A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 182 – Batman Begins

Batman Begins – August 29th, 2010

A few words about Batman movies, before I go launching into my love for Michael Caine. First, we’re watching the Christopher Nolan movies before the older ones. This is because we don’t own the older ones. Any of them. We don’t have the Adam West cheesefest and we don’t have anything featuring a batsuit with nipples on. This and The Dark Knight are it. Kind of odd, since I do have a fondness for the Adam West movie and the 1989 movie with Michael Keaton. But we don’t own them. When we talked about watching this today we couldn’t recall if we owned any of the others and decided it didn’t matter. We’d treat the Nolan movies as a separate set from the others if we did own any of them. So. Yeah. Maybe some day we’ll buy one or two of the others and I’ll discuss them. For now, we’ll stick with these. And I’ll squee over Michael Caine.

You see, I love Alfred. Adore him. He’s really my favorite character. He saves Batman’s ass and delivers some excellent wake-up call lines throughout the movie. He helps set up the batcave, organizes the ordering for the pieces of the suit, etc. He holds on to Bruce’s wealth while Bruce is off learning how to be a bad ass in the mountains of Asia. He keeps the kitchen tidy. Alfred Pennyworth is more awesome than awesome. And in this movie he’s played by Michael Caine, who is doubly awesome. Also awesome? Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, a multi-faceted genius who can lecture about body armor and memory fabric and then synthesize an antidote to a previously unknown hallucinogen overnight. Add in Gary Oldman as Gordon, who really saves the day at the end while Bruce is engaging in fisticuffs with Ducard, and you’ve got a fantastic trio of older men who kick ass. I love that about this movie. But of them all, I love Alfred the most.

Of course Bruce Wayne/Batman is the hero. He’s the one in the title. He’s the iconic figure everyone knows. He’s the superhero. And as superheroes go, Batman’s always been on the edgier side. In this movie, that holds quite true. Christian Bale as Batman is rough and tough and not pulling his punches. It’s made clear through the movie and then explicitly stated in the end that Bruce Wayne is more an act than Batman is. This is intentional here. One of the things I like about Batman as a character is that he is so very flawed. No normal everyday person could do what he does, and I’m not just talking about the feats of strength or expenditures of money. I’m talking about the determination and single-mindedness.

A goodly portion of this movie is an origin story for Batman, showing how a seemingly normal-but-privileged child grew up into a man not only trained to fight crime but determined to do so through drastic means. The deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents are always cited as a reason for his focus, but this movie goes several brutal steps further, truly driving home the workings of Bruce’s mind. When he confronts the mob boss who pulls so many of the criminal strings in Gotham, and gets his naivete thrown right in his face? That right there is motivation. And when Bruce trains in the mountains with Henri Ducard and is told his father’s inaction was his own downfall? That’s more. It makes Batman and Bruce Wayne into a well built dual character. The theme of fear only serves to underscore everything else happening in the movie. Bruce’s fear of ignorance, uselessness, powerlessness, the inability to do what needs doing. That is motivation. And his focus on that is both his strength and his weakness. Just as it should be.

I almost feel like I don’t need to bother with much plot recap. This is a Batman movie, people. This is about Batman’s origins, which we’ve covered, and then a villain or team of villains threatening the good people (and bad people and in-between people) of Gotham, and Batman has to save the day. Isn’t that how it always works? What makes each story different is which villain or villains Batman needs to fight and what the plan is. The origin story here makes for some good plot fodder too, since a prominent figure in Bruce’s training comes back later. There’s lots of talk about justice and right and wrong and morality, which is interesting in the context of Batman essentially being a vigilante himself. There’s Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, and he’s in league with the big name villain, and Falcone, the local mob boss (played by Tom Wilkinson), who’s gotten himself in a little over his head by the end. And there’s a big plot to take down all of Gotham because it’s a festering cesspool of immorality and corruption. No argument there. But I don’t want to poke the specific means to that end too hard. There’s one really huge obvious hole in the plot already and this movie’s too good in so many other ways and I don’t want to make more holes.

They did a good job, really, building up the whole Bruce/Batman thing and making this movie largely character driven in a way. And they set up the corrupt city and Falcone and Scarecrow and the shady stuff they’re both up to. Gordon is introduced well, and the tension feels good. Even the blatant use of flashbacks works nicely when we get multiple stages in Bruce’s development and life. And then there’s fancy tech holding up the villainous plot to take down Gotham. Sure, on the surface that works fine. After all, Batman isn’t a hero because he’s got super powers like Wolverine or Superman. He’s got gadgets and the money (and Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth) to buy and develop them. So having his opponent use not super powers but a gadget of his own should work. Except the whole thing hinges on vaporizing all the water in Gotham. All of it. On the streets, in the pipes, everywhere. Except, apparently, in human bodies. They never address that, even. Not even a throwaway line like it only working on large bodies of water or something. Nothing.

But why am I looking for logic behind comic book tech? Like Batman’s gadgets really work anyhow. The Mythbusters did a whole episode on that. I just think it best if I don’t go poking the specifics any more than I have. Next thing you know I’ll be on about how Gotham needs to add billionaire vigilante insurance to its villain and meta-human insurance policies. And that’s not really what I take away from this movie (even though they totally do need that insurance, pronto). What I take away from it is the amazing job the movie does setting the stage that is Gotham and introducing its hero. A flawed and dangerous hero for a flawed and dangerous city. And that’s how it always has been and how it always should be. The movie gives us an excellent Batman and his amazing support network and lets him and them loose on a flawed and dangerous villain. It’s well done and well presented and captures everything I love about Batman except for the Joker. Whom we’ll see plenty of tomorrow.

August 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Batman Begins

August 29, 2010

Batman Begins

As a comic book fan I was delighted by this movie. It takes Batman and treats him with deadly seriousness, with none of the camp that is associated with him. Oh, sure, Tim Burton did a couple Batman movies back in the early nineties, and they were a major breakthrough in their own way, but they were still silly in places, and Batman is a deep enough phenomenon that he can support being re-invented in this way once in a while.

Chris Nolan (of Memento fame) heads this adaptation and does a stellar job. He borrows several major moments and parts of the character arc from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, but he makes them his own while he does it. His Batman movie tries to find a way to make Gotham a real modern-day city and tell the story of how Bruce Wayne could actually exist. Every kid knows the story of this movie, of course, how Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents and swore to eliminate all evil from the city of Gotham, and how he chose to dress as a bat to strike terror into the toughs of the underworld. It works well as a comic book premise, but how do you go about making it fit into the modern world?

Chris has chosen to do it by stressing a couple character themes throughout the movie. One is the nature of fear. Batman employs fear as part of his arsenal. It’s why he dresses the way he does. Early in the movie there’s a flashback to young Bruce falling into the caves beneath his family mansion where he is attacked by bats. It’s an incident that shapes his character. He is terrified of bats (something which is woven into the movie cleverly and worked into his origin story with a great deal of care. To reinforce the theme of fear and overcoming it one of the two comic book bad guys Batman faces in this movie is the Scarecrow, aka Dr. Jonathan Crane, who uses drugs to induce fear in his victims.

The other foe Batman has to deal with is one of my favorite Batman nemeses – the Ra’s Al Ghul. He’s an immortal warlord and terrorist who tries to bring the world into balance, mostly by attempting to wipe out the decadence of modern man. What this movie cleverly does is present the Ra’s as one of Bruce Wayne’s trainers. It’s long been known that Bruce trained in every martial art to become the greatest fighter ever known, but this movie is the first time I’ve seen that actual training shown. Al Ghul has always been a more sympathetic bad guy – it’s his methods that are abhorrent, he actually has noble goals. So to have him training Bruce as a sort of father figure is a great notion. (In the comics he even was Bruce’s father-in-law at one time since Bruce married his daughter.) It allows the movie to bring forward another of the themes that drives the plot throughout – which is the nature of justice. It’s only a natural question when your chief protagonist is a vigilante who attacks criminals in the night with no regard for the law. Is Batman a just figure? He’s the goddamned Batman!

So you have a couple serious themes and a really great script, but without the cast you’d have no movie, so how is the cast? Oh. My. God! I was skeptical when I read that Batman himself was to be played by Christian Bale – the wiry guy from American Psycho. (At the time my wife did point out that he was in Newsies, which seemed like recommendation enough for her.) When I think of Bale I do not think of an action movie blockbuster star. He’s an introspective and methodical actor. Which, it turns out, is exactly the right thing for this movie. Nolan needed a Bruce Wayne who was vulnerable, and a little broken. Then he surrounded him with an a-list cast of huge Hollywood names: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson… it’s a cavalcade of talent.

What’s great about the casting in this movie is that these actors all are so invested in their parts. You don’t get the feeling, which you got in some of the earlier Batman movies, that they are hamming it up and vacationing in comic book land for a quick paycheck. These are powerful actors steeped in their craft who understand how all these characters fit into the story that Nolan is trying to tell. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson all act as sort of father figures of one kind or another for Bruce Wayne, all influencing his evolution into Batman. Cillian Murphy is just fun to watch as the cynically manipulative and slightly out of touch Dr. Crane. Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors because he is such a chameleon, able to play psycopaths, geniuses, vampires and mad wizards all without breaking a sweat. Here he’s Captain Gordon, the Elliott Ness of the Gotham police force, which is a simple sort of upright every-man role and Oldman plays it brilliantly. It says something about the caliber of film being made here that they can have a big name like Rutger Hauer or Ken Watanabe in a little bit part. It lends gravitas to the whole project.

So taken all together this is a great accomplishment in comic book adaptations. It manages most of the time to play as though it is not a comic book at all. Yes, it has some big action set-pieces and a hero who dresses up like a bat, so it’s solidly in the territory of summer action blockbusters, but it plays everything with a gravitas that belies its origins. Comic books are often ridiculed as being less serious reading matter than un-illustrated prose, and it warms my heart to see Batman treated with such care and honor. He’s always been one of my favorite comic book heroes with his complex and self conflicted nature (he’s a man who behaves as a criminal to fight crime after all) and this movie is one of the best movies based on his mythos. I’d say that this is probably the best movie we own about what it really means to be a super hero.

Tomorrow we get to review the best movie we own about what it really means to be a super villain.

August 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment