Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Batman-a-thon Part 6: Batman Begins (2005)

[Note: These links will be available as the reviews are posted: Batman (1966)/Batman Prime, Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), The Dark Knight (2008), Batman Awards Blog]

Following the rousing aneurism that Batman and Robin provided and the director even acknowledging the film sucked, Warner Bros decided that trying to redeem the four-film series might be wasted effort.

Because of this, the proposed Batman Triumphant was scrapped, a sea of proposals were heard, and ultimately, the decision was made to let Christopher Nolan, a British film director, and his fellow countryman Christian Bale give their take on the Batman world.

What came from it was a loose retelling of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, starring Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Liam Neeson as the main villain, R’as al’Ghul.

This film, much like Superman: The Movie, proves that doing an origin film for a character works when effort is put into it, especially if you take from one of the best retellings of the origin in the comic world.

But this film doesn’t just draw from Year One. It takes from some of DC’s best Scarecrow and R’as stories.

The film starts much like flashbacks in Batman Forever. Bruce as a boy falls down a hole into a long-standing cave under Wayne Manor, and he comes across the bats that made him feel such fear.

From there, the film throws the audience into unfamiliar territory. Bruce is in the midst of traveling the world, training and trying to understand the criminal mind. This is the only film that has ever shown the training that went into becoming Batman, and it really gave the gritty feel of an international underworld.

Here, he meets Henri Ducard, who turns out to be R’as al’Ghul using the alter ego. People have used this as a point to complain because Ducard was one of Bruce’s actual trainers, and making him an alter ego cheapened the character. I disagree.

Neeson played the part of Ducard faithfully the entire time. The transition to R’as was done, albeit as a copout, but it was because R’as is the philosophical warrior who shows just how much of a line Batman treads between hero and executioner. Ducard really isn’t an A-list rogue and couldn’t carry out a plan the way the League of Assassins (Shadows in the film) could.

I like how Ducard and R’as both came out in this film. Would it be better if Ducard was an equal-level person teaming with R’as under a different name? Perhaps, but it didn’t add an unnecessarily convoluted element into the hero-villain dynamic like Tim Burton did to the Batman-Joker relationship. I like the move.

Another complaint is that the training takes too long and distracts from the film. Again, I don’t agree at all. The training introduced key points: Needing to be more than a man to be a symbol, smoke balls to escape, fear-inducing plants that will make up the Scarecrow’s gas, etc. And unlike Returns, which dwelled in two origin stories that REALLY don’t are not that complicated in the comics, the whole setup for the film comes from here and it’s done in an exciting manner.

I really feel the relationship between Bruce and Ducard, and it’s clear later on in the film that they have respect for each other despite falling on different sides of the issue of killing.

After Bruce refuses to kill, and the Assassins annihilate their base during the fight, Bruce finally calls up Alfred and is taken back to a world that had long pronounced him dead. Again, I like that little touch because in real life, if a billionaire travels the world, paparazzi aren’t far behind. It makes more sense for Bruce to be considered dead during his training.

By the way, throughout the origin, I felt like everyone was playing their part brilliantly. Thomas and Martha Wayne, young Jim Gordon and Alfred all play their parts to perfection. Alfred kind of irks me with monologues later on, but it’s not as bad as the next film and none of it I would consider bad.

Upon his return, he comes to realize that the man who had run the company in the Waynes’ absence wants to move away from their vision and has begun strong-arming the Waynes’ supporters and piecing the company off for sale. Once again, a good showing of middle ground in the world – he’s not really breaking major laws, he’s just a jerk, and jerks are a part of life too.

By this point in the story, it is clear that the Mob has pretty much won in Gotham. They have corrupt individuals in the police and justice system. As such, people like Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) and Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes) are simply fighting to make sure innocents aren’t killed by the madness.

The Mob here is supplying drugs, which are getting mixed with fear toxin, and selling them to Scarecrow, who works as an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist. He is working with R’as, he believes, to hold the city hostage by threatening to use the gas, but R’as actually plans to use it to level Gotham and its corruption.

Needless to say, this is not a kid-friendly Batman film. But it provides a world in which it feels like a Bat-Man could actually exist. That was very much the way Frank Miller tried to portray the world in Year One, but he did it more by making the heroic figures as flawed as the villains, just through less egregious problems.

By this point, Wayne finally gets the equipment he will need from Lucius Fox, including some kind of insane tanker that is supposed to be the original Batmobile. The tank looks awesome, but one issue I have with it it’s too extreme. It’s by far the craziest thing in the film and it probably eliminates most people from being Batman right there.

Well, Batman makes an impact, taking out the mob boss, Falcone, and saving Rachel. I will say about Bruce and Rachel’s relationship: It plays much better in the flashbacks. That may be the intent because of his extended stay away, but it wasn’t amazing. Holmes played Rachel passably – it’s not great, but it beats the hell out of her replacement.

I haven’t talked about Scarecrow yet, but he is incredibly menacing. It is absolutely awesome to see the character on the big screen and made as a threat. I’m good with him being an unassuming, non-threatening man, but he is a little disappointing when translated into the movie.

He succeeds at poisoning the water supply, drives Falcone insane and nearly kills both Bruce and Rachel in separate instances. All the while, Fox is able to create an antidote, and Gordon becomes Batman’s ally at a time when the current commissioner doesn’t want vigilantism. (He should be more concerned about corruption, but whatever.)

The scene with the Batmobile is, again, unrealistic, but it’s beyond awesome. I gladly suspended my disbelief for that.

Finally, R’as shows up and burns down Wayne Manor, leading to the final fight, where Bruce learns there’s a difference between not killing and not saving. Rachel decides she can’t be with Bruce because Batman is the dominant personality, and she will wait for Batman to fix the city, just in time for a tease of the Joker.

I absolutely love this film. It was a unique idea to try to embrace Batman as the only superhero with a tie in realism and make the film the way that they did. This movie serves as proof that the origin can be one of the most fun stories if done well.

It’s a unique take on the universe and has set up for a legendary trilogy. It is exactly why I don’t knock Spider-Man for its reboot.

Bruce Wayne is portrayed well during his training, and his weak portrayal of a playboy can be attributed to the fact that he’s getting used to the role. His Batman voice is also pretty good here, though it’s a little off-putting.

This film is actually better than I remembered and somehow is underrated despite its brilliance. I am going to give it 4 out of 4 stars and 9.3 out of 10.

The big dog is tomorrow – The Dark Knight. Be ready.
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