Monday, June 8, 2009

Seven Films for Seven Batmen, No. 6: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

(Being a countdown of the seven live-action major motion pictures featuring Batman. Mission statement here, the list so far here.)

So, Batman Begins at No. 6. This may possibly be an unpopular choice, but I am totally willing to debate this. I hard a hard time deciding which movie to name the “second-worst,” because frankly, aside from Batman & Robin, I do actually like all the other Batman movies for one reason or another, although I admit there’s pretty substantial flaws in most of them. Ultimately I have to give the sixth-place nod to Begins, but I do just want to make it clear that even though this only a step up from Batman & Robin on the list, there is a considerable gulf in quality between the two.

Let’s talk about what’s good. I do have to say I was terribly impressed with how this movie works in relation to the previous ones. The studio wanted to reboot the franchise, but they also wanted villains we hadn’t already seen in a movie to smooth the transition. Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul probably aren’t many filmmakers’ first choice for Batman villains, but because of that they never threaten to take over the movie (a criticism many have about Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s entries), allowing us to focus on Bruce Wayne, which is sort of the mission statement of this movie. That said, Christopher Nolan & Co. manage to make the villains integral to the movie -- not just plotwise, but also thematically. To center Batman’s origin around fear, and then to be able to tie that into the Scarecrow’s fear toxin, and to be able to tie that back to Ra’s … well, I do appreciate the sense of unity.

Also, Christian Bale is perhaps the most believable Bruce Wayne and Batman, for what that’s worth. Driven, almost obsessively so, but he never veers into that “psycho-Bat” territory. I appreciate that it feels like he’s got a mission, not a war. Also, I always enjoy the Scarlet Pimpernel-type foppish persona, so there’s that.

Alfred serves a different function than he does in other interpretations. Usually he serves (pun?) to keep Bruce grounded, to pull him away from the edge when he starts to get too into the Batman persona. He’s a facilitator, where Michael Caine’s Alfred is an instigator. Because Bale is less sure of himself than the Bruce Wayne we’re used to, Caine has to take a much more active role in shaping Batman. This isn’t necessarily my ideal Alfred, but it works in the context of this movie; Bale’s Bruce needs an Alfred and a Lucius and a Rachel to guide this Batman-in-training. (Is it significant that a proactive Alfred is portrayed as somewhat lower class than the traditional, reactive, stiff-upper-lip Alfred? Or is it just Michael Caine being Michael Caine?)

Entertaining acting to be had all around (well, except for poor Katie Holmes, maybe). So why does Begins rank so (comparatively) low? I have to say, the first time I saw it I thought it was amazing and probably the best Batman movie to date, but time and distance have cooled me on it somewhat. To start us off, I’ll pull out something I wrote in an e-mail recently:

“I think part of the reason comics aren't subversive anymore is because they don’t *have* to be. You don’t have to hint at this weird antagonistic romance between Batman and Catwoman anymore because the kids are gone, and now they can just sleep together and talk about it; the subtext is free to be just text, but now the stories don’t mean anything greater than what they are.”

This is my biggest complaint with this movie: All the just-under-the-surface stuff we associate with Batman is brought to sea level. Characters talk at length about Batman as a symbol, what he represents, whether Bruce or Batman is “the mask.” At times it feels like Batman 101—as though the screenwriters took an essay they’d written about Batman and dramatized it. A cry for legitimacy, perhaps? Assuring people after Batman & Robin that, look, Batman isn’t just some square-jawed superhero, he can have psychological depth, too, promise! But the movie's not an exploration of themes, it’s a discussion, with breaks for action sequences.

Worse, all this sort of on-the-nose stuff really strips away the grandeur. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne as a child watches opera, but the Bruce Wayne of the comics lives opera. Christopher Nolan tries to explain Batman in this movie, trying for a measure of psychological realism and giving you reasons why, for example, Batman needs a cape. But do you really need to know that Batman has long pointy ears on his mask so that he can fit a radio in there? This Batman-by-trial-and-error eliminates any trace of mystery; it’s less mythic than, say the Batman of the comics or Burton’s Batman, who just is, who just appears and says “This is the way it has to be.”

So Nolan’s look at how a “real” Batman would come to be is interesting on the face of it, but the problem is that it ultimately can’t account for everything it needs to. Because nobody could really do what Batman does. That vanishing trick he always pulls when Commissioner Gordon turns his back on him? You can’t do that, unless you’re actually hiding behind the curtains or under a desk. Unlike a lot of people, I liked the claustrophobic fighting style, that horror movie way of not showing everything. But it doesn’t quite fit in with what a “real” Batman would probably do, which is walk up to you in his heavily armored costume and punch and kick you really hard. Saying he learned these nifty tricks from the League of Shadows isn’t all that satisfying. It’s handwaiving, isn’t it? “Ninjas can do crazy stuff” is a perfectly acceptable explanation in a comic book movie, but it’s at odds with the “Somebody could really be Batman if they worked hard enough and had the resources” angle Nolan is taking.

Ultimately, I think the Scarecrow is the most interesting character in the movie, because he alone seems to make that mysterious, magical leap from “real world” to “comic book character” without some overzealous explanation. He alone seems like a real Batman character -- a guy who starts out a bit odd, and then something pushes him over the edge into supervillainy. There’s something unusual, something unexplained in the restrained excitement in his performance when he says, “Would you like to see my mask?” It’s transformative; the burlap sack over the face is a great visual to sum up the Batman villain: Bad guy plus. I sometimes want to see more of him, but I’m wary that more screen time would spoil him.

There’s nitpicky things, too. I wish Gotham City didn’t just look like Chicago (I understand why it does, so I'll put this down to personal preference). I don’t care for the “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you" rationalization. I think the suit is awkward-looking, especially compared with Michael Keaton’s sleek version in Batman Returns more than ten years earlier.

Also, I am absolutely frustrated by the lack of a strong musical theme. The theme for Burton’s movies and the theme for Schumacher’s movies are very different, but they’re both extremely rousing and paint a larger-than-life picture. I don’t think subtlety in film scoring does Batman any favors.

Short version: My real reservation with this movie is that it’s about a man who’s trying to turn himself into a legend instead of being about a man who is a legend, with all the self-consciousness that entails.

Next: A beautiful, intriguing movie ... but not really all that much of a Batman movie.


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