Film Review: Batman Begins

A new decade, a new series, a new Batman, a new you! The first major reboot in Batman’s cinematic history sees Christopher Nolan, then a rising star known for reasonably clever thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, in the director’s chair. Immediately I must make a confession, which is that throughout my years of knowing his work, I have found Nolan’s oeuvre consistently underwhelming. While I am trying to prevent this from clouding my judgement of Batman Begins, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that, criticism largely being a vehicle for vanity and all, I have doubtless failed in that task, and for that reason I won’t make any overtures to fairness. Having said that, I don’t think this review reads as unnecessarily critical, but then what the fuck do I know? I just wrote the damn thing, you’re actually reading it, and possibly not for much longer.

Batman Begins begins (it’s a bit I can only do once, let me have it) in a much different manner than either Burton’s or Schumacher’s films. As the title implies, the film deals with Batman’s origin story, and it spends quite a lot of time trying to establish the moral code of Batman through comparison and contrast of his childhood experiences against his later interactions with various figures, such as Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents; Carmine Falcone, a mob boss whose sphere of influence encompasses all levels of Gotham City’s social and legal power structures; and the League of Shadows, a mystical fraternity of assassins lead by the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul. His apprenticeship under Ra’s culminates in his refusal to execute a criminal, and the subsequent burning down of the base of the League of Shadows high in the Himalayas. I think this introduction to Bruce Wayne, which invites us to view Gotham as he does, both in the idealism of his father’s vision for the city in his youth, and in the tattered idealism of his own as he returns to save the city, mostly works as written.

However, there’s something odd going on with Christian Bale in this film. Especially in the pre-Batman portrayal of Bruce Wayne, Bale simply seems like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. This may well be deliberate, since it is appropriate to the character at that time in his life, but there’s something off about it that I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s as if we are seeing Bale not getting it rather than Wayne not getting it. However, once Wayne returns to Gotham, Bale fits much more comfortably with the material. In this film, Bruce Wayne plays up to an expectation of rich youth, lacking in morals and manners, which, for his parents were good people, beloved of Gotham, he must have chosen to cast aside to indulge in nihilistic libertinism. The scene in which Wayne gets his birthday party guests to leave so that he can confront Ra’s al Ghul is brilliantly played, and ultimately shows just how deliberate his decisions have been ever since his return to Gotham.

This film deals much more with Gotham as a living, breathing society than any of the previous series of films did, even Batman Returns, with its three-way intersection of crime, politics, and business, and one of its major villains an outcast aristocrat, doesn’t present a full picture of Gotham’s interdependent social strata. To be fair, this film doesn’t present a full picture either, but it is more willing to delve into social themes, to show the effects of poverty on ordinary people, even presenting Joe Chill as a victim of circumstance rather than a cold-blooded killer—in fact, Tim Burton praised the film for going where at the time it was felt that he couldn’t in his own Batman films. Chill is assassinated by Carmine Falcone, against whom Chill testified in order to shorten his prison time, and who is flooding Gotham’s ghetto neighbourhoods with drugs. While Batman works with an unwitting old acquaintance, district attorney Rachel Dawes, to get leverage on Falcone, the seemingly all-powerful mobster is swept away by a yet greater tide of evil washing over the city in the form of Ra’s al Ghul. This is one of the film’s major missteps. While Bruce Wayne’s actions absolutely should have consequences, the reveal of Falcone as a pawn in a game of global proportions causes Batman’s first crusade to lose its identity as a reclamation of a city and people that were failed by his own socio-economic class. I think Ra’s al Ghul’s return should have been simply implied at the end and brought to fruition in a later film, since in the final scene we see that they were already confident of a sequel.

But Ra’s al Ghul’s what we get, so what he got? He is played by Liam Neeson, which apparently is supposed to be a shock. I read that Nolan cast Neeson since he had usually played mentor figures, which Ra’s very much is at the start of the film. Given that Neeson is now known for appearing in endless reiterations of the same action movie in which the editing cuts so frequently that you can’t tell what is actually happening, it seems like the choice was made for the wrong reasons. Having said that, I like Neeson’s performance quite a lot. The character is not necessarily well served by the writing, especially in the latter half where he seems to be there only to fulfil the need for a big villain reveal, but Neeson himself is very convincing as the leader of a global terrorist organisation. From his very first scene, laying out a path for Bruce Wayne to become the Batman, he exhibits calm and debonair charm, with a charisma and mystique that makes us want Bruce to accept his offer so we can see what he’s all about. As we learn the truth behind Ra’s’s (you didn’t think I would, but I did) philosophy of justice, the film gambles on the hope that we’ll be torn between Bruce’s loyalty to Gotham, to the ideals of his father, and the more cosmically minded campaign of Ra’s, who seeks to save the world through catastrophe. You can see that the film in this conflict takes its cue from Watchmen, but is it really that compelling? For me, at least, the idea that disaster begets some kind of cleansing empathy was never sound, but I think the film is designed to be perceived to be more morally complex than it actually is.

Ra’s is being supported by Jonathan Crane, better known as Scarecrow. Crane is in charge of Arkham Asylum, and is using a substance derived from a rare Himalayan flower in experiments on the inmates. Under the guidance of Ra’s, Crane dumps the substance into the Gotham water supply, though I have to question just how rare the flower is if enough of Scarecrow’s fear toxin can be produced to poison the entire city. Regardless of the mechanics of their villainous plot, I rather like this portrayal of Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy plays Crane as a weasely, insidious, amoral figure, and while there’s more than a dash of the stereotypical mad scientist who doesn’t care what lines he has to cross in pursuit of his research, the understated relish of Murphy’s performance makes him engaging to watch. Instead of appearing in full costume, the Scarecrow is a simple sackcloth head covering with eyeholes and a mechanism for dispersal of the fear toxin. The Scarecrow therefore appears less a persona in itself than Crane’s perversion, lending him the air of a serial killer, which I suppose he is, since his drug so completely destroys the mental faculties of those exposed to it, including, ultimately, his own.

By the time of Batman Begins, the caped crusader had yet to star in a film which really sold him as a capable fighter. The Tim Burton films were deliberately theatrical and often featured unrealistic fighting in keeping with their urban fairytale style, while Joel Schumacher’s Batman would usually flash some improbable gadget or found prop as a goof in the face of his foes. Nolan’s foray into the franchise shows a martial arts based approach, more grounded than that of its predecessors and also of earlier high-profile western examples of martial arts action like The Matrix. Christian Bale even trained in kung fu as part of his preparation for the role of Batman, but for all of that, and perhaps foreseeing (or sealing?) Liam Neeson’s own fate, the fight scenes in this film are absolute pants. Nary a punch is thrown that isn’t cut in two with needless editing, and while it isn’t quite as bad as Taken, in which the least movement of Neeson’s body must be captured in three different ways cut against each other, the impacts lack weight because they are so often shorn of their actual physical context. The relationship between the physical impulse behind a punch, the movement of the body, from the core up and out through the chest and down the arm to the fist, the cadence of the impact, simply isn’t there, and any potential for real excitement is wasted.

All scenes, cut to ribbons or not, are set to the predictably dull music of Hans Zimmer, king of the hack composers of Hollywood. Even if the fight scenes were awe-inspiring, there is nothing this man cannot make boring by association. But the flavourless harmonies and workaday rhythms of Zimmer’s score are a perfect match for the film’s bland colour palette and pedestrian camera work, so in a way the composer has done a brilliant job. I didn’t intend here to talk about both music and visuals, but seeing as the one underlies and enhances the other, or at least as that is the intended relationship, it seems as good a time as any to say that there are no arresting images in the entire film. From dockyard drug deals to opulent mansions, the film exists in light grey and dark brown, with anything in between getting dragged one way or the other into a black hole. Pretending towards realism is one thing, but the desaturation of colour coz dark innit seems rather to take life out of the equation. Still, the music and visuals are of a piece, so despite their aesthetic beigery they cannot really be faulted in that they serve the overall purpose of the work.

The lack of character present in the film’s cinematic elements are compensated for somewhat by a range of likeable performances from the supporting cast, chief among them Michael Caine, who replaces Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth. Caine is refreshingly unposh, while retaining the understated wit of prior incarnations, and bringing a fatherly warmth to the butler of Wayne Manor. I guess it’s hard not to like Michael Caine, generally speaking, but Alfred might be my favourite of his performances next to his impeccable Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman. Agreeable, reliable old Morgan Freeman. There’s not much to say, he does what he does very well, even if it is nothing we haven’t seen from him before. Jim Gordon, not yet commissioner, is played by Gary Oldman, and he comes off as a bit of a doofus, occasionally betraying his Englishness through inconsistent accent work, but he looks Gordonesque, far more than did Pat Hingle in the previous (alleged) continuity.

The wealth of content lifted from the comic books lends authenticity to the film, which is rich with elements and references lifted straight from the panels themselves, but the tone seems to have arisen partly from embarrassment, if not disgust at its comic book origins. The use of an amalgamation of real world metropoleis as a model, as opposed to the grandiose invention of previous films, often leaves Gotham City without even the semblance of a character of its own. While I’m wholly in favour of getting away from the nonsensical neon nightmares of Joel Schumacher, they could at least boast some unique and memorable architecture. Nolan’s Gotham, realistic though it may be, is a city like any other, and in its universality it is reduced to a kind of nowhere, a state of being which reflects the film as a whole. Competence is consistently substituted for style, but there is little of value in mere competence. The platitudinous mantra “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” speaks of taking risks only as it applies to characters within the film, while its rote form and flat, simplistic vision more adequately suit the form of the film itself. No risks are taken here, Nolan is too competent and too satisfied by his competence for that.

Batman Begins is an underwhelming film. It lacks the stylishness of previous Batman films, and while, by varying degrees, it undeniably outdoes them in consistency of quality, it also cannot reach the heights that those less assured efforts could, even if it avoids the lows to which they sometimes sank. A mountain range is dangerous and difficult to cross, but a flat line provides little challenge or reward. See? I can do simplistic lines, too. Flaws can often add character and charm, but in Nolan’s vision of Batman, the flaw is the lack of character itself. Character is often located somewhere in the margins, never allowed to take too much away from the central idea of a grounded superhero movie, something that can wipe away the occasionally mad excesses of what has come before it and replace them with the reassuring beige of competence. I, at least, find myself in the throes of desire for mad excess, if only to break from the monotony of “realism” as it is presented here. It seems, then, that where this Batman begins, I must stop.

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