A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,

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