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BATMAN BEGINS (PG-13) (2005)

Warner Bros.

Official Site

Director: Christopher Nolan

Producers: Larry J. Franco, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas

Written by: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache


For a character whose roots are so irrevocably tied to fear and the exploitation of the darkness inherent in men, Batman, in both his comics and film interpretations, has continually shifted in a curiously protean manner between the horrific and elemental figure of the shadows, most content with torture as a means of procuring information and leaving the criminals of Gotham hospitalized with severe injury and the camp icon who once loosened a great white shark which was clamped to his leg with the always-necessary Bat Shark Repellent, in aerosol form. History now mandates, because it is cyclical and because we do not learn from it, that Batman mutate between these maddeningly antithetical poles. Last we saw the Dark Knight on the silver screen his costume was adorned with the now-infamous vestigial nipples which disregarded all principles of utilitarianism (Why would Batman add those?), was in apparently proud possession of a Bat Credit Card (“Never leave home without it.”), and was awash in more neon pink light than your average denizen of the My Little Pony homeworld, Pony XIII, where a triptych of suns blaze in a luminous cotton candy color (because Joel Schumacher’s flamboyance is a force more devastating than fourteen simultaneously-detonated atom bombs). Batman And Robin was the culmination of the 1990s Batman franchise in which the rapid transformation of the character from fearsome to fetishistic could be traced with a sad, forensic accuracy. Seven years later, the continuity of the combined Burton/Schumacher Batman legacy has been allayed and we have been asked to forget all that we know. It is my goal here to inform you of what incarnation of Batman is represented in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and whether your date should be of the opposite or of the same sex.

It is of paramount importance for you, the reader, to understand before plunging into the sublime warmth and wetness of this review, that I have an unwell love for the Batman character; we are both nocturnal, our minds and bodies are both honed through training to almost superhuman levels of mental and physical prowess, we both have difficulties maintaining relationships with women, both fictional and real, and our respective pairs of parents were both killed by a common thug named Joe Chill in Crime Alley. Because these similarities have soldered a permanent place for Batman upon my very soul, I am hypercritical of any Batman-related release, and you can be sure that my obsession has manifested itself in two ways society will find most useful: The writing of this review and the carving, with my little brother’s Exacto knife, of a full-size bat emblem onto my chest, which is more sinewy than the upper-leg of a champion racing horse.

Since the murder of his parents, young billionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) has searched for a life’s purpose. Wayne aimlessly travels the world with the hope of finding a direction to steer the rage and fear which have consumed him in the years since their deaths. While incarcerated near the Himalayas he assaults other inmates as an outlet for his anger Wayne is approached by Henri Ducard (Neeson), a representative of Ra’s al Ghul (Watanabe), and is offered a purpose: to train for membership into al Ghul’s revolutionary organization which seeks to rid the world of senseless crime through purification. Wayne trains extensively with Ducard, who instills within Bruce the importance of overcoming fear and utilizing it as a weapon against those who wish to impair goodness. Upon the completion of his training, Wayne discovers that al Ghul’s idea of purification is synonymous with genocide and returns (after some conflict) to the crime-sick metropolitan city of Gotham, his city, which he vows to protect with the utilization of intimidation by way of fear. But first, he must find a fitting symbol.

“That’s all well and good,” you may be saying, spittle spilling from your mouth like a rabid animal, “but what of Batman? What of The World’s Greatest Detective?!?” In a stroke of structural genius, Nolan and Goyer immediately separate Batman Begins from its forbearers by allowing us insight into the character of Bruce Wayne, helping us understand why and how a man’s life could plausibly be steered in the direction of superhero vigilante justice. As opposed to all other versions of the Batman mythos in which Bruce Wayne was given an approximate total of five minutes’ worth of characterization, total, he is now a sympathetic and dynamic entity, and, as played by Bale, is as captivating as Batman; the triple refraction of the Bruce Wayne character—the stoic, haunted man obsessed with justice, the eccentric billionaire playboy façade, and the fear-inducing costumed crimefighter—have never been explored with such concentrated precision, in any now medium dare I claim, and Nolan and Goyer’s have actually added layers of complexity to the Batman universe whereas most film interpretations manage only to strip such layers away. Essentially, because we now care about Bruce Wayne (and, far more alarmingly, we understand him), our connection to Batman, when he finally emerges, is unparalleled.

Ok, so let’s talk Batman, then: Bale’s Batman, although clad in an all-black bodysuit quite reminiscent of Burton’s original Keaton-sheath minus the yellow emblem and utility belt, is brutal and stealthy and palpably frightening. As opposed to the various 1990s Batmen who often marched through downtown Gotham without fear of self-advertisement, Bale’s Batman is an extension of the shadows, constantly moving, dragging his foes with him into the pitch and dispatching them there. Gone as well are the smirks and witty banter of the 1990s Batmen, replaced here by spartan, often threatening dialogue delivered by Bale with a bone-grinding intensity. A distinction which detaches this Batman from DC Comics’ current embodiment of the character is the element of humanity still apparent here—at one point in the film Batman gives a mystified child a pair of technologically-robust binoculars. Though it reads as ridiculous, it’s actually a nice spot of levity in an almost bludgeoningly grave film, and it illustrates Batman’s ability to connect with others. In current comic book continuity, Batman is an island of grim unto himself, as distrusting of his heroic peers as of his villains, and is so saddled by paranoia that many of his longtime friends have turned their collective backs on him. Though my geek brain will probably bestow me with an aneurism in a few days for admitting this, I actually prefer the film version. Blasphemy, I know.

The area in which Batman Begins most distances itself from the Bat-past is in its near-constant meditation on and depiction of fear. Much like in Star Wars, Batman Begins purports fear to be an element of the psyche which can ruinously distort an individual; unlike Star Wars, however, Nolan and Goyer argue that fear, if met and overcome, can be a tool of betterment and even catharsis. In the film, Batman represents the positive utilization of fear, and Scarecrow (Murphy), one of the film’s villains who wears a grotesque patchwork-burlap mask and drugs his victims with a fear toxin, exemplifies corrosive and uncontrolled fear. The combination of Bruce Wayne’s internal conflict with the abstract aspects of fear in addition to the physical inclusion of two characters whose primary methods of attack are fear multiplied by the demoniac hallucinogenic visions witnessed by those who breathe in Scarecrow’s fear drug equals a shockingly dark production. Those who thought Burton’s vision of Batman was grim will now remember Batman and Batman Returns as The Golden Age of Sunshine and Marshmallows. The oppressively forbidding thematic and visual tone of the film is it’s greatest boon, for it showcases a deep comprehension of the fundamentals of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original vision, with a reverential dash of Frank Miller’s influence included for spice and posterity.

And while I could write another 1,365 celebratory words on this remarkable film, I won’t, because I know that no sane person has read this far, and if they have I know that they are no longer sane. So, to transition to conclusion I’ll say this: Sometimes, Nolan and Goyer seem too preoccupied with veracity, with delivering a plausible Batman film, and some superheroic scope, some sense of comic book wonder, has been lost. Missing here are the iconographic images from the Burton films, such as the Batwing silhouetted against a round, silver moon in Batman, or Bruce Wayne rising determinedly as the Bat Symbol shines with stark whiteness into his Wayne Manor study (which isn’t to be misconstrued as a visual criticism, because Wally Pfister’s sepia-like photography is striking and appropriately French Connection-esque). The lack of bombast and adherence to an almost-claustrophobic realism drains the film of the wowness of the icon that is Batman; it’s difficult for me to believe that the Batman in Batman Begins is the same one that has battled and bested Superman on many occasions, because he seems almost too human, too vulnerable. Yes, I realize that this is an origin story and that Batman has yet to develop into the unconquerable, granite-hearted bastard of the funnybooks, so perhaps Nolan and Goyer will work up to the iconography and the bravado. Having said that, the amount of respect and impeccable craft founded into the creation of this film are heartening, especially to this lifelong Batman idolator. For those of you out there who are like me, savor this film like a last steak before the execution or a last kiss before wartime; although the genuine Batman currently intimidates and brutalizes Gotham City’s lowlifes, it’s only a matter of time before this cinematic manifestation, too, devolves into something far more foppish.

—Nathan Baran

P.S. Bring a member of the opposite sex.

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