Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon: Batman Begins

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Christopher Nolan Blogothon over at the Things That Don't Suck blog.

The fact that it took eight years for a new Batman film to be released illustrates how freaked out the studio was over the commercial and critical failure of Batman and Robin (1997). Warner Brothers gave the franchise a much needed rest while they quietly looked for someone to reboot it. At first, it looked like Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller might be the ones to do it but the studio didn’t like their vision of the character. Then came screenwriter David S. Goyer and then up-and-coming director Christopher Nolan who decided to return the Dark Knight back to his roots. They wanted to explore what motivated Bruce Wayne to dress up like a giant bat and wage war on the criminals of Gotham City. By all accounts, their effort, fittingly entitled Batman Begins (2005), was a resounding success. The critics loved it and audiences flocked to the theaters to see it. So, what did they do right?


The casting. While anyone can disappear into the bat suit and look scary it’s playing Bruce Wayne that is the real challenge. To date, only Michael Keaton has pulled it off because he brought a complexity and a refreshing unpredictability to the role. Christian Bale, who has proven that he’s got considerable acting chops with an impressive resume, perfectly captures the essence of the tortured billionaire. Also gone are the obvious casting of marquee names like Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger in favor of reliable character actors like Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy and Rutger Hauer. They bring sincerity and just the right amount of believability to their roles. The only weak bit of casting is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s childhood friend. She’s just not believable as a tough prosecutor who works for the District Attorney. Holmes is also too lightweight of an actress and is unable to bring the gravitas needed for the role.

The story. Goyer and Nolan remain true to the spirit of Batman’s origins as depicted by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, right down to how Bruce’s parents are killed and how this torments him throughout his life. Their death will provide the motivation for what he will become and the filmmakers never lose sight of this. They understand that it is Bruce’s single-minded obsession with fighting crime and keeping the darkness at bay is what motivates him to become Batman and Bale embodies his character’s inner turmoil perfectly. The first half of the film is devoted to Bruce’s transformation into Batman and the last half sees him defend Gotham City against a plot to poison the city with a deadly psychotropic drug. And for good measure, they also throw in the threat of local mobsters and the wild card bad guy known as the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). The screenplay is smart and well-written, hitting all the right emotional notes and thankfully keeping the cheesy one-liners down to a minimum.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Batman Begins is the League of Shdows, a secret society that trains Bruce and gives him the physical skills to fight crime. However, their overtly fascist philosophy repulses Bruce who believes that he can’t be completely ruthless when it comes to fighting criminals. Compassion is what separates him from them. It’s a key point in showing that amidst the darkness lies a spark of idealism in Bruce. He truly believes that Gotham can be saved from the criminals that wish to corrupt it from within.

The tone. The campiness of the Joel Schumacher films is gone, replaced by a darker, brooding vibe. Nolan brings an art house sensibility to a big budget superhero film which gives it more substance. He treats the source material with the respect that it deserves. Even more interestingly, he incorporates elements from the horror film genre. Early on, when Bruce Wayne as a young boy accidentally discovers what will become the Batcave, Nolan imagines the entrance as dark and foreboding, decorated with dangerous, jagged rocks. Then, many bats come flying right at the frightened Bruce. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow uses a hallucingenetic drug to induce nightmarish visions in his victims.

One of the reasons Batman Begins works so well is the choices Nolan makes, like sticking close to Batman’s origins in the comic book and filling in the gaps that the comics had created. Nolan and Goyer worked closely with D.C. Comics, picking and choosing aspects from various issues during Batman’s long run. For example, Nolan’s depiction of James Gordon (Gary Oldman) was influenced by Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Like in that comic, we meet Gordon early in his career as an honest police sergeant surrounded by corruption. Gary Oldman even looks quite similar to the way David Mazzucchelli draws him in Year One. Also, gang boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) is taken from this comic. Batman Begins’ primary villain is Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his League of Assassins (League of Shadows in the film) is the creation of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. They returned Batman to his darker, grittier roots in the 1970s.

One of the main themes of Batman Begins is the power of fear. Bruce must overcome his before he can truly understand its nature and then bask in the fear of others. He learns to embrace the darkness and understand the nature of evil so that he will be better equipped to fight it. After the campy Joel Schumacher era, it is nice to see Batman return his roots. Nolan’s film even manages to surpasses Tim Burton’s first one. While Burton certainly got the look of Batman’s world and even understood the character’s tortured psyche, he injected moments of silliness that took one out of the film (i.e. the Joker shooting down Batman’s plane with a handgun?!). Nolan does not make this same mistake and created an excellent comic book adaptation that deserves to be ranked alongside other superior examples of the genre. What’s even more incredible is that he went on to top this film with the much superior sequel, The Dark Knight (2008).

For a more in-depth analysis of this film, check out Peter Sanderson's fascinating, exhaustive essay over at Comics in Context.





14 comments:

  1. Hence Katie Holmes replacement. Exactly.

    Your brief review captures the spirit, essence and tone of Batman Begins. Well said.

    By the way, your points about the Burton and Schumacher films were great because it was precisely why I never liked them. I wasn't even a fan of the first Batman by Burton and you hit it on the head for me. It was silly. I know I'm in the minority there.

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  2. Excellent post regarding the Batman reboot film by Christopher Nolan, J.D. You're exactly right about the much needed ditching of the campiness factor Schumacher piled on (and that Burton let creep in--especially in BATMAN RETURNS). Nolan had a wonderfully full and talented cast to work with here, as well (I, too, exclude Ms. Holmes from this group).

    The Goyer/Nolan script certainly grounded the story and prevented it from flying completely off the handle (cough... BATMAN and ROBIN... cough). What was also great with it was that it included other villains from the Batman mythology (Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow) and didn't immediately attempt to play against the older film's antagonist (Joker) in its initial attempt at revitalizing the franchise.

    Another fine write-up, and another great (and timely) blogathon, my friend. Thanks for this.

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  3. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend!

    I can't stand the Schumacher films but I do have a soft spot for Burton's. Yeah, they are silly but are quite stunning visually and I thought that Jack Nicholson was an inspired choice for The Joker. However, Christopher Nolan took the franchise in a much more serious direction which it needed and it should be interesting to see what he does with the third film which he says will be his last Batman film.


    le0pard13:

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Nolan really did assemble a solid cast for BATMAN BEGINS and managed to top himself with THE DARK KNIGHT. Now that he's established a pretty formidable reputation for himself I'm sure he'll be able to get anyone he wants for his next film.

    I totally agree with you about how the screenplay for BATMAN BEGINS treats its villains. At first, I was worried when I heard about all the different villains that were going to be in this film - having flashbacks to the pile-up of baddies in Schumacher's films but Nolan juggles them all quite well and the film never gets too busy. It helps that he and Goyer draw significantly from the comic books AND that they picked the right ones to draw their inspiration from.

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  4. I'm with The Sci-Fi Fantantic as regards the Burton films: there's definitely an auteurist vision to them, but I've never managed to take away much from them beyond the production design. Nicholson is great fun as The Joker - and Pfeiffer slinky and sexy as Catwoman in the second film - but the overall tone is too skewed towards camp and silliness.

    I was trepidatious about 'Batman Begins' when it first came out, fearing it would be a mis-step for Nolan. Man, was I ever wrong! Apart from the vapidity of Katie Holmes (I wish they'd got around to casting Maggie Gyllenhaal a film earlier!), 'Batman Begins' really doesn't put a foot wrong.

    Spot on review, J.D.

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  5. This really was a great review JD. Thanks for participating.

    As for Burton, I have conflicted feelings about the first one as it is a pivotal film for me (http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2010/03/25-batman-part-1.html) even though its not very good.

    Batman Returns though, is weird, kinky, smarter then its given credit for. And just really damn interesting.

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  6. With INCEPTION opening this week (and you doing your blogothon) here is the Christopher Nolan profile being posted by the UK film website Flickering Myth. A big bonus...the INCEPTION MOVIE UK/FACEBOOK page included a link to the feature which was a described as "An insightful profile...". Cool!

    http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2010/06/theatre-of-mind-christopher-nolan.html

    Enjoy.

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  7. I love this film. It was what a Batman film could and should have been like. The casting was spot on except for Katie. Glad she was gone by the Dark Knight. I've seen this film so many times. I really love the stuff with the League of Shadows. I found that so interesting.

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  8. Neil Fulwood:

    It's funny but I know a lot of people who rank BATMAN RETURNS higher than Burton's first attempt but aside from Pfeiffer's excellent take on Catwoman and the casting of Christopher Walken, I really do like the first one more. But as you say both Burton films are a little too silly for their own good.

    As for BATMAN BEGINS, I had no expectations going in but was intrigued based on Nolan's work on MEMENTO and I was not disappointed. He really hit out of the park.

    Thanks for stopping by.


    Bryce Wilson:

    Thanks for the compliments. I was more than happy to contribute!

    I do agree with you about the underrated nature of BATMAN RETURNS. It was interesting to see how Burton built on and tweaked the world he created in the first BATMAN film.


    Trevor:

    Thanks for the link! I will definitely check it out.


    Keith:

    Hey there! Glad to see you're a fan of this film also. I agree with you about the whole LEAGUE OF SHADOWS subplot. It was an interesting way to reboot the franchise and intriguing debut villain (along with Scarecrow) for Batman to take on.

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  9. Brilliant comment about the art house sensibility. You are absolutely right. Nolan so very rarely puts a foot wrong with his films and it still amazes me that he went a step higher with TDK. What a terrific double=bill!

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  10. Steve Langton:

    Thanks for the kind words. I totally agree with you about Nolan's films making for a fantastic double bill. He is consistent in both films in how he depicts that world and the characters that inhabit it, which is yet another thing I dig about them.

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  11. Hey JD,
    I wanted you to know that I have tagged you in a meme. Feel free to participate if you have time and you would like to.

    http://mooninthegutter.blogspot.com/2010/07/in-through-mirror.html

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  12. Jeremy Richey:

    Thanks, Jeremy! I'll see what I can do.

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  13. I had already posted a comment on this blog, but I wanted to say that I love your blog header.

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  14. Keith:

    Thanks! Yeah, I thought that was a pretty cool image and it seemed appropriate what with INCEPTION coming out this month.

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