I wrote this review in the summer of 2008, shortly before the release of The Dark Knight. It was originally posted on film news site Filmonic. I now present it on my own blog, unedited, as I’m hoping to post a similar review for The Dark Knight soon as The Dark Knight Rises approaches.
For me, there is one moment more than any other that sets Batman Begins apart from Spider-Man, that establishes the key differences in tone, and in the worldviews on display in each film. That moment comes during the film’s climactic set-piece. After dispatching one of Ra’s al Ghul’s henchmen, Batman takes a tumble, landing among some of the denizens of The Narrows. Now, in a Spider-Man movie, this would be the moment where the ordinary citizens band around the hero in a show of support (“Us New Yorkers stick together!”). But in Batman Begins, the panicking crowd form a mob and attack Batman, forcing him to fight back against the very people he’s trying to save. It’s a stark difference, which encapsulates the fact that this Batman is not the squeaky-clean man of the people that Spider-Man embodies, and suggests a dark heart beating beneath the film’s heroics. If Spider-Man was the early, defiant response to the atrocity of 9/11, America united through the belief that good will prevail (and Spider-Man existing in a New York where the Twin Towers still proudly stand), then Begins is its darker cousin, embodying the contrasting response: paranoia, uncertainty, and a fair share of moral questions.
In many ways, Batman Begins is like an anti-superhero movie. Rather than create a fantasy world where superheroes can exist, Nolan and Goyer take the superhero out of his element and place him in our world. Serious questions about what drives a man to put on a costume and fight crime – and what the consequences of doing so are – are raised, and many of our assumptions are challenged. And that’s not just relating to the superhero genre in general, but to our assumptions surrounding the Batman mythos. Take Gotham City. For so long presented as a nightmarish, Gothic nightscape, Nolan first presents his Gotham – a shiny, modern metropolis much like Chicago – in bright daylight. People have complained that grounding the setting of the action so much makes the film too “realistic” (the dreaded word) and strips away the larger-than-life elements of Batman. I disagree. When the rest of the world is so grounded and gritty, I feel the presence of a figure like Batman seems all the more fantastical. His impact is truly felt.
And what about the killing of Thomas and Martha Wayne? Before Begins, I’m sure most of us had a clear idea of that scene in our head. Joker-based revelations aside, the scene was executed wonderfully in the Burton Batman film. The nightmare-haze of it, the slow motion shot of Martha’s pearls scattering across the ground. And in the comics, Joe Chill is presented as an icon of faceless, nameless evil, whose malevolent presence, in crossing paths with the Wayne family, was enough to create Batman – fully formed in young Bruce’s mind – on the spot. So, we have our expectations. And Nolan turns them on their head. The dramatic, stylised murder of Burton’s film is replaced by a blunt, messy killing. Joe Chill is no longer a faceless evil – we see the fear on his face before we see it on the Waynes. And, to varying degrees, Bruce, Thomas and Martha Wayne all become partly to blame for the tragic deaths. Joe Chill is no criminal mastermind, no epic symbol of Gotham’s evil to shape Bruce’s life – the murders are an act of panic and desperation, and Chill is captured that same night. For so long, we’ve taken the death of Bruce’s parents for granted, and Nolan makes it upsetting again. He gives it more meaning, to us as a viewer, by giving it less meaning in the world of the film. In the film, Nolan underlines its status as a pointless, aimless act of random violence. As Falcone states later in the film, “Sometimes, things just go bad.”
This idea of stripping down myth to reveal the grubby humanity at the core becomes a recurring theme in the film. The Ra’s al Ghul we meet at the beginning of the film – hailed as a great leader and fearsome force – is quickly eliminated by Bruce Wayne. The real Ra’s al Ghul, when revealed later in the film, exposes his “immortality” as nothing more than “cheap parlour tricks”. Falcone, built up as a nigh-untouchable crime kingpin, exposes himself as a classless hood on his first appearance, and later is subordinated first to Batman, then to Dr. Crane. Scarecrow, the one “supervillain” in the film, is in truth a wimpy psychologist who is easily beaten by a girl. Much of the film’s talk surrounds the idea of legend, of people reinventing themselves as symbols, but most importantly, that “it’s what you do that defines you”. So it’s very appropriate that when it comes to the villains, the man never lives up to the myth.
But the biggest myth of all to be deconstructed is that of Batman himself. Going back to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, in so many previous adaptations of Batman, we’ve seen the murder, then it’s fast forward 20 years to Bruce Wayne as Batman. The murder is his moment of transformation, the moment he decides to become a hero. And this seems to be a trend in many superhero origin stories on film. We may seem get their powers, we may see them struggle with them, but the space between them choosing to use their gifts to fight crime, and actually doing so, rarely tends to be any longer than a brief costume-making montage. But in Batman Begins, that process of becoming a superhero is the meat of the movie, as evidenced by the fact that Batman doesn’t show up until an hour into the movie. And here’s the kicker: we don’t miss him. Because the journey Bruce Wayne takes to get to that point is so fascinating. Some have complained that having Bruce Wayne come close to killing Joe Chill is too different from the Batman of the comics, who is of course perfect and never even considers doing anything morally questionable. But I think having Bruce go through these doubts and dark passages makes him a more rounded character. He isn’t just a paragon of virtue by default. He has to struggle to become one of “the good people”, he needs the help of various influential figures along the way, he has to become “truly lost” before he can find his way. And in the end he seems like a better, more believable person for it. And, of course, if we really think about it, comics Batman isn’t perfect, is he? Part of what made Batman so fascinating in Year One was that he was a Batman who screwed up, who made stupid mistakes. Yes, not introducing Batman until an hour into the movie is a gamble, but it gave me a whole new appreciation for a character that is too often overlooked in Batman lore: Bruce Wayne.
At last, the most fascinating, compelling character in a Batman film, is Batman himself. And while Nolan and Goyer deserve due praise for crafting a script shaped around Bruce Wayne’s struggle, much of the credit must go to Christian Bale himself. One of the finest actors of his generation, his casting as Bruce Wayne was certainly a dream choice for me. But while it would have been all to easy for him to slum it a little, as some feel he did, I think he brought his full dedication to the role. He underplays it, which some have mistaken for being wooden. But in fact, Bale shows great versatility by essentially playing three characters in one film. The first mask is that of playboy Bruce, a smug smirking imbecile who is nevertheless Bruce’s healthiest, most “normal” persona, and as Alfred alludes to, there are various points in the movie where we get an inkling that this is the kind of person Bruce secretly wishes he could be. Beneath that is the mask of Batman. And after the lame quips and campy antics of Schumacher’s Batman, how refreshing is it to once again see a Batman that you can believe criminals would find frightening. He is particularly menacing during his interrogation of Flass, his voice guttural to the point of being animalistic, and totally unlike the Bruce Wayne we’ve seen for the film’s first hour. And while the previous films, Batman was often in danger of coming across as lumbering and immobile, Begins manages to make him look dangerous again. Though the fights too often rely on excessive cuts (a topic I’ll discuss later), Batman’s first appearance at the docks is a masterclass in suspense. Shame about the ending, though. That moment with the homeless guy – “Nice suit,” PHWOOOOSH! – is, in my opinion, one of the film’s few facepalm moments. But right up until that point, Batman is presented as something akin to a force of nature, something feral, primal. The Batman persona feels very much like a cathartic release of Bruce’s pent up anger. But now we return to the old question – what’s the mask, and what’s the real face? It’s become popular to say that the public persona of playboy Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is the real face. Rachel Dawes even says it. But she’s wrong. Batman and playboy Bruce are both masks. And the real Bruce Wayne turns out to be the most compelling performance of all.
I’m a big fan of Michael Keaton’s performance as Batman, and I’ve often cited his definitive moment as the character coming in Batman Returns, in the scene where we see him just sitting in his lounge, in the dark, staring aimlessly out the window, just waiting for the Bat Signal to light up. That moment perfectly captured Burton’s take on the character, presenting Bruce Wayne as an empty shell who only really comes to life as Batman. Bale’s definitive moment in Begins comes moments after he has sedated the rescued Rachel Dawes. He turns his back to the camera, and we see him take off his mask….and shrink before our eyes. His shoulders slump, he looks upwards and just stands there, as if lost. Say hello to the real Bruce Wayne.
With Spider-Man, the strength of Tobey Maguire’s performance is that he makes us feel close to Peter Parker – he’s relatable, we feel like he’s our friend, that with his narration he’s taking us into his confidence. On the other hand, the strength of Christian Bale’s performance in Begins is that Bruce Wayne ultimately remains unknowable. We follow his journey through the whole film, but always seem to be kept at arm’s length. It is a very restrained, reigned-in performance, that of a man uncomfortable in his own skin, only capable of fluency when donning one of his masks. Even in the scenes where he trains with Ducard, his dialogue (“I seek the means to fight injustice”, “My anger outweighs my guilt”) come across as Bruce saying what he feels he is supposed to say, throwing Ducard’s rhetoric back at him as a substitute for expressing his own innermost thoughts. Another mask. In the moments where he is alone, where he is most himself, flashes of the past – of his father, of the bats – dominate his thoughts. Perhaps Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – never really developed beyond that childhood. Ironically enough, one performance Bale’s reminds me of is that of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Bruce Wayne shares Ennis Del Mar’s rage and guilt, internalised and eating away at him because he can’t express it, leaving him permanently coiled up and distant from both other characters and us viewers. Only Bruce Wayne is never granted the emotional release that Ennis gets in the closing moments of Brokeback. No, Bruce Wayne ends Begins by once more retreating behind the mask of Batman. Christian Bale gives a phenomenal performance as Batman, in my opinion the best seen thus far on film.
Batman Begins has rightly received much praise for framing Bruce Wayne as the main character. But who’s the second most important character? It’s not Alfred, or Rachel Dawes. It’s Ra’s al Ghul. Despite the fact that he disappears for a large portion of the film, his presence is constantly felt. It is what he stands for that makes him so significant. But first, a more general word on the role of villains in Nolan’s Batverse, as I see it. I talked earlier about the post-9/11 connotations of “Begins”, and I think they once again manifest themselves in the villains. The idea of using fear as a weapon is one familiar to those following this never-ending “war on terrorism”. Terrorists of course use fear as a tool to further their goals, hence the name. But there’s plenty of fear at play on the American side of things, watch some Fox News and it seems like they’re trying their utmost to keep people good and scared. So it’s highly appropriate that Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow would exploit fear to force a city to tear itself apart. Ra’s al Ghul in particular represents a kind of villain that is recognisable to many of us in this day and age. He does not want world domination or personal revenge, like your usual movie supervillain. His enemy is our society, our way of life, our very way of looking at the world. His ideology demands the annihilation of ours. It’s the kind of motivation we see in real-life villains on the news every day. Judging from what we’ve seen so far, these are overtones Nolan will continue to explore with his interpretation of The Joker.
But going back to Ra’s al Ghul, a big strength of the character’s realisation in “Begins” is that he comes to us in the perennially-trustworthy, mentorly form of Liam Neeson. And to Neeson’s credit, he never plays Ra’s al Ghul like a villain. That’s always been a pet peeve of mine in film and TV, when a supposed good guy is revealed to be a villain, and all of a sudden starts “acting evil”, totally inconsistent with what came before. Neeson thankfully doesn’t fall into this trap. His performance remains consistent throughout, with his villainy being so intriguing because of the noble intentions driving it. Hence why the hurt is so clear in Ra’s al Ghul’s eyes when Bruce once again rejects him in their confrontation in Wayne Manor. In his mind, he and Bruce are one in the same. They both aspire to the same thing: justice. It’s in their methods that the conflict arises.
I’ve seen much talk about fear being a dominant theme in the film. This is true. But another theme which isn’t discussed enough is that of boundaries. Physical boundaries, of course, such as the divide between The Narrows and the rest of Gotham, but more importantly, moral boundaries. How far outside the law is too far? One of the film’s most fascinating elements is the fact that it never takes the presence of a superhero for granted, instead raising important moral questions about what sets someone like Batman apart from a common vigilante, or about whether someone like Batman does more harm than good. After the car chase scene (which I’ll discuss in more depth later) we get news footage of the massive damage Batman has left in his wake. And then of course there’s the escalation theory, lifted out of the comics, and brought to life perfectly in the excellent final scene with Batman and Gordon. The idea that Batman is partly responsible for the rise of “the freaks” just for existing. Ra’s al Ghul is a fascinating foe for Batman because of this theme of boundaries, and the fact that Ra’s has crossed all of Bruce’s. Their fight is a moral question: they’re both operating outside the law in hopes of finding justice, but without crossing the biggest boundary of all – murder – is Batman’s mission a pointless one? We’ve heard reports that in The Dark Knight, The Joker will essentially be a Macguffin, and the real storyline will be the one that develops between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. And this is a rumor I can totally buy as being true, because if Dent becomes Two-Face, as a murderous vigilante like in The Long Halloween, it’s exploring similar moral murk as the dynamics that exist between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul here. And to me, the only real bum note in this dynamic comes when Batman leaves Ra’s al Ghul to die. “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” seems like a cop-out to me. It is essentially killing him. Batman shouldn’t kill, period. If his moral code becomes “I won’t kill anyone, unless they’re really bad,” then it sets up a rather slippery slope, where Batman is in danger of not being all that different from a common vigilante after all.
On the subject of bum notes, one of the most commonly criticised elements of the film is Katie Holmes’ performance as Rachel Dawes. I can understand the criticisms, I was harsh on her myself in early viewings. But with each repeat viewing, I somewhat soften my stance on her contribution to the film. See, as far as performances go, Katie Holmes does well, all things considered. She has good chemistry with Christian Bale (and, oddly enough, Cillian Murphy, but I’ll get to that later), and her interactions with Bale are refreshingly free of the emo dramatics of Peter Parker & Mary-Jane. Their relationship feels more grown-up. That is, until they try to force it into a love relationship. First things first, I totally disagree with Bruce giving away that he is Batman to Rachel. Just seemed a little irresponsible, like he just couldn’t contain himself any longer, and was willing to jeopardise his secrecy for a pat in the back from his cutie-pie. But there’s more. The way they build Rachel and Bruce up, I can buy them as close friends, and to a degree I can even buy Rachel as a strong character. But near the end, when she kisses Bruce, and talks about how much she wants to be with him, it doesn’t feel right. It’s the one point where the artifice of Rachel is exposed, and she is revealed for what she truly is: the token love interest.
And this is part of a recurring flaw in Batman Begins. The deconstruction of the superhero myth is fascinating, but the other side of this is that the film seems least comfortable with itself when it has to, you know, be a superhero movie. It’s not all doom and gloom, I should add. Despite the criticisms over the action set-pieces, some are wonderfully executed. The sword-fight on the ice lake is beautiful, Wally Pfister at his most majestic. Now would be a good time to just praise the excellent cinematography of Wally Pfister throughout the film, especially the parts shot in Iceland. And as I mentioned earlier, Batman’s strike on the docks is great. But some of the action sequences, while sound in theory, are flawed in the execution. And what lets them down is the camerawork.
I’ll take the car chase as my example here. First time I watched the film, I thought the car chase was a bit disappointing. But every time I watch Begins, I like the car chase a little more. And now, I actually realise it’s a very good car chase. It’s just that it’s sold short by the camerawork. I’ll literally watch the film, and pick up stuff in the car chase that I wasn’t even aware had happened. Because when you have scenes that are just CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT-CUT, it all begins to blur into one, and you kinda tune out. And that’s what keeps scenes like this out of the elite of its kind. With the best car chases (and action sequences in general), you’re aware of everything that’s happening.
But it’s not just with some of the action that the film sits uncomfortably. It’s some of the genre conventions. The aforementioned obligatory love interest. The obligatory “superhero is nice to a kid” moment, which kinda works with an upbeat hero like Spider-Man, but is cringingly out of place with this take on Batman. And God, is that kid annoying! Why does he have to whisper every line? The fact that Ra’s al Ghul and The League of Shadows have to be responsible (even if its indirectly) for the death of Bruce’s parents, Nolan relenting to the same urge for symmetry that Burton felt when he made The Joker the murderer, albeit in a more subtle form. Then there’s poor Gordon. While I like the idea of him helping to save the day, much of the stuff relating to him and the Tumbler made him come across as a bumbling clown, from “I gotta get me one of those!” to his in-car slapstick. It just felt so tacked on, as the “we have to have comedy in this big action sequence” bit. For another example, see the cops’ one-liners during the supposed-to-be tense car chase where Rachel’s life hangs in the balance. And it’s a shame, because for the rest of the film, Gary Oldman absolutely nails Gordon. He channels a quiet, world-weary gravitas that seems lifted right out of the comics, and that Pat Hingle never really got right in the old series. Having Gordon be a part (however small) of young Bruce’s life was a great touch by Nolan and Goyer, and Oldman acts the scene brilliantly. And that is framed by the previously-mentioned closing scene, with Gordon in the more familiar setting of a rooftop meeting with Batman. It’s an intriguing mini-arc for Gordon in the film, losing his hope for Gotham, and regaining it. A very strong performance by Oldman, and I hope to see Gordon’s role expanded in The Dark Knight.
What about the other characters? Michael Caine is wonderful as Alfred. Of course, its hard not to like Michael Gough as Alfred, but I think that portrayal was over-sentimentalised, presenting Alfred too much as a sweet old man, which I don’t envision Alfred as being. Unlike Gough, Caine brings a hardened edge to the character, and touches on an element of Alfred that I’ve always found to be the most engaging. The idea that while Bruce Wayne has spent his whole life obsessing over the loss of his father, he doesn’t recognise that the man who has been more of a father to him than Thomas Wayne ever was is right there. This aspect is never obvious, but I see flashes of it whenever Alfred talks of the Wayne legacy, and especially when Bruce coldly tells him “it’s not your family.” Morgan Freeman and Rutger Hauer both excel in their smaller roles, adding intrigue and presence to the Wayne Enterprises machinations, and ensuring these scenes never feel like filler, or empty exposition. On the villainous side of things, Ken Watanabe (who I usually like) stretches too far into eyebrow-arching camp for my liking, while Tom Wilkinson performs well (as he always does) in the limited role of Carmine Falcone, a character who could have been much more than he was in the film, so somewhat of a wasted opportunity there.
Special mention should go to Cillian Murphy, for his chilling performance as Jonathan Crane. I’ll admit, I was cynical at first over the casting of Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow. I thought they’d just picked some pretty-boy for the part. But from his first scene, I was proven absolutely wrong. Murphy is a great young actor, and I think he’s going to get much bigger in future years. His star has already started to rise since “Begins”, and his performance here certainly shows signs of a star-in-the-making. He brings a slimy, reptilian stillness to the part of Crane which just fits so well with the character, his gleaming, nigh-unblinking eyes ensuring that Crane is a suitably unnerving presence even without the Scarecrow mask. And when he becomes Scarecrow, and the Fear Gas is in effect, he really is genuinely frightening. I find the voice distortions in particular to be intriguing, as it sets up parallels with Batman, and the techniques he uses to scare people. But while he is a frightening presence, Crane is also an understated one. And this seems like a quite deliberate statement by Nolan and Goyer, in the wake of the villain-dominated films of the last franchise. Visually, his look is toned down, and I think effectively so. The loss of the complete Scarecrow outfit is more grounded for the world of the film, but the image of the eerie burlap-sack head on top of the suit is an eerie image in its own right. Furthermore, in comparison to the villains in the last series (some of whom got top billing over Batman himself), Scarecrow finds his screen-time stripped right back. Not that it hurts him. While we’re so used to villains getting lots of hype, only to be totally underwhelming in their small roles (I’m looking at you, Star Wars prequel trilogy), Cillian Murphy makes the absolute most of his limited screen-time, making an impact in every scene he appears. And in contrast to the OOT shenanigans of former Bat-villains, Crane’s performance is one of great subtlety. One element of the comics which is quietly incorporated – not in the script, but in Murphy’s performance – is the idea of Crane himself being a man who’s always afraid. Just look at his scenes with Katie Holmes. He’s unable to hold eye contact with her (until he has on the Scarecrow mask, of course, then he stares intently) and when he enters the Asylum, he has a little moment of taking his glasses off, then putting them back on, as if agonising over which look is going to impress Rachel Dawes more. When preparing to confront Batman in the asylum, what I got out of his conversation with his lackeys is that he was quite clearly afraid, and that he was relishing that fear. It’s an idea that I feel rings quite true with Scarecrow. One of the better Bat-villains we’ve seen on the big screen thus far.
Yes, Batman Begins is a great ensemble piece. But when it comes down to it, if this film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Christopher Nolan. Though some consider it a departure, on closer inspection this is quite clearly a Christopher Nolan film. After watching the two films within days of each other, I have to say that, in particular, Batman Begins plays as an interesting counterpoint to Memento. Both deal with obsession and guilt, the pain of loss, with the question of vengeance, and its consequences. Both Bruce Wayne and Leonard Shelby are protagonists haunted by their past, driven by it. In Leonard’s case, he is consumed by it, literally unable to formulate any lasting present due to the loss of his short-term memory. Leonard’s revenge-killing is an empty act of violence that brings him no catharsis. Does Bruce Wayne achieve catharsis? I’m not sure. He finds a purpose, but that purpose involves taking up a never-ending mission, with no resolution in sight. But he conquers his demons, and unlike Leonard, he learns from his mistakes, rather than being doomed to repeat them endlessly. It ends on a note of optimism that contrasts with the inescapable pessimism of Memento, perhaps because while Leonard’s future has already been set out for us as that film comes to a close, Bruce Wayne – and Batman – ends “Begins” with a future full of potential and possibilities.
Full of stellar performances and compelling narrative questions, Batman Begins is arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made. I loved it the first time I saw it, but on each subsequent viewing, I take something new from it, get something more out of it. With time, it just gets better. I’d rank it as one of my favourite films. That’s not saying it’s one of the greatest films ever made, but for me, personally, Batman Begins connected with my vision of what this character can and should be on film, creating a world that I am invested in, and I want to see more of. And that’s the best thing: like the title suggests, this is only the beginning. One thing you get a real sense of throughout this movie (and something I’ve touched upon several times in this review) is that Batman Begins is a film full of foreshadowing, full of ideas waiting to be explored and expanded with The Dark Knight. As great as Batman Begins is a standalone piece of cinema, I don’t think we will feel its full impact until it is viewed in the context of The Dark Knight this summer. And I, for one, can’t wait.