bruce Wayne? When you take a closer look, it's really not hard to figure out what drew Nolan to the material.
Batman Begins gives us a take on the Dark Knight previously unseen in film: We open with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Chinese prison, suffering from nightmares and beating the crap out of would-be bullies in the prison yard. How did he get there? A large portion of the first half of the film is told seamlessly in flashback, detailing Bruce's love of his parents and trauma over their death, his friendship with Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and his failed attempt at avenging their murder. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) of the mysterious League of Shadows recruits him, and helps complete his training, especially in terms of mastering his fear. But the League's goals don't meet with Bruce's, and he destroys their headquarters, returning to Gotham to begin his campaign to save the city.
The script of this film, by Nolan and comic veteran David Goyer, is tightly crafted, and is both artistic and structured. There are some new twists to this somewhat-origin story (Ra's Al Ghul being the primary threat), which pays tribute to Frank Miller's (300, Sin City) Batman: Year One in many of its elements (corrupt cop Flass, Batman's abortive first crime-fighting attempts). Along with the script, and the lovingly rendered performances of its characters drive this film: Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the mob boss of Gotham, who seems to have stepped out of a Warner Bros gangster film from the 40s. Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache), Bruce's loving father who informed the type of man that his son would become. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the corrupt psychiatrist who becomes the Scarecrow. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the kindly, Morgan Freemanesque inventor who helps Bruce along his path. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), seemingly the one honest cop in Gotham City. Don't get me wrong, Christian Bale is more than competent in this film, but there's a difference between being able to share a scene with the likes of Roache and Wilkinson, and then there's the altogether different matter of outshining them.
The film is a treat to look at, thanks to the masterful cinematography of Nolan regular Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith. The things I would normally complain about (jerkily shot fight scenes) are actually assets here that enhance the story. Gotham City has never looked better. There are things about the movie that bug me (C'mon......would Batman really be so reckless with the safety of police (or anybody), even if a life was at stake? I don't think so...), but they are few and far between. Batman Begins is a near-perfect film, but it has some serious room for improvement. More/better action. A story that's no parts origin. No Katie Holmes. Hopefully, July's The Dark Knight will deliver on that. But Batman Begins is still worth a by-no-means-shabby 20 out of 22.

18 comments:

Particle Man said...

Batman Begins doesn't get quite as high a score for me; probably a 14 or 15, and Memento and The Prestige both get higher scores. even so, it is a superb movie, and at last gives a movie treatment to a great franchise that deserves a great movie. the Burton attempts were good, but a little silly, and then the Schumacher attempts were unspeakably bad. Nolan finally brought some respect and grandeur to the Batman story in movies, grandeur that i think was there from the beginning of the comic books. what's more, he did by employing something comic books normally don't touch: realism.

Your Racist Friend said...

Comic books employ realism all the time, it's just that people don't realize it because they don't read them, or that it's wrapped up in such fantastic settings. But the writing is a lot smarter than it used to be. Take this line of the Flash's from The New Frontier:

"I wait until I'm outside of city limits before I break the sound barrier. I found out the hard way that flying glass shards and pedestrians don't mix."

But I maintain that Batman Begins is the best filmed comic adaptation, to date.

CmdLuke said...

great review. I loved batman begins and it is a great film, however, is it really in the same league with other classic films that get a near perfect score as well? How would you rate it in comparison to classic films such as Star Wars (original), Casablanca, Citizen Cane and other such greats?

Dr. Worm said...

I fully agree with YRF's comment that Batman Begins is the best filmed comic adaptation to date (at least of the ones I've seen). Although my 22 rating would probably be closer to PM's. I think I'd give it a 14. I'd have to imagine that the six-point bump that YRF awarded it has a lot to do with his greater involvement with and appreciation of comic bookery.

Moshe Reuveni said...

For the record, I would go (and actually went) with a score of 14, too.
I would also add that Spiderman 2 gets my vote for best comics / superhero based film.
And while at it, I don't think that highly of Citizen Kane. Granted, it's artistic, but it's also boring; it's the hype that gets it mentioned whenever someone tries to measure films against the so called standard.

Your Racist Friend said...

Spider-Man 2 is quite good....very comparable to Batman Begins in quality. The action is SM2 is better (especially the train sequence!), but Kirsten Dunst weakens the film a bit for me. Other than that, the film sums up Spider-Man, and what makes him one of the greatest superheroes of all time really, really well.

Citizen Kane isn't a bad film, but it hasn't aged quite as well as certain other films from that era. Casablanca is a better film that Batman Begins. It's hard to give a rating to the original Star Wars....it's such a different amimal. Star Wars is very, very difficult to be in terms of character design, if nothing else. The dialogue is clunky, but the actors do a nice job with it. One of the most fascinating special features on teh Star Wars DVD are the auditions, where you see how much better Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford were than a lot of the people who tried out.

Dr. Worm said...

Ok, YRF, riddle me this: Who drags down her respective film more, Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman 2 or Katie Holmes in Batman Begins?

Your Racist Friend said...

That's an excellent question, and I think I have a pretty good answer. Although both performances are somewhat weak, Kristen Dunst drags it down more, but not by much fault of her own. Katie Holmes has less baggage, because Rachel Dawes wasn't a pre-existing character. And KD is just so miscast as MJ Watson. First of all, there's the issue of looks. This is what Mary Jane looks like:

http://image.comicvine.com/uploads/item/14000/13380/131777-mary-jane_400.jpg

She's supposed to be this off-the-charts hot supermodel, and hardly anybody can believe that Peter had a chance with her. To say I don't get that from Kristen Dunst is putting it mildly.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Sorry to jump in this late, but I am curious: who would you cast instead of Dunst, then?

Your Racist Friend said...

Good question, Moshe. I would say somebody who looked a bit like Megan Fox (Transformers), but could act better. But they would need to be in that Angelina Jolie/Charisma Carpenter range of good looks. Dunst doesn't even come close.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I will gladly dispute the attraction factor of Ms Charisma and Ms Fox. They do look good, but they also look like they could use a brain implant and completely turn me off.
The reason why I asked my question in the first place is simple: Women have a really hard time in Hollywood. They always have to look good and look young, and once age takes its toll on them they just disappear (unless they manage to secure a safe niche, as in the case of Judie Dench). I'm generalizing here, but as your answer demonstrates it's not a trivial affair to come up with good actresses (unless you want Mrs Pitt to star in all films).
My point is that with such demands on actresses, it’s obvious why Spiderman has to settle for the likes of Dunst.

Particle Man said...

say what you want, but i think Kirsten Dunst is pretty foxy. she can't act her way out of a paper bag, but that's an entirely different issue.

Your Racist Friend said...

"I'm generalizing here, but as your answer demonstrates it's not a trivial affair to come up with good actresses (unless you want Mrs Pitt to star in all films).
My point is that with such demands on actresses, it’s obvious why Spiderman has to settle for the likes of Dunst."

I don't understand what you're trying to say here. Could you rephrase that? Are you saying that Hollywood shys away from taking a chance on model/super-model looking actresses in favor of more established names?

But Mary-Jane Watson is a special case....she is a pre-existing character, and comes with baggage that characters from an original screenplay or novel wouldn't have. All the more so since she's been continously rendered pictorially.

Dr. Worm said...

I'll chime in with PM here and voice my opinion that Kirsten Dunst isn't exactly homely. I do understand point YRF brings up about her needing to be an absolute knockout, but I also think it's a tad unfair to ask a real female to look like a drawing.

But as long as we're talking about being fair to women, I'd love to hear Wicked Little Critta or Stormy Pinkness chime in.

Your Racist Friend said...

Mary Jane isn't exactly unrealistic. The main point is that there's supposed to be a tremendous disparity
between Peter and Mary Jane; People should look at them together and think "How did a schlub like him end up with a knockout like her?"

Moshe Reuveni said...

For the record, what I was trying to say, rather unsuccessfully, is that Hollywood goes for the looks rather than acting skills. There's this idealization of certain beauty ideals that, as DW said, do not really exist in real life and if they're then they're only there for a short while and with the aid of lots of work and tons of makeup.
I'm sure that when Angelina gets out of bed first thing in the morning she doesn't look like Lara Croft.
While in Spiderman's case this may be justified on the grounds of loyalty to the original work, that should be an exception.

To go a bit further, several research efforts have found that the best indicator to a man's status is how good looking his female partner is. The higher the status of the man, the more glamorous the woman. On average.
As someone who doesn't think too highly of this tendency, and as someone who doesn't really care that much about the original Spiderman comics (no offence, YRF), I wouldn't mind seeing Spiderman going out with a not so flashy looking woman.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Oh for goodness sakes, y'all are thinking about this way too much. All YRF if saying is that according to Spiderman comics, which the movies are based on (and he knows a lot more about that I do,) MJ is a knock-out, and Dunst doesn't exactly fill those shoes. Frankly, I agree with him. I mean, she's not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't think her attractiveness is exceptional.

Btw, this has nothing to do with what I think about how Hollywood uses and abuses attractiveness...

Your Racist Friend said...

Exactamundo. We're talking a divide like Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Heigl in Knocked Up. Like, pushing suspension of disbelief.