Batman Begins (2005)

When Batman & Robin was released in 1997 I was 11 years old. By the time Batman would return to screen in Batman Begins in 2005 I was 19. The wait was unbearable, especially with little teases in the 8 year gap including those On-Star commercials that advertised a walk on role in the next Batman film (upon which I would immediately search the internet and cruelly discover no Batman films were currently in development) and the ridiculously obnoxious Scooby-Doo teaser trailer in 2002 that was edited to look like a Batman film.

By the the time 2005 rolled around I was what I refer to as a “film elitist”. By this point I would ridicule anything “too mainstream”, would only watch a movie if it was either “art house” or “in black and white” and would much sooner watch Broken Flowers or Me and You and Everyone We Know before giving Fantastic Four or Serenity a moments look. Things have changed, obviously, since then and I rediscovered my roots of loving all things big and small scale from Star Wars or Switchblade Sisters to Breathless or The Artist. However, circa 2005 I was not an easy critic to impress.

Around this time I would become friends with a co-worker at the movie theater, a young lad by the name of Josh Helms, who will forever remain one of the smartest people I’ve met and an extremely talented violinist. Josh and I had many common loves like Daniel Day-Lewis performances or Danny Elfman scores, but the three passions we had most in common were Batman, Christopher Nolan and Samurai cinema. How lucky we would be to have all three come together in a time when I had given up on “mainstream cinema”.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unlike any other movie series in the history of film. Its not solely a tongue-in-cheek action series like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, nor is it the serious melodrama that is The Godfather trilogy. Its a blend of both worlds. With the Batman films and Inception, Nolan has combined the seriousness of an art house film, the performances of an Oscar-caliber Hollywood picture, and the exploitation of a summer popcorn blockbuster into one, tight, cohesive package. A movement that has changed the Hollywood blockbuster as we see it today. Hollywood is rapidly turning to the Independent filmmakers to bring something fresh and new to the old Hollywood formula, (i.e. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Duncan Jones’ Source Code).

Now of course, Nolan isn’t the first filmmaker to do this. Spielberg and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson have been bringing their own artistic brilliance to big Hollywood pictures for years, yet nobody has taken their source material quite as far as Christopher Nolan has. No one has taken a genre so far past the congratulatory “pat-yourself-on-the-back” special effects stage and so deep into harsh cinematic voyeurism.

Kicking off with a striking image of a swarm of bats that begin to make up the new Batman logo, Nolan’s film is a quick-fire piece of storytelling. We see the childhood Bruce Wayne fall down a well and has his first horrific encounter with bats. An edit later and were in the middle of an Asian prison where a young and bearded Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fends off attacking inmates. The young Wayne is taken under the wing of Henri Ducard (the best mentor ever, Liam Neeson!) and practices under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul (Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe) and his League of Shadows, an organization of ninjas bent on eliminating criminality and serving “true justice”.

The brilliantly choreographed and Kurosawa evoking training sequences are intercut with the story of Bruce Wayne and the death of his parents. We see young Bruce become frightened during a theater production (the dancing figures that appear like bats are killer imagery) and his parents are soon gunned down while leaving the auditorium by average thug Joe Chill. Flash forward years later and Chill is up for parole after providing the D.A. with leverage against mob boss Carmine Falcone. Bruce is back for the hearing accompanied by childhood sweetheart and new assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and her pleas for justice are disputed by his vision of vengeance. Bruce comes face to face with Carmine Falcone (a wickedly good Tom Wilkinson) and splits town in search of something more.

Using his newly acquired skills in martial arts, deception, practicality, knowledge of the simple nature between right and wrong and a clear will to uphold justice, Bruce Wayne returns home with a mission to rid Gotham City of organized crime. With the help of his confidant Alfred Pennyworth (the great Michael Caine) and the head of the Applied Sciences department at Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (the infallible Morgan Freeman) Wayne develops a high-tech costume and weapons arsenal and becomes the heroic symbol…Batman. Using the forces of Sergeant James Gordon (the legendary Gary Oldman) and Rachel Dawes, Batman is able to take on Falcone and the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow (the brilliant Cillian Murphy) who plans to disperse chemicals into Gotham’s water supply that will evaporate into a fear toxin. A nemesis of Batman’s past reemerges to share in on the fear.

As you can see the story is quite a bit more complex than any other superhero film up till that point. In fact Bruce Wayne doesn’t show up in full Batman costume until halfway through the film. The first fight sequence where Batman takes down a group of Falcone’s drug-running thugs is brilliantly shot and edited to where Batman is but a mere blur. As the attacks come from all sides, what is actually seen is the terror in the criminals faces, something more akin to a horror movie. This display puts the viewer in the dizzying point of view of a criminal being taken down by an giant unseen bat.

The performances are superb around the board. Christian Bale is the first actor to give Batman three different faces. First there’s the real Bruce Wayne, the tortured soul who wishes to fight injustice and reestablish order in Gotham City. Then there’s the persona Bruce Wayne has adopted in order to maintain anonymity as the Batman, the persona in which he is the typical millionaire playboy, douche bag with a hot foreign model on each arm. And finally there’s the performance of Batman which holds its own unique stances, movements, and a gruffer voice than any Batman since Kevin Conroy. The ability in which Bale can switch from any of these three faces to another is a credit to the power of Christian Bale’s acting. More on that in The Dark Knight review.

As much as the first film is very much Christian Bale’s movie, the supporting players are all top of the line in every endeavor. Michael Caine brings a loyal, lovable and warm father-like presence to Alfred Pennyworth. His character throughout the trilogy will become more and more the man of moral conscience in Bruce’s life and Caine delivers an Oscar worthy performance in each. Gary Oldman is powerhouse as the incorruptible James Gordon. Its a refreshing change to see Oldman portray a character so right as opposed to so wrong and any film that lets Gary Oldman drive the Batmobile is a perfect 10 in my book.

Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson bring a more traditional interpretation to the proceedings. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a larger-than-life interpretation of the Italian gangster and his delivery of a monologue about the power of fear is one of the film’s many highlights. Murphy meanwhile has the delivery of a classic madcap Batman villain, his delivery of “Who? The Bat..man” has the kind of tone and subtle beats that recall Frank Gorshin’s classic portrayal of The Riddler in the 1960s series.

The always classy Morgan Freeman is the show stealing comic relief and each exchange he has with Bruce Wayne is well-written, comedy gold. Katie Holmes is surprisingly good as Rachel Dawes and pulls off the hardboiled D.A. role well. And who can forget Rutger Hauer shows up as Wayne Enterprises new CEO Willaim Earle and Memento’s very own Mark Boone Junior shows up as a sleazy, crooked cop.

Oh my god and the Tumbler. I can’t forget about the Tumbler. That thing is the bomb. A massive tank-like vehicle, The Tumbler is the new form of Batmobile. The big car chase (one of the film’s few action sequences) is the greatest action scene of that year: the images of the all-terrain roadster pancaking cop cars is one thing but the sound of the Tumbler’s engine as it roars is utterly breathtaking. The sound quality in this sequence should forever be shown in film school’s as an example on the importance of sound effect creation and editing.

Batman Begins is a phenomenal start to the new franchise. I wasn’t hundred percent blown away in 2005, I had problems with the quick editing of the sequences, the brazing over the death of Wayne’s parents, the lack of action. But in time I learned that all these were a part of Nolan’s intention. Now I can no longer fault the film for skimping on the early images of Batman (when clearly Nolan wanted audiences to salivate for the full revelation of Batman in costume) or the brazing over of the Wayne’s parents deaths (because we’ve seen it in four films already) or the lack of action (the action filled climax in Begins flows wonderfully into the intro to The Dark Knight).  What I learned was that Nolan was more interested in Bruce Wayne’s struggles than a CGI heavy showdown of Batman and The Scarecrow. That the story was more about the citizens of Gotham City, the line between good and evil and the imagery of Batman. That Bob Kane and Batman were finally getting the movie they deserved.

-John

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