Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.
When last we met Batman on the silver screen, it was 1997. Batman and Robin had the potential to be an incredible film — one of the most ideally suited actors to play an elder Batman, the biggest action film icon around as the chief baddie, and one of Hollywood’s sexiest actresses to play one of comicdom’s sexiest femme fatales — but to call it a failure paints too rosy a picture. You can forgive a low-budget, grade-Z film for being lousy, but when a $110 million film with A-list actors and a director responsible for several bona fide classics can’t make a film that doesn’t feel like watching your worst nightmare…well, it takes bad to a whole other dimension.
After its dismal failure, you could’ve forgiven Warner Bros. for shelving the Batman franchise until, say, alien mind-control technology developed that could wipe out civilization’s memory of Batman and Robin. They probably would’ve, too, if the massive box office returns of Spider-Man and Daredevil hadn’t made comic book films chic again. Fortunately, Warner Bros. paid careful attention to not just the successes and failures within the Batman franchise, but in the comic book genre as a whole. They brought in a critically acclaimed director who was inexperienced in making big-budget action films and let him craft his vision of the character. They paired him with a screenwriter adept at penning dark, tortured characters. Actors were cast who were right for the characters, not for their marquee value. The story threw continuity to the wind and took us back to the origins of the Dark Knight. And the result? Abso-freakin’-lutely brilliant.
A young boy watches, horrified, as his parents are murdered before his eyes. The wounds on his soul leave scars that never fully heal, never let him forget the hurt and anger and pain that their deaths caused. His pain leads him to attempt to kill the man responsible for their deaths, only to have vengeance stripped away from him. He takes to wandering the world, trying to understand the darkness within man’s soul. Fate brings him to the enclave of an organization called the League of Shadows. This ancient group has long battled evil in the darkness where evil breeds. He learns to fight in the shadows, to become an enigma, to paralyze his foes with fear.
But something goes wrong. The League’s ideals are horribly askew. He doesn’t want to kill — he wants to bring true justice. His break from the group is jagged and violent, but break away he does, to return to his home, to fight corruption and wrongdoing using the skills they taught him. He hides behind the facade of what he once was, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, to become Gotham City’s masked protector…Batman.
Okay, let me lay it all on the line: Batman Begins is an incredible achievement. It wrests the crown of Best Comic Book Adaptation from Spider-Man 2 — wait, “wrests” isn’t the right word. It denotes competition, and there’s no competing with Batman Begins. And referring to it as a comic book film is an affront; it’s not just the finest example of the comic book genre, it’s just flat out a great film. Maybe the greatest film of 2005…though admittedly, about the only other film I’ve seen released this year was Revenge of the Sith — better than the other prequels, but still not all that great. And let’s face it, Batman could kick Charles Foster Kane’s ass even if he was in an iron lung. Not that ass-kicking ability makes a film character great, but still, you get my drift.
If you detect just a slight note of a fanboy geek-out, you’re not paying attention. No movie has excited me on so many levels like Batman Begins since…uh…I can’t remember the last time. Pulp Fiction? Toy Story 2? And not only was it satisfying to the adrenaline-happy parts of my brain, it was good for my soul in the way that only good films can be, giving me that same contented feeling I got from Lost in Translation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Seems crazy impossible, doesn’t it, that a movie can invoke positive responses on both a visceral and artistic level?
So, what exactly is so great about Batman Begins? Let’s start at the ground level and work our way up.
David Goyer’s written a mixed bag of films. At his best, you get things like Dark City; his worst, Blade: Trinity (and I wonder if he puts Kickboxer 2 on his résumé?). What’s consistent about his oeuvre is his penchant for writing dark films. This is ground he’s traveled before, and it shows in the naturalness with which he handles a guy who slouches around on dark rooftops in the rain. He didn’t write the entire screenplay, however; he’s credited with the story, but the finished script was a collaboration with director Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s previous films, Memento and Insomnia, have been scrappy independent films (though blessed with top-notch acting talent). He too knows how to pen tortured characters, but he brings something more to the table. Anyone who’s seen Memento had to marvel at the grace with which he can mash up the timeline of a movie; the opening half-hour or so of BB moves with the same sort of grace, taking us to several points in the evolution of Bruce Wayne, the man, as he moves from childhood, through confronting the man who murdered his parents, through his training with the League of Shadows, and finally to the nascent days of the Dark Knight. You can see the echoes of Leonard Shelby in Bruce — the anger, the hollow echoing in his soul of immeasurable pain — only he can remember and confront his demons.
As for his direction, Nolan makes the transition from independent films to major studio blockbuster with no loss of quality or credibility. His canvases have been small, because his films have been small. With all the tidal forces of big-studio money at his disposal, he unleashes a fantastic vision of fury and power on the screen. Unlike many other entries in the parade of comic book adaptations, his world is firmly grounded in the real. The opening in Sri Lanka is unrelenting in its verisimilitude — you can feel the harsh weather, feel the creaking wooden structures beneath your feet, feel Bruce confronting and channeling his fears. Much of the Gotham cityscape is based on Chicago, even if it’s traditionally been an analogue of New York City. While much of it is computer-generated, it the most impressive sort of CG, the sort that you can’t tell is CG (in fact, had they not said in the bonus features, I would’ve simply guessed most of it was taken directly from the location shooting in Chicago). Likewise, the story is firmly grounded in reality — but to discuss that we have to digress to the other on-screen portrayals of Batman.
Batman’s been around since 1939 with his birth in Detective Comics. His first film appearance was in 1943, played by Lewis Wilson. This first incarnation was a Saturday matinee serial, as the comic book hero was ideally suited to the low-budget, action-heavy, cliffhanger-ending format. Until the 1980s, he was best known by the ’60s TV series starring Adam West. The show’s Batman was nothing like the character we know now. Batman started as a more serious, pulp-like comic, but gradually shifted tone toward the fantastic, ridiculous version that was mirrored in show, what with its Bat-computer and “Holy purple cannibals” and “POW! SMASH!” He returned to his dark roots in the comics long before the show, but it wouldn’t be until 1986, with the release of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, that the dark, tortured masked avenger would replace the Batusi as the dominant image of Batman. In 1989 and 1992, Tim Burton would bring his vision of the character to the screen in Batman and Batman Returns. Played by Michael Keaton, Batman retained his dark edge, though everything around him was played with the sly smile Burton brings to all his work. The duality of Bruce Wayne/Batman was strongly emphasized, and he was cast in the same outsider freak mold in which Burton casts all his protagonists. Batman’s foes often upstaged him, taking both screen time and audience interest away from what should have been the star of the show. That trend would continue into the Joel Schumacher/Akiva Goldsman entries in the series, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, where he was played by Val Kilmer and George Clooney, respectively. These movies were marred by an uneasy, disjointed clash between the dark side of Batman and the camp of the Adam West series, and even Roger Ebert wouldn’t be above saying they suck. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what is arguably the best on-screen representation of Batman, aside from Batman Begins: The Bruce Timm animated series of the 1990s. Brought to television shortly after the release of Batman, it made the best aspects of the Dark Knight rendition of Batman accessible to all ages. It even spawned a theatrical film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and though the series has since been retired, its model for Batman (as well as the voice artist behind him, Kevin Conroy) has carried on in new shows, such as Batman Beyond and Justice League.
So with all that history behind us and the film in question, we come now to Batman Begins. Nolan and Goyer take Batman back to his roots. We see the origins of it all — his fear of bats; the philosophy (yes, philosophy) that led to him creating not just an alter ego, but an enigma; his alliance with Jim Gordon; the prototype military technology he co-opted into his arsenal. But I’m not just talking about his roots as in how he got to be Batman; I’m talking about the roots of the character. This Batman is a serious crime fighter. He’s not just out there at night in a costume because he needs to see a shrink; he’s there because he has a sense of justice and figures that the best way to fight crime is to become something (not someone) that criminals fear. And finally, we get to see Batman doing real detective work. This is what Batman is supposed to be. Period. (One thing that they do not restore from his 1930s/’40s roots is his use of guns or killing his foes. This Batman is much more principled, just as he developed later in the comics.)
Not only have they been true to the real Batman, Nolan and Goyer ground the film in reality. Batman has always been a very human superhero, hardly befitting the “super” part of the moniker considering he is just an ordinary human being. (Well, an ordinary human being who is highly trained in martial arts and has unlimited financial resources, a photographic memory, and the intellect and deductive reasoning skills to match Columbo, if not Sherlock Holmes.) It’s interesting to see a film take the time to explain the mundane origins and reasoning behind Batman’s “wonderful toys” instead of just taking it on faith that his gadgets would work. To me, that’s one of the greatest things about this film. The skeptic in me doesn’t like being called upon to exercise suspension of disbelief any more than necessary. We don’t just have to believe in Batman. We can know that he could do what he does.
Unlike previous Batman films, his nemeses are also realistic, not fantastic. While one wishes that eventually he’ll square off against one supervillain again, he has quite a rogue’s gallery to contend with: The Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Carmine Falcone (not to mention a special surprise villain). The closest Batman Begins comes to a traditional comic book villain is Cillian Murphy’s excellent portrayal of Dr. Jonathan Crane, who becomes The Scarecrow. Despite the moniker, like Batman, he’s firmly planted in reality: His weapon is a psychotropic agent that induces fear, and his mask focuses the drug-induced panic. In the comics, Ra’s Al Ghul is an immortal (and from the Middle East), but that is only hinted at in the movie; he’s shown dying, after all. Carmine Falcone is strictly human, if you could call a mob boss human. Falcone was a major player in the comics detailing Batman’s early days, appearing in Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, both of which were influential on Batman Begins. (One could say he was also in Dark Victory, another “Batman, the Early Years” mini-series, but that would just be morbid — he was dead, after all.)
All this would be difficult to pull off if fine actors did not breathe life into the characters. While the previous four Batman films all had good actors, or at least major stars, none had the wide range of quality talent as Batman Begins. How many superhero films — or any major blockbuster film, for that matter — can list two Academy Award winners and three nominees among the cast (the supporting cast, at that)? These actors were cast for their fitness for their character, not because they’re audience draws, and they are uniformly excellent (with one notable exception). But the weight of any superhero film falls on the shoulders of the actor playing said hero, and here we get an excellent choice for the young Batman/Bruce Wayne: Christian Bale. He’s danced around stardom much of his life — and he’s only 31. At 13, he starred in a Steven Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun. In 1992 and 1993, he starred in two Disney films, Newsies and Swing Kids. He’d have smaller roles in bigger films — The Portrait of a Lady, Little Women, A Midsummer Night’s Dream — plus star in a couple British films that got much international attention, Metroland and Velvet Goldmine, before his breakout role in 2000. Based on a book that defined “controversial bestseller,” American Psycho was a blinding look at a remorseless killer who takes the greed and struggle for power we saw in movies like Wall Street to an entirely different level. Bale gained much praise for immersing himself into such a despicable character. He again skirted around stardom for another five years; the closest he came was box office dud Equilibrium, a film I seemed to appreciate more than most people, particularly for Bale’s convincing performance. Much care is taken to develop Bruce’s backstory, to bring him to the point when he puts on the cape and cowl and becomes a thing feared by Gotham’s criminals. Bale is able to bring out all those notes in his performance, to make us believe in his angst, his commitment to fighting injustice — but also that he can play the hedonistic “millionaire playboy” to cover his tracks. He is easily both the best Batman and the best Bruce Wayne to date.
One last note before moving along to the DVD: the uppermost layer of the film, its score. James Newton Howard’s score isn’t quite what you would expect from a comic book film. Unlike the go-to guy for comic book films, Danny Elfman (who scored the first two Batman films, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Ang Lee’s Hulk, not to mention Men in Black, Dick Tracy, Tales from the Crypt, and The Flash), Howard dials it back, opting for somber when Elfman would go for bombast. It adds real mood rather than artificially pushing the excitement buttons in your brain. I dearly love Danny Elfman’s music, but this is something that he’s not quite subtle enough to pull off.
Warner Bros. has released Batman Begins in two editions: a single-disc set and a two-disc “deluxe edition,” which is the subject of this review. The deluxe edition, in addition to the two discs, includes a miniature graphic novel containing three complete comics: Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, a story entitled “The Man Who Falls” from an origin anthology published in 1989 (it hits on the seminal moments in Bruce Wayne’s pre-Batman years, including training with the FBI and an assassin named Henri Ducard, which is quite a different character than Liam Neeson’s Ducard in the film), and the first issue of the 1996-97 “maxi-series” The Long Halloween (set fairly early in Batman’s career, it featured Carmine Falcone and the Scarecrow, as well as nearly every other major villain in the Batman mythos).
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is stunning. The film alternates between very bright and very dark scenes, and both are transferred with clarity. It’s particularly impressive that the action scenes toward the end of the film are as detailed as they are, since it has nearly a black-on-black palette. Kudos! The audio is likewise stunning, making full use of directional effects to put you inside the action.
Moving on to the supplemental content, Disc One has two brief features. One’s a trailer for the film, the other is one of those intro spoofs that MTV produces every year for their movie awards. It stars Jimmy Fallon, and typical of their spoofs, places him into footage from the film. For most of its running time it’s painfully unfunny — like most anything Fallon does — but barely redeems itself at the end when Jon Heder appears as Napoleon Dynamite (“Who’d you think was Batman? Superman?”).
Disc Two has a very clever interface — so clever, in fact, that I didn’t even notice it until I just popped the disc into my laptop while writing. It starts with a comic book representation of a scene from the film. There’s forward and back buttons at the top, which on my set-top player I thought was the only way to interact with it, and grew quite frustrated that I had to sit through this flippin’ comic book every time I put in the disc. Well, mousing over the panels on my computer (with a remote, you’d use the navigation arrows to do it), I noticed that I could highlight certain areas; some pages don’t have any, other pages have more than one. Sometimes it’s words in the text, sometimes it’s part of the image. Click when it highlights, and you’ll bring up a featurette relating to what you clicked. Clever. Of course, you can click through each page until you reach the menu. Once there, you’ll find this content:
Batman: The Journey Begins: This 14-minute featurette consists of interviews with Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, Christian Bale, production designer Nathan Crowley, as well as other producers and behind-the-scenes folks. In it they discuss the genesis of the film, the writing, the casting, Bale’s approach to the character, and other pre-production tasks. (By the way, Bale intentionally used his American accent from the film for the interviews so that he wouldn’t confuse people who didn’t know he’s Welsh; I found it unnerving because I know he’s Welsh. Go figure.)
Shaping Mind and Body: This 12-minute featurette examines the construction of the fight sequences. One of its focuses is the Keysi Fighting Method, the martial arts style that was picked for the film. Keysi is very much about being aware of your surroundings, fighting with what’s available, and fighting in close quarters — ideally suited to a vigilante hero. Here, in addition to Nolan and Bale, you hear from Liam Neeson as well as stunt coordinator Paul Jennings and fight arranger David Forman.
Gotham City Rises: Another 12-minute featurette, this one focuses on the set design and the effects needed to turn reference footage of Chicago into the unique city of Gotham. Crowley is again prominent, and you’ll hear from visual effects supervisors Paul Franklin and Janek Sirrs, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and director of photography Wally Pfister (who also worked with Nolan on Memento and Insomnia). I love these sort of featurettes that show you the massive sets going together, and this one does not disappoint.
Cape and Cowl: Eight minutes on the making of the Batsuit. Costume designer Lindy Hemming and costume effects supervisor Graham Churchyard detail all the work that went into designing the suit to meet both the character requirements and the technical needs on the set. Unlike the suits in other films, it’s mostly latex rather than foam rubber, so Bale was able to have a wider range of movement, such as crouching and turning his head.
Batman: The Tumbler: One of the most divergent changes in this film from the Batman comics and previous filmed versions is its Batmobile. Goyer describes it as a cross between a Lamborghini and a Humvee. This 13-minute featurette details it from conception (Nolan did the first concept model with Play-Doh) to the filming of all the major sequences with it. It’s quite interesting to note that the major chase sequence was filmed at full speed, going up to 100 MPH and filmed from another vehicle.
Path to Discovery: Filling in for the Himalayan setting for the League of Shadows’s headquarters is Iceland. This 14-minute features looks at the logistics of working alongside Mother Nature to film very time-sensitive scenes. For instance, the cast and crew had about one day to film the training duel on the frozen lake; by the next day, the lake was thawed. During the on-location interview footage, you can hear the glacial ice cracking in the background.
Saving Gotham City: This 13-minute piece looks at the filming of the action-packed climax. The one thing that you’ll walk away with is that, as much as possible, they opted to use practical effects rather than CG. Of course, there’s plenty of CG, but things like the monorail exploding or Batman dragging along underneath it were practical effects.
Genesis of the Bat: Finally, acknowledgment of the comics! This 15-minute piece talks with quite a few people from DC Comics and the history of Batman, particularly as it intersects with Batman Begins. Curiously, Goyer acknowledges that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One was indeed an influence on the story; during promotional work for the film, he was quoted as saying “Our story is not Year One.” Clearly it’s not the same story, but many elements are incorporated into Batman Begins: Jim Gordon is just a beat cop, Carmine Falcone is the chief baddie, and Batman’s equipment is much more grounded.
Confidential Files: This is a gallery of spiffed-up text-based features looking at Batman’s equipment, allies, and foes.
Art Gallery: This is a poster art slideshow. It’s broken into three sections: U.S. posters, international posters, and “explorations.” The latter is the most interesting; it consists of concept posters that were abandoned. You can see some elements in the released posters, and some of these are actually pretty cool.
I’ll note that the menu says there’s DVD-ROM features, but I’m very distrustful of the InterActual software, which phones home upon installation to report on your computer system.
As stunning a film as it is, I do have a few minor quibbles with Batman Begins.
* As Christopher Nolan remarks in the Saving Gotham City featurette, the audience expects an outlandish climax, so the movie dutifully delivers one. The other action sequences feel much more realistic than Batman dragging along on glorified fishing wire underneath a speeding monorail, so its placement in this film is questionable. I much prefer the extended escape from Arkham and the ensuing Batmobile chase through the streets of Chicago…er, I mean, Gotham. It has realism and purpose; the monorail sequence does not.
* My biggest beef, though, is the Rachel Dawes character and how she’s portrayed by Katie Holmes. It’s partly psychological — try as I might, I have a difficult time thinking of her as any character other than Joey Potter. That she uses her lip-curling smirk — the most famous since Elvis — on more than one occasion doesn’t help matters. Besides, Rachel is entirely superfluous to the plot. Granted, she does give Bruce a push in the right direction, but does nothing to bring down Carmine Falcone, nothing to stop the Scarecrow, nothing to mitigate the panic caused during the finale. About all you can give her credit for is being the impetus for the super-cool Batmobile chase. I guess a female love interest is something of a requirement for the Batman films — every film has had one. Nolan and Goyer list The Long Halloween and Dark Victory as inspirations. In both series, Wayne was romantically linked to Selina Kyle — AKA Catwoman. Considering Selina Kyle has already appeared in Batman Returns, and the Catwoman character was irreparably harmed by the Halle Berry film, I fully understand why they didn’t work that angle of that comic series into Begins. It would’ve been cool, though. Christian Bale and Emily Watson seem to like working together (they co-starred in Metroland and Equilibrium), and I think she’d make a stellar choice for Selina/Catwoman.
* To acknowledge some of the Jury Room detractors, yes, there are a few clunky lines of dialogue. “And the word is…panic” makes me cringe every time. Moments like that rip you out of the experience and remind you that it is only a big-budget Hollywood film after all.
There’s something powerful about Batman. Other comic book heroes became heroes because they were born on alien planets, or were bitten by radioactive spiders, or were hit with massive doses of radiation that didn’t give them a brain tumor. Batman doesn’t have special powers. He simply uses the resources and abilities at his disposal to make the world a better, safer place. Hmm.
Batman Begins may not make the world a better, safer place, but it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when you set out to make a quality story with quality elements. It’s the perfect re-launch to the Batman mythos on film, and here’s hoping that Christopher Nolan will helm many more installments with Christian Bale under the cowl. As for its DVD, Warner Bros. has made a winner. This deluxe edition is the way to go, with interesting bonus materials and a sweet little comic book, all for just a couple bucks more.