Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Christopher Nolan, I’d like to shake your hand.
And I’d like to congratulate Warner Bros. and DC for not only making a great BATMAN film, but also for raising the stakes on how adult and affecting a comic book movie can be. Since 1997, Warner Bros. has taken a lot of sht from every comic fan on the planet, and for this particular moment, all of that should stop. BATMAN BEGINS is a potent piece of pop mythology, confident, commercial, and mainstream as hell, but not at all what I expected when I walked into the theater last Thursday night.
It’s pretty much all I’ve been able to think about since. It’s that kind of a movie. It demands instant replay. There are things you’re going to want to look at again right away. And it’s a gloriously big movie. It sounds like a perfect fit for an IMAX run, and I may try to go back to see it that way soon. Now that I’ve seen this, it’s starting to feel like 2005 is The Summer of Fear. REVENGE OF THE SITH is all about how fear leads to the downfall of Anakin Skywalker. WAR OF THE WORLDS looks like an exercise in fear and preserving your family in the face of it. BATMAN BEGINS is obsessed with fear from its opening frames, and it manages something that no other film version of Batman has so far: it’s scary.
Once you’ve seen Nolan’s treatment of the material, it seems like a giant “duh,” but no one else has ever fully illustrated why Bruce Wayne would choose a bat as his symbol or what effect he hopes that symbol will have on others. The film also does an outstanding job of illustrating the emotional toll that the loss of his parents has on Bruce, moving past the few iconic images that we normally see so that it can etch a portrait of real loss, thanks in no small part to the affecting work of Linus Roche as Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father. Where the film really excels is in the way it draws together at least a dozen different characters and several different story threads into a thematically coherent dramatic whole.
The film doesn’t feel episodic, or like it’s been stitched together to satisfy some marketing department checklist, with the exception of one decision we’ll discuss below. Superhero films so far have been justly criticized for a dulling sameness of plot, or for having scripts that are oftent flimsy excuses for set pieces and special effects. I love the genre, but I’ll admit that there’s lots of room for improvement. It seems like the bar is continually being reset every couple of years as filmmakers work to make better movies even as they deliver the specific thrills that fans are looking for. Last year’s SPIDER-MAN 2 was probably the pinnacle of any of the Marvel movies so far, and I expected that BATMAN BEGINS was going to be an imitation of all the things Marvel’s gotten right so far. It’s not, though, aside from that shameless DC Comics logo at the front of the film. Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer dared to aim high with this movie, and that ambition served them well. I thought Nolan was a little full of himself when I heard him namedrop BLADE RUNNER and David Lean during production. It sounded like grandiose hot air, but I can see both of those influences as more in the finished film. Nolan’s well-steeped in all the previous visual incarnations of Batman, both on the page and on the screen, and there are sly nods to the best of what’s come before peppered throughout the film. This is a fresh take, visually and dramatically, and the sheer thrill of seeing someone pull that off is worth the price of admission.
Some of the credit obviously belongs to the exceptional team of artists Nolan collaborated with on the film. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s given the film a totally different palette than any recent comic book movie, earthy browns and yellows, hardly the primary colors of something like SPIDER-MAN or HULK, and it also eschews the simple monochromatic blacks and whites that were part of Tim Burton’s approach. There’s nothing gothic about this Gotham, and that’s fine by me. Gotham feels like a real city, and whatever special effects are used to flesh it out are meant to be invisible. Production designer Nathan Crowley hasn’t done anything like BATMAN BEGINS before now, and that may have made him the perfect guy for the job. He’s done his best to ground Gotham in the familiar, and that makes it easier to empathize with Bruce Wayne, to put yourself in his shoes. It feels like this could happen in the world we live in, not in some fantastic land of mutants and superpowers.
Christian Bale is undeniably talented. I’ve been a fan since the still-terribly-underrated EMPIRE OF THE SUN. As an adult, he specializes in chilly but fascinating. His work in last year’s THE MACHINIST was hallucinatory and daring, and far more than just a dangerous weight loss stunt. His work as Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO has become iconic. Here, it’s fine if Bruce Wayne comes across like a barely-restrained freak. Bale’s natural emotional reticence feels appropriate, and it actually makes us feel more for him. We see why he’s disconnected, and we see every step of his efforts to reconnect. He tries it the wrong way first, then gradually finds his way to the right method. The start of the film crosscuts between Wayne’s present and his past as he attempts to deal with the guyilt and fear brought on by the deaths of his parents. You want character arc? Well, Bruce goes through several. First he’s got to forgive himself. Then he’s got to master his fear. Then he’s got to train himself to turn that fear outward. Then he’s got to establish himself as a symbol. And the real trick of the thing is how each of these arcs is compelling in its own right. We meet a lot of interesting characters along the way, all fleshed out above and beyond the call of duty by an excellent supporting cast. Tom Wilkinson’s having obvious fun as Falcone, the city’s big mob boss, but it’s not over the top a la Jack Palance in Burton’s ’89 BATMAN. Rutger Hauer follows up his uber-creepy SIN CITY turn with quietly slimy work as Richard Earle, the man charged with running Wayne Enterprises. Cillian Murphy’s even stranger than Bale as Dr. Jonathan Crane, and the way his change into The Scarecrow is handled should give any NIGHTBREED fan a smile. I’d argue that the Scarecrow alone makes this a film that no child should see. This movie pushes the outer edge of the PG-13, and I think it’s just a matter of luck that they got the rating at all, something that definitely distinguishes this from any other BATMAN. Meanwhile, Katie Holmes has the most difficult role in the film, since it’s the one role that Goyer and Nolan didn’t crack. Rachel Dawes is the one district attorney that can’t be bribed or threatened, and she’s also supposed to be Bruce’s lifelong love interest. We already know he’s not going to end up with her, so the romantic subplot is a dud from the moment it’s introduced. If Dawes the district attorney had been replaced with Harvey Dent and the film had foregone the love interest altogether, I would have no complaints at all.
As it is, this film makes the exact same mistake regarding the love interest that Burton’s first film did: they let her into the Batcave and they reveal Bruce’s dual identity to her. It seems perfunctory, and it’s the one major narrative misstep. As useless as she is in the film, Michael Caine is absolutely indispensable as Alfred. His lifelong devotion to the Wayne family is touching and powerful because of the grace that Caine brings to it. He doesn’t have to say a word in some scenes. He just radiates a certain heartbroken strength when Wayne most needs it. Equally good is Liam Neeson as a slippery underworld figure who introduces Bruce to much of the methodology that he uses as Batman. It’s a pretty canny twist on the mentor character that Neeson normally plays, and he classes the joint up every time he’s onscreen. Morgan Freeman’s the same way. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time as Lucius Fox, the guy responsible for the development of much of the technology that Bruce uses, but he makes the most of every scene. It helps that he gets to be part of some of the most purely fun material in the film.
Finally, there’s Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Typically, Gordon’s been a nothing character in any of the films, but this one really lays the groundwork for Gordon as one of the key players in this franchise. I like the relationship that he has with Batman, starting with their first meeting when Gordon is the cop who comforts Bruce the night his parents are killed. This is one of the most normal roles that Oldman has ever played, the one good cop in Gotham. Gordon’s a bit of a nerd, honest to a fault, and he’s the only one Batman seems to trust. By the end of the film, they’ve reached the rapport that I’ve always pictured them having, and all the pieces are in place for what promises to be an outstanding second film.
One of the other things I love is the way all of Batman’s gadgets and vehicles and weapons and his hideout and his costumes and everything else are all grounded in a sort of reality. Sure, you’re still going to have to exercise your suspension of disbelief in order to buy into the concept of a guy in a bat suit fighting crime, but for the first time in any Batman movie, someone’s made the effort to make it seem plausible to me. I would imagine some comic book fans will be frustrated by the fact that this film invents its own continuity, sometimes in direct opposition to the way things have been written or drawn before, but that’ll always be the case. This is so smart and so densely entertaining that it seems preposterous to complain. I like the rules of this particular world. I believe in this Batsuit as something someone could wear that would allow them to kick ass while also protecting them and serving all sorts of practical functions. I believe in this Batmobile, and so will you after the incredible car chase scene that introduces the Tumbler to Gotham City, looking like something off a live news feed.
The score, an unusual collaboration by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, doesn’t have a single theme as iconic as Elfman’s 1989 score, but that’s okay. It’s excellent mood music, and there’s a totally different character to each of the major settings. Just like the cinematography and design, this feels like a deliberate stylistic break from anything we’ve seen before in a Batman film. I don’t know if I’d call this heroic music, per se, but it all feels right for this story. There are some tricky tonal shifts that Nolan has to negotiate here, thanks to the fact that he gives screen time to all three of the faces of Bruce Wayne: traumatized son who is desperate for something to heal him, costumed vigilante looking for justice as revenge, and irresponsible playboy asshole in public. Bale seems to have particular fun with that third version of Wayne, and it’s nice that the film remembered to play with it. The film needs some humor from time to time because, as I said earlier, this film is scary, something I never would have expected from a Batman film. The first time he takes out a whole warehouse full of Falcone’s goons, it’s almost directed like a horror film with Batman as the monster, popping out of shadows and making people disappear. It makes it understandable later when The Scarecrow’s goons are afraid to fight Batman, afraid of the rumors they’ve heard. Even more unsettlings are the visions people have when under the influence of the Scarecrow’s gas. When Batman doses a corrupt cop and then interrogates him, we see Batman the way he does, as a screaming demon with ink black skin and a mouth full of fangs. When the whole city gets dosed later, we see Batman as a winged creature in the sky with glowing red eyes and mouth, a nightmare in flight, and people react in terror, exactly the way they should. It’s trippy, and it’s nothing you’d expect to see in a movie that’s got toys lining the shelves of Target.
I also think this is the first Batman film with genuinely good action scenes. The fights in the film are photographed close, high-impact, the opposite of the wire-work we’ve seen in so many films in the last six years or so. Nolan goes out of his way to make sure Batman doesn’t get off too easy. He makes him work for it every time, and Batman uses surprise and strategy to get the edge over his opponents since he’s not gifted with super-strength. These fights are cut quick, but don’t expect BOURNE SUPREMACY-style shaky cam. Nolan’s confident with his visuals, and he makes each of the action scenes clear and easy to understand, even as he keeps things kinetic and edgy.
If you read the script that leaked online, then you know how they close this film, with a direct sting into the sequel, and it tore the roof off the theater on Thursday night. I think people would have sat through the second film right then if it had been available. Goyer and Nolan say they’ve got a trilogy in mind, and based on this as a starting point, I hope they get to work on that second film as soon as possible. They’ve done one hell of a job convincing me that BATMAN BEGINS, and now I’m dying to see how he continues.
It’s been a rotten weekend for internet access at the Labs, but I should have things resolved sometime on Tuesday. When I’m back online, I’ll be back with our new spy and his look inside X-MEN 3’s turbulent production. You’ve no doubt seen by now that VARIETY confirmed out scoop about Brett Ratner. I can tell you that all of our script info you’ll read this week is just as accurate. For now, though, I’ve got to go to work on this week’s return of the DVD SHELF, complete with some DVD giveaways. Until then...