Thursday, June 16, 2005

Movie Review: Batman Begins


It has been 12 hours now since I left the theater after seeing Batman Begins, and I am still tingling from it.  Short review:  Absolutely amazing.  Go watch it as soon as possible.  For a longer review, there will be lots and lots of spoilers, so DO NOT READ until after you've seen the movie.

First off, let me say that Batman is my favorite comic book hero.  I've always been drawn to the notion that here is a guy with no mutant abilities, no alien powers, no genetic alterations, no magic powers, yet he is willing to throw himself out there and stand in the way of the bad guys in order to do what is right.  He's a guy who will fight tooth and nail against corruption in politics and the police as much has he fights the Joker.  He's a guy that can beat ANYONE by proper implementation of force, intimidation, and tools.

And this is the first Batman move that understands that.  While I certainly liked the first Batman movie, think back to and and what is the first thing that comes to mind?  The Joker, of course.  And also Tim Burton's design for Gotham City, which was incredible.  Jack Nicholson's Joker was great, but it completely dominated that movie.  Michael Keaton as Batman just kind of floated through the movie as a foil to The Joker, not the other way around.  Batman Returns was almost even worse in that regard.  In that movie, Burton tried to explain the character of Batman through the bad guys:  Catwoman represents his obsession, Penguin his alienation, and Max Shreck his cool calculation and intelligence.  And the actual character of Batman stood stiffly in the middle of it.  Let's just pretend that Batman Forever and Batman and Robin don't exist.  We'll be better for it.

Batman Begins, on the other hand, puts Batman front and center.  This movie has more villains and supporting characters than any of the previous movies, yet the focus stays on Batman.  While all the other movies throw in an allusion to Bruce Wayne's childhood traumas, Batman Begins digs deep to show how his childhood discovery of the Cave led to his fear of bats, which directly tied into his feelings of guilt and responsibility when his parents are murdered.  It shows how a lost young man watches a corrupt system let his parents' murderer free, then take away any chance of him exacting revenge on his own.  It shows how an obsession with crime and criminals can lead down a path of darkness, yet that a good man can still stand up and say No More.

I love how everything is this movie seems plausible.  While Tim Burton's Gotham city was fantastic, this Gotham seems real.  Not that the three-tiered elevated train or whatnot represent things in the real world, but that Gotham has the feeling of a living, breathing city.  There are nice sections and poor sections.  There are highways that look like people use them and buildings that look like people live and work in them.  Nothing like Schumacher's neon hell (oh wait, I forgot those ones don't exist).  There is architecture from different eras that blend to give the city a specific look, not just Burton's extreme Gothic design.  Everything in this movie uses that strategy.  Batman's tools are discarded military technology.  The bat cave is an actual cave located underneath Wayne Manor, not a massive cathedral that looks like it took a large construction crew years to hollow out and build.  This movie sells itself instead of asking the audience to just accept that these thing exist, and it's all the better for it.

I love how this movie knows its roots.  Burton and Schumacher tried to make Batman their own, but in this movie you can see Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Denny O'Neil (the best Batman comic writers ever).  A lot of geeks have criticized the changes to the Batmobile, but in addition to being a semi-plausible urban assault vehicle, it looks very similar to the one from The Dark Knight Returns by Miller.  Also the characterization of Sargent Gordon is almost identical to Batman: Year One, also by Miller.  I'm almost certain that Gordon even gave the same speech about "Escalation" as he did at the end of the movie.  The Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows stuff is pure O'Neil.

Not that director Christopher Nolan and the cast didn't leave their mark on the movie as well.  Playing around with the timeline has always been one of Nolan's trademarks, and here he deftly maneuvers from present day back and forth into Wayne's past.  Also the visual effects of Scarecrow's fear gas is very well done.  Nolan understands that Batman's best offensive weapon is fear, and when Batman first attacks a group of drug smugglers at the docks, it plays out more like a scene from Alien than your traditional superhero ka-powing the baddies.  When Liam Neeson's character Ducard is training Wayne early in the movie he taunts Bruce by calling out the various styles that Wayne is trying to use, then telling him that "It's not a dance" as he promptly kicks Bruce's ass.  You see that come out later as Batman is fighting with a ferocity you don't see in the ballet/kung fu fighting that is so popular nowadays.

Neeson, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Garry Oldman as Gordon are all amazing actors that, instead of overpowering the film with their presence (a la Nicholson in the first Batman), blend completely into their characters, never letting you forget that this is a Batman movie.  Cillian Murphy (the guy from 28 Days Later) was perfectly cast as The Scarecrow.  I was all prepared to hate Katie Holmes, but I actually enjoyed her role in the movie.  She gets one of the best lines toward the end when she hammers home the point that Bruce Wayne is nothing but a mask, that Batman is what is real. (although, like with the first move and Vicky Vale, I really don't understand why they think Batman feels the need to reveal his identity to every skirt that comes through the Batcave).

I officially forgive Christian Bale for American Psycho (a movie that I hate to my very core).  Michael Keaton was basically a stiff cardboard figure in the first two Batmans.  Val Kilmer got the Bruce Wayne: Millionaire Playboy right in Batman Forever, but that's about it.  I do not recognize George Cloony as an actual Batman.  But Bale hits the role note-perfect.  His drunken playboy antics are hilarious.  His quiet intensity as the 'real' Bruce Wayne is great.  And his Demon of the Night Batman voice will send chills up your spine.  Incredible.

I guess I wouldn't be a true geek if I didn't do a little complaining.  #1.  As much as Nolen did to sell everything in the movie as plausible, the Microwave Cannon that Ghul was using to vaporize the drug laced water would have cooked anyone standing around it like they were siting in a microwave oven.  #2.  Why didn't they use Danny Elfman's iconic Batman Theme?!?  They could have easily incorporated it with the rest of the soundtrack (which, while not particularly memorable did set the mood quite well).

But those are just minor quibbles.  The movie is amazing.  Its the Batman movie that I've always wanted.  Anyone want to go see it again?


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