In May of 1988 I got the script to Sam Hamm’s BATMAN and dreamt of a Batman movie that was to never be. This wasn’t to be a cartoon or a tv show… but an epic Batman movie on an enormous scale. In late April of 1989, I came to Austin to go to college. Moved in with my father and to earn a living and my way through college we began selling our Silver Age and Golden Age comics at conventions all over Texas and all anybody anywhere could talk about was BATMAN. When I finally saw Burton’s BATMAN – I walked out of the theater depressed. It was ok. Hell, it beat the living shit of the last two SUPERMAN movies, it was even a pretty good BATMAN movie… but it wasn’t a hair on the ass of Sam Hamm’s script. Anyone that read that legendary draft, a script that Tarantino has been heard to say it was one of the best scripts he’s ever read. As the subsequent Batman movies strived to be bigger, sillier and cuter… I began to get pissed.
Some of the earliest and biggest coverage that the outside media has ever given Ain’t It Cool News was for the coverage we gave to BATMAN & ROBIN. A film so awful it still forces a reaction out of any and all film & comics lovers. That film was so bad that every time there’s a new superhero film, it’s the monkey on comic film fan’s back… whispering in our ear, “psst… it could be BATMAN & ROBIN bad.”
Like many of you, the second I got my hands on David Goyer’s draft of BATMAN BEGINS – I read it through – and I liked it… Liked it fine. I loved that it got Wayne out of Gotham, that it had Batman as a detective, undercover man, billionaire playboy, shrewd business man… and, um BATMAN. What Goyer nailed was Batman and Batman’s world… what it was that made Batman Batman. What really seemed to be missing was emotion, atmosphere and… for a story involving Scarecrow it didn’t read scary.
Well… I just got out of the BATMAN BEGINS screening and Holy Shit! This is the BATMAN movie we’ve been dreaming of for a long time. I know it is the Batman film I was dreaming of in May of 1988 when I read that script. Batman is scary. He’s scarier than the Scarecrow. Sure, the Scarecrow has his fear toxin… and when you see his face after the toxin got a hold of you… it’s scary, horrific and terrifying… But man… When you’re a corrupt cop upside down looking at a 17 story drop, hanging by god knows what staring into the face of some lunatic in a Bat mask interrogating you with a voice forged out of fucking hell… I realized… It isn’t the chin or even the eyes that make Batman… it’s that hideous scary as fuck voice and that he holds your life on a press of a button – and to that criminal… you have utterly no idea what his ethos is… He’s not in a uniform, he can’t be bought and there’s something utterly unhinged about him. Something insane, methodically insane. This isn’t a jokey Batman… This Batman is all business.
The way Nolan shoots Batman… he doesn’t pull back to show you how Batman does his tricks and torments. Instead he focuses on misdirection, quickness, ferocity and the end result. No longer will you see clumsy half-assed martial arts routines… and one point early in Wayne’s training Liam Neeson, before kicking Bruce’s ass says… “This isn’t a Dance,” when Wayne tries his learnt Kung Fu. Liam’s Ducard takes him down and begins to kick the shit out of him. It’s scary, fierce and unforgiving. And that’s exactly who and what Batman becomes. This isn’t fancy Fred Astaire neatly choreographed fights… This is brutal, tight and mean. Just incredible.
Half the time you never know where Batman is coming from. The focus is on the victim (criminal) instead of the hunter. Sometimes the blackness that grabs them comes from above, behind, beneath, beside… but never where you expect it. The first time Batman is full on hunting criminals is on a dock and this is scary. This isn’t some slow moving lunk in an all white Captain Kirk mask… you don’t see what’s hunting you… you can hear this flapping sound, something heavy moving beyond the edge of light and no matter where you fire, when you stop, you hear that sound somewhere else entirely, then suddenly BAM he’s got you. In many ways, this is a horror film for criminals. A ghost story that scum tells each other late at night… after a job, before a job. And man, I hope to God that somebody at Warners has signed everyone involved in this film on a 20 film contract… cuz this is a fierce Batman movie that just is unrelenting.
Ya know… right now if you think about the single best element of the previous series of Batman movies – I think you’d probably agree that the most consistent and best performance was their Alfred played by Michael Gough. I just kind of accepted that that was Alfred – and that it was the best Alfred I’d ever see. When Michael Caine got cast – there was a part of me that thought… that’s too big of a name. Caine would overshadow anyone. Same feeling I had when they cast Gary Oldman as Gordon. And then there was Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson and Liam Neeson. As much as I like Christian Bale – man – he was surrounded by some of the very best actors alive today. But – what Nolan does is he has all of them play internalized performances, tightly wound characters that are not showboating – and no actor seems to be setting out to call attention all on them. Instead, they’re serving their characters more than their own egos – and for the very first time… The focus is clearly on BATMAN. Burton was always more interested in the villains… why not? They’re delicious, but Nolan & Goyer… They’re focused upon Bruce Wayne & Batman.
And why not?
Here’s a man that could have anything he wanted, could grow up to be anyone he wanted. Instead, he risks life and limb, his very freedom… He risks everything for the single-minded obsession with the ideal that one man can make a difference. And here we see a man bent on saving the city his family helped build and make great from doom.
Many critics are trying to differentiate this film from “those other superhero yarns” by declaring this a real movie. Oh fuck you, ya pretentious bastards! This is a fantastic, spectacularly wonderful film. Rich nuanced characters given a great deal of depth and an attention to realism. Like this is something proprietary to the world of film. Personally, if you read a good 1000 issues of Batman stories – I think you’ll find that he’s a great deal more nuanced than this film has him, not in a single story – but in whole. And this film gives me the hope that at last they’ve really hit upon how to deal with the character and his world.
His Gotham is an extraordinarily beautiful city, but it isn’t necessarily an impossible city – though gosh, I’d love to see one with the audacious elevated trains that Gotham has here. Outstanding. Gone is Schumacher’s Fey-topian Neon Hell. Now we have a real metropolitan Gotham. A city of different eras and architects. Shot in Chicago, London and enormous stages – and then digital paintings. The result is breathtaking… and plausible. The city feels honest. I know somewhere there is an abandoned rundown exhibition for some World’s fair. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it is there. There’s the shadowy docks, the slums, the socialite corners and through it all… gosh darn, it is a gorgeous city.
Then there’s that damn Car. The roar of that engine is enough to make you grunt like the car drooling mechanical machismo bastard you are. I really must praise the sound design here, as wonderful as that car moves – the sound design of it is awesome. And it’s cool enough to make Michael Bay’s dick hard. It’s that sort of glorious mayhem inducing throttling. Crashing through concrete barricades, over police cars, from roof top to roof top… and it was that last part that scared the shit clean out of my body when I read the script. I imagined this as looking utterly ridiculous… but Nolan shoots this sequence in a way that gives it the feeling that instead of observing it happen… you are inside feeling and hearing it move… never really seeing a full take off and landing, instead you just get the rush of propulsion and the visceral thrill of the crash down. It’s fantastic. It should absolutely have been ridiculously terrible, but it dares to magnificent. Dares to be a thrillingly cool.
BATMAN BEGINS is the very best beginning to a Superhero franchise I’ve ever seen. This first film sets up the foundation to build the exploits of one of the great serialized characters in creation. By the time this film ends… there is no ending. There are no bodies of departed villainy. Evil isn’t necessarily stopped as much as it is contained to a minimal amount of horror. It isn’t stopped, in fact I’d say at the end of the film the city may very well be worse off than it was at the beginning. And as Gordon discusses at the end, he dares to quandary about ESCALATION. I don’t think there’s a Batman fan in the audience that will believe this end is an end. No, when the last scene closes it’s eye to black – you’ll know that this is merely the end of the first time, the second time, the third time or perhaps the 50th time you’ll see the movie. This is just the end of Batman’s beginning – there will be an endless supply of them, so long as this level of superb artistry and thrilling storytelling and this level of class is given to this character.
I’ve given Warner Brothers nearly 10 years of strife regarding the handling of their Superheroes. Well, they finally made a great one. Bravo! May we dare to dream that we’ll have another great hero tale from the pages of DC next summer. Let’s see more, but they shouldn’t rush things. If Nolan wishes to do films in-between… have patience. There really is no need to hire Brett Ratner…