Batman Begins, Reviewed

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As a fan of and apologist for the Tim Burton Batman movies, I was always going to be worried about a new Batman movie let alone a whole new cinematic Bat-franchise. The fact that Christopher Nolan was to direct was a big relief as was the notion of Welsh actor, Christian Bale donning the black cape and cowl. The movie production rolled on and word spread that character actors such as Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson and Morgan Freeman were to appear as were alongside serial statue-method actors such as Liam Neeson and Katie Holmes.

The film begins with DC comics rather pathetic branding exercise. While I appreciate the importance of linking these various blockbusters with the comics that spawned them, the short logo ad is a poor imitation of Marvel’s much more effective effort. The DC logo looks second rate and now their movie standard seems to have been taken from Marvel’s cutting-room floor.

Luckily the movie itself gets on with the business of getting on quite quickly. Bruce Wayne and the daughter of the family’s maid, Rachel Dawes, are playing in the Wayne Manor grounds when he falls down an old well and is confronted by a sea of screeching bats. This encounter leads Bruce to develop a fear of bats that has tragic consequences. He travels the world, alone and unnoticed, taking on petty criminals wherever they hide. We see him in prison in Bhutan rumbling with fellow inmates. He is plucked from incarceration by the mysterious Henri Ducard where he will train to overcome his fear and develop is body.

Back in Gotham, Alfred (Michael Caine) is concerned for his charge’s wellbeing. Rachel (Katie Holmes) is now in the DA’s office and wonders what happened to her childhood friend. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is still the one clean cop in a dirty town. Bruce, now played by Christian Bale, decides to take on Gotham’s crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) but is he prepared for what horrors will fill the void?

Batman Begins is satisfying on many levels and was a highly enjoyable movie. It was satisfying as a Batman movie, as a psychological drama, as a crime thriller and as an action movie. It failed, however, to come to a consistent position on one of the franchise’s key themes: Justice. This failure meant the otherwise excellent film lacked a solid backbone; leaving the core of the film muddy and uncertain.

I was tickled by the pure Batman-ness of the whole thing. Christian Bale was a perfect Bruce Wayne and Batman in so many ways. He played the listless playboy billionaire with biting wit and restraint. He played Batman with aggression and intensity. I was scared by this Batman who growled at his enemies – using fear like the character should. There were nice nods to the better Batman films of old; “I’m Batman” and Michael Caine played a suitable Alfred to follow on from the great Michael Gough.

Batman Begins presented most of its themes excellently, especially that of the importance of fathers and fatherhood. Bruce collects father figures in this movie; each with something different to offer. His dearly departed father, Thomas Wayne, gave him compassion and social and political awareness. Ducard gave him the means to fight for justice. Alfred, Gordon and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) all provide important advice and assistance.

The mechanics of the plot were well thought through and the acting was confident and impressive throughout. Only Neeson was disappointing but mostly because he failed to make much of an impression at all. Cillian Murphy (another actor using an accent not his own) improved throughout the film as the sinister Dr. Crane. Special mention must go to Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon who not only looks the part so convincingly he could have been plucked from the page but upholds his small but integral role with a moral fortitude that makes his character one of the most complete on the screen.

The direction by Christopher Nolan and the cinematography of Wally Pfister are what pull this film together. Pfister gives us beautiful shots of icy mountains and crystal-clear vistas of Gotham city. The movie uses a strong colour scheme that is both atmospheric and practical. Nolan directs the fight scenes with quick cuts and blurred action. Many have criticised this but I saw something more. When you watch these scenes you notice that Batman is almost never scene. One can imagine that fighting Batman might be something like this: a flurry of fists and pain from a dark figure that disappears into the night.

Unfortunately, Batman Begins lacked a core position on one of the key themes introduced early in the film. The untrained Bruce Wayne talks of justice in simple, black and white terms: his parents were killed – their killer must pay. He is introduced to the dark side of Gotham; the poverty, the desperation and the fear of life in the slums. These people are given no justice, a message that shakes the unspeakably rich young man. We see him stealing food to survive – the injustice of hunger becomes apparent to him. We are told that his parents took their wealth seriously and used it to build public transportation; Wayne Tower sits on the hub of the city. One employee at the tower remarks that he is an “unofficial senator”. Nolan and Goyer display justice and compassion in that wealth should be common.

Goyer and Nolan flinch. They turn the movie on its head – leaving its social and political messages confused and disappointingly unfulfilled. They blame Gotham’s poverty not on the corruption of the system but on the actions of the enemies of the system. The slums of Gotham (based on the real-life slums in Hong Kong) are seemingly devoid of people. The two main characters we see are a silent hobo and a child. Only a felafel-stand owner speaks for himself. Batman becomes not only the defender of Gotham but the father. The innocent child represents the hope for Gotham but he also represents the helpless poor who the filmmakers seem to think sit around waiting for rich people to save the day.

This gives the film an insulting and disappointing aftertaste. The filmmakers were unable to complete the message that they introduced one wonders whether they lacked the balls or whether they simply didn’t have the imagination to conceive of the world any differently.

On the whole this movie is a resounding success. It is engaging emotionally and entertainingly exciting. It is quite scary in some parts and uses humour sparingly but effectively. The special effects and visual effects melded seamlessly making the important suspension of disbelief easier than ever.

This Batman is an admirable achievement – I hope the creators of future Bat movies have enough faith in their convictions in order to make a Batman movie that carries a more consistent message than this one.

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