Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Begins, 2005, Part 2

Lots of pics in this one, but I'll try to include some material of interest.

Last week, we looked at the expectations for "Batman Begins," and the way it confounded those expectations by focusing on Bruce Wayne rather than the villains. After the 45-minute opening sequence, Bruce Wayne finally returns to Gotham to begin his mission to clean up the crime and corruption plaguing the city.

Once he's home, the pieces start coming together. Bruce needs weapons; luckily, he owns a mega-corporation that has developed lots of abandoned, but cutting-edge, military tech, watched over by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).

Bruce needs intel and allies; luckily, his best friend from childhood, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), is an assistant district attorney.

Bruce needs a secret headquarters and a frightening symbol; luckily, there's a huge secret cave underneath his house, with a handy secret elevator built right in, entered through a secret door behind the bookcase.

As a bonus, the cave houses those same bats that terrified him as a child and inspire his costume.

Bruce's first target is Carmine Falcone, the mob boss who mocked him years before (and parenthetically, a character from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One storyline) . Falcone is shipping drugs into Gotham and paying off corrupt cop Flass (another Batman: Year One character) to look the other way. Bruce enlists Gotham's last honest cop, Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), to his cause.

Finally, all the pieces are in place and Batman makes his debut appearance on the docks...

Which results in the arrest of Falcone and the invention of the Bat-signal.

But it turns out that Falcone's drug shipment is tied to a larger plot by a mysterious mastermind and his henchman, Dr. Jonathan Crane, better known as the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).

It all climaxes with Batman's desperate battle to save Gotham from the Scarecrow's toxic fear gas, which the evil mastermind plans to release into the entire city, combined with the escape of all the homicidal inmates of Arkham Asylum.

In several ways, "Batman Begins" is an extension of the previous movie depictions of Batman. Like the Schumacher films, it's full of shout-outs to the comics, references which are familiar to fans but obscure to the public at large. Unlike the Schumacher films, though, it doesn't waste those shout-outs for pointless sub-plots or excuses for cheap campy jokes. Relatively minor figures from the comics, like Victor Zsaz or Joe Chill, actually advance the plot. Bonus: there's no retcon of who killed Thomas Wayne (although at one point Ra's al Ghul does mention that his group set up the economic conditions that drove Chill to crime, so Ra's is sort of responsible).

Like the Tim Burton films, Batman uses a wide array of gadgets--super-vehicle, special grapples and winches. Unlike the Burton films, however, Batman doesn't depend on these gadgets. He's dangerous with or without them.

Another idea taken from the Burton films is the idea that the Bat-suit is actually a suit of protective armor (an idea originally inspired by, what else, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), but the Schumacher nipples are gone. In fact, the entire suit has been redesigned to look more like something a SWAT team member would wear, protective plates over mesh rather than sculpted rubber.

I love the suit, though I don't like the cape or mask as much. The velvety flocked cape looks flimsy compared to the leathery capes from the previous movies, and the cowl has this weird neck-shape that distorts Bale's face. It's actually a cool idea that helps explain why no one suspects Wayne of being the Batman, but it looks odd.

And then, of course, for fans of the 60's series, there's this.

You know they couldn't drop that.

I love what the movie does with Alfred. Alfred had always been a wasted character in the movies and comics--beloved and dependable, but not really seeming to be a person in his own right. As played by Michael Caine, Alfred actually has a personality and a brain. He doesn't just remind Bruce when the Bat-signal is on and bring him soup, but is actually central to the Batman's creation, advising Bruce on how to purchase materials and supplies without their being traced and how to pose as a playboy to deflect suspicion.

Bale is excellent as Bruce Wayne. He is able, somehow, to make us believe in Bruce Wayne both as the guy beating up six thugs in the mud of a Chinese prison, yet also believe in him as this guy...

A master of theatricality and deception who poses as a rich dilettante while simultaneously being a ruthless businessman and a hooded avenger of the night. The lisp is sometimes distracting (Bale apparently contracted it when he got his teeth capped for "American Psycho"), but the performance overall is good.

Nolan's Gotham City looks mostly like Chicago, where the film did its location shooting (ironic that a Batman film by a Brit director starring mostly Brits in American roles would shoot in an American city, while the first big Batman film, with an American director and cast, shot its Gotham scenes on soundstages in England). The city has a more modern, realistic feel than the previous films' gothic extravangance...

While the scenes in The Narrows feel more stagey. Also weird, because the slums almost feel Asian, like the movie has suddenly moved to Bangkok or something.

Overall, though, the movie was a revelation for both fans and studio execs. You really could do Batman straight, without camp, and make a quality film that fans would pay money to see, without having to betray the core concepts of the character. That is an amazingly difficult trick to pull off, and Nolan made it look easy.

Yet, even though it was over two hours long and featured an overblown bombastic finale, it felt somehow slight. Although I like the way everything in Batman's repertoire is explained and fits together logically (there were no moments where I rolled my eyes as Batman suddenly pulled out some magical gadget that happened to be specifically designed for just this moment, a problem I had with all the previous films), maybe it brought Batman too far down-to-earth. In showing how Batman became a legend, in the end, it made him just another man.

With that said, though, "Batman Begins" was by far the best Batman film to date.

And as a bonus, we found out that it was really cold on the day they were shooting the next-to-last scene.

Katie Holmes was so good in that movie. I wish they'd brought her back for the next one.


Anonymous said...

I just watched this again recently, and I am amazed by what a thinly-drawn character Rachel is. We're supposed to like her, but she's mostly just a preachy, sanctimonious bitch.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

True dat. It's worse in "The Dark Knight," but redeemed (at least for me) by one really good moment.