Saturday, October 15, 2005

Batman Begins: Review

I was 11 years old when the first Batman film was released. I went to see it on opening night with two classmates. Even before I saw the film, I had Batman T-shirts, posters on my bedroom wall, Prince's OST...the works. What can I say? I was young and impressionable to the marketing blitz. In retrospect, maybe I didn't like the film as much as I liked the character of Batman, the idea of Batman as a symbol. I think a lot of people my age probably feel the same, because, let's face it, it's not really that good a movie. It has it's moments, but it's basically, at its core, more of an adaptation of the campy 60's TV series than of the comic book.

When I was 11 and saw the film, I was deeply immersed in comics, but not DC. I bought a few Batman books because the film's hype piqued my interest, but I never grew attached to the character. He was too brooding, too much of an enigma -- and not in a positive way where one wants to delve into what makes this man, who dresses up like a bat, tick.

I still feel pretty much the same. The Batman ideal interests me, but it, as far as I've seen, hasn't been developed in a lasting way. Maybe The Dark Knight Returns achieved that, and possibly some of the myriad Batman mini-series, too; but those are also adaptations, or spins on the Batman mythos. The regular comics series (of which, admittedly, I have read very few issues), never interested me. From 1989 to 2005, I'd very infrequently purchase an issue of Batman or Detective Comics, but the stories always left me feeling ripped off. Maybe because there are only so many stories that can be told in a certain medium before they become stale, no matter what new spin or gimmick is tried to rejuvinate the franchise.

I don't know what the future holds for the "next generation" of Batman films, but based on the greatness of Batman Begins, it looks very bright indeed. Enough so that I, someone who has never cared -- apart from the iconic nature of the character -- about Batman, is a convert.

Sign me up. Direct me to the large vat of Kool-Aid so that I may take a gulp.

Batman Begins is the best pure Superhero film ever made. M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is the best overall, in my opinion, but its status as a comic book movie is debatable (it isn't based on a character who has appeared in comics). Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 previously held the honor (again, strictly my opinion) of being the best, but no longer.

The movie is also Christopher Nolan's best film. I liked Memento...once. Its gimmick doesn't stand up to multiple viewings. 2002's Insomnia was all right, but nowhere near as great as the original Norwegian film. In Begins, however, he's a perfect fit.

Ditto for all of the actors (albeit to varying degrees). Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne -- it's when he dons the cowl that I have some minor issues, which are his tendency to talk like a) he's doing a Clint Eastwood/The Man With No Name impression, and b) a professional wrestler. But that's a minor nitpick. Bale plays the role of the multi-millionare perfectly. Kudos also to the supporting cast, particularly Michael Caine, who plays a very likeable Alfred. For the first time on film, we understand just what this man means to Bruce Wayne. The rapport they share is fanastic, and often very funny. Morgan Freeman does a solid job, as does Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Liam Neeson, and...Katie Holmes. She didn't knock my socks off or anything, but I had heard so many negative things about her performance that I was expecting the worst. The only real problem I have with her in the film is that her character is far too young to be a believable assistant to the DA. Ditto for Cillian Murphy, who plays Arkham Asylum's head doctor. He's what, 27 or something? Yeah, right. But I get why Murphy and Holmes were cast. It's all about the film's taget demographic; and, honestly, I prefer that they went with younger actors rather than someone older. This is what plagues the X-Men franchise and some of their casting choices, particularly Famke Jansen as Jean Grey/Phoenix.

I won't detail the plot of the film, primarily because I think most people have already seen it; but I want to make some notes. If you haven't seen it, beware: spoilers to follow.

- People have complained that what sunk the Batman franchise was too many villains (I suppose more than one constitutes as "too many"). It wasn't the number of villains, rather that the previous films put more of an emphasis on them than the titular character. In Begins there are as many as five villains, and never is the story weighed down by them. The script handles them all deftly.

- Halfway through the film, Bruce turns into a bit of a jackass playboy. I loved the idea of this, but the portion of the film this subplot occupies is too short and isn't fleshed out well. I suspect some other scenes for this subplot were shot and left on the editing room floor. I'm not sure if that was a good or bad choice. On one hand, too many scenes like the one where Bruce and two models jump into a hotel restaurant's decorative pool may have stalled the film's momentum. But on the other, it would make Bruce Wayne's character more interesting.

- The way the movie introduces, convincingly, certain staples of Batman's world, such as the bat signal and the bat cave, is nothing short of remarkable. Extra bonus points for the chilling final scene, where we understand exactly why there will be more villains to follow (the next of whom, with Gordon's turning over of a playing card, is hinted likely to be).

- The score, by Hans Zimmer [edit: James Newton Howard -- who has just replaced Howard Shore on Peter Jackson's King Kong remake -- also had a hand in scoring the picture] is fantastic. The last film that I can remember where the score does so much to propel the story is P.T. Anderson's Magnolia. The score isn't as memorable as some other Superhero films', but I think that's a good thing, much in the same way that Spider-Man's theme music doesn't overpower the actual images on the screen.

- My biggest complaint of the movie is that the DA, Katie Holmes's boyfriend, is killed, and she basically doesn't give a shit. Totally unbelievable. It is the largest of the movie's few missteps, the others being Bale's voice as the Batman (although I suppose it is realistically necessary for him to alter his voice, given his fame; but it still sounds cheesy in some scenes); that at times Bale's face looks like it was squeezed into a mask too small for his head; and the black make-up around his eyes when he's wearing the mask.

But those are minor gripes. Like I said, I believe Batman Begins is the best film yet made about a comic book character. What a film! Here's hoping that the sequel lives up to the greatness of the first real Batman film Hollywood has made.

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