Batman Begins (2005)
July 16, 2012 6 Comments
Blaming himself for his parents’ murder years before, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) bides his time until the man responsible is up for parole and then sets out for revenge. Robbed of absolution when somebody else beats him to it, Wayne forfeits his family’s empire and exiles himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he is eventually courted by Ra’s al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) The League Of Shadows. Trained as a ninja and taught to overcome his childhood fear of bats, Wayne returns to butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and his family’s fortune when the organization’s true intention – to destroy Gotham, ridding it of its evils – becomes clear. With pawn Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow) already in place, the newly created Batman will have to seek assistance from DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) if there is to be much of Gotham left to save.
Having missed Batman Begins at the cinema due to its unfortunate coincidence with exam season, I eventually caught up with it on DVD however many months later. I remember being duly underwhelmed, a reaction that immediately set me apart from a population of burgeoning Nolanites busy proclaiming that the superhero genre had finally come of age and delivered a movie worthy of wider consideration. Even a year later, when I was forced to watch the movie again on holiday due to it being the only one saved on my friend’s hard-drive, I found myself bewildered by the film’s critical acclaim and box office success.
Revisiting the film now, in the build up for second sequel The Dark Knight Rises‘ much anticipated release, I still struggle to understand what it was exactly about Christopher Nolan’s reboot that has elicited such enduring and uncritical adoration. That said, I have definitely softened in my feelings towards it: I will admit that Batman Begins is moderately entertaining, superbly shot and strikingly scored, a considerable concession given my earlier disdain for it. Indeed, it is nowhere near as self-serious, pretentious and tedious as its successor (there are actually bats in this one; lots) – a scattering of great lines, some impressive set-pieces and the ever-reliable Michael Caine ensuring that there is at least something in it for audiences not automatically sold on Nolan’s name alone.
My primary issue with the franchise has always been its censorial approach to the source material, ruling out storylines, characters and weaponry that does not quite gel with Nolan’s lofty and individual intentions. Batman Begins is so impersonal, so polished and so bleak that it is almost impossible to get a workable foothold on the story before it slinks off into the shadows, leaving you to rely on Nolan’s ensemble for support instead. While Gary Oldman gamely mugs his way through most of his scenes, Cillian Murphy makes for a decent enough henchman and Katie Holmes – through virtue of being bafflingly miscast and clearly out of her depth as Gotham’s devout district attorney – proves very almost endearing, however, Christian Bale and Liam Neeson are even less inspiring as The Bat Man and the bad man respectively.
After all, it’s not much of a stretch for Bale from American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman to Bruce Wayne, and the actor makes little effort to breathe any personality whatsoever into a character better suited to the pages of a Bret Easton Ellis’ novel than the panels of one of DC’s flagship comics. Whether you call him a superhero or a vigilante, you still have to care for the character if the film is to have any resonance, stakes or dramatic weight. But Bruce Wayne has no character, no arc to invest in; he was miserable before the series started, he’s been miserable throughout each film and he’ll be miserable long after Gotham is saved. There is no depth of personality at all. Please, Nolan, why should I care?
I understand that the film acts, ostensibly, as a thesis on fear, and that Nolan is trying to bring some realism and respectability to a genre quickly disappearing beneath endless spandex, but there is no getting away from the fact that – at its centre – this is a story about people – of a man in a cape and cowl growling unintelligibly at another man dressed as a scarecrow. If you are able to draw literary comparisons, scout moral quandaries and unravel a bat-cave’s worth of subtext it is only because the film is so uninteresting on the surface that you must entertain yourself with your own theories and interpretations. Yes, it’s intelligent. Sure, it’s accomplished. I’ll concede that it’s even better than the sequel. But this is not a superior superhero movie simply because it denounces sentiment, scoffs at levity and hides its crazier elements behind a piano-triggered secret passageway.
But it’s fine. Better than Elektra, and the complete antithesis of Fantastic Four (whether for better or worse), Batman Begins is a perfectly serviceable addition to the comic book movie landscape of 2005, and a welcome return to credibility for a franchise last seen lost on ice. (One year either side, and it would have had the far less flattering likes of Spider-man 2 and Superman Returns to compete with.) It is not, however, anything more than that.