The Dark(ish) Knight
Christopher Nolan deserves a lot of credit for revitalizing the Batman film franchise. But if you're revisiting the previous entries of his new-millennium trilogy ahead of this week's The Dark Knight Rises, you may be shocked, as I was, at Batman Begins' closer relationship to Tim Burton's pulpy 80s films than Nolan's own grim 'n gritty follow-up, The Dark Knight. That's my marble-mouthed way of saying it's more of a "comic book movie" than I remember.
The film opens in a South Asian prison, where billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has sought refuge from his philanthropist family's notoriety. In flashback, we learn that he tried to avenge the alleyway murder of his parents, only to run up against a criminal empire that infects every corner of his native Gotham City--from dope pushers to the slimy judiciary. After a run-in with the city's mob boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson, devouring scenery with a Cagney-esque New Yaw-ak accent), Bruce realizes he'll never defeat crime until he descends from his throne of privilege to experience the hard-scrabble life of a criminal. Hence, his globe-trotting trip of debasement, which landed him in his current home.
A stranger named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) pops up in his cell and offers him a life of training and vengeance against all kinds of evildoers--on the condition that Bruce retrieves a special flower and brings it to the fortress of Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). He obliges and spends the next several months learning to become a ninja. On the day of his "graduation", Bruce realizes that his newfound friends are actually intent on destroying Gotham City, which they see as the foremost symbol of corruption in the world.
Bruce narrowly escapes, leaving Al Ghul dead and Ducard in the care of a local, following an attack that left him unconscious. He returns to Gotham to resume control of the family empire and, with the help of his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and a former friend of his father's, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), creates an off-hours, crime-fighting identity.
There's quite a bit more plot jammed into the film's nearly two-and-a-half-hours, including a tired, toxic-gas-driving-the-city-crazy scheme; Bruce's relationship with childhood friend/assistant district attorney Rachel (Katie Holmes); and an underused secondary villain named Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Not to mention the return of Ra's Al Ghul who--surprise, surprise--turns out not to be dead.
Any one of these would have made for a tidy "B" side to Batman Begins' central theme of Bruce Wayne overcoming his fear of bats and finding a way to forgive himself for his parents' murder.* Instead, Nolan and co-writer David Goyer betray their fascinating, leisurely paced first hour with second and third acts jammed with wannabe "A" stories duking it out for the prize.
For what starts as a wild character piece that challenges what audiences know about Batman's origins, Begins slips too comfortably into summer blockbuster cliches. The montage of Bruce and Alfred figuring out the logistics of his crime-fighting accessories is cute and engaging. The ten-minute police chase across Gotham's rooftops in an armored tank is an exhausting pre-climax that adds nothing to the story and sucks the pace dry. Sure, Batman is trying to get Rachel to the antidote for a deadly gas she's ingested. But does anyone believe she's in danger? In the middle of the movie? This fake drama is so far beneath Nolan it's sipping Pepsi in the Batcave.
The big problem is that Nolan and Goyer's lack of focus leave their myriad tangents wide open for nitpicking. From the inarguably fanboyish (any comic book fan worth their salt knows that Liam Neeson looks like Ra's Al Ghul and Ken Watanabe doesn't--meaning that when "Ducard" introduces his master as "Ra's Al Ghul", the two or three beats of his character arc have already been spelled out) to the head-scratchingly stupid (why did the Wayne family use the scummy-alley exit instead of walking out the front door--which, I imagine, faced a much nicer, less gunpoint-confrontation-y street?), the screenplay has more little issues than Arkham Asylum has faulty locks.
I understand wanting to reboot Batman as a thinking-man's comic-book movie after the Burton/Schumacher years. But an overabundance of story does not automatically equal quality entertainment. Compare Batman Begins to movies Nolan did before and after it (namely, Memento and The Prestige), and this almost feels like a glitch--or, worse yet, evidence of an impostor. All three films deal with similar themes of identity, memory, fear, and sleight of hand, but the middle one--the big studio picture--deceives through repetition rather than enlightening through exploration. You could make a great drinking game out of characters saying the word "fear" in this movie, but I challenge you to find any surprises or big ideas in all the yammering.
Nolan's greatest triumph is making this mess watchable. Batman Begins has an incredible cast (yes, even the widely and unjustifiably reviled Holmes), a handful of kooky visual gags, and a neat production design that crosses Burton's grandiose grime with Roaring 20s Chicago chic. It's too bad the panache dried up before reaching the new Batman costume's design phase. In early scenes, Bruce discovers crates of experimental military armor that are all sexy, textured, multi-plate affairs. He proceeds to paint them matte black, reducing Batman's appearance to that of an inkblot with a space cut out for Bale's underwhelming jaw line. There are close-ups here that make the outfit look downright cheap, and when the caped crusader barks in that now-infamously awful voice of his, it just makes every aspect of the character feel woefully ill-conceived.**
Contrast that with Scarecrow, who we often see through his victims' drug-crazed eyes, and you've got enough creep-factor for five of these movies (the fire-snorting horse hallucination at the end was a really nice touch). Had the filmmakers reserved their theatrics for the visuals instead of the screenplay, the movie might have stood farther apart from its predecessors. As it stands, Nolan and Goyer update the series with a pretty pedestrian action flick that wears a rubber mask of seriousness.
Note: It's unfair to judge Batman Begins against The Dark Knight, the film that defines how people think of big-screen Batman today. Had Begins been a stand-alone, or had its sequel followed the same stylistic formula, the franchise may be in the same reboot boat (reboat?) as Marvel is with Spider-Man. But for his sophomore effort, Nolan got serious about his masked hero and the insane world that masked heroes create simply by existing. When talking about Nolan's films, mention of Batman Begins is typically followed by, "Oh, yeah. He directed that one, too." Which is never a good sign.
*They were gunned down after leaving the opera early, due to Bruce's fear of the bat-costumed performers on stage.
**You could make a strong argument that Bruce Wayne wants Batman to look intimidating instead of cool. But audiences should be equally intimidated--or at least impressed, visually. They certainly shouldn't giggle or mouth "WTF?" when the hero appears.