Monday, February 15, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Begins, 2005, Part 1

Once again, the image above combines the written title screen (on black) with a graphic image from the film's opening.

As we noted in our previous installments examining the Batman series of films, Warner Brothers had run into a dilemma with the tone of the series. The conventional wisdom, which had (let's face it) been borne out by experience, was that the idea of a man dressing up in a bat-cape to fight criminals was inherently silly, so you had to camp it up if you were going to appeal to any audience beyond the PPWGALs (Pocket-Protector-Wearing Get-A-Lifers--HT: Cecil Adams) that constituted his hard-core fans.

The flip side was that camp wore out its welcome very quickly. The 60's TV series that had made Batman into such a national sensation had burned out in less than three seasons, and the 1997 film starring George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger had been such a stinkeroo that it seemed as if the well had been poisoned forever.

Then again, the fans hadn't actually abandoned Batman on the screen; they had just shifted their allegiance to the small-screen animated version, who was played as a straight adventure hero without huge doses of camp comedy. Online, fans were saying that Warner Brothers should hand the entire Batman franchise, including live-action, to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, since they were the only ones who actually got it. Let them write a new Batman feature, with Mark Hamill (the voice of the animated Joker) playing the Joker for real (if you saw Hamill's portrayal of the Trickster on The Flash, you know that was maybe not the best idea in the world--Hamill voiced an awesome Joker, but he couldn't really pull off the menace in person).

And then we heard that there was a new Batman film coming down the pike, directed by Christopher Nolan, who had made the awesome "Memento." Suddenly, there was reason to hope again. And when we saw the trailer with the new Batmobile, a black tank called the Tumbler, introduced in the trailer by Morgan Freeman playing Lucius Fox (!), that hope turned into fan-lust.

And then in 2005, "Batman Begins" came out, and it was better than any of us who had been burned time and time again by Hollywood had any right to expect. Not perfect, but excellent all the same.

It's strange to realize that every single adaptation of Batman for the screen, big or small, had started with Batman as an established persona. If it dealt with Batman's origins at all, it was done in flashback, and then only the part where young Bruce's parents were killed. There was this huge gap in between--where Bruce nursed his anger, trained himself physically and mentally, somehow acquired a cave full of advanced technology and an array of incredibly expensive vehicles and gadgets, and decided for some reason to dress as a bat--that had never been addressed and which formed the core of the character's ridiculosity.

That gap, that evolution from tortured Bruce Wayne to vengeful Batman, was what Nolan confronted head-on. Without camp, without winking, without resorting to a host of fantasy gadgets and goofy puns and catchphrases. And it worked, although there was a flaw to the approach which I'll bring up next week.

The opening sequence, once again inspired by Frank Miller's young Bruce sequence in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, shows a young Bruce Wayne falling down a well and being traumatized by a flurry of bats which erupt from a dark tunnel (to what will be the Batcave).

Directly following that, we see a grown Bruce (Christian Bale) as an inmate in a Chinese prison, brutally fighting six thugs in the mud, and we realize that this is going to be unlike any other Batman we've seen before.

This movie is not about a rich guy with a cape and a belt full of fancy gadgets. This is a movie about a dangerous man, with or without his mask. A man named Ducard (played by Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to learn how to focus his anger and make a difference in the world. Bruce ends up in a temple at the top of the world, where he meets Ra's Al Ghul.

It's almost like we've stumbled into the wrong movie. Where the hell is Alec Baldwin?

Bruce studies the arts of the ninja under Ducard, learning how to use deception and theatricality to strike fear into opponents. Oh, and also how to fight with special bladed bracers that bear a striking resemblance to a certain set of gauntlets.

Meanwhile, we see flashbacks of Bruce growing up--his relationship with his father, the death of his parents, his failed attempt to assassinate his parents' killer (Joe Chill, finally), and his introduction to the seamy underbelly of Gotham City crime.

Bruce's father, Thomas Wayne, is depicted as the perfect white liberal saint. He's super-rich, thanks to inheriting the family mega-corporation, but he works as a doctor, curing the sick while he uses the resources of his company to build a low-cost public transportation system. The movie is cunningly constructed to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum by showing the liberal in the greatest possible light (caring, self-sacrificing, in favor of public transportation), while also showing the futility of his idealism (Thomas is murdered by a criminal, and the elevated train he built ends up almost destroying the city).

Young Bruce is told by crime boss Carmine Falcone...

that he'll always be afraid of criminals, because he doesn't understand them, which lets us understand how he ended up in prison; he decided to confront his fears head-on. But when Ducard finds him, he has lost his focus.

Bruce is finally ready to graduate from ninja class and is ordered to kill a thief as his final exam.

He refuses, and there's a huge battle in which Ra's is killed and the temple is destroyed. Bruce rescues an unconscious Ducard and leaves him in the nearest village before returning to Gotham. It's 45 minutes into the film, and we haven't seen a hint of Batman yet, though we've seen lots of intriguing teases. And by now it's obvious how this Batman film is different from all the others: because its focus is squarely on Bruce Wayne. Not Batman and not the villains, but the man underneath the mask and why he does what he does.

What a revelation.

To be continued next week.

1 comment:

Bat-Cheva said...

I do love your synopses. I can't wait to see the next part. :)