Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon Day 4: Batman Begins

In many ways Batman Begins is a victim of its own success. I clearly remember being absolutely enthralled by it on my first viewing and one needs only to look back on the enthusiastic reviews to see just what a chord the film struck.

And yet, the film is doomed to be over shadowed by its younger brother. The Dark Knight is a film in which genre cinema itself is pushed to its very breaking point. Incorporating real moral and ethical dilemmas, as well a thorough deconstruction of its characters in the quickest two and a half hour film ever made. Batman Begins, on the other hand, is a film in which Batman fights a bunch of ninjas.

With Batman Begins the mission was clear, restore dignity to The Dark Knight, after Joel Schumaker and company made him look a little less classy then a fifty year old floorshow dancer from Reno. All glitter turned rancid.

And at this task Batman Begins succeeds with flying colors. I think part of the reason is that Begins shows a Batman who American filmgoers had genuinely never seen before. While the West Batman drew clearly on the goofy ass silver age comics, and the Burton films drew partially off of the Frank Miller/Denny O Neil era (Though to be fair I think you can basically draw a direct line from Miller’s Batman to Ledger’sBut more on that later…_). Nolan’s Batman draws heavily on Grant Morrison’s interpretation of the character.

For those not currently reading monthly comics (and lets face it you’re not missing a lot) Morrison is in the middle of doing what he has openly admitted he hopes will be the definitive Batman story. And to give credit where its due, despite the problems I’ve had with just about everything else Morrison has written, he’s doing a pretty damn good job of it.

To the question of who is Batman? A question that has had plenty of answers from the grim avenger of his early days, to the psychedelic adventurer of the fifties and sixties, to the globe trotting swashbuckler of the O Neil era, to the Nietzchien strong man of Miller. Morrison provides a simple answer.

Batman is the man who thinks of everything.

Like I said, I’m summing up in a sentence what Morrison has been exploring the implications of for hundreds, if not thousands, of pages. But damned if its not convincing. To a certain extent it has always been at the root of the character, think even to the West days with The Bat Shark Repellent. But Morrison takes it to a new level. Painting Batman as a kind of zen warrior, so dedicated to his ideal, that he has turned his own personality into a living weapon.

And while Nolan’s Batman is still green enough to get caught unaware. It seems clear that he’s well on his way to achieving such status, experiencing things that take him far beyond the level of human endurance both physically and mentally.

The difference between the two takes is that Nolan sees where this might be a bad thing.

Because if Nolan’s heroes are defined by their inability to move on in their life. Always shaped by a single event in the past well then brother, Batman is basically the definitive version of that.

Also surviving the transistion is the villain versus society motif, this time with the villain literally wanting to destroy said society on a literal rather then metaphorical level. As well as the dependant relationship between the two. Bruce finds in Ras a true father figure, and its clear that Ras sees in him a true successor. When Bruce refuses at the last moment, the hurt that Neeson displays has a realness, to it that sticks to the film, one that is unfortunately not as well capatilized upon as it should.

Because even without looking at its younger brother Batman Begins is a flawed film. There is of course the weak central performance by Katie Holmes. The action is far too influenced by the Greengrass shaky cam style, and Nolan is clearly uncomfortable employing it, as it lacks all the clarity and genuine propulsion of his style. And while the need to scale back is understandable after the gaudy nightmare wrought by Schumaker, and for the most part Nolan does a commendable job of it, there are a few cases where the film backs down just a bit too much, as in its depiction of the Scarecrow. Which based on some of the Akiraesque production design that leaked out, was originally conceived as a whole lot more ambitious. Though it should be noted that Cillian Murphy does a more or less perfect job as Dr. Crane. Cold enough to do terrible things, but smug enough to get a real sense of enjoyment out of doing so.

Still despite its flaws and occasional missteps Batman Begins remains one hell of a watch. And a firm reclaiming of a potent myth, with a real understanding of what makes it work. Of course, on his next time out Nolan would push things much further.


Adam Zanzie said...

I was fifteen years old when I saw Begins in theaters, and though I was definitely enthralled with it, I had (minor) complaints with the film, mostly having to do with how the film's logic contradicted with the original Burton flicks. And these criticisms of mine were sorely invalid: like, since when did the Wayne mansion ever BURN DOWN? And: wasn't it the Joker who killed his parents, not some guy on the street? But of course I didn't realize back then that Nolan's entire mission with the film was to essentially redo the whole franchise and start from scratch (and, unknowebst to me, it was Burton who got the death of Wayne's parents wrong--not Nolan).

If I were to watch Begins today I'd probably just have the same criticisms that you do (it's just a movie where Batman fights ninjas), and maybe also with its villains. Particularly Jonathan Crane's Scarecrow, who is kind of weak. But the film is the only Batman movie that has ever made more of an attempt to flesh out its hero more than the antagonists, and I respect that.

I'm sorta of the opinion that there couldn't logically be a perfect Batman movie, anyway. Even The Dark Knight is mostly about the Joker and takes some of the dimensionality off of Wayne... but that's for next time. Still, Begins is pretty damned good. All the Batman movies have their own individual aspects to be admired--even Schumacher's, with Forever's comedic villains and Batman and Robin's truly awful (but nevertheless quotable!) one-liners. You gotta love that Bat credit card.

Bryce Wilson said...

Interesting point on Knight's focus.

Fraid I can't agree with you on Schumacher. Forever I feel is almost more irredeemable then Robin.

Darren said...

I am very fond of this particular Batman, but I have to admit I disagree with you on Morrison. While Batman & Robin is a huge step up in quality from Batman RIP, I find Morrison's take is exactly the sort of insular continuity-heavy take on Batman that doesn't work. Yes, Batman's stength is, as Alfred suggests in The Dark Knight, to "endure". However, he endures by evolving and changing. He can be the gritty urban detective of the thirties, the sci-fi hero of the fifties, the camp crusader of the sixties, the grim avenger of the eighties, the gothic creation of the nineties and so much more, but he does that by evolving and shedding his past.

Put simply, Batman can be whatever his audience needs him to be - more than any other comic book character. While compounding all that into one bite-sized chunk (as Morrison has) cleverly shades the character, I don't think it works, because Batman's strength is and always has been being anything at any time rather than everything at once. Steak, chocolate, fired egg, jelly beans, and tomato soup may all taste great, but mixing them together does not make a delicacy.

I'm not sure if I'm making sense, but I think I am.

Bryce Wilson said...

I definitely see where you're coming from there Darren and you make some excellent points.

I think part of it for me, though is Batman and Robin has made Batman RIP a better book. Its as if through defining what Batman isn't, his picture of what Batman is makes more sense.

And I think in "Last Rites" Morrison did a pretty good job showing Batman as adopting to what the times needed.

But as RIP was meant to be a summing up story I don't find it surprising that the multiple elements cross over. Its a story line trying to sum up what Batman is (a problem I get into in my Dark Knight article) which is why you get both Bat Mite and "Weapons Grade Crystal Meth."

And I have to say, this isn't me talking as a Morrison fanboy. I have huge issues with literally EVERYTHING ELSE HE HAS WRITTEN. Yes even All Star Superman.

Darren said...

@ Bryce: Even All-Star Superman? Blasphemy!

Nah, I have a love-hate relationship thing with Morrison. When he works it's great, but when it doesn't, it really doesn't.

Bryce Wilson said...

What can I say I don't feel like a book that portrayed Superman as having no problem with clones genetically altered not to have free will, captured the essence of Superman.

It had its moments like the justly praised "Suicide scene" and "World without Superman" bit. But a lot of it just didn't work for me.