Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Batman Begins (the War on Terror)

There won't be any objective pretense here: If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that the author is a comic-book fan. It may also have come through that Batman has long been his favorite. The first comic I ever read was a Batman title (Catwoman was the villain, I believe). So, I went to Batman Begins fully expecting to be both viscerally entertained as well as aesthetically pleased.

In general, both emotions were satisfied. But, this isn't a review so much as a collection of reflections on the new movie, its reviews in the mainstream media and what are we to draw from this particular re-interpretation of the Batman mythos in 2005. Fair warning: This is written on the assumption that most of you have seen the movie. If not, run out right now and see it. Otherwise, you may fall victim to some spoilers. I will try to give a warning ahead of time as I get to a major plot point, but I can't guarantee that will happen in every instance.

Christopher Nolan (of Memento fame) and David Goyer (of the Blade trilogy) are an excellent combination. There's a reason why comic book movies of the last few years, as a group, have been far superior to previous efforts. It's not just because of better technology. It's because the creators have grown up with comics as a pop culture medium that is in many ways respected -- it has its own champions; it has its own awards. Others outside may still not necessarily "get it," but enough people do that the creators do not merely survive, they are quite well compensated and succeed in other genre -- movies, television, books -- as well. And the crossover goes in both directions, such as Joss Whedon of "Buffy" writing for Marvel and directing the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. And Allen Heinberg, writer and producer on the comic-book loving "The O.C." writing Young Avengers for Marvel. Goyer himself has written JSA for DC and is working on movie projects involving both Marvel's Ghost Rider and DC's The Flash.

The strongest criticisms coming to the film are that the first half drags on for too long and there is too much psychoanalysis of Bruce Wayne -- Batman "on the couch" as the Washington Post's review puts it (though given that that review helpfully points out -- wrongly -- that "Wayne Enterprises staff scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)" was in "creator Bob Kane's original stories," why should we pay attention? For the record, Fox wasn't added to Batman's supporting cast until the 1970s. And, no, I couldn't tell you who, before Lucius, was the first black character in a Bat-comic.)

Of the first point, well, is there something wrong with actually having some exposition in an action-adventure movie? Something wrong with exploring the hero's motivations? I will say, however, that there was something disturbing about, once again MAJOR SPOILER ALERT having the key villain have such a prominent role in the creation of Batman.

Fans of the first Tim Burton film will recall that the man who kills Bruce Wayne's parents eventually becomes The Joker. That was one of the greatest deviations from the comic origin.

Batman Begins is more faithful to the traditional construction of two-bit thug Joe Chill killing the Waynes, Chill's connection to mob boss Carmine Falcone also echoes other versions of Batman's beginnings.

However, the two great deviatons that Nolan and Goyer take involve young Bruce's childhood fear and the role of Ra's Al Ghul in training Wayne in his "wilderness" years. The "old" story -- the young adult Bruce Wayne is inspired to take his guise by a bat flying into his house, because "criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot" (one of the most famous passages ever in a superhero story) that need something that strikes fear into them -- is turned on its head.

Now, Bruce Wayne, the child, is terrified of bats -- particularly after he falls into a hole that drops him into a deep cave on the Wayne estate. His father, Thomas Wayne has to save him. Later, that fear of bats leads the Wayne family into a fateful encounter with Joe Chill. This series of events means that the emotional catalyst for Bruce becoming Batman is different. It's not simply the desire to wreak vengeance on the criminal element. It's partly out of guilt for Bruce's perceived role in his parents death. There's nothing completely wrong with adding another level of emotional drama to the story, but Batman ultimately being driven by guilt and fear is something that takes getting used to.

Secondly, Henri Ducard, who helps train Batman comes out of '70s/'80s re-interpretations of the Batman origin. However, the movie's spin that Ducard is actually "working" for uber-mysterious Ra's Al Ghul (it's a bit more complex, but we'll leave it at that characterization for the time being), means that, ultimately, we are in a similar place as the Burton-Keaton-Nicholoson film: A "super" villain's actions have pivotal role in the formation of Batman. Somehow, the random nature of the original story had a more profound impact (for this long-time reader anyway).

Something that Batman Begins can't be faulted for, though, is the multitude of ninjas in the early part of the film. For those not versed in comic lore and only know from, say, movies of the last couple of years, it wouldn't be surprising for some viewers to declare that this film rips off Daredevil and Elektra and their "dark-ninja-cult" storylines.

In fact, this film mines material coming from Batman comics dating back more than thirty years ago. Indeed, its ultimate triumph is that, in making a pointed departure from the near-camp of the Joel Schumacher-George Clooney Batman & Robin monstrosity, it's greatest influence actually derives from the late-60s/early-70s creative renaissance engineered by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.

The best and worst thing to happen to Batman comics in the '60s was the Batman TV show. While it sparked new found interest in the character and boosted sales throughout publisher DC's line (the Justice League of America title, for example, would often draw Batman on cover in ridiculous proportions to the other characters size to emphasize his role).

After the Batman craze concluded, the series continued, but sales slumped. DC Editor Julius Schwartz was brought in to revitalize the line with a "new look" that was supposed to signal a return to more serious fare. Over the course of a few years, Dick Grayson graduated high school and went off to college. The classic villains took a breather until they got revamped. But, most significantly, writer O'Neil came in and frequently teamed up with artist Adams to create a darker, moodier Batman. (Adams first joined the Bat-world drawing the team-up title The Brave & The Bold.)

The team's greatest triumph was the introduction of Ra's Al Ghul, who made his appearance here:

The character's name was first uttered in an earlier issue, as the mysterious head of the League of Assassins (which becomes the League of Shadows in Batman Begins). To add drama, al Ghul's daughter and chief lieutenant, Talia, becomes infatuated with Batman -- who reciprocates).

In any event, by the time O'Neil and Adams had worked their magic, the campy series of a few years before were a long-ago memory.

This is the same transformation that Nolan and Goyer perform in Batman Begins. The Clooney camp is gone in this darker, more reflective production. Ironically, despite al Ghul being a thirty year character, he seems more appropriate for a world today than the fantastical Joker, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy of the earlier movies. We live, after all, in a world where a secret, lethal, organization coming out of the East with designs on destroying major cities in the West actually exists. Ra's Al Qaeda, anyone?

Of course, to need Batman's assistance, terror has to be more than just organic. Thus, Jonathan Crane, AKA, The Scarecrow is the secondary villain. But, he is perfect for the atmospheric themes in both the movies and the contemporary times. Crane's fear chemical, which initially disables and nearly kills the hero, ultimately makes Batman look even more menacing to everyone who sees him. Thus, Crane also contributes to the creation of the Batman as a fearsome symbol.

Despite the interesting similarity between the League of Shadows and al Qaeda, this is no political movie. There's not even the seemingly oblique shots that many have been pointed out in Revenge of the Sith. This is much more a personal, action-adventure, piece, laden with Freudian overtones. Indeed -- SPOILER -- when Wayne Manor is burned, Bruce is blamed for it. He's not responsible for it. However, later, to save the city, he has to engineer the destruction of the monorail system that runs directly to his family's huge office building. This is a monorail designed by his beloved father. To save his city, Bruce Wayne must destroy his father's creation.

Cinematically, however, there is little to criticize. Christian Bale has immediately become my favorite Batman. Val Kilmer had that title previously. Yeah, Batman Forever wasn't great (though it was Citizen Kane in comparison to Batman and Robin), but Kilmer pulled off the role well. Bale, however, is to Bruce Wayne/Batman what Hugh Jackman is to Wolverine -- the perfect actor to bring the comic book character to life.

Similarly, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Sgt. James Gordon and Liam Neeson as "Ducard" are inspired choices. Katie Holmes is something different. We'll leave it for a subsequent post, but let's just say that, yes, there is such thing as bad publicity.

Overall, consider this one quite happy Batman fan -- and sad that it'll be too many years before the next one.

UPDATE: An overview of BB's box office mojo from, uh, Box Office Mojo. The site's review, while overlooking the 1970's material's foundation of the plot, strongly praises the overall product.

UPDATE: Andromeda over at Tacitus sees a bit of a political message in the movie.

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