Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Review of Batman Begins

"Batman Begins" is the second best superhero film of all time ... second only to "Spiderman II." Since these films were released in successive summers, it seems to me that we are probably at the high point of superhero films for this generation. Perhaps this is only the beginning of a wonderful franchise, but I doubt it.

"Batman Begins" is able to do two things simultaneously that are difficult to pull off; it both mains that gritty realistic look, and it manages to maintain a comicbook look. First, for the realism ... much of what looks good about the film is in what is not revealed. Bruce Wayne's fight scenes are awkward, dirty and chaotic -- similar to the way Branagh shot the battle sequences in Henry V. As Batman, even less is shown, so that the spectacle of thugs fighting a guy in a bat costume is replaced by flashes of image pieced together by imagination. Every piece of equipment Batman has seems to be something that you could buy on eBay -- in other words, it is not too technologically improbable.

As for the comic book look, the film leans heavily into the graphic novel tradition. The framing of the shots often evokes the frames of a graphic novel, wherein instead of acting as boxes to provide the sequence they allow a painterly space for interesting visuals. One example from early in the film is a cloud of bats that group in a particular way to form the Batman symbol. That image struck me as a suitable cover for a graphic novel. The only other films I can think of that have also done this successfully are Unbreakable and The Road to Perdition.

Glen Gill over at Logo Kai Erga is much more knowledgable about film scores than I am, so I will refrain from comment except to say that the score is performed by Hans Zimmer and is of the quality we generally would expect. Quite good.

This is hard to discuss without being too spoiler-ish, so I'll be vague. The characters are all well-acted, and I can hardly think of a single misstep. The problem is that some characters seem superfluous, particularly that of Katie Holmes. Her character (not her performance) is the weakest character in the film, I think, and she can only be called a "love interest" if the emphasis is on "interest" rather than "love." One troublesome aspect of the film is that there were so many wonderful performances that I wanted to see more of certain characters, but cannot see where much more could be added. Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer and Michael Caine really knock it out of the ballpark. In fact, I'd probably pay cash money to see a film entitled "Gordon" if Gary Oldman would return to play the title role.

OK, now time to be REALLY vague ... but if you are spoiler-averse, you should probably read no further. The film keeps trying to move between moral ambiguity and moral clarity, and the movement is not really successful. Slight spoiler here: at the beginning, Bruce Wayne is trying to live a criminal life without actually becoming a criminal, so he does things that cut the definition really thin, such as stealing from his own corporation (ignoring the fact that the corporation is about to go public, and he is stealing goods abroad, so in fact he IS stealling from the future stockholders, the shippers and retailers, etc., not to mention taxes, tariffs and whatnot). In another scene (Big spoiler here) he refuses to be someone's executioner, then immediately (within seconds) sets into motion a chain of events that kills nearly everyone around him, including the guy he's ostensibly saving.

In these specific scenes, it seems to me that the filmmakers are not going for a true moral ambiguity, but are trying to keep Bruce Wayne from becoming too dark, to the point that after one altercation (spoiler) in which missiles are shot into buildings and lots of cars are rolled and crushed Alfred says, "It is a miracle no one was killed." A miracle? No, it was rather more like "The A Team" scenes in which explosions always blow villains safely onto stacks of empty boxes.

In other places, the moral ambiguity is maintained. Bruce's father is depicted at various times as a foolish idealist, the savior of Gotham, a weak coward, a humanitarian, and the unwitting tool through which Gotham will be destroyed. We are told both that he would be ashamed of Bruce and proud of Bruce, but I think the answer is unclear, as the person who ultimately claims that his father would be proud at that moment rejects what Bruce has become. As we move through the film, even the various villians have true things to teach Bruce, and he advances morally much further from what the wicked and brutal teach him than what the "good guys" from his rich boy's world teach him.

Lots of spoilers in this section here. The weapon to be used by the big bad guy doesn't make any sense. It's a microwave emitter that's supposed to be strong enough to evaporate an entire city's water supply. Fair enough ... but then why doesn't it fry (or at least dessicate) any humans nearby? Apparently, it can blow all the water from a pipe miles away, but can't even make someone standing right in front of it a little thirsty.

Also, in an effort to make sure that Wayne Enterprises is a good company built on solid ethics, we are told that much of the underground section of Wayne Manor was used as part of the Underground Railroad to "transport slaves to the North." Ummmm ... isn't Gotham already in the North? Nothing in the film indicates that the city is anything but Yankee central. It's just a stupid throwaway moment that wasn't thought out.

And what about the Batmobile? In one scene, a joke is beat into the ground that the cops keep asking for a description of the vehicle, when none is needed since it looks rather like a Humvee on steroids. Again, fair enough ... except how did Bruce get the thing into the center of the city if it was such a spectacle?

In the end, the film works. The "Goth" is put back into Gotham, with Batman being much more of a gargoyle figure. The film frequently nods to other films, and is not afraid to re-imagine scenes (such as the killing of Dr. and Mrs. Wayne) that have already been depicted in other films. It is not really in conversation with literature, but is overtly Jungian, with one villain explicitly likening his persona to Jungian archetypes. The film is practically drenched in Jung, with characters playing archetypal roles both in their "real" lives and as their alter egos. In fact, Bruce Wayne from early in the film appears to die out, and so the discussion later in the film over which is the mask (Batman or Bruce) is ultimately irrelevant -- BOTH are masks, and Wayne ceases to have a non-masked identity.

In this way, "Batman Begins" is the antithesis of "Spiderman II." Peter Parker is able to maintain his innocence because he is able to reconcile both his Peter identity and his Spiderman identity, symbolized in the love of both by Maryjane. Wayne, on the other hand, becomes a darker, more dangerous character because he is ultimately unable to reconcile Bruce and Batman, and must instead slough off any "real" identity, instead alternating between his two masks, (spoiler) both of which are rejected by Rachel in hopes that the slain "real" identity is just dormant and will return.

1 comment:

  1. "Batman Begins" is a good fill but isn't better than the Dark Night because I think in the second one Batman was more bizarre because Batman wasn't totally the good hero he was between dark and light.m10m