What is this? This is my journey through the Batman film franchise, both theatrical and straight to DVD. As I look at over of 20 years of Batman on film I will deposit a critical essay on the matter and other thoughts. You can read the previous entries by clicking the links:(Batman) (Batman Returns) (Mask of the Phantasm) (Batman Forever) (Batman and Robin) (Under the Red Hood)
A man dreams of bats, terrified of them more than the various criminals he shares a cell with in a Bhutanese prison. Henri Ducard offers this man, Bruce Wayne, the chance to join the League of Shadows and fight injustice with true justice. In the mountains Wayne confronts and masters his fears and returns to Gotham City. The city is in shambles. Corruption rules it top to bottom with no one brave enough to fight back. Wayne has a plan to give the few good people of Gotham a symbol to rally behind and in the process becom an urban legend.
When we last left the Batman franchise it was dead, murdered by Joel Schumacher and his Bat nipples. The franchise lay dormant with various attempts to get a new film made every couple of years. In 2003, Warner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to direct and new Batman film, David Goyer joined on to the writing staff soon after. Nolan had previously made a remake of the Norwegian film Insomnia. Nolan and Goyer wanted to show Batman in a grounded reality that would allow people to actually care about the title character.
A little over a year later Nolan began filming in Iceland. Nolan doesn't do anything revolutionary or deconstructionist with the superhero genre in Batman Begins, he simply takes the time to explain what goes into becoming a superhero so when things become epic at the end we accept them.
Until the release of Batman Begins in 2005, no one really bothered to explain what goes into becoming a superhero. The heroes simply were. The X-Men were born different. Superman came from an alien planet. Hellboy was demon spawn. The closest thing that came to explaining it was Spider-man (2002) which didn’t ponder the questions and went more for an emotional push. Batman Begins spends the first half of its runtime making Batman and finally going full superhero in the final act.
The first 30 minutes deals with the journey of Bruce Wayne overcoming his fear so that others may feel his dread. Numbed by the loss of his parents and angry at the justice system, Wayne travels the world going deeper into the criminal fraternity. Eventually finding himself in a Bhutanese prison, ironically on charges of theft of items from his own company. He is pulled out of this abyss by Henri Ducard who claims to represent Ra’s Al Ghul and offers to train him to become a member of the League of Shadows. In the mountains Wayne learns ninjitsu and how to become more than just a man. This section explains Batman’s ability to take out multiple enemies and his ability to just disappear.
Refusing to give up his compassion for “true justice” Wayne escapes, returning to Gotham for the first time in 7 years. He plans on saving the city like his parents had by giving the good people of Gotham a symbol to rally behind.
How did Batman make his suit though? In the second act Wayne begins working for Wayne Enterprises. With the help Lucius Fox he acquires the necessary materials to become Batman. All of the things he forms his suit out of are treated as believable, slightly future technologies. He goes through revisions. It grounds what Batman can do taking away the more gimmicky Bat gadgets the series had become so fond of. We see Wayne hand making his batarangs. The lack of flashy gadgets puts over Batman as the weapon not his gadgets.
This all culminates in the docks sequence in which Batman disrupts the final drug shipment Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) was bringing in. The sequence doesn't play out like your typical action movie or superhero films. It is more akin to the slasher genre in terms of style. You hardly see Batman, merely the implied presence of Batman. Thugs are pulled into cargo boxes quickly. Lights are going out. Men run scared randomly firing their submachine guns. The camerawork and editing add to the tension with plenty of quick cuts and claustrophobic close ups. The first time we see Batman take on a group of thugs we actually hardly see him take them. The scene is filled with shot reverse shots of Falcone’s shocked expression as his men are manhandled by a blurry black figure. Finally Batman takes out Falcone proclaiming himself to be Batman.
This foundation building in the first half of the movie makes the final act more thrilling. We saw Wayne put the suit together, confronting his fears. Now his former teacher Henri Ducard reveals himself to be Ra’s Al Ghul intent on finally putting Gotham City down. With what? A fear toxin that will be dispersed through the air via water vaporizer. When you say it like that it sounds comic booky and stupid. Yet in the context of Batman Begins it makes sense. We are told by Fox that Wayne Enterprises had various military contracts and the fear toxin is based on the blue flowers that was used to drug Wayne in his final test. These are believable extensions of the foundation made stronger by the character work done on Bruce Wayne.
I commented in my Batman(1989) essay that Gotham City was “once a glorious place. The glory days are clearly over”. Same goes for Nolan's Gotham. . .or should I say Chicago? During the early flashbacks we are shown a Gotham before the depression, in particular a very shiny Wayne Tower. Instead of leaving it up to the viewers to decipher, we are explicitly told numerous times that Gotham was that “shining city upon a hill”, and it clearly isn’t anymore. We are also told of and see how the Wayne family tried to save the city through charity and leading by example. They do ultimately save the city with their deaths;, the rich finally shocked into action. Using Chicago as Gotham City gives everything a feel of authenticity. Seeing graffiti on the streets and an slimey underground all appear natural within Chicago. Burton might have given Gotham city a unique, feel but Nolan's Gotham feels real. A character unto itself instead of a set.
Bruce Wayne has been an uneven character on screen. I’ve complained that he is either not used enough or is used enough but too little to characterize him. Bruce Wayne is a well known individual, for someone of his celebrity the world should be “too small for someone like Bruce Wayne to disappear”. In telling the origin of Batman, Begins shows all the facets of the Wayne character. On one level you have the brooding Batman persona taking up much of Wayne's nights. This must be counterbalanced with an alter ego of its own. This leads to Wayne adopting a stereotypical playboy appearance, Bale drawing on his time as Patrick Bateman in that mask. This is contrasted by the numbness and disillusionment Bale shows in the first 30 minutes of the movie as he trains with the League of Shadows.
Some actors were better Bruce Wayne's, like George Clooney and Keaton. Others were a better Batman: Val Kilmer. Christian Bale gives a wide ranging performance and is the best actor to play both Wayne and Batman. Bale gets the chance to show both Batman and Bruce Wayne and the struggle to balance the two. The previous actors were relegated to ridge moments of either Batman or Bruce Wayne with Bale the lines blur.
One man can not simply become a legend on his own. Nolan surrounds Bruce Wayne with a support staff of recognizable actors. In other films these roles would have been played by unknowns, except for Gordon. Alfred, Gordon and Fox are Batmans support system and even though they are ultimately supporting roles they are vital to the creation of Batman. Subliminally seeing Morgan Freeman,Gary Oldman and Michael Cain all under Christian Bale helps put Bale over as the star. Bale while critically loved for his acting in Machinist, American Psycho and Shaft, had hardly any star-power compared to that trio.
Commissioner, or in this case Sergeant Gordon, is no longer a throw away cameo appearance: he is an actual character. He becomes Batmans man on the inside of the police, his partner. Bruce Wayne is too high up in society to really notice Gotham’s rot, despite it being mentioned to him constantly. Through Gordon we naturally see a grungy, dirty Gotham city. As a simple beat cop we empathize with Gordon's plight of being a good cop in a corrupt town.
Michael Gough might of been the only constant across the previous Bat franchise, but there is something just right about seeing Michael Caine as Alfred. Admittedly the Alfred found in the four previous live action films was nothing more than an extended cameo, with a couple of one liners. The Alfred found in Begins comes is the other half of Wayne's surrogate fathers. Despite his ward coming off as crazy Alfred supports Wayne no matter what and is there to provide support and counsel, chastising Wayne for his numbness and disinterest in the Wayne legacy while providing sound advice. Caine manages to command the screen yet never overshadows the real star, Bale.
Where does Batman get all his cool gadgets? For the longest time those gadgets simply were and it was assumed they came from Wayne Enterprise. Begins answers the question by introducing Lucius Fox to the Bat family. Fox becomes Waynes “Q” supplying him with prototype gadgetry to fit all of Waynes needs. Morgan Freeman even looks like he is having a bit of fun. Fox and these other characters are supporting roles but they are important ones in the creation of the Batman.
I have much maligned the female leads in the Batman franchise. Either they are there to look hot, Nicole Kidman, or under developed and forced into romance angles out of genre convention, Kim Basinger and Michelle Pfeiffer. The only lead in a Bat film that I enjoy and that actually adds to the move is Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) from Mask of the Phantasm. The live action Bat franchise finally gets a strong female lead in the form of: Rachel Dawes.
Dawes isn’t your typical love interest. On some level she does work as a love interest, but she is more than that. Dawes is her own woman, an assistant district attorney who is trying to do the same thing Batman does. Discounting the past friendship they share, these things also would make her understandably appealing to a character like Bruce Wayne. Other than Alfred she is Bruce's only friend. Many of these women are there to entice Bruce into having a “normal life” and by the end of the movie they come to an understanding. She becomes the light at the end of the tunnel, his reward for all the sacrifice. The romance angle between the two is also underplayed predominantly: they are just platonic friends who are going at different speeds.
Katie Holmes is probably the weakest part of this movie. Despite having just gushed about how “Dawes is her own woman.” she does end up in a typical damsel in distress moment. The casting of Holmes also doesn't fit like the rest of the supporting roles either.
I have lamented the overstuffing of villains in Batman films. When it came out, the fact that Begins would feature both Ra’s Al Ghul and Dr. Jonathan Crane the Scarecrow raised concerns that this would again be overstuffed. Quiet to the contrary Begins balances the two perfectly. It is clearly established Ra’s Al Ghul is the real big bad of this movie, Scarecrow is merely a messenger in fact they never share screen time together.
The Scarecrow isn’t very threatening: he has “respect the mind's power over the body” and with his gas becomes truly terrifying. The Scarecrow persona is used sparingly. We see Dr. Crane more in a suit and tie doing dirty work for Carmine Falcone, whispering of the greater evil on its way than with a ghoulish mask gassing people. Cillian Murphy does a lot with a little. He is able to come across as detached and psychotic never going into mania. Like the pawn he is the Scarecrow is quickly dealt with minimal effort in the end.
Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Shadows was an interesting use of the rogues gallery. Ra’s isn’t made in Gotham, he is from the Far East. He doesn't care about revenge or money he sees himself as a cleansing fire, a natural balance.
Writer David Goyer commented on the complex nature of the character "He's not crazy in the way that all the other Batman villains are. He's not bent on revenge; he's actually trying to heal the world. He's just doing it by very draconian means.”(1).
As the head of the League of Shadows, Ghul wishes nothing more than to bring Gotham back into balance by destroying it. Liam Neeson never overplays Ghul making him a mad terrorist from True Lies. No. Neeson plays Ghul as utterly sure in his righteousness. The hammiest line he utters is “time to spread the word. And the word is – panic!”. This is a welcome change to the cackling villains previously seen in Batman films.
Ra’s Al Ghul becomes a surrogate father to Wayne while he is trained in ninjitsu. He offers him a path out of the abyss Wayne had fallen into.When he finds Wayne, he is numb to the world. He vaguely wants to kill Joe Chill but never gets the chance. Alfred is the caring father, Al Ghul is the demanding father that Wayne is trying to impress. He trains Wayne into his greatest disciple only for him to refuse his offer at the final moment. This makes the battle between Ghul and Batman more personal, a battle between master and student. The other villains despite attempts never challenged Batman on that level.
With spot on casting and time spent laying a foundation for which to build on, Christopher Nolan had made one of the best superhero movies for its time. A star-studded supporting cast gave audiences familiar faces as they witnessed the journey of Bruce Wayne from a jail cell to Gothams dark protector. Giving the hero the right villains to combat made the action feel more personal while previous villains felt more important than the titular character.
Christopher Nolan's drama-over-style approach worked as Batman Begins was released, becoming one of the bigger critical and commercial successes for the superhero genre. With his attempts at realism and grounded take on the character Nolan had revitalized the franchise. In doing so, Christopher Nolan became one of the more well-known directors in the industry. Christian Bale broke out as a bigger star leading in several movies after Begins. The pair worked together again in The Prestige before returning to Gotham City for the inevitable sequel entitled The Dark Knight.
Matching the more serious tone of Begins Warner Bros. release Batman Begins: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. No pop music was going to be found on this CD. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard wrote the score and keeping with the bat theme titled all the pieces after the Latin name for various bats. Zimmer and Howard moved away from a traditional theme that you could hum. The only theme I would really him would be Corynorhinua, but that it is melancholic so I would not. Zimmer went with an amalgamation of orchestra and electronic instruments.The soundtrack comes off more like some sort of experimental piece than the soundtrack to a major block buster. The music complemented what we were seeing on screen but never dominated the audio.