Welcome to the Waiver Wire’s EVERY BATMAN EVER MARATHON. In the weeks leading up to the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ I will be watching and analyzing every feature film based on the Caped Crusader. The Batman film franchise is an old one with roots stretching all the way back to film serials produced in the 40′s. The first feature film came about in 1966 and our love affair with The World’s Greatest Detective has continued on ever since. Check back every Wednesday for the newest installments and I encourage you to join in and do the marathon with me. Here’s the schedule (click on the date for past installments):
Intro: 5/23; Batman (1966): 5/30; Batman (1989): 6/6; Batman Returns (1992): 6/13; Batman Forever (1995): 6/20; Batman & Robin (1997): 6/27; Batman Begins (2005): 7/4 ; The Dark Knight (2008): 7/11; Recap/Rankings: 7/18; The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 7/25
Batman Begins (2005)
Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman
Plot: Although this film isn’t an adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal “Batman: Year One” it does draw somewhat heavily from it (as well as “The Long Halloween”) and serves as a full Batman origin story. It traces Bruce Wayne’s (Bale) path from the loss of his parents to the training and experience that lead to the creation of Batman. We get flashes of Bruce’s childhood from his relationship with a young friend, Rachel (Holmes), his family butler, Alfred (Caine), and the loss of his parents at the hands of a desperate mugger. Years later when the mugger is murdered during a parole hearing (he ratted on crime boss Carmine Falcone), a disillusioned Bruce flees the country going through poverty and trying to learn about crime before eventually ending up in a Bhutanese prison where a man named Ducard (Neeson) convinces him to come train with The League of Shadows, a mysterious and deadly organization headed by a master martial artist/ninja named Ra’s al Ghul. Bruce learns to master his fears (bats being the focus of them) and confront the guilt he feels over his parents’ death all while receiving intense training and learning the arts of combat and stealth. When he finishes his training and is asked to prove his loyalty by executing a thief and Ra’s and Ducard reveal that they plan to destroy Gotham because it has become destitute and corrupt Bruce rejects them and flees, destroying the league’s headquarters, killing Ra’s and saving Ducard from falling off a cliff. He then returns to Gotham and uses his fortune to become (through some trial and error) and masked vigilante named Batman. He forms a tenuous alliance with Jim Gordon (Oldman), a clean cop who is sickened by the corruption around him. He has to stop Dr. Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow (Murphy), a doctor who is working with Falcone to import a deadly fear toxin he uses to terrify and control people. The toxin is being imported by The League of Shadows and Ducard is revealed to be the real Ra’s al Ghul who plans to release the toxin and have Gotham destroy itself. Bruce also struggles with his billionaire playboy persona which he uses as a cover but puts him at odds with Rachel.
Production History: After Batman & Robin derailed the franchise and several reboots floundered in development Chris Nolan was finally hired to direct and write the script along with David Goyer. Nolan set out to make a realistic world out of which Batman would arise (he specifically stated he treats his films as if there aren’t other DC heroes, like Superman, in the world) and he wanted to have a full blown origin story in order to establish all of the different elements of the character in a believable way. He felt the previous films emphasized style over substance and looked to Richard Donner’s Superman as an influence in terms of characterization. Goyer also made one of his writing goals to make the audience care about Bruce Wayne as much as Batman. Nolan also stated that while he didn’t shy away from intense moments he didn’t want extreme blood or gore because he felt that 12 year olds should be able to enjoy a Batman film.
Nolan and his production designer designed their entire vision of Gotham at model size so they could have a point of reference and wanted the city to be a blend of New York, Chicago and Tokyo. Tokyo’s elevated rail systems were of particular importance to this and Nolan also wanted architecture from various period to establish the long history of the city. The Batsuit was built with mobility in mind as the filmmakers all felt that previous Batmans had seemed stiff an immobile which didn’t reflect the nature of his methods. The Batmobile (or the Tumbler) was designed and built completely from scratch.
The film was a hit, grossing $372,710,015 on a budget of $150 million. It was also a critical hit earning almost universal praise and commendation from the fanboy crowd and even previous Batman director Tim Burton. Bale and Oldman both received much praise for their performances (Bale was already up and coming but was cemented as a star) though Katie Holmes was not as warmly received as many critics felt she and Bale lacked chemistry (they did). Perhaps most significantly it made a tremendous impact on the direction of superhero films. Its success despite a darker more serious tone has been cited by numerous filmmakers as an inspiration for their own superhero movies with examples including Iron Man, X-Men: First Class, and Casino Royale (Bond is sort of a superhero in my mind).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: My very first thought was “oh crap, how am I going to be funny while talking about this awesome movie.” Hopefully I can overcome the general excellence of this film and still find a way to make fun of it. The problem is that I’m writing these reviews as preparation for The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I couldn’t be more excited for. As a huge fan of Chris Nolan and Batman, and as someone who considers his take on the character to be amazing, it was easy to mock Mr. Freeze and Tommy Lee Jones’
mid life crisis Two-Face but I’m going to have to dig deep to avoid simply gushing over the next two films in this series. Here goes nothing…
The film opens and immediately seems like it takes place on Earth rather than the more stylized worlds of the previous films. The opening moments cut between Bruce’s childhood and a disgusting Bhutanese prison where Bruce Wayne routinely fights 6 or 7 guys in the mud on a daily basis. Say what you will about Bhutanese prison but it keeps you in shape. The fight scene shows us that our hero is capable of fighting which is a radical departure from the Keatons and Kilmers of the world. They mastered the art of awkward punches and little else. Having just watched every Batman movie made up to this point it’s sort of shocking how drastically different Nolan’s tone and approach is. Early on, Liam Neeson is telling Bruce how he can “make [him]self more than just a man” and all I wrote in my notes was “Good God, themes!” That’s right, this film seems to have the audacity to introduce motifs and thematic elements that are slightly more complex than Batnipples. It’s interesting that this is the first true origin story put on film. Batman’s childhood tragedy is at the core of his story yet we’ve never seen more than glimpses of his path to the cape and cowl until now. Batman doesn’t appear on screen until one hour, one minute and 38 seconds in. That was a ballsy move and it pays off because Bruce Wayne feels like the important protagonist and we see what’s motivated him to this point. It really gives all of the action and general superhero conflict in the second half of the film much more weight. That time also let’s us see Bruce compile the different iconic elements of Batman like the car, costume and training creating a context that allows us to understand the rules of the universe we’re in. This is further enhanced by Nolan’s portrayal of Gotham which evokes many real life metropolises but is covered in layer upon layer of corruption and crime from crooked cops to muggers to citywide supervillains.
The cast is the other thing that sticks out as a big first impression. Bale wasn’t exactly a movie star at the time but his acting chops are perfect for the role as he juggles the sharp divide between the face Bruce puts on in public, in private and as Batman. Oldman is almost unrecognizable as Jim Gordon and his layered performance gives us a lens through which we can see just how bad Gotham is. Caine was an inspired choice for Alfred and he adds a lot of humor to the film while also grounding Bruce emotionally and Morgan Freeman does a good job playing Morgan Freeman. Katie Holmes is the lone outlier as she and Bale lack chemistry and her performance comes across as wooden.
One last thing that stands out. There is humor and levity in this film that I’d forgotten about. It’s abandoned campiness but Batman Begins hasn’t totally shed its comic book roots as it’s willing to allow the occasional one liner and also laugh at some of its more over the top elements. This was, for better or worse, almost completely missing from The Dark Knight. The latter film plays like an epic crime drama which is interested in mining the pathos and plot elements from its source material and little else. Batman Begins is a little more willing to indulge the legacy of superhero films while still branching out into darker territory. Neither method is inherently better but it’s an interesting thing to consider heading into Nolan’s final chapter.
THE BAT: Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Bale’s Batman is his voice. When in costume Bale switches to an extreme gruff inhuman voice which is a stark contrast from his actual speaking voice. I know many people who aren’t a fan of this voice and make fun of it but I’ve always been in the opposite camp. For starters I think the voice is kind of cool in context, I mean the guy’s in a giant bat suit. It also really fits into the whole “make yourself more than a man” concept that Batman is going for. The film actively discusses that as a regular person, Bruce can affect little change, but as an idea he can change everything. The inhuman voice works under those circumstances and makes for awesome moments. At times he does tend to lose the voice and just sound like he could use a cough drop but no one’s perfect.
As I said earlier, this Batman can brawl. He’s a trained ninja and highly skilled in combat and it shows on screen. His first real set piece is a long stealth sequence by the docks in which he stalks and takes down Carmine Falcone’s thugs. The scene plays like a horror movie, except the protagonist is the monster. Then when encountered with multiple foes Batman never seems outmatched, something established by Bruce Wayne in the film’s opening minutes, and the utilization of Keysi was a smart choice by the filmmakers as it feels unique to Batman.
THE BRUCE: There are two Bruce Waynes in this movie. The sulky, Princeton attending, attempted murderer, wake up doing pushups “real” Bruce and then there’s the billionaire playboy persona he uses to seem like the least likely Batman candidate in the world. The first is just an extension of Batman and since we spend the first half of the film with him, he is a protagonist who’s easy to invest in. Nolan and Bale let us see what makes this guy tick. The smarmy public Bruce Wayne is a delight. He buys hotels so his stripper model friends can swim in its fountains, he has a smile that makes you want to punch him and he carries himself with just the right amount of arrogance. Bale really pulls off the act of creating a clear divide between Bruce and Batman in a way none of the previous actor’s could.
THE SUIT: Best Batsuit yet for a million reasons. Seeing how Bruce goes about constructing it is really cool and fits in with Nolan’s realistic and grounded approach. The ears are the perfect length (something I’m mildly obsessed with when it comes to Batman) and the costume looks like functional body armor instead of a rubber suit. At the same time it still captures the menace and theatricality of the character. It still looks a little clunky, thick and awkward because off the neck. Bale’s costume has more mobility in the neck region than any of the previous Batmans (other than West who was essentially wearing pajamas) but it still looks a little silly. This is completely remedied in The Dark Knight but is easy enough to forget about during Begins.
THE CAR: The Batmobile is never referred to by its name in this film and instead simply goes with the Wayne Enterprises R&D/military name for it, The Tumbler. There are pros and cons to it as Batman’s primary ride. On the negative side it never really feels like the “The Batmobile” because of its functional design. The long structurally foolish car from Burton’s films is so iconic that it is hard to think of anything else when you hear the word “Batmobile.” That being said the Tumbler kicks some serious ass. Its badass design coupled with it’s array of gadgetry and functions are definitely a nice blend of Nolan’s realist approach and the gleeful joy of Batman’s legacy. It’s part of an awesome car chase which shows off all the car’s cool functions and establishes the car as a vital part of Batman’s arsenal.
THE ROGUES’ GALLERY: Heath Ledger’s Joker will likely be the villain most readily remembered when people reflect on Nolan’s trilogy but this film doesn’t exactly cheat Batman out of worthy foes. His antagonists range from crime bosses like Carmine Falcone and the corrupt Gotham City Police Department to the insane Scarecrow and the masterfully rendered Ra’s al Ghul.
Batman dispatches of Falcone fairly quickly and easily but the scene serves as a great introduction to the Caped Crusader and also serves to illustrate just what Batman is up against. Falcone’s right hand man is a crooked cop and this feeling of Batman against the world prevails throughout the film and adds some good food for thought when considering the League of Shadows’ motivations.
Scarecrow is a fun villain and, while none of Nolan’s villains are particularly true to the source material, he definitely adds something a little superhuman to the mix with his fear toxin. Dr. Crane never feels like a physical threat but his evolution from slimy mob doctor to psychopathic human experimenter is made fun by Cillian Murphy’s quirky, fun performance. Anytime we see the effects of his toxin on a victim, such as Batman, the visuals are really cool and add an element of body horror to this film. Fear is a recurring motif in the film, conquering and using it as a weapon are part of Batman’s journey. It is especially fitting, then, that Scarecrow utilizes fear as a means of power allowing him to be “more than a man.” Like I said…THEMES!
Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul, while not the age defying sorcerer of the comics, is a wonderfully crafted villain who really comes alive with a pro like Neeson at the helm. One of Nolan’s most impressive accomplishments here is creating a villain who we get to see through so many different lights. He starts as Bruce’s mentor and friend, giving him the means to fight injustice and helping him work through the guilt he feels over his parents’ death. We even get snippets of his own loss of a wife and daughter. When Bruce finds out the League’s plans, and Ducard’s support of them, he is shocked but still saves Ducard’s life and carries him to safety. By the end Batman lets Ra’s fall to his death as he reveals himself to be the true leader of the League. Neeson’s villain is much more fully formed than the average superhero foe and the movie is better for it. He was a smart casting choice because Nolan utilizes typecasting him as a wise mentor style character (think Qui-Gon Jinn) and we come to trust Ducard and then have the carpet pulled out from under us when he’s revealed to be Ra’s al Ghul and much less stable and wise than we once believed. Neeson also sells the character’s ideology and helps establish some of the the film’s thematic conflicts regarding crime, justice and vengeance.
THE SIDEKICK(S): I usually address the love interest in this section but Katie Holmes left me little to say. She’s not horrible so much as boring and somewhat wooden in her portrayal of a character who was important to the story and Bruce Wayne’s journey. Fortunately the love story is barely part of the film and only really comes up in the very end. Rachel’s role as an ADA is slightly more important to the film and, since it doesn’t rely on her establishing chemistry with Bale, it’s a little better.
Gary Oldman is great as Sgt. (later Lt.) Gordon and it’s odd to see the actor, who often plays crazy people, playing this sort of role. Behind his glasses and mustache and world weary eyes Oldman is nigh unrecognizable and he adds a lot to the film. His character lets us in on what’s going on in Gotham while also serving to aid Batman. I can only assume this was all before he was framed and thrown in Azkaban. He does have a scene early on where he is giving young Bruce, who just lost his parents, Thomas Wayne’s coat and just keeps saying “It’s okay.” I don’t know if there could be anything less useful or less true to say to a recently orphaned kid.
Batman’s other main ally is Lucius Fox (Freeman) who serves the role of tech guru and is key to helping Bruce make the transformation into Batman. His calm demeanor and soothing voice are perfect for describing the various gadgets Batman will eventually use and for comical reactions to Bruce’s odd requests.
THE VERDICT: If it wasn’t clear from this heavily biased love letter, I’m all about Batman Begins. The Dark Knight gets all the accolades but its predecessor laid the groundwork while delivering an astoundingly enjoyable origin story. It has the right amount of humor, fantastic set pieces and action and cast that knows how to bring it all together. Check it out in preparation for TDKR.
Next Up: The Dark Knight (2008): 7/11