Weekend Recommendation: Batman Begins
This weekend’s recommendation is specially dedicated to Cliff Burns who not without warrant, makes a special point of deriding the comic book hero movie sub-genre.
Seeing Superman: The Movie in 70mm at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood did something to me as a child. It captivated me and left me believing that “a man could fly.” To this day, I think I continue carry around hope that another movie will bring back those boyhood feelings.
The vast majority of comic book films since then (with a few notable exceptions) have been travesties, and the raping of my childhood memories that was Superman Returns, still leaves me shuddering with derision.
Thankfully, eventually. . . One movie brought back that boyhood wonder. When it was originally announced that Christopher Nolan was attached to direct the resurrection of the Batman franchise, I was excited just by the prospect of one of my favorite filmmakers taking a crack at one of the most interesting comic book heroes. The credibility and sense of style that he brought to films like Memento and Following would ultimately be what was needed to bring the Bat-man to life.
Batman Begins is one of those stellar rarities in Hollywood, a great movie. It’s two hours of feeling that surge of excitement and belief; of sitting with a tub of popcorn and escaping into a world where you forget that heroes don’t come in capes. Christopher Nolan almost single-handedly takes the scepter from movie makers like Ridley Scott and Robert Wise (both also talented filmmakers). Nolan is able to do so because he understands every single aspect of movie making and works with talented craftspersons on both sides of the camera.
Batman Begins ascends to that level of achievement via Nolan’s direction, and the sum of the picture’s parts. The script by Nolan and David S. Goyer is tight structurally and is but one aspect of the film’s operatic nature. Each of the characters in the film have their realness, but in Batman and Bruce Wayne, there is depth and substance.
Cinematography by Wally Pfister is gothic and gorgeous and acts as the grand proscenium through which our eyes watch the theatrical performance. The Production Design sets the story in a Gotham City that is more believable than fanciful. However, perhaps the biggest triumph in the movie is the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
The first time I saw Batman Begins in the theatre, as the opening of quietly frenetic strings and rumbling tympany began to roll out with the fluttering images of bats, I knew I was in for a treat. Nolan does something that is rarely done in comic book hero movies, let alone in Hollywood blockbusters: The movie contains only the score as the musical backdrop. There are no “hit songs” by “hip artists” which appear as a marketing ploy to sell “music-inspired-by albums”. . . And the music is some of the best to appear in any movie in the past ten years.
Batman Begins is a popcorn movie that has gone to the opera. At times, it feels like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and sometimes it’s the movie that one night in a drunken and self-loathing stupor, The Phantom Menace wishes it could have been. The fact that we have a moment in which a young Bruce Wayne and family take in a performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, is no accident. And that’s the exciting thing, in Christopher Nolan’s cinematic worlds, there are no accidents.
Finally, it would be criminal of me not to mention the key talents who bring the film its dramatic caché. Christian Bale is the epitome of the young hero, and through him, Batman finally gets what he deserves. Michael Caine brings the role of Alfred both grace and gravitas, and Morgan Freeman. . . Well, he’s Morgan Freeman. With very few and perhaps one nameless exception, the cast is among some of the finest acting talent today.
This movie is like many Hollywood blockbusters for the fact that it has some fairly notable issues. Plot holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through. But the combined effort and artistry on display makes all of the wrinkles disappear.
But perhaps the greatest reason why Batman Begins, Superman: The Movie and the first two Spider-Man movies succeed is the way the heroes are not only set within a world as real as our own, but they also suffer the common problems that you and I do.
These characters’ heroism has little to do with the buildings they scale, but more specifically, the human challenges that they face. The villians they battle aren’t half as interesting as the demons they face. Most filmmakers who attack the comic book genre, get it wrong for two key reasons: they don’t take their characters seriously enough, nor their audiences.
Allow me just one moment of personal digression: For years, the comic book movie I wanted to make was the Wolverine movie. There was only one man who could have played him, Rutger Hauer*. (Yes, he would have been overly tall, BFD.) The film would have followed him through his travels in Japan and the discovery process to better understand his own origin. His heroism, would have been questionable. Save a couple of lucky innocents along the way, but probably taken out a few people more dubious than deserving. Like an animalistic ronin, my Wolverine would have been searching for his own mastery. This Wolverine would have been more Logan: flawed & dark, crass & witty, dangerous, but ultimately heroic. He would have been more likely to have appeared in a Kurosawa samurai film than on some kid’s box of Wheaties. Thankfully though, there is a lot more where that came from. . .
My ultimate recommendation to Cliff and the still fairly significant numbers who missed Batman Begins is to sit back and be surprised. This film is fun, elegant and both characters and audience are left with all of their dignity by the ending credits. The movie is as much a product of our time, as it is of a bygone era which might share kinship with a something out of a Bram Stoker story.
Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming The Dark Knight arrives in theatres in 2008 and I for one, am ready. Perhaps after Batman Begins, you will be too.
*Absolutely, no disrespect is intended to Mr. Hugh Jackman. These childhood ideas are born of the imagination of a child who grew up on Blade Runner.
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