Wednesday, June 15, 2005

REVIEW: Batman Begins

WARNING: Review may contain plot spoilers, read at your own risk. This goes double for all of my comic-book devotee readers, who may infer things from this review that I assure you you'll want to save for the theater. You have been warned.

Popular-culture mythology has long maintained that what killed Warner Bros. original "Batman" franchise was the hiring of director Joel Schumacher, who brought "camp," bloat and silliness to the 3rd and 4th films. MovieBob, on the other hand, has long maintained that popular-culture mythology is wrong. In actuality, in spite of whatever virtues it did possess, the "Batman" franchise was broken from the start, and all of the much-lamented flaws in the Schumacher films (an underdeveloped lead character, more attention to art design than story structure and overhyped marquee-name actors mis-cast as villians) was present all the way back in the heralded Tim Burton entries. The series was going in the wrong direction from the moment Michael Keaton's hollow rubber shell of a Batman first stepped onto the streets of a hellaciously overdesigned Gotham City to battle a Joker that was little more than Jack Nicholson doing his usual schtick under clown makeup.

Now, with "Batman Begins," we have Warner Bros. doing what many thought would never be possible: Re-starting the franchise from the ground up, with both eyes fixed on placing the Dark Knight back on top of the superhero-movie pantheon. They've been spurred to decision, doubtless, by the success of the Marvel comic-to-movie cycle of recent, and the increasingly permanent-looking mainstreaming of the superhero genre that has spun out of it, but make no mistake: WB is no mere visitor to the genre. With superhero movies the emerging standard of action filmmaking, and Warner Bros. being the only film studio to own an entire comic book company (DC Comics) and thusly the movie rights to over fifty-percent of the most popular characters in the medium... the idea of that they would finally "get" the material, place it in the hands of serious filmmakers, plan franchises long-term and (most importantly) show a profound respect for the properties and their fans... has been the big "what if?" of the so-called "comic book movie craze."

As of June 15, 2005, that big "what if" is the big "what now?" I'm here today to tell you that "someday" has arrived. Warner Bros., formerly the film studio most maligned (and for good reason) by geek culture and comic fans especially, has gotten it. The same studio that, only eight years ago, all-but killed the superhero movie with stunt-casting, careless writing and outright disrespect for the medium, has handed director Christopher Nolan the keys to the kingdom and one of the best casts of any film this year and turned both loose on Batman. The result is the best action film of the summer so-far, and unquestionably the next great leap for the "comic book movie."

Batman "himself" doesn't appear in costume for almost an hour into the film. Instead, the film takes it's time getting about creating a living world and populating it with characters and relationships that make it breathe. As the familiar beats of the Batman backstory are laid out, (Bruce Wayne watches his millionaire parents killed by a random mugger and grows into a brooding seeker of vengeance on the world of crime,) the story masterfully weaves the narrative around a half-dozen different threads to give us a clear picture of how this world functions: Gotham City's underworld empire, it's corporate titans, it's corrupt police force and it's international distinction as a symbol of collapsed metropolitan ideals, are all fleshed out in wonderful detail. By the time the grownup Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is honing his martial-arts skills with a cult of moralist Tibetan ninjas called The League of Shadows, the audience already has a working knowledge of what Batman must do and why once he "Begins" in the 2nd act.

To be certain, this all has a dual purpose: The extended fleshing-out of the Batman universe is designed to ease the process franchise-building just as much as it is to turn this initial offering into a fully-rounded film in it's own right. Warner Bros., it appears, hasn't just learned how to make great films out of comic books, they've gotten a degree in it. They aren't just setting up a foundation for more Batman movies here, their digging in their heels for a major campaign of turning "their" superheroes into movies: Along with the innevitable Bat-sequels, "Superman" is on the way alongside Wonder Woman and others.

And thus, when Bruce turns up again in Gotham as a grown man on a mission, he slips into as astoundingly complex and intricate a world as has ever been rendered for a superhero franchise on it's maiden voyage: Wayne Industries, once the financial arm of the late Mr. Wayne's Gotham-centric altruism, has been usurped by a greedy tycoon (Rutger Hauer.) Former board member Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has been exiled to the lower depths to catalogue discontinued military hardware (y'know, the kind a superhero might need.) Mafia boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) runs roughshod over a police force that is utterly corrupt save for the lone Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman.) Arkham Asylum is overflowing with criminally-insane patients under the care of Dr. Johnathan Crane, (Cillian Murphy,) who likes to don a burlap mask and douse people with fear-inducing toxin as a would-be supervillian called The Scarecrow. There's also the issue of the League of Shadows and it's leaders Ras Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), with whom Wayne did not part on the best of terms.

In other words, it's a situation in need of a superhero. What it gets instead is more like a creature. For the first time, a Batman film has understood that Batman's main "ability" is to be scary. Bale's Batman is, yes, costumed once again in a suit of rubber-like armor, but he moves and fights more like the title beasts of the "Alien" films than a costumed crimefighter: Bad guys are yanked into shadows, pulled through floors and tugged up into the air with fearsome speed, and somehow it becomes possible to be afraid of Batman even as you're rooting for him to win.

And just wait until you see what Batman and his director have saved up for the final act, involving no less than full-scale riot-police deployment, car-to-train chases, ninjas warfare, mass-psychedelic hysteria, a prison break, a big twist and at least two "what to expect in #2" teases that'll have comic fans spinning theories for months.

There's just so much that works here, it's almost hard to take it all in at once: Bale is the perfect Batman, the first actor able to convey a plausibly direct divide between Millionaire Playboy and Dark Knight. The way the film works the often-overlooked angle of Wayne using "bad" public behavior to divert attention from his "real" business. The way every major action scene, even the chaotic third act, is a direct result of the story and never an aside to it. Oldman's instant "I-like-this-guy"-ness as the future Commissioner Gordon, an audience-p.o.v. character who for a change doesn't come close to wearing out his welcome. The subtle visual nuances of Scarecrow's chemically-induced hallucinations.

And still more... The way Neeson so eagerly chews into the meat a role that cleverer reviewers than myself have already dubbed "Qui-Gone Wrong." The way the filmmakers, so obviously conscious of their prime-audience, turn what seemed like their biggest deviation from a character's established history into their best story surprise instead. And let's hear it for Michael Caine as wise butler Alfred Pennyworth, here concieved as the man charged with teaching Batman how to be Bruce Wayne.

There's only ONE element that just doesn't work, and it's Katie Holmes. Quite simply, this is a serious, complex bit of moviemaking, and she just doesn't prove up to it. Her character is chronically out-of-place throughout the film, and it doesn't help matters that Mrs. Holmes is an emerging actress of (thus far) average range, and she's surrounded by a collection of the finest character actors in the business. (Seriously: Freeman, Neeson, Hauer, Caine, Watanabe, Oldman, Wilkinson, Murphy, Bale... comic-book movies are becoming talent magnets of the Shakespeare-movie level.)

More problematic is that Holmes' character, District Attorney Rachel Dawes, seems to have been ordered into the film solely on the basis of a lack of any other strong female characters, and it's a bad fit: As an unnecessary secondary law-enforcement ally to Batman, the character detracts from Jim Gordon's development, and as an unnecessary moral-foil to Bruce she detracts from Alfred. The most frequent complaint you will hear from the "fanboy" set about this film will be that this character should have been scrapped in favor of the Batman-saga's usual D.A. (and future "Two-Face") Harvey Dent, and I don't disagree with them.

So Holmes' role and her turn in it are bad enough missteps to render the film JUST shy of perfection, yes. But don't let that discourage you from seeing this if you've got any inkling to whatsoever. This is the summer's best action offering so far, featuring the best cast assembled this year so far. The superhero movie genre has a whole new player in the re-focused Warner Bros., and with "Batman Begins" they've now set the bar several spaces higher.