Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Batman Begins

In 1989, director Tim Burton achieved the unthinkable; he crafted a cinematic masterpiece from a comic book. Before Burton’s Batman, comic book characters had been brought to life only in slightly goofy forms, such as Christopher Reeves’ Superman or ... (sigh) ... Adam West’s Batman. After Burton’s fresh and artistic portrayal of the Dark Knight, he returned with a darker, more sinister, and ultimately Burtonian sequel. Then Burton stepped down, and Joel Schumacher directed the average third film and the abominable fourth, and the franchise was essentially declared dead in 1997.

So, when I heard there was a fifth film in the works, I was highly skeptical. When I heard that Christopher Nolan (Memento) would be directing, I felt a little twinge of hope. When I saw Batman Begins and it was one of the best superhero films ever made, I was more than pleasantly surprised. This latest installment completely severs ties with the previous four films. Whereas the third and fourth movies tried to imitate Tim Burton’s artistic vision, Batman Begins completely starts over. Everything from the mythology down to the visual style is brand new, and that’s a much wiser decision than trying to replicate someone else’s vision. Christopher Nolan has given the character a wonderful fresh start.

As you might have gathered from the title, Batman Begins tells the story of how and why billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) transforms into the legendary enforcer of justice. Young Bruce falls into a cave early in the film and is haunted by the thousands of bats he encounters there. His father reminds him, “We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” Bruce has a hard time picking himself back up after he sees his parents murdered on the streets of Gotham. As young Bruce Wayne is sitting in the police station, a policeman sees him and says, “Good news, son: we got him,” referring to the thief that killed Bruce’s parents. The look on Bruce’s face tells us that he isn’t interested in justice; a far cry from what he will eventually become, young Bruce Wayne just wants his parents back. As a young adult, Wayne travels to an icy, extreme location in the east where he joins a justice-based organization led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). In the frozen waste lands, Bruce trains with Ducard (Liam Neeson) and learns the ways of combat and stealth. Wayne returns to Gotham City with the intention of slowly restoring justice. However, he knows that one man is too vulnerable to achieve this feat, so he vows to become more than a man. He vows to become a symbol that will be respected and feared. He vows to become a legend.

Christopher Nolan made all the right decisions when directing this film. The original Batman was fanciful and visually lush, but Nolan presents us with a highly realistic tale of Batman. Very little seems far-fetched about this story of Wayne’s journey into darkness, and that functions as a double-edged sword of sorts. Because the film is very dark and seemingly real, it’s also not much fun, or perhaps it’s a different kind of fun. You won’t leave the theater cheering the way you did after Spiderman 2, but this is exactly how it had to be. Fanciful action and visual effects weren’t going to cut it if we were to believe in the origins of the Batman legend. I didn’t think there was a good explanation for how and why a billionaire could actually have become a bat-man, but Nolan’s film won me over.

However, that’s not to say that Batman Begins isn’t exciting. This film is oozing with action of all kinds and maintains a pretty fast pace. But once again, the presentation is more gritty and realistic than in the previous films. The action scenes are dimly lit and edited so that you can barely tell what’s happening. Some action sequences are just downright confusing, but they help to enforce a reoccurring theme of Batman Begins that none of the other films picked up on: fear. The Dark Knight is supposed to be a scary, fear-inspiring figure, and thanks to Christopher Nolan, he finally is. Christian Bale does a fine job as the caped crusader, making Batman’s presence on screen much darker and more frightening. Every time he appears, both heroes and villians are frightened of him. This element becomes the film’s prime mover, and it’s ultimately so crucial in making the story believable and taking away the inherent absurdity. Suddenly, Batman isn’t just a grown man dressed as a bat. He’s a dangerous man with a fractured history of wrongdoing and mistakes - a man you wouldn’t want to come across in Gotham’s seemingly endless night.

Batman Begins works on many levels and is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, though a few elements fall short. Katie Holmes is stale and forgettable as Bruce Wayne’s love interest, and the very talented Tom Wilkinson just doesn’t fit the mold of the crime boss he portrays. Still, these are fairly minor complaints. The film ends with a fun wink at fans of the Batman mythology, serving as a lead-in to the inevitable sequel to-come. The real success of Batman Begins is the way the story’s emotion takes center stage. Through darkness, depth, drama, and intrigue, this film reminds us of why we fell in love with the character of Batman in the first place.