Monday, October 24, 2005

Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)

Christopher Nolan brings Batman back to the big screen with a brooding, self-serious film that, despite its obvious attempts to transcend the comic-book genre, is simply brimming with bathos and fails in its primary mission – to introduce audiences to a compelling, complex figure behind the mask. The inherent flaw of Batman Begins that saps all of the effectiveness of Bruce Wayne’s angst and soul searching is that, inevitably, the story still boils down to a man running around town fighting crime dressed as a giant bat. Say what you want about Tim Burton’s underbaked quirk – at least he was able to create a consistent universe in which such a character might seem plausible. In Batman Begins, viewers are subjected to a film that seems to be in stubborn denial of its own campy roots.

Whereas other Batman films have begun in medias res with the dark hero already an established presence in the city of Gotham, Nolan’s delves into the childhood trauma that led Bruce Wayne to take the vigilante path. It also introduces us briefly to Bruce’s father – a man with the unusual combination of extraordinary wealth and admirable moral character -- and answers various other questions including why Bruce lives alone in a manor with his trusty manservant. What the film does not do, despite all the strained gloominess and martial arts training included in an attempt to give the film a sense of gravity, is provide Batman with a driving motive any more compelling than that which Burton supplied in a fraction of the time. In the 1989 film, there was a kind of mystery and strange dreamlike quality to Bruce’s separation from his parents. Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight? In the most recent film, we trudge through over an hour of simple-minded psychology and nonsensical pseudo-philosophy before Batman ever dons his attire. Ostensibly, the film strives on some level to be an exploration of the nature of justice, but whatever the film has to say on the subject is muddled and inconsistent. At one point early in the film, Wayne refuses to kill a man on principle – I will not play executioner – and then proceeds to take action which leads to the death of about twenty. Later, as Batman, he invokes some kind of dubious moral technicality, making a distinction between ‘killing a foe’ and simply ‘allowing a foe to meet with certain death’. Is this justice or cowardice?

Perhaps the reason that I react so negatively to this incarnation of Batman spouting off about justice and acting as a kind of moral authority is that Nolan has decided to offer us a Bruce Wayne that couldn’t possibly be any more of an emotional vacuum. With Bale in the lead, we are treated to Batman-as-arrogant-contemptuous-prick. To borrow a phrase from Dorothy Parker, Bale runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. Delivering virtually every line in a low-pitched grumble, Bale is the very opposite of charismatic. Instead, he comes across as a smug, spoiled character that on occasion is difficult to distinguish from the so-called ‘bad guys’. Bale’s Wayne is the sort of man you would be delighted to see trip over his own cape – not the kind that inspires visions of justice and fair play. For over an hour, Nolan makes viewers wait to see Batman in his suit. With care he explains how the piece covering Batman’s torso is really an experimental form of military armor, as well as demonstrating the derivations of the cape and Batmobile. But a rubber bat mask is still a rubber bat mask. The film prepares us for the arrival of a legend, a myth ... and then delivers a grown man playing Halloween dress-up. I’m Batman he declares. And both the virtuous and the villainous accept this new force with a remarkable lack of tittering. Please understand that I do not object specifically to the depiction of comic book heroes on film. I very much enjoyed Spiderman 2. I make these points simply to assert that there is a danger in trying to establish a tone which the depth of the material cannot support.

Batman Begins certainly has its positive qualities. I particularly enjoyed much of the supporting cast, most notably Tom Wilkinson and Gary Oldman going against type as a vicious criminal and a good cop respectively. I also found the character of The Scarecrow and the fear-related effects to be terribly thrilling. As director, Nolan demonstrates a gift for jumping around chronologically and still keeping the viewer engaged. His spectacular use of huge bat swarms was particularly effective. I was less enamored with his handle on the quick-paced action scenes which included some sloppy editing choices and quite a few unnecessary cutaways (including the escaped convicts and the guys at the water facility). Obviously, he has given many fans the experience they have been craving. To be sure, Nolan has made a drastic improvement over the Schumacher vision. However, my feeling is that he has gone too far in the opposite direction and created a film that resembles a high school goth kid – overbearing in its earnestness, underwhelming in its substance.



Post a Comment

<< Home