A quick look back at “Batman Begins”

Because why not. Have I mentioned I can’t wait for The Dark Knight?

These two pieces were written and posted a day after seeing Batman Begins. The first, a shorter one, appeared on Freaky Trigger:

The advantage of knowing the general story of Batman without knowing the details is handily refreshing. It meant that I could and did enjoy everything from That TV Series to the weird white-eyed version in the 70s Superfriends cartoons to the Miller interpretations to the Burton films as they came, all spinning in their own universes. (The Schumacher films I did not enjoy. But that would take too long to talk about.)

So Batman Begins is something that I approached not cold but not well steeped either, a good balance for something that is meant to be an adaptation but not definitive, not the ‘true’ source. Some random flack article the other day reminded me that Batman screen versions have been attempted in various forms since the forties, so there’s an advantage in seeing this as a new, wholly separate attempt to deal with what’s still a handy story, in fact a striking one. If Superman was the messiah from the sky who had to learn how to deal with ‘being human,’ the all-too-human Batman was, as this great evisceration of Batman and Robin put it, “one of the few costumed crimefighters who chooses to be a superhero.” However this particular film was cooked up, that turned out to be the goal of this film, to outline one potential route and to make, hopefully, something entertaining and moneymaking out of it.

No worries there for Warner Bros., as this turned out to be something close to a slam-dunk, not perfect but really, really good. My feeling when I saw a trailer for the first time was that this could be a good film, not just a good comic book adaptation. It doesn’t quite get there but it gets very close, and in fact improves in the mind upon reflection, though probably that’s due to its strengths coming more to the fore as it’s thought about. Others observed earlier it was less an action movie than a suspense one and I think that’s spot on — the action scenes are directed/edited with more intent to actually *be* action scenes than Burton’s equivalents, say, but when Christopher Nolan and crew call up the idea of Batman as terrifying alien avenger and put that to play, the film is expressly on, full stop.

Well worth it and if you see it like I did on an IMAX screen, really well worth it. Just avoid having to crick your neck, though.

I had a longer ramble over on ILE, which I’ll repost here with some slight edits taking out a couple of contextual references to the thread:

* It’s a film with too many ideas/approaches rather than too little, and better the former option than the latter. It has to maintain a careful balancing act which it doesn’t quite succeed it but comes very very close to with. Packing in everything from classic urban/conspiracy theory paranoia (modern variants beginning with the ‘mysteries’ genre in popular fiction in the nineteenth century in Europe) to working schlub woes is a noble attempt, actually, the more so because it demands shifts in tone that flow well in order to work. As such the film occasionally falls down, feels clunky, steps out of its flow, though not so much as to damage. It did stop me up a few times as it goes, though, partially because there *were* scenes when such transitions were handled with aplomb (think Wayne having to dismiss the party guests when he has just found out the true (?) identity of Ducard) if not perfect grace. But I never felt completely taken out of the film even when I could sense some parts and exchanges I could almost literally look past or slightly ignore. Importantly, whether in terms of language or motivation or even just general depiction, [Roger] Ebert’s call on the film — “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is” — nails it. Much like, say, Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings where a guiding principle was to avoid irony completely, here the same principle clearly works. Much of what is in the plot, and even the specifics of the script, could have been purest camp if played/directed differently. Here Nolan and crew took the chance like Jackson et al that if they filmed it and played it straight it would work more often than not. So Christian Bale’s “I AM DOOM” Batman voice *almost* could fail but holds through well and in fact arguably works even more effectively as the film goes, as we get used to it more. With that as an effective anchor, the rest follows.

* Hands down best overall performance — Oldman. Nothing against Bale at all, in fact, because I think he did a fine, fine job, but Oldman was, just, the best balance between the hyperreality of the setting and story and a regular Joe, and played it as such, and never stepped out of it. That Oldman knows how to nail an American accent was clear years ago, he’s done many inspired performances since with many different varieties of same. That he could *perfectly* disappear into the role — reminiscent of Miller’s Gordon in his Batman: Year One without being an exact equivalent — was inspiring, in a way. He was easily the best character I could enjoy seeing a separate movie about, an alternate approach where it’s Gordon’s story with Batman to the side. Part of it was the deft hints at there being more to say — the brief observation of his family at home, the sense of his frustrations and disappointments over the years — but part of it was him feeling very lived in, very there. It was almost too good at parts, if that makes sense — where Katie Holmes was just bluntly functional at best (I honestly think the tone of her voice was the worst part, something too…I dunno, light, breezy even?), Oldman’s Gordon could have been something near to a documentary performance. And as noticed [elsewhere], that brief ‘Sorry!’ almost says it all.

* As for the rest, good ensemble cast with some standouts and some thankless parts. Caine basically played Alfred-as-Caine but the humour was definitely a good outlet without making his role comic — his combination of frustration/anger/sarcasm/being ‘proper’ when delivering the push-up line as the Wayne manor burns was emblematic, as was the one time when his sudden burst of anger towards Wayne gave just enough hinting of depth without being a forced “Look! See! Depth!” moment. I liked Freeman’s easygoing nature but the role was plug and play, more’s the pity. Hauer having gone from being Roy Batty twenty five years ago to being a proto Dr. Tyrell now was kinda funny if you look at it that way (and I do). Holmes, as mentioned…well, anyway. Did a poor job handling The Big Issue Speeches, but then again she was stuck with them — as was…

* Neeson, who essentially played a Dark Side of the Force Quigon Jinn. Now don’t get me wrong, he did a fine job of it, though as friend Tom told me afterwards, “He has to watch out or he’ll be typecast as Mr. Miyagi from here on in” (and for all I know he was that in Kingdom of Heaven). And as I mentioned, the whole trick lies in playing it straight, which he did — I could be wrong, I don’t think he smiled once in the film, which was true to the character as set up in this interpretation, a pitiless man with an overarching mission. But as an opponent for Bale things fell apart a touch when the two of them were facing off verbally towards the end — given that the actual knock-down drag-out final fight was a mash and mush of quick edits that frankly I found hard to follow, the confrontation in Wayne Manor needed to work more than it did, especially since the twinges of ambiguity worked much more effectively at the start of the film during the training than at the end. That the film allowed Bale space to explore the ambiguity more during its length is to its credit, that it fell off too swiftly towards the end isn’t. In the end, the last two-line exchange between the two on the train before Batman escapes works better and says more about the two characters than the Manor sequence as a whole.

* Meanwhile, Murphy was *very* nice as Scarecrow, the more so because he played him as a character who wasn’t necessarily invested in being Scarecrow all the time, or rather that he didn’t need to become Scarecrow to be unsettling, evil-doing, etc. The spookout sequences with Batman and Falcone were brutally effective (though the bad ‘lighten up’ joke with Batman shouldn’t have been there) but the absolute most scary part was Crane introducing Holmes’s character to the poison prep room and calmly, casually talking about what happens next. Followed as it was by her panicked bolt away (and how that was edited), the scenes worked *very* well. I would like to see him come back if they can make the character all the more damaged from the results of this film, building on it rather than just simply more of the same.

* And speaking of scary….while I don’t think it was truly *always* creepout central it got closer than not. Where I think the action scenes could be flawed they were at their best when suggesting uncontrollable chaos and fear, thus the panicked men at the drug dropoff being taken out in a group. But it was the building up to that point which made it work, the sense that something was picking them off one by one. It immediately reminded me of Alien, an impression further heightened by the way Batman would grab victims at points to suddenly haul them up in the sky, unexpected, terrifying — think of Harry Dean Stanton suddenly hauled up into the shuttle bay by the still not full seen/apprenhended alien itself. Another film referenced, at least semi-consciously, was probably The Silence of the Lambs — anything at least partially set in an asylum might well have to deal with that nowadays, but the sense of different layers and atmospheres in the asylum, as well as the spreadeagled (but not eviscerated) Falcone on the searchlight, called the comparison to mind. There were other steals and references but always fairly deftly done, no complaints there at all — when it works, it works well.

* Random thoughts since I actually do have to work a bit here — the music wasn’t that bad, but didn’t stand out, it was appropriate, for better or for worse; the Iceland-based shots for the training at the beginning were indeed really something, very good atmosphere, as well as excellent set design for the monastery itself; similarly using Chicago as the base for the city itself was a nice variant on using NYC, say — favorite shot might actually be the early morning one where Batman stands calmly on an outcrop of building while the camera swoops around to silhouette him against the rising sun; the Batmobile made me think of the Dark Knight Returns tank in miniature — and why not?; a couple of instances aside, the humor throughout seemed to be handled just fine so I’m not too sure about the complaints there; the actual death of Wayne’s parents was I thought kinda weak (and the whole stethoscope thing and all that…eh, whatever); absolutely LOVED how there were no credits at all until the very end, not even the film title; sound and visual design top notch.

So. Roll on tomorrow. (No midnight showing for me — tickets LONG gone.)

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