Batman Begins (2005)

*. I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the villains Batman fights have always been more interesting than the Dark Knight himself. On screen Batman has always been a bit of a plank, as stiff as his armoured suit. He just stands there and delivers his breathy dialogue while Burgess Meredith or Jack Nicholson or Michelle Pfeiffer or Heath Ledger do their thing.
*. That said, here’s a fun trivia question to ask people, and I mean people who have seen this movie (not hardcore fans, but just casual moviegoers): Who is Batman fighting against in Batman Begins?
*. I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question before this rewatch. I had completely forgotten the name of Ra’s Al Ghul. I think that was for several reasons. In the first place, the movie has a strange way of introducing its slate of villains serially. First there’s Ducard, who is really R’as Al Ghul but we don’t know that and in any event we think he’s a good guy, sort of. Then there’s Falcone, who’s just the usual crime-boss figure. Then there’s Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. By the time R’as Al Ghul shows up again it’s too late. We don’t care about him anymore.
*. Then there’s the plot R’as has hatched. In itself it’s kind of interesting, flooding Gotham with a halucinogenic panic gas and letting everthing go crazy. But why? Apparently Gotham (and Western Civilization in general?) has grown too corrupt for the League of Shadows. That is, the very people who have corrupted it.  (We are also told, just by the way, that the League sacked Rome. Though it’s not made clear which of that city’s many sackings is being referred to.) None of this made sense to me, and when things don’t make sense I tend to forget them.
*. Finally there’s Liam Neeson. A decent actor but terribly miscast here. He’s just too bland, especially for a guy who believes in being theatrical. I mean, he doesn’t even have a cool costume.
*. Instead of a scene-stealing bad guy, Batman Begins, as the title announces, is that most dreaded of all superhero movies: the origin story. Two hours and twenty minutes of origin story. The focus is all on Bruce Wayne, and the source of the darkness inside him. Unfortunately, despite all the effort put into it, I didn’t find any of this stuff very interesting. Young Bruce falls into a cave full of bats when a child and it scares him. Then he sees his parents getting shot, which sends him off on a spiritquest which ultimately lands him in a monstery where he’s trained in ninjitsu by an Irish Fu Manchu. A nice observation by Roger Ebert: “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.” Now ask yourself if that’s a good thing.
*. With no charismatic villain and more Bruce/Batman a lot of weight is put on Christian Bale. And he does better than expected. It’s just that I wasn’t expecting much. What a curious blend of intensity and low energy he projects, in almost all his movies. About the only good thing to say about him is that he’s a good fit for the part, playing a scowl-in-a-cowl plastic action figure who seems to have a bunch of platitudes programmed into his voicebox. “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” That’s the movie’s theme!
*. I think it probably goes without saying that Bale and Katie Holmes have zero chemistry. Because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them have chemistry with anyone on screen. This makes the ending more satisfactory, but also makes you wonder what the real point was in introducing Rachel’s character. Except to have a damsel in distress in a couple of scenes.
*. The fight scenes, bane of every Batman movie, are again poorly done, having to be edited into micro cuts to conceal the fact that nobody can move fluidly or quickly in a suit of armour. The Batmobile has been made over, once again, this time as a Tonka trunk.
*. This may make it sound like I didn’t like Batman Begins. But that’s not the case. I actually think this is pretty good superhero movie, all things considered. One of those things being the baggage Batman was carrying from his previous screen appearances. There’s nothing camp about Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Indeed, there’s little humour at all. Nolan was clearly going for an epic, operatic treatment. (More trivia: in the original Batman comic book Bruce’s parents were killed when coming out of a movie, in some sources The Mark of Zorro, but here they’ve gone to the opera.)
*. One misses a lighter touch, and a tighter script, but overall I think this is a successful handling of difficult material. I find its rating by both critics and the public to be on the high side, but perhaps after Batman & Robin people were just happy to have a hero, any hero, back. Ebert could announce that “This is at last the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for.” A lot of people felt the same way.

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