Batman Begins


    There’s been much assignment of blame for the failure of the franchise
that began so strongly with Tim Burton’s
BATMAN (1989) and collapsed with
the Joel Schumacher-directed
BATMAN & ROBIN (1997). Some have gone so
far as to fault Schumacher for putting nipples on the Batsuit as the reason.
I might suggest that things like the constant shifting of leading man (Michael
Keaton to Val Kilmer to George Clooney), the deteriorating quality of the
villains (compare Jack Nicholson’s memorable Joker and Michelle Pfeiffer’s sexy
Catwoman under Burton’s direction with the campy Riddler of Jim Carrey and
the dull Mr. Freeze of Arnold Schwarzenegger under Schumacher’s watch), and
the dull scripts all contributed to the moribund response to an apathetic
audience. There was clearly a hunger for comic book films as evidenced by the
success of the
X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN franchises, it just seemed that the
public had its fill of the guy in the Batsuit.

    Created in 1939 by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, the Bat-Man
(as he was originally called) was unique in the comic world. He did not have
special powers like his contemporary, Superman, but he was a mere mortal
who donned a disguise, along the lines of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro, and
set out to avenge crime. Over the next few decades, Batman more or less
remained the same. Occasionally, there might be a tweaking of his history,
but nothing terribly major.

    In the 1960s, of course, the character got something of a make-over
with the decidedly campy TV series, starring Adam West. (I’ll cop to having
watched it; in fact, I had to get special permission to stay up a half-hour
later on the two school nights it aired, but I was not going to be kept out
of the loop since every other kid in class was watching and dissecting the
show.) I was perhaps too young to appreciate fully the series’ campy
qualities. Instead, I used to revel in the guest villains and their female
sidekicks.

    By the mid-80s, Batman underwent one of his many revisions, thanks
to artist Frank Miller. The resulting graphic novels reinvented the character
and laid the groundwork for Burton’s films, but as noted Burton tended
to fixate on the villains to the detriment of the character of Batman. Indeed,
it’s the problem (and the success) of most comic book movies: the villains
tend to be more colorful and memorable than the heroes. It’s one of the
reason’s Ang Lee’s
HULK also met with such mixed reactions.

    In some ways, what director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer David
S. Goyer have done is similar to what Ang Lee and James Schamus did
with
HULK. They decided to concentrate on the hero, the titular character,
and for some reason, critics and fanboys somehow dismiss that effort.
BATMAN BEGINS is about the character’s origins, and that’s exactly what
Nolan and Goyer have concentrated on. Taking a somewhat familiar story,
the writers have crafted a satisfying mix of the old and the new, combining
parts of the story from the original comic (circa 1939), bits from Miller’s 1986
revision and his subsequent books, and even borrowing from Burton’s vision.
Although the final result runs on a bit too long and there are some other
flaws, particularly in its third act,
BATMAN BEGINS is an enjoyable and fine
motion picture.

    The film opens with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in an Asian prison.
We learn he is there to gain a better understanding of the criminal mind,
and that he more than take care of himself. Right from the start, he battles
several prisoners and ends up in solitary confinement, more to protect the
other inmates from harm. While in his cell, he is visited by Henri Ducard
(Liam Neeson), who offers Wayne a proposition: Pick a blue flower and
make the journey to the top of a local mountain and he’ll learn untold
secrets about criminals and how to combat them. When Wayne is released
from the jail the next day, he makes the arduous trip up the mountain
where he encounters the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Wantanabe, wasted
in the part) and his minions who are overseen in their training by Ducard.
Soon Wayne is being coached by Ducard in the best ways to face and
conquer fear.

    The audience learns, via judicious flashbacks to Wayne’s childhood,
of an incident where the young Bruce falls into a well, is attacked by a
swarm of bats, and eventually rescued by his father Thomas (Linus Roache).
This, we learn is the reason for Bruce Wayne’s fear of the nocturnal
creatures. Then, there’s the guilt he feels for having forced his parents
to leave a production of “
Der Fledermaus” early – the title character
reminds him too much of the bats that swarmed around him in the cave.
This incident ends badly when a mugger approaches them and becomes
trigger happy. (In Burton’s vision, that mugger was Jack Napier, the man
who would turn into the Joker; Nolan opts to have him be just a street thug.)

    Years later, Wayne considered exacting revenge on his parents’ killer
when he is paroled early in return for testimony against crime boss
Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), but a set of circumstances intervened
that stopped him. Instead, that incident was the impetus for Wayne to flee
the country and go off to educate himself about the criminal mind. Spending
seven years away from his home in Gotham City, and declining Ducard’s
invitation to join his group called the League of Shadows, Bruce Wayne
returns to his home.

    Once back in Gotham, Wayne undertakes the creation of his alter ego.
He utilizes all that is at his disposal, including the ideas of inventor Lucius
Fox (Morgan Freeman), an employee in the Applied Sciences division of
Wayne Enterprises. Spurred on by his trusty manservant Alfred (Michael
Caine), Wayne gradually adopts the persona of Batman and a crimefighting
vigilante is born.

    While he sets out to combat ordinary criminals (like Falcone), Batman
eventually must save the city from a madman who plans to unleash a deadly
toxin via the water supply. The main villain’s henchman is psychiatrist
Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who is also the villainous Scarecrow, a
creature in what look like a burlap gas mask who sprays the toxin that
makes an individual’s most basic fear become real.

    Until the last act, when there’s a sort of been there, done that feel,
BATMAN BEGINS proves to be a wonder. Anchoring the movie is the strong
performance of Christian Bale, an inspired choice to portray Bruce Wayne.
Bale manages to evoke that aura of privilege and arrogance yet he also
is able to plumb the depths of the character’s hurt and pain. It’s an
extraordinary performance and once again proves that he is one of the most
underrated actors working in contemporary cinema.

    As might be expected, there’s fine supporting work from old pros like
Neeson, Caine, and Freeman. If Murphy does not quite register as the
Scarecrow, it may be because the character is less well known than other
Batman villains. Only Katie Holmes as Wayne’s childhood friend and
potential love interest, Rachel Dawes, appears to have wandered in
from another film. She’s adequate, but with the exception of Michelle
Pfeiffer, the franchise has not been kind to females.

    If the third act had been more original and stronger – there’s a
sequence on an elevated train that echoes a set piece from
SPIDER-MAN 2
BATMAN BEGINS would have been a great movie. As it stands, it is a very
good one.


                   
Rating:                B+
                   
MPAA rating:       PG-13 for intense action violence,
                                                                    disturbing images & some
                                                       thematic elements
                         Running time:      141 mins.




                          Viewed at the Loews 34th Street
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.