Wednesday, July 18, 2012

movie review: 'batman begins' (RETRO REVIEW)

In two days, like a majority of comic book fans, movie buffs, and semi-professional movie critics, I'm going to go see The Dark Knight Rises. I've been working my ass off to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll be fully surprised when I go to see the movie, but I also know that's going to be mostly impossible in this day and age. I know the movie has received some amount of critical acclaim (although most critics have commented it isn't quite as good as The Dark Knight), I know Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy are playing villains, and I have a sneaking suspicion regarding the return of Ra's al-Ghul and the League of Shadows in some way, shape, or form (fingers crossed for Liam Neeson to show up).

With all of this in mind, I thought it might be productive (since there really aren't many albums that I can review at this point) for me to do a retroactive examination of the three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. Part of this is for me to catch up on canonical elements that I might have missed, but another part of this is to re-examine Nolan's filmmaking and thematic elements he's looking to consider in this series, and ultimately bring to a close in his film set to be released this Friday. 

So, without further ado, let's talk about Batman Begins.

First, let us consider Christopher Nolan. He began his career with three movies of good quality (Following, Memento, and Insomnia). Memento is the film with which Nolan got his first mainstream break, and was praised for its non-linear style and approach, but if I'm going to be completely honest, I preferred Insomnia. Yes, I know Insomnia has issues, but I still dig the tightly-written story and the great performance courtesy of Robin Williams (who does surprisingly well in villain roles, I have to say). Coming off of these films, it's not entirely surprising Nolan would be the one tasked with reviving Batman.

And now I have to talk about Batman, and here's where I can already see the tide of fanboy rage rising in the distance - because at this point, I'm heartily sick of the character. Between the Burton/Schumacher films and the flood of comics and the admitted excellent animated series and Arkham games, I feel the world (and the Internet in particular) has just been overwhelmed by an influx of Batman. And perhaps that's a bad attitude to take before sitting down to watch three Batman movies, but let me clarify some of my feelings on the character outside of any personal bias.

For one, I have few problems with Batman's origin story, or his supporting cast. I think some of Batman's villains are the most iconic in comic book history. I find his skill set to be a little convenient, if I'm going to be honest - I mean, how many billionaire playboy philanthropists with full companies with the capacity to produce military hardware would take it upon themselves to train as a ninja and become the world's greatest detective? I've had similar problems with Iron Man, but at least Tony Stark had motivation beyond revenge for a tragedy that took place decades earlier. Furthermore, it's not often you get to see Batman enjoy being a superhero with huge wealth and assets - I know if I was in a similar situation, I'd be a lot more like Stark than Bruce Wayne, who embarks on his quest with dour determination and a scowl.

And here's where I'm going to say something that is really going to piss people off, but I stand by it: Batman, in essence, is a permanently adolescent character, both in his mindset and his appeal. He is the epitome of the sullen teenager with the chip on his shoulder, and his plan to rid Gotham of all crime strikes me as half of Sisyphus' fruitless endeavour and half a plan rife with naivete. And, simply put, Batman's legacy and image is rife with shadows and darkness and fear - you know, the things that young teenage guys find appealing - and I'm not even getting into the massive power fantasy that is his alter-ego. I mean, Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy who doesn't even have to work to run his own company, and also is trained as a ninja who gets to hang around sexy cat burglars with whips who never do their latex catsuits up properly? I mean, when you talk about teenage boy wish fulfilment, how much closer can you get?

On a counter-point, let's talk about Superman. Now let's get one thing quite straight - young teenage guys tend not to like Superman. They consider him corny and silly and 'overpowered' and a generally 'boring character'. And I can't lie and say that I didn't go through that phase too. But between the articles I've read on the subject, All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, and Superman Returns (a movie I really fucking liked, but nobody else seemed to), I began to realize Superman's appeal. To kids, he's a father figure who can do no wrong, or the ultimate man who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes. But to adults, he's the human ideal despite being an alien. It's the Jesus mythos all over again, a symbol of an ideal to which humanity can aspire to. In short, Superman is the symbol of hope in the DC Universe, and considering everything that's happened in both the DC Universe and in actual reality, a message of hope resonates a lot more with me than the message of 'justice' that Batman represents. 

But let me make this clear: Batman does have a fair amount of appeal outside of the teenage boy demographic, and Batman Begins is a fine example of how and why. The story, in its very basic symbols, is about fear, and how to deal with it - and everybody, in some form, has to overcome fear at some point. Batman chooses his symbol based upon facing his fear of bats and the darkness that surrounds them. He chooses his symbol because he knows others share this fear, and he wishes to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, scare them into line. Jonathan Crane (otherwise known as the Scarecrow, and one of my favourite villains in the Batman mythos) is a character that also uses fear, but in a different way. Using his drugs, he wants to force people to confront their darkest fears, to both terrify, weaken, and dominate them so he might gain ascendancy - but ironically, he's never dared to confront his own deepest fears. The parallels between Batman and Scarecrow are some of the best parts of Batman Begins, to the point that I found the ultimate conclusion to the Scarecrow's subplot in the film something of a letdown.

But, to be fair, fear isn't the only theme that runs through this film. The other is the nature of revenge, and what that means. Bruce Wayne is initially blinded by vengeance, as he seeks to destroy the mob as just a man, only to find that he's effectively powerless. So he seeks out the League of Shadows and finds Ra's al-Ghul, an Illuminati-esque character who employs his league to mete out his brand of 'healing' on cities and civilizations that have become corrupt. This does tie into the theme of revenge, as Bruce is ultimately asked to kill during his final initiation. To Ra's al-Ghul, there is only retribution for sins and swift brutal action, without mercy, but Bruce Wayne is not like that. It's not that he's not strong enough to kill, but rather that he believes in humanity's inherent good, while the League does not. It comes together in the last act of the film, where the League has co-opted the  Scarecrow's plan to have Gotham City's citizens destroy themselves and the city by falling to their weakest fears. Bruce, a man who somehow still believes in the good of humanity despite everything, refuses to let that happen. Ultimately, by protecting the innocents of Gotham and capturing the criminals to face justice, he's forever atoning for his 'failure' outside of the theater when his parents were killed, and while he hates the criminals, he knows even they deserve a chance for redemption.

The twin themes of the movie are, to me, what makes Batman Begins stand out amongst the pack of superhero films. This is a film with a brain in its head and some designs on philosophical underpinnings - even if there are elements of said philosophy that raise a number of eyebrows. For starters, it's hard not to acknowledge that Gotham City is, in essence, a feudal fief of the Wayne family, with Batman as the lord. Indeed, Bruce's father speaks at some length early in the film about his 'duty' to helping improve the lives of those beneath them as their monorail system streaks above the slum below. It's a stark metaphor, and the evolution from the Wayne family of doctors into the corrupt Wayne Enterprises reveals something of a fascist undertone. But Bruce, near the end of the movie, buys up the majority stake in the stock and seizes control of the firm again, putting his trusted confidant in charge (cronyism at work, everybody!). In other words, the lord of Gotham has reclaimed his vassalage that provides him with the power and weaponry to police the city (as I said, essentially feudal).

And there really is something iffy about the gender politics of this film. Katie Holmes does... well, she's disposable. Her version of Rachel Dawes doesn't have the charisma or captivating personality to make her all that watchable, and she mostly plays the 'damsel-in-distress' role that Kim Basinger played Vicki Vale with in the original Burton Batman. Other than that and Sara Stewart (who plays the murdered Martha Wayne), there aren't any more significant female characters in the entire movie! Talk about a film that fails the Bechdel test by leaps and bounds, but this has been a recurring problem in Nolan's filmmaking - he tends to emphasize a hyper-masculine view of logic and reason, with 'emotion' and 'spirit' denigrated as 'female' and subsequently 'dangerous' (both The Prestige and Inception were thesis statements on this subject). If anything, it's a big reason why astute film critics and comic book fans have raised some concerns about how Nolan would handle a character such at Catwoman, a character who is all about fluid, female-dominated sexuality. 

But returning to viewing Batman Begins as a whole, even with the laundry list of thematic problems I listed above, I can't deny that it's a well-shot, excellently-scripted, genuinely entertaining movie. As origin stories go, Batman Begins nails not only the key beats, but the emotion and depth behind them. It helps that Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne is really working hard to sell the role, and he's supported by the best supporting cast Nolan could get. Liam Neeson - a former art-film actor turned action star in the vein of Nicholas Cage, and also one of my favourite actors of all time - plays Bruce's trainer/ally/enemy with a haunted intensity and rage that really shines. And I've already spoken above regarding Cillian Murphy playing Jonathan Crane as the Scarecrow. The man plays creepy easily, and he fits the role seemingly without even trying. Michael Caine plays Alfred with the hidden edge that I find absolutely captivating, Morgan Freeman brings a great charm and dignity to Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman... 

Well, fuck, Gary Oldman is the best goddamn part of this movie, and in my personal opinion, one of the best parts of the entire series. His version of Sergeant Jim Gordon (promoted to Lieutenant Gordon at the end of the film) is masterful, not only because Oldman plays the part like he's a Law & Order cop transplanted into Gotham, but also because he's the human connection. While some people might want to idolize Batman, he's also a billionaire in a suit of armor with ninja skills and an arsenal of gadgets - Jim Gordon is a policeman who's doing what little he can with the tiny resources afforded to a genuinely good Gotham City cop. He's the underdog, he's the working man, he's the guy who has a family and a life and isn't the superhero but easily could be. He really comes to his own in The Dark Knight, but I'd argue he's great here. Oldman plays Gordon as a defeated cop in a department rife with corruption, and when Batman arrives, he finally sees a way out. 

The plot of Batman Begins is the other star of this movie, because while it certainly is complex and a little tough to follow at points, it road-maps very well, and while I'd argue the dramatic payoff in some cases is a little light, it manages to execute surprisingly well. It can come across as a little heavy-handed at points on certain themes, but then again, I can forgive that because Nolan was trying to reinvent the Batman series from ground-up. He needed to bring the thematic points to the forefront in order to distinguish this film from its predecessors. He wanted to make a more complex, 'smarter' version of Batman, and to some degree he succeeded, although I'm still not a fan of the ultimate villain plan (sure, the water vaporization mechanics and aerosol drug dispersion is cool (and something The Amazing Spider-Man ripped off), but the drug dispersal in the slums was ultimately not entirely effective, and I doubt Ra's al-Ghul's plan would have worked). 

And of course all of the subplots resolve themselves with some degree of thematic payoff, with the only real losses being Wayne Manor (a symbolic destruction of the past for Bruce, forcing him to move on - which, ironically enough, I can't say he really does) and his relationship with Rachel (who can't love both Batman and Bruce - but then again, I felt that relationship felt token anyway, but more on this in my The Dark Knight review coming tomorrow). But then again, I expected this - the plotting in a Nolan film as a complexity that is downright mechanical, all the pieces fitting together like clockwork. 

So yeah, Batman Begins is a good movie. In fact, I'd argue it's kind of great. There are moments that are slow and hammer on themes some of us will have already grasped, but I suspect Nolan knows this. He wants us to be acutely away of his meaning behind his work of art, and here, it's executed with a nuance and substance to make the film pretty damn excellent. It did an excellent thing in revitalizing a critically-damaged franchise, and like some of the comics it was inspired by, it gave people outside of teenage guys the ability to appreciate it (of course, the teenage guys came to this film in mobs and loved it). To the stuffy movie critics, it took the first tentative step into elevating comic book movies towards cinematic art, and for that I will be forever thankful.

But Nolan was also clear that the story wasn't over. The mob (which plays a reasonably sized role in Batman Begins, but I did always feel their story was left intentionally unfinished) hadn't been busted, and the joker playing card Gordon gives Batman at the end of the film was a blatant sequel hook. And it's to that sequel I'll turn tomorrow, when I discuss the themes, symbols, meanings and problems with one of the best superhero movies of all time, The Dark Knight. 

1 comment:

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