Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Am Vengeance -- Batman Begins (2005)

I want to get something out of the way before I start in earnest: Batman Begins is a film whose appeal, while not eluding me per se, is diminished compared to the gobs of unfettered praise and nice words it has been steeped in since 2005. I like it, and I enjoyed it more so than ever during my most recent viewing, but I don't think it's a film I'd casually pick to watch on a night off the way I would, say, The Dark Knight. For my tastes, it's humorless and lacks excitement, requiring a bit more investment to "get" anything out of it than my favorite films, which doesn't jive well with my escapism-based film-watching habits--consider this my acquiescence to being a total wuss.

Now that I've said my piece, we can talk about what Batman Begins does right, for it does an awful lot of things right. Made during a time when super hero films weren't known for their quality or depth, even in post-Spider-Man 2005, Batman Begins not only treats each member of its large and distinguished cast with respect, but also (and you'll excuse the implicit smacks of superiority I'm radiating) like actual movie characters. Actual movie characters from an actual good movie. Toss away the cape and cowl, and you have a character study about a man's search for identity after a childhood trauma, and the lengths he goes to find and maintain that identity. It's methodical, serious, and as concerned with probing character questions as it is with inventing new, explosive set pieces; here is a film where Batman first appears no less than an hour into its 140 minute runtime, and we don't mind at all.

First a bit of plot, because maybe you haven’t seen it in a few years. Batman Begins tells how Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy and Gotham’s “favorite son,” becomes a symbol for justice in an effort to save his home city from tearing itself apart by crime and corruption. Batman Begins can be broken into three delineable sections: Bruce Wayne’s travels and early childhood trauma, Bruce Wayne “builds” the Batman persona, and Batman’s shift from fighting organized crime to repelling the League of Shadows. The middle “learning” section is the most satisfying, showing Wayne iterating on crime fighting methods and learning as he goes. It’s also the most “realistic,” showing Batman taking on the mob before things go off the rails in the third act, but the tendency towards realism suits Batman Begins, more so than Cillian Murphy arbitrarily riding a horse, anyway.

One of the most fascinating things about Batman Begins is how it takes all of Batman's well-known gimmicks (bat costume, utility belt, creed not to kill people) and makes them all traceable parts of the character, and their presence in Batman Begins is not just justified but necessary. Bruce Wayne dresses as a bat not to obscure his identity, but because he wants to be an Idea in the minds of criminals as much as he wants to be a solution to Gotham's civic ails. Like I said earlier: respect. Show me all of the scenes of a hero sewing his super suit that you want, but I need to know why he puts it on in the first place, and Bruce Wayne decision to strap on a cape and cowl feels as natural as Rocky's decision to get in the ring with Apollo Creed.

Part of this credit must go to Christian Bale, who juggles no less than four personas of Bruce Wayne over the course of Batman Begins, all of them distinct and convincing. My favorite contrast is during the first forty five minutes, which crosscuts between hardened Bruce Wayne training with the League of Shadows and bitter twentysomething Bruce Wayne contemplating killing his parents’ murderer. Small moments of regret and pain are sprinkled liberally throughout Wayne’s time onscreen, helping add to Batman’s plausibility.

Bale is one of many strong performances by a distinguished cast of big names and bit parts. Reliable standbys like Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, and Morgan Freeman all paint their characters in large, comic book-y strokes (I love Wilkinson’s choice to play Falcone as a 1930’s mob boss), while Gary Oldman’s weary, idealistic portrayal of Gotham’s only honest cop helps ground Batman’s existence and necessity in Gotham. The best in show, though, goes to Cillian Murphy as Dr. Nathan Crane; strung-out, uptight, and always radiating the sensation that he might go for your neck at any moment--and that’s before he takes his glasses off. Murphy’s Crane is off-kilter, unsettling menace, and it’s a damn shame that Batman Begins disposes of him so early into its climax.

Batman Begins builds a solid thematic groundwork, arguably the hardest part of a comic book film, leaving the rest of its filmmaking bits to fall neatly into place. In particular, I am a fan of the editing, which eschews straight continuity for internal rhythm. Watch how the cuts interact with the the emotional beats and how each shot seems to start and stop during a moment of climax ("quitting while it's ahead," I called it in my head). Combined with the use of establish shots as action cuts (notice how the camera never stays stationary when shooting wide shots of locations), Nolan and editor Lee Smith give Batman Begins a momentum that makes its 140 minutes seem as fleet as a Bugs Bunny short.

I think I like the editing so much because of it works with the music. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's horn-and-cello theme used for Batman operates much like Christian Bale's Batman: subdued and somber with a touch of heroic bravado, with a small nod to Danny Elfman’s work on the previous Batman films without outright quoting from it.

I do have a few gripes, though. I've never cared for the way Gotham is portrayed in Batman Begins; its opulent high-rises living so close to the glorified shantytown of the Narrows strikes me as a bit too fantastical, and though its Urban Hellhole motif is a feature and not a bug, I find it repelling and not much fun to look at. Speaking of fantastical, I always wonder how the microwave weapon stolen by Ra's al Ghul is supposed to vaporize all nearby water while leaving nearby human beings (which, I gather, are anywhere from 50-65% water) unscathed. Lastly, I always get a bit twitchy during the last half-hour, mostly because the carefully constructed reality of Gotham is thrown out the window in favor of zombie-film sensibility.

Still, it’s the first film to nail why Batman picks up his uniform and fights crime, and it takes no emotional shortcuts getting there. Batman Begins is a film I appreciate more as a piece of craftsmanship than I do a transporting piece of fiction, but what fine craftsmanship it is.

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