Batman Begins (2005)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Usually, I use this opening space as a way to hook the reader into clicking the LJ cut, sometimes using misleading statements to do so. Not this time. Instead, here's everything I can say about this movie that isn't a spoiler: awesome. The best Batman movie ever. Finally. I've already seen it twice (once on an I-MAX screen). 5 out of 5 stars.
For those who missed the cut, WARNING: THE REST OF THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. A lot of them. Because I can not truly explain my love for this film without getting down to the specifics. It's been said by other reviewers, but it bears repeating: this is the Batman movie that Batman fans have been waiting for. Not only does the movie operate as though the previous five live-action Batman movies (including the Adam West one) don't exist, I'd go a step further. Now that we have Batman Begins, we can all operate as though those other movies don't exist.
Finally. Finally we have a Batman movie that respects the character and the history behind it. The Burton films merely used Batman as a vehicle for Burton's twisted vision of the world. A funny anecdote: when Tim Burton was accused of stealing a scene from his Planet of the Apes re-make from a Kevin Smith comic book, Burton replied that "anyone who knows him knows that he's never read a comic book in his whole life". This tells you all you need to know about Batman and Batman Returns. Sure, they may have been pop-culture manifestos of gothic twistedness, but they do a piss-poor job with a little character I like to call Batman. For all it's many faults, I'm one of the few who believe Batman Forever did a better job with Batman and Bruce Wayne than the earlier two films did, while still being a fairly bad movie. And Batman and Robin? Well, we must never speak of that film again.
Some may think that it doesn't matter if a movie respects the comic book that spawned it. After all, most people going to see a big blockbuster film have never read a comic book and never will (like Tim Burton). Here's the thing, besides the fact that it's a good idea not to piss off the loyal audience that will snap up everything to do with the project if you do it right, the reason why you stick to the comics is because they work. They've worked for decades. They're proven storytelling commodities that have stood the test of time, and if you think that they can't work for the big screen, then don't make the fucking movie. It's asinine to believe otherwise. To think that a big budget Batman movie could work, as long as they change a bunch of stuff about the character, ignore other things, and make sure to feature the character as little as possible in its own movie.
Which isn't to say some changes aren't necessary. You need to adapt timeless ideas into a two hour plus movie. So, you abandon the shitty-anyway "Year Two" storyline, and have Joe Chill killed after leaving jail. That's fine, as long as you don't have The Joker killing Bruce Wayne's parents, then Chill already served his purpose. It's important to the Batman story that Wayne's parents are killed by a petty thief, and not an arch-nemesis. Why? Because it means that Batman can never avenge and soothe the demons that haunt him into being the Dark Knight. It isn't one guy who stole his parents away from him as much as it is crime in general. Really, one has to wonder why Batman kept fighting crime after taking out the Joker in Batman. He avenged his parents, got the girl, life is good.
Not so in Batman Begins, where not only does a petty hood like Joe Chill kill his parents, but Chill is later killed in front of him right before Bruce was going to exact his revenge. Perfect. Hell, this is what the comic should've done instead of the awful Year Two storyline. Bruce Wayne can no longer focus his rage on one man, but rather crime as a whole. His need for justice is so great from this point on that it informs everything he does in the movie. It's why he's in a jail cell in Asia when the movie begins, it's why he trains with Ra's al Ghul, it's why he becomes the Batman, and it's why he has all those wonderful toys. The movie does an excellent job showing the whys and hows of all of Batman's gadgets and Bruce Wayne's abilities and personality. He's good at what he does because he trains and does push ups. His car and grappling gun were Wayne Industries prototypes. And, best of all, he's a vain playboy billionaire to keep suspicion away from him.
I can't say enough good things about the way Christian Bale handles the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic. Before becoming the Batman, Wayne is a sullen figure seeking only the means to alleviate his anger and guilt. As a college student home for Chill's hearing, he barely cracks a smile. As a prisoner, he acts out his rage with a petulant streak. Then, when confronted with the true evil of the League of Shadows (a more useful name for the movie than Ra's traditional League of Assassins), he finds his resolve. Then, upon Alfred's suggestion that Wayne needs to cultivate his alter-ego (and he's not referring to Batman as Wayne's alter-ego) the billionaire playboy is born. The scene with the models at the hotel is fantastic, only later to be surpassed by his performance as a drunk at his own birthday party. THIS is the Bruce Wayne persona, not the eccentric rich guy that Michael Keaton performed, or even the brooding suave Wayne that Val Kilmer gave us, or the uhhhh... whatever George Clooney did with his five minutes of screen time as Wayne. Of all the things that bothered me upon re-watching Batman recently, nothing bothered me more than the fact that a Gotham reporter (Robert Wuhl) knew nothing about Bruce Wayne. He's Gotham's most famous son people! "The Prince of Gotham" as Tom Wilkinson's Carmine Falcone refers to him in this movie. Bruce Wayne doesn't hide in anonymity, he hides in plain sight.
Other fanboy nods that made this movie for me include: Gary Oldman's capable and stead-fast Detective Jim Gordon. Gordon is one of comicdom's greatest supporting characters, and as essential to the Batman mythos as Alfred and the Bat-Cave, yet he's been overlooked in every non-animated adaptation of Batman ever. Not this time. This is a very "Year One" Gordon, minus the initial hunting of Batman and the new-to-Gotham plotline, which were best left out for time's sake anyway. And who is Gordon's partner you may ask? Year One's own Detective Flask (albeit looking more Harvey Bullock than the Nazi-esque Flask, but you can't win them all). Psycho-knife-killer Zsasz also shows up, tally scars and all, which was a very nice fanboy moment. But nothing geeked me out more than when Batman is holed up in Arkham Asylum and the S.W.A.T. team is called in. At first, I didn't want to get too excited, because it's just a S.W.A.T. team, but then, they did it: Batman activated a sonic pitch from his friggin' boot! And... bats came! And, on the inside, I went Bat-shit crazy. Substitute Arkham for an abandoned building, and this scene is straight from Year One. The only thing that could've made it cooler is if they referred to the S.W.A.T. team as Brandon's unit, or possibly had Batman risk his neck to rescue a cat.
As for the film as a whole (instead of a sequence of fanboy moments), I found it to be the perfect blend between mood and action. The first half firmly establishes who Batman is and why he does what he does. He's shown to be driven but flawed, and keeps his origin story interesting and weighty. The inter-play between Bale and Michael Caine's Alfred is perfect, and even the Katie Holmes love interest sub-plot is manageable (superfluous and unnecessary, but it doesn't get in the way). Then, the second half of the movie hits, and it's all out action. The early creepiness of Cillian Murphy's Dr. Jonathan Crane gives way to his all out scariness of the Scarecrow. Director Christopher Nolan makes the brilliant choice of using CGI to show the effects of Scarecrow's fear-inducing mist, revealing the terror Scarecrow induces in his victims. I really got into the Scarecrow in the movie, and would like to see him come back again (and, since the movie made the correct move in not killing him off, there's a good chance that we will). Throw in an excellent car chase scene, a train-derailment scene on par with The Fugitive, epic fight scenes, the destruction of Wayne Manor, and a final nod to Year One in the final scene, and you have all the big-time Summer Thrills one would expect from a blockbuster of this magnitude.
Batman Begins is a big, bold, exciting film that is equally dark, brooding, and grounded in a believable reality. It is the Batman fans of the comic book have known for years and belongs in the upper echelon of comic book films, alongside the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Sin City films. I loved every minute of it and can't wait to see it again. Moreover, I can't wait to see the sequel, so I hope they start working on it soon before everybody leaves the project hanging like X-Men 3. Because as great as this movie is, the sequel could be that much better.
Batman: "Nightfall" Part One - Broken Bat (1993)
Batman: "Tales of the Demon" (1998)
Batman: "Year One" (1987)