There is no definitive version of Batman. In the character’s eight decades he’s undergone so many variations, been the subject of so many different “takes” that he can be all things to all readers. Many will claim that Batman Begins is the “definitive” movie version of Batman, but it’s not. What Batman Begins is, though, is the Batman movie that takes the most directly from individual comic book issues. If those issues make up what you consider the “definitive” Batman, then you’re going to be fairly happy here.
The last few years have seen the superhero film going in a weird direction – they’ve been taken seriously as movies. This approach has met varying levels of success, but in general the superhero films of the last five or so years have been fairly serious takes on the characters and their worlds, with a serious eye on the personal issues and foibles that make someone take up the mantle of costumed crusader. Spider-Man 2 and Hulk have been perhaps the films that spent the most time meditating on the person behind the hero, and Batman Begins takes that a step farther.
The story of Batman is a painfully familiar one, and originally I wondered why we needed another origin story. It seemed to me that Jesus Christ, Batman and Superman have the best known origins of all the superheroes, and that retreading all that tiresome business of young Bruce Wayne discovering a bat filled cave, his parents murdered before his eyes, his decision to become a symbol that criminals would fear would feel like nothing so much as very, very old hat. Colored me surprised that this stuff was the best stuff in Batman Begins.
Batman Begins is a movie divided sharply in half. One half is a movie that director Christopher Nolan understands. The other is a movie that he wishes he did, or that he’s trying very hard to understand. The first half of Batman Begins is a drama, a story about a young man who has traveled thousands of miles from his home to find himself and his place. On the other side of the world from his wealthy American home, Bruce Wayne finds the mysterious Ducard, a man who becomes a new father to him. Ducard takes Wayne under his wing and trains him in the ways of the ninja, promising him a way to bring the justice he so badly wants to the world. All of this is intercut with the story of the young Bruce Wayne and the murder of his parents, and it works. It’s easy to forget that it’s the singer, not the song, and in the hands of a storyteller like Nolan the complex and dark story gains new resonance and meaning. He makes it fresh.
Which is what makes the second half of the film so disappointing. Having discovered that Ducard and his League of Shadows seek nothing less than the destruction of Gotham City because of its lawlessness, Wayne returns home to save it from the inside. He begins to collect the items that will define his alternate persona of Batman, and with every gadget and gizmo he gains, Nolan loses the thread of the film a little more. The director understands the psychological turmoil of Bruce Wayne as he travels abroad – once that turmoil goes from subtext to plain text in the form of Batman, Nolan doesn’t know what to do with it anymore.
As the villains emerge – the Scarecrow in his burlap gasmask and the legions of R’as Al Ghul and their plans to destroy Gotham – Nolan loses his grip even more. There’s no subtlety in these characters – they are what they mean – and he doesn’t know what to do with them. Scarecrow is especially lame. In his civilian guise of Jonathan Crane, psychologist and head of Arkham Asylum, he’s so creepy and weird that you can’t believe anyone even lets him near patients. As Scarecrow he’s nothing, a cipher in a mask.
And then the action begins. The film actually has had a fair amount of action throughout the running time – there are a couple of fights and an extended training sequence that includes a brilliantly conceived game of cat and mouse among dozens of identical ninjas – but things start ramping up towards the end of the second act and all the way through the third act. That’s when the movie finally, completely lost me.
Batman Begins has its problems from the start – mainly the dialogue is clunky and full of exposition – but Nolan makes it work. He has some truly fantastic actors at his disposal, and he understands Wayne as a seeker. The bleak mountainscapes of Asia reflect Wayne’s soul, and the film turns warmer when he finally finds the League of Shadows. Most importantly the film takes place in a realistic world here – not real, mind you, but realistic – one that is about the people who live in it and their decisions. As the film chugs on that dynamic changes, and the world is sapped of realism and everything becomes about the big set pieces which force people to do things.
The second half of the film posits Batman as a reactor. There are some who will say that my personal idea of the “definitive” Batman is getting in my way here, but I would argue that it’s just the idea of what makes a good hero. A good hero should, on some level at some point, be taking matters into his own hands. He should be a proactive force in his world, not someone going where events take him. Of course the counter argument could be made that this makes for an entertaining film as well – look at Die Hard With a Vengeance – but the kind of film with that sort of lead is about an anti-hero, someone who shouldn’t be a hero but is. That’s the antithesis of the Batman laid out in the first half of the film. That Batman is a man who has taken control of every part of his body and mind with the express purpose of bringing justice to a place without it. Now at the end of the film we’re supposed to accept a Batman who is just running around punching people as a problem solving technique?
It gets worse. Batman not only spends the last act of the film only reacting, he doesn’t even get a chance to crack the case. Lucius Fox, the overly good WayneTech employee, does that for him. It’s a weird moment, watching Fox put two and two together and feed it to Bruce Wayne. It would make a cool 8 page back-up story in a Batman Annual (not everyone can be “on” every day would be sort of the theme of that one) but as part of the origin of Batman it’s jarring.
I can hear the jeers from the peanut gallery. “It’s Batman’s first year! He’s still learning!” you’re saying. Well, sure, except for the fact that the movie shows Batman out for the first time and he’s a well oiled fighting machine. He darts in and out of shadows, taking out crooks like a ghost, and eventually crippling Gotham’s main crime family. His first time out. This is a Batman at the top of his game, not a Batman learning the ropes.
I’m three typed pages into this review and it’s been pretty negative, so now’s a good time to look at the most positive aspect of the film – the acting. Nolan has assembled a stellar cast, no matter the subject matter, and best of all they almost completely take things seriously. As great as Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina or Ian McKellan are in their respective superfilm roles, they keep an element of camp attached. Until the grotesque third act – when almost everyone becomes a simpering retard straight out of a Delta Force VI-level movie – the main actors of Batman Begins play their characters completely and totally straight.
Christian Bale makes a much better Bruce Wayne than he does Batman. His Wayne is probably the most fully realized yet in cinema, although that ends up being a bit of a problem. See, the film follows the concept that Batman is the real identity and Wayne is the mask, but Bale has been so good as Wayne that you just don’t buy it.
His Batman is also a little rough. He doesn’t seem to decide on a voice, and the cowl makes his face seem weirdly fat. He’s not helped much by yet another constricting suit, which allows him little movement and keeps Batman either in the shadows or stuck in poses. Still, the movie is, despite the title and the hype, about Bruce Wayne, and Bale nails that.
Michael Caine is fantastic as Alfred the butler. He’s all the comic relief the film needs, but unfortunately Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer don’t trust it – they put jokes elsewhere in the film where they don’t belong. But Caine manages to capture the perfect relationship. It’s key that Alfred not be a father figure to Wayne, otherwise his eventual Batman persona makes little sense. Caine straddles an interesting line both with Bale and the boy playing the young Wayne, where he’s loving and mildly disapproving and yet also very, very proud. Alfred is essentially the conscience and heart of Batman, and Caine gets it. Too bad the third act of the film doesn’t.
Gary Oldman is not an actor who I trust. He can be amazing, but I have also seen him give some of the most awful over the top performances of my lifetime. It’s so gratifying to see him playing Jim Gordon as just a man – a weary but good cop alone on a police force that is rotten through and through. Again, his subtle and sympathetic portrayal is sabotaged by the monstrous third act, where he’s reduced to Batman’s goofy sidekick. It’s a testament to Oldman that he can regain the character at the finale of the film, though.
Liam Neeson is Ducard, the man who trains Bruce Wayne in what I assume are the Himalayas. The role’s a no-brainer; Neeson is playing Qui Gon Sinister. Even when spouting sub-Yoda pronouncements, Neeson keeps the character grounded, and his chemistry with Bale is just as spot on as it needs to be.
The rest of the cast varies in strength – Tom Wilkinson gives an almost Spider-Man villain portrayal of mob boss Carmine Falcone, but I found it delicious. Cillian Murphy can’t control his accent or his grease as Jonathan Crane – he’s never anything but completely creepy. Katie Holmes – well, the less said about her, the better.
Although maybe there is room to talk about her character, the ADA Rachel. She’s another Batgirlfriend, the latest in a long line of completely unneeded such characters. Batman doesn’t work when he has a love interest, and this film especially doesn’t know how to make it work. I won’t spoil it, but a Batman as lacking in emotional control as this one is just sort of embarrassing. Bruce Wayne spent a decade wandering the world without the benefit of his family fortune – he should have come back to Gotham just a little less ready to sing love songs on the Batguitar.
As you can see from the last few paragraphs, it all comes back to the third act. I find the last hour of this film to be a spiral of badness, getting worse with each scene. Things don’t make sense, explosions are used to create closure, and characters engage in endlessly irrational behaviour (check out the CHUD gang bang review of the film for some of my examples). The problem is that the third act betrays what came before, turning its back on a well-crafted character drama.
The question that gets begged here is how you judge a film in regards to its ending. Last week I gave High Tension a very positive review, despite the fact that it had one of the most singularly offensively stupid twist endings I have ever seen. There were a couple of factors in that – the twist came at the very end of the film, at the final reel, was the first factor. The other was that the film had maintained a consistent level of dread and gore throughout the running time, and since that was why I came to the film, I felt it delivered in spades what it promised.
I guess that if you walk into Batman looking for an action adventure ready made for a theme park ride (there’s even a long scene on a runaway train!), you’ll hate the first hour and find yourself falling in love with the second. For me, I walked in dreading the first hour – Batman doesn’t show up until fifty minutes in, I said. How could that be any good? But I did what I try to do at every screening – I opened myself to the film at the beginning and let it take me where it would. You can’t judge a movie by the stills or the trailers or the posters. You have to let the first ten minutes grab you, if they can, and take you along for the rest of the film.
The first ten minutes did grab me. And the next ten, and so on. I found the last act, the last forty minutes to an hour, disappointing because it just didn’t follow up on what had come before. It wasn’t about my expectations, it was about how the movie works as a piece, and for me it doesn’t. It’s two films welded together, and the director is much better at one than at the other.
I don’t doubt that the vast majority of people reading this review will disagree with me. Even the people who have seen the film and who agreed with me on some levels about the third act have said, “Well, it’s a great start to the franchise.” I can’t see the movie that way. I refuse to watch a movie and give it a pass because it’s setting up a series of films (unless we’re talking something along the lines of Lord of the Rings, where all the films in the series are made as a whole. But even in that case, Fellowship works completely as its own film). I watch a movie as a movie. It is its own thing, and I can’t judge the film based on the speculation that there’s a sequel coming that will make it better. I can appreciate a film for being really good and setting up more films – I think Spider-Man 2 is a prime example of a film that does that, where Raimi and company create a satisfying film while advancing subplots that can come together for the next movie. But let’s imagine the unlikely scenario where Batman Begins doesn’t spawn a sequel, or the more likely one where the creative team doesn’t return for the sequel and it’s just not a good film. Where does that leave Begins? The film must be judged as its own 2 hours, and in that light, the film disappoints.
Batman Begins isn’t a bad movie. It’s not a poorly made movie, for the most part. But it’s a maddeningly uneven movie, a movie that should be much better than it is. It’s a movie that, if it had followed the trajectory of the first hour, I would be saying is an Oscar contender. In the end Batman Begins is a movie that tries but ultimately fails.
6.5 out of 10