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Batman Begins
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

Starring: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman

Written By: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer (also story) Directed By: Christopher Nolan

The Short Version

Batman starts over with a badly-needed reboot.

The production design is awesome.

The direction is spectacular.

The depth of story is first rate.

The flaws of Batman Begins are the sort that people tend not to care about; it really is a great flick.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CAVE-AGED GRUYERE.

It came of age in a cave.  It also has a fair amount of holes in it, but it’s so tasty and elegantly presented that you’re unlikely to care about those.


Pairs Well With...

BACARDI OAKHEART.

Spiced rum with a bat on the label.  I can easily see Bruce Wayne pretending to pound it down by the bottle.

“You look like a man who takes himself too seriously.  You want my opinion?  You need to lighten up.”


In 1989, Tim Burton brought Batman to the modern age, and the result was very well received.  Three more movies and two different guys in the batsuit later, things weren’t faring so well for the franchise.  And so, a few years after the century turned, the folks at DC and Warner Brothers decided to do something that would quickly become a very popular option with many down-on-their-luck franchises: they hit the “reboot” button.

Fortunately, the guy they got to come and press it was Christopher Nolan, so not only did the machine come back on, but it even grabbed a few upgrades in the process.

Let’s fly into the cave and have a look, shall we?

Once upon a time, young Bruce Wayne fell down a hole in the backyard of his family’s massive estate, and he was stuck there for a while.  It turns out that the hole was connected to a rather large bat cave, and while stuck, little Bruce was swarmed by them, and became quite terrified of bats from that moment on.

Not too long afterward, Bruce went to an Opera with his parents, and there were people dressed as bats on stage.  Bruce became frightened, and convinced his parents to duck out early.  As they stepped out the theatre’s alley door, a thief came up, bad turned to worse, and Bruce’s parents were killed.

Flash forward (to what’s actually the start of the film).  Bruce Wayne (now played by Christian Bale, Terminator: Salvation) is in an Asian prison, picking fights with fellow inmates as part of a self-training regimen with the dual purpose of understanding how criminals work and learning how to beat up six guys at once.  After his most recent bout, he’s tossed back into his cell, where’s he’s surprised to see a well-dressed white gentleman waiting for him.  The man calls himself Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, Unknown), and he has a proposition for Bruce, whom he has certain knowledge will be released from prison the next day.  Should Bruce truly be interested in finding that which he has been blindly seeking for all of these years, he should climb a nearby mountain and present himself to the master of the building he finds there.  If he does, he will learn to conquer his own fears and use them against those who would bring injustice to the world.

The next day, Bruce Wayne is rather unceremoniously released from prison, and after but a moment’s hesitation, he begins to climb the mountain.

And so the road to becoming Batman begins…

What you just got a peek it up there is one of the two biggest secrets to the success of Batman Begins, and that secret is depth.  It’s been a running joke amongst comic fans I know that if you’re not born with super powers like Superman and can’t mutate yourself into them like Hulk or Spider-Man, then you can always be rich and buy your way into the club like Batman and Iron Man.  Here, however, the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman is made more sensible than that.  Sure, you’ve seen and heard the story of Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down many times before, but in Batman Begins, that event get perspective and expansion.  This isn’t just a matter of Bruce witnessing his parents being killed, getting bitchy and emo for a while, and then turning around and becoming the Caped Crusader.  Here, little Bruce Wayne can give himself a reason to feel guilty for the murder of his parents, and his journey to becoming Batman is a long and dark one indeed; so much so that I’m even leaving some of it out because it qualifies as a spoiler.  (You’ll just have to see what happens between boyhood and Asia for yourself.)  Once he does reach Asia, however, what happens there makes sense.  Yes, he still buys his way into the club, but Batman Begins also shows that years of training and discipline happened in between.  Indeed, Bruce Wayne doesn’t appear as Batman until just over an hour into the film.  That’s real story, and that’s something that was missing from the previous Batman movies.

The second of the two big secrets to the success of Batman Begins comes in the form of Christopher Nolan’s direction, and that direction is dark and brooding with no room for camp.  Before work began on the film, Nolan got his crew together for a private screening of Blade Runner, and when it was over, he turned to the crew and said, “This is how we’re going to make Batman Begins.”  That, my friends, is a very tall order indeed, but the end results show that the point to his crew was made.  From start to finish, every element of every scene furthers the shadowy atmosphere that Nolan has chosen to reflect Bruce Wayne’s inner torment (which also dovetails nicely into the general corruption of Gotham), and it plays out wonderfully.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I have either read or heard critics and fans alike say “This is the Batman movie I was waiting for,” and invariably, the cause of that reaction is Nolan’s atmosphere of beautiful ruin in progress (or, if you like, beautiful progress in ruin).  This is the dark Batman movie that reflects the real spirit of the comics, where the difference between the hero and the villain is exclusively one of philosophy rather than personality.  (Indeed, the ultimate villain in this film sees himself as an instrument of justice, and he actually believes it.)  Tim Burton’s film may have brought Batman back to the night, but when all was said and done, there was still plenty of camp to go around.  Nolan, however, has no room for camp.  His Batman is all dark business.

This atmosphere is further enhanced by the overall production design, which one can definitely see being influenced by the director’s little private screening.  Gotham itself is darkened art deco; the city as we see it in flashbacks would be equally at home to The Shadow as it is to the Wayne family.  It is in the aging of Gotham, though, that the production design team strikes its greatest gold.  The corruption of Gotham’s soul that drives the film’s villain to act is reflected in its physical appearance: still majestic enough to legitimately look like one of the nation’s most powerful cities, and yet decaying and rotting to its core.  The slums (reportedly based on those of Hong Kong) especially speak to this; there, the rot has already happened and is turning to plague, and where better to base our secondary villain?

That villain is Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, Tron: Legacy), not one of the top-tier marquee choices many fans would have expected for Batman’s inaugural foe, but an excellent choice nevertheless, especially given the story being told.  Indeed, if there is any complaint at all that can be laid against the story in terms of how it handles characters, one would be that Scarecrow is so well done that he deserves more screen time.  This one’s all Murphy; he plays the role with an understated intensity that says “yeah, you’d win a fist fight, but I don’t need to.”  It’s also said that he got this role after being the second choice to play Batman; I can definitely picture that.

Speaking of Batman…

It’s hard to argue against the notion that Batman as we see him in Batman Begins and its progeny is the best-written take on the character ever to hit the big screen.  Again, he finally gets the developmental buildup and background he deserves, and the depth of personal psychology inherent to his comic book incarnation finally gets its Hollywood due.  With that said, however, once Bruce Wayne has become Batman and then needs to figure out what to do with himself as Bruce Wayne (for as one character brilliantly points out, Batman is the reality at that point, and Bruce Wayne is the mask)… the over the top obnoxious drunk playboy thing is taken a bit too far, and is the only element of the film that threatens to crack the atmosphere.  The archetype can be done and made to work – ask Tony Stark – but here, it’s just too much, and renders him completely unlikable out of costume.  The in-world argument, of course, is that it’s necessary to his cover, but that just doesn’t wash.  Without question, post-Batman Bruce Wayne is this film’s biggest flaw.

Not many people care, because the rest of the movie works very hard at covering that up.

This brings us to Mr. Christian Bale.

Without question, Bale’s acting here is outstanding.  Effort, attention to detail, physicality, presence, emotional investment; it’s all there.  The amount of work he put into this role behind the scenes is well known, and it all shows up on the screen.  And yet, he’s also the source of one of my two biggest complaints about Batman Begins.  Specifically, I wish that someone had written in Bruce Wayne going to Oxford or something to allow him out of the country long enough to pick up a UK voice, because Bale’s American accent as Bruce Wayne is actively annoying.  The best description I can come up with for it is that it sounds like he’s speaking through unsecured dentures (though actually, if you watch on a high enough definition screen, you can see that his tongue is pressed against his teeth whenever he speaks).  In the grand scheme, it may seem like a small quibble, and it is, but if it’s taking anyone away from an atmosphere this powerful for any length of time, maybe a better dialogue coach would have been in order. 

Otherwise, the only other casting question comes from Katie Holmes (Phone Booth), whom I am just not buying as a DA.  You’ll notice that hers was the only major role recast for the sequel; regardless of where that decision originated, it was a very good call.  Holmes doesn’t actively stink up the place by any means, but she is easily the weakest player in the entire movie, especially with the fortress of talent that surrounds her on all sides.  (Though she does make for a handy thermometer in this flick; apparently, it’s always cold where she is.)

That fortress of talent includes a supporting cast made of actors who normally are perfectly comfortable leading and carrying films all by themselves.  Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer; that’s a dynamite cast.  And when you can afford to throw in Ken Watanabe and Tom Wilkinson as your third string… oh yeah, you have definitely got something special.

Overall, Batman Begins is an excellent film; of that, there is no question, and indeed, that praise can be extended to say that it is easily the best Batman film ever made up to the time of its release.  Its triumphs are many, and its flaws are few, and as noted, those flaws are of the sort that most audiences and even most critics simply don’t care about.  With that in mind, I do have one more of them to point out, just because someone has to, and amazingly, I have yet to see anyone bring it up.  Chronologically, Batman Begins skips two entire generations’ worth of time between Bruce Wayne’s childhood and his coming of age as an adult Batman.  It is made clear – indeed, the point is laboriously made – that the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents occurs during the Depression.  And yet, the world of the adult Batman is thoroughly post-2000 modern.  The amount of time involved makes it impossible even to change the story to have his grandparents killed during the Depression, much less his parents.  The explanation, of course, is that like most comics (and even “The Simpsons”), Batman exists in a form of “hypertime” that crosses all eras, so that all time is functionally present time.  It’s a much-used comic book convention, to be sure, but here, I call BS.  After all of the careful work that Christopher Nolan has done with this movie, this single detail seems just ridiculously sloppy, and it could have been fixed by changing just a couple of lines of dialogue.  Besides, Nolan also made clear behind the scenes that he wanted this film to be reasonably realistic and have all fantasy elements removed (which is why this Ra’s Al Ghul is but a mortal man rather than a 600 year old gent who continually resurrects himself through a “Lazarus Pit” as he does in the comics), so if one does want to claim that the movie is just following an old convention, then it’s breaking its own rules.  Do you care?  Almost certainly not, and even if you do, you, like me, are not going to let it detract from your ability to enjoy this overall excellent movie.

Bottom line, Batman Begins is just too awesome of a film to let minor quibbles get in the way.  Superbly directed, extremely well written, and with an overall amazing cast, this is by far the best Batman flick that had ever been made up to the time of its release, and one of the best origin story superhero films that you’re likely to find period.  There’s a reason that so many Batman fans said that this was the film they’d been waiting the entire lives for, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to give it a whirl.

Hope you’re not afraid of the dark…

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


More From The Bar! | The Avengers (2012) | The Dark Knight | The Shadow |



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