And so it begins. Batman Begins to be exact. Here’s where we start edging towards the finale on this marathon of Batman movies I’ve been reviewing. We’re in Nolan territory now! Batman Begins came into being after 8 years of attempts by Warner to do whatever they could to wash the bad taste of Batman & Robin from the worlds collective conscience. Truth be told nothing will ever wash that smell off of Batman. Nolan does a damn good job trying to though. Click the link for my review!
As the title would suggest Batman Begins is a full blown origin story for Batman. Quite clearly influenced by the Batman Year One comic, itself planned for a movie adaptation before this film came into being, the film charts every step of Bruce’s (Christian Bale) journey to becoming The Dark Knight. Tim Burton’s Batman dealt with the source of Bruce’s story, the death of his parents, but didn’t show us how he became the worlds greatest detective/criminal arse kicker. We see his journey’s around the world, his learning of the criminal underworld and his training via The League Of Shadows and a man named Ducard who’s totally not the real Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) to become quite the theatrical ninja. Theatrical ninja sounds a bit campy but somehow Nolan manages to pull off this film without a hint of the camp that’s always been a little present in the previous films. There’s also a bigger plot involving The Scarecrow /Dr Jonathan Crane(Cillian Murphy) putting a fear toxin into Gotham’s water supply to aid the League Of Shadows in its plan to bring down the city but we’re here to see Batman learn how to do some Batman like things so whatever.
Nolan spends the first 40 or so minutes of the film flitting back and forth between Bruce learning his skills as an adult and moments of his past that shaped and pushed him on the mission he’s now on. At times it can feel like one very long montage sequence but Nolan is a director that loves a nice slow build towards the main focus of his films. As such his approach to Batman is more of a character story than it is a straight forward action flick. When this came out I remember being quite impressed that there was more going on with Bruce as a character than you’d normally get in these types of films. There’s moments where he’s losing his way. He has lessons to learn about how he should act. There’s a line in the film that goes “It’s not who you are underneath but what you do that defines you”. That line is pretty much the core of Bruce’s arc. He has to learn not who Batman is but must ensure that what he does leaves the right legacy. It’s a thread that runs through each film. It’s a part of Batman in general, after all, he can never go over the edge or the people of Gotham would turn on him and his legacy would be tarnished.
As is typical of a lot of Nolan’s films real human emotion is kept at arms length. You’ll get moments where characters get emotional but it’s always kept behind the surface. Nolan is a technical, clinical storyteller and I’ve always gotten the impression that the portrayal of genuinely human moments is secondary to weaving a well paced and intricate story. I can’t fault him for that story though. One thing he excels at is putting together a complex string of events along with genuine character arcs that all come together and pay off in the end. I’ll always remember when I first saw this being absolutely ecstatic at the films final Batman scene where Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) gives Batman the calling card of a new villain whilst essentially setting us up for the themes of the next film. If I hadn’t have found the plot and story compelling a scene like that would have fallen flat. By the end of Batman Begins I was so ready for more that just seeing a playing card with the joker on it was enough to get me hyped for the sequel.
Many people criticise the fight sequences in Begins, mostly down to how much shaky cam is used. This is a fair criticism on the whole but when taken into context it does make sense for the fights to be shot the way they are. What Nolan was clearly attempting to do was show how fast and disorientating it would be to fight Batman. He drops in and for the thugs at the wrong end of Batman’s fist all they see is a blur of arms and legs wrapped in cloak moving about in an incoherent mess before eventually a blow knocks them flat out. Trouble is this only really works in one scene, the one where Batman breaks up a drug shipment operation at the docks. The other fight scenes it doesn’t really work for because, in the case of the prison fight at the start, Bruce isn’t Batman yet, and after the dock fight we’ve experienced the shaky cam scene and now want to see the action clearly. What makes up for this though is how well done the non-fist to fist action scenes are. Batman’s car chase through, and over, Gotham is a real stand-out action sequence that manages to provide plenty of hero shot moments. Also, dat Batmobile!
Performances are strong throughout and that’s largely thanks to one incredible cast. I’ve often wondered if Warner realised just how much weight Nolan has with actors prior to this film because he must have had some pull to attract the stars he did. Not many films have Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Rutger Hauer in them. They serve as the old guard of actors in much the same way as say Alec Guinness did in Star Wars. The younger cast do a fine job of playing roles that have helped push their careers. Well except Katie Holmes who is fine but I’ve always suspected that her career took a tumble after this because a certain Scientologist husband of hers wasn’t too pleased that a film she was in took more money than his that year.
I was gonna discuss visual effects here but to be honest it’s The Dark Knight that deserves all the gushing over them. They’re good in Batman Begins but the sheer scale of what Nolan does in camera is far more present in The Dark Knight and it would be redundant of me to talk about both. All I will say is that most of the CGI is starting to stick out in this film but there is hardly any as it is.
In the end Batman Begins is a tight, if slightly emotionless, film that manages to tell one very densely packed origin story with great effect. It does so without having to dumb down it’s main plot and without rushing. Really is one of the tightest superhero screenplays there is and credit is due to David S Goyer and Chris Nolan for pulling that off. There is only one Superhero film that I would say is better crafted than this one, although that could easily be two by the end of this week. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Avengers, but this is real film making. The sort that doesn’t rely on gags, pop culture references and very long action scenes to keep us entertained. Also it is shot on film and I’m all behind Nolan in that particular battle. Batman Begins was, for a few years at least, the measuring stick that all superhero films be judged by. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing the current measuring stick.