Review: “Batman Begins”

I’m in a situation I haven’t been in in ages. If there is one thing that’s bad about watching and reviewing every major release that comes out (and make no mistake, most of the stuff that does get a wide release is pure shit), is that even when a great film comes along one can’t help but pick apart the flaws and see what’s wrong with it more than what’s right. Its a fun job reviewing movies, but make no mistake it can be a somewhat soul destroying business – especially at this point in time when there’s more films getting general release than ever before and yet fewer and fewer seem to be crafted with care.

That’s why a film like “Batman Begins” is so special because in many ways it defied my attempts at criticism. I’m sitting here three hours after having viewed it and dissected it amongst friends and in my own mind, replaying scenes I enjoyed and thinking about it in terms of entertainment and filmmaking value. In all honesty though to me its almost perfect. Sure there’s a few nitpicks I have with certain aspects, and in the bigger scheme of things the individual sequences of the film don’t stand out in the way they do in other superhero films including the earlier “Batman” movies. Taken as a whole however, the film is immensely satisfying on so many levels that it stands above most if not all the films of this reblossoming genre.

I hate labelling this a comic book movie because there are so many negative (and for the most part unjustified) connotations towards that. Superhero movies in recent years have undergone a renaissance thanks to the success of Marvel properties like “Blade”, “X-Men” and “Spider-Man”. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the comic book movie franchises like “Batman” and “Superman” began with strong crowd-pleasing action vehicles that ultimately dwindled into overly-produced pale jokes of what they started as.

The more recent successes have been largely due to comic book movies taking a more serious tone and being far more slavishly loyal to the material upon which they’re based, as well as fitting these fantasy characters into a more realistic contemporary world. The recent comic adaptations however are still for the most part Summer blockbusters in mold. They’re designed to be crowd pleasers and so they still revolve around elaborate action set pieces, frequent attempts at humour and flashy effects. “Batman Begins” tries to merge that kind of film with a more serious movie along the lines of “The Last Samurai” and the result is something different from either.

Its that dichotomy that’s going to draw the line between people. Like “Hulk”, Director Chris Nolan has essentially crafted two movies – one a serene and thought out psychological drama, the other a great big Summer action spectacle – and tried to fuse them. He does a far better job of it than Ang Lee’s failed attempt, though much of that is due to the separation of the two elements. The first hour of the film set outside Gotham and the last hour and a half set within the troubled city play like two different movies. Its a very difficult mix to get right and whilst it doesn’t gel entirely, it mixes with an ease that’s surprising.

By displaying both Nolan & writer David Goyer have essentially tried to please both camps and for the most part they’ve succeeded. Your enjoyment however will depend on how well you tolerate the mood shift. Various early reviews already indicate that some much prefer the quieter opening hour and are disappointed to varying degrees by the more conventional second & third act. Others feel the early hour meanders and wallows in self-indulgent pap before finally getting into gear and keeps getting better and more exciting. Both are valid arguments, especially for those who go in with a mindset that’s more preconceived on how they think a “Batman” film should play.

For those with a more open and flexible attitude though who can appreciate both kinds of cinema, you’ll find great rewards in both aspects from this film. I admit that I’m from the camp that preferred the second half to the first, but enjoy the first in its own way and completely understand and welcome the need for its inclusion. Short of making some general edits to shorten the pre-Gotham scenes I wouldn’t change it and yet I can’t think of any whole scenes to remove as such that would help in that way. Even at 2.5 hours the film is tightly paced with practically nothing in the way of excess subplots or useless diversions.

The second half plays more like the current crop of superhero movies, and yet feels like something more. To this day I really enjoy the “X-Men” films and “Spider-Man” films and yet both have some rather visible flaws due to forced attempts at humour and various scenes (especially in “Spider-Man”) of self-indulgent brow beating, speeches about responsibility or just awkward moments that go nowhere. Not so here. Whilst the dialogue does sound a little cheesy at times, I cringed far less than I have during some of the recent good Marvel adaptations.

There are speeches about justice, revenge, ideology and so on but they’re kept short and to the point. Combined with the fact that some of the world’s best actors are delivering them it makes them all the more palatable. The entire cast is solid across the board and deliver work that’s up with their best – Bale, Freeman, Caine, Oldman and Neeson in particular all do splendid jobs in their respective roles and seem to be far more committed to these parts than they’ve been in most of the other mainstream studio fare they’ve done in recent years.

That’s not to let the other actors down but those five in particular stand out due to the fact that, except for Bale, they’re all in supporting roles and yet manage to deliver fully satisfying and fleshed out characters who interact with each other perfectly. Oldman keeps it grounded and real; Caine delivers well timed humour as well as serving perfectly as a surrogate father figure; Freeman manages to deliver a Q-like character not seen in the films before and yet by the end you wonder how they worked without him; and Neeson makes his noble yet determined mentor character into one far different and more distinct than his vaguely similar roles in “Star Wars” and “Kingdom of Heaven”.

Is Bale the best Batman? Whilst I’ll always have a soft spot for Keaton, Bale gets the best stuff to work with and delivers on all counts as Bruce Wayne in three guises – the tortured soul, the playboy and the Bat. Whilst the Batman voice sounds a little off at times, he makes the split between Batman and Bruce Wayne far more distinct than ever before – its also the first time I’ve seen a Batman onscreen that’s not easy to identify as Bruce Wayne. The costume looks good too, some great bits of the film go into the explanation of how all the gadgets work which might demystify it a little, but adds a lot to the whole credibility of the Batman in general.

The weakest link of the cast is Katie Holmes but even she isn’t too bad. The film’s only real bad scene – a post-action forced two-minute piece that tries to explore the romance between Bruce and Rachel – is the only bit that her limited role requires her to try something different and she unfortunately fails at it (not entirely her fault though as the whole scene is just ‘off’). For the most part however she keeps it professional and does better than I expected. Tom Wilkinson also overdoes it a little as mob boss Carmine Falcone but you can tell he is enjoying it so much that you simply go with it.

Faring better are smaller roles from Rutger Hauer and Cillian Murphy, the later as the secondary villain The Scarecrow. I loved The Scarecrow concept as a villain and his nightmarish visage is rendered superbly onscreen, yet he has such little screentime in the mask its a disappointment. Murphy spends a lot more time in his unmasked Jonathan Crane persona and plays the creepy and unethical doctor quite well (though he’s a little too pretty for the part). Ra’s Al Ghul, despite missing the immortal and Talia elements from the comics, is otherwise intact and his scenes draw some interesting discussions over the differences between ideology, vigilantism and revenge. Look for a great several scene cameo by Mr. Zsasz as well as a former screen villain’s “calling card” at the end.

Visually the film is stunning. From the beautiful Icelandic vistas of the early scenes to the warm earthy browns and steaming streets of Gotham – the cinematography shoots with an eye that’s very cinematic and serious. More than Singer or Raimi, Nolan seems to understand the importance of having great visuals even during the mundane scenes and shoots them all well. The score is solid but a bit overbearing at times and lacks a great central theme (much like the “Spider-Man” movies although the incidental music here sounds much grander).

Then comes the action. As I said the opening hour is somewhat slower and more deliberately paced than we’re used to, so the action is relatively limited to the last half. In the last half though there’s all sorts of great scenes from a superb car chase (albeit over one roof too many), various fights and a climactic monorail showdown. Nolan shoots the fights with an interesting technique that’s all too close-up. On the one hand its reminiscent of “The Bourne Supremacy” with the tight shots which made distinguishing who was fighting whom to be a rather difficult task. Thankfully it’s not as shaky as Bourne’s handheld wobbly moments – not to mention the car chase is far cooler.

Whilst the close-ups may be slightly annoying, its compensated for in technique. Rather than boring us to death with bad Buffy-esque fights of wire fu, this Batman is all about surprise and misdirection. There’s punching and kicking but the fights here are more of the ilk of the crims wondering “where is he” until its too late. Batman actually lives up to what the central themes of fear and becoming a legend are – letting the dark and his reputation do as much work for him as his fist. One scene where he first appears and attacks Falcone’s men in a dockyard is beautifuly conceived and turns him into something to fear more than the bad guys themselves.

Like the first “X-Men” the film suffers from bringing in a ‘must destroy the city’ aspect in the final 40 minutes involving a piece of technology. Thankfully however, seeds for the event are threaded out through the story and the way its revealed might be easy to guess but is ultimately quite satisfying. It may feel a bit over the top but its about the only element that is, and the script does a very good job of making it feel like a part of the whole.

So what are the nitpicks? Some editing needs to be done to the pre-Gotham bit. Some of the dialogue sounds twee. The Holmes scene at the end is useless (in fact dumping the romance angle and making her character a young Harvey Dent would’ve about made this film perfect). As much as the villains are great, this is a Bruce Wayne story and so both Scarecrow and Ras feel underused (though what screen time they do have they make the most of). One or two scenes suffer from continuity problems too (where did the ‘League’ footsoldiers all disappear to once the temple caught on fire?) and the ending doesn’t wrap up things neatly (I like that fact but others may not).

With such a dark and serious subject matter, the film comes off a little colder than the Marvel comic films and thus can be justifably criticised for lacking a strong emotional attachment. Likewise the problem with the action I said before is that whilst overall it fits superbly into the tapestry, there aren’t sequences in this that jump out or are easy to identify like the “X2” manor fight or the “Spider-Man 2” train fight. A lot of that however is for a good reason – the action is tied into the story rather than being simply set pieces. Despite its cries of trying to be different and more serious, the film does lean back on some generic staples of the genre in regards to its characters – but it does such a superb job of balancing so many balls in the air that these conventions are forgivable and actually comforting in some ways.

As a person who never read comics til recently (and even now only very occasionally), the Batman character has always been the most interesting of all the superheroes to me due to his realism (no super powers), his complicated psychological make-up and his inventive array of villains which tied back in with an aspect of his own persona. In previous incarnations we’ve seen some decent “Batman” efforts, most notably the animated series and certain moments and aspects of Burton’s first two films. “Batman Begins” however is the first of the films to explore all three of those aspects.

Its not as big a crowd pleaser like “Spider-Man”, “Superman” or even the old “Batman” films – but it feels far more substantive in every way to all of those films. ‘Begins’ sets a new standard in showing that comic movies can not only be great pieces of entertainment – they can be superb pieces of filmmaking as well. Easily the best “Batman” film by far, the most accurate to the comic, pretty much the best comic adaptation ever, the best film so far this year and one that’ll quite frankly be difficult to top.