Directed by Christopher Nolan | Warner Bros | 134 minutes
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer
As the title on the Cineplex marquee neatly puts it — Batman begins, again. The Caped Crusader is starting yet another life-cycle. He began as the earnest DC comics superhero in the late 30s, only to be recreated as a nihilistic Dark Knight in the 80s. On the video side, there was the splendidly silly Adam West Batman (Wham! Pow!) on 60s television, followed by a series of Warner Brothers movies, which began well under director Tim Burton but collapsed into self-parody with 1997’s Batman and Robin. The latter was savaged by critics and shunned even by teenagers, who during the summer months will watch anything involving exploding sets and manic villains.
So, after giving Batman a long sabbatical for thought and reflection, Warner Brothers has now handed him over to Christopher Nolan for yet another makeover. Nolan, a young director known for edgy, small-budget films like Insomnia and Memento, is a surprising choice to revive the franchise. But he has managed to do what was expected of him: produce a film that will give teenagers their Batman fix without overly embarrassing the rest of the population. Casting Christian Bale as Batman was a smart opening move, since my 14-year old daughter would gladly watch a two hour film of the young British actor brushing his teeth or walking the dog.
But I am looking for other, more subtle compensations from a Batman movie, and these are in short supply. What saved the original Batman sixteen years ago was Burton’s flair for a kind of updated Weimar decadence. The dark iconography of Batman and his paraphernalia, the pop Wagnerian sets of Gotham City, which looked like Rockefeller Center redesigned by Crazy Cat, and the splendid choreography of Batman on patrol, with no time for small talk — We do our work and go — these more than compensated for a pedestrian screenplay. In Batman Begins, however, we spend more time focusing on the inner Batman and less on his pyrotechnical work in the field. For example, he now has a love interest, which turns out to be even duller than Spiderman’s recent on-screen movements of the heart.
We don’t see young billionaire Bruce Wayne in his Batman costume until almost an hour into the film. Instead, we are given his early biography, which even by “summer movie” standards is preposterous. After his wealthy parents are murdered by a stick-up man, the disillusioned Bruce heads to Tibet for enlightenment, as though this were a remake of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Bruce eventually finds himself in a Zen monastery whose tenants parade around with drawn swords and train in the higher martial arts. Here, he learns the skills that will eventually bring truth and justice to Gotham City. But he declines a final initiation, blows the place up, and heads to the nearest airport where his faithful butler, Alfred, is waiting to whisk him home in a private jet.
As for the rest of the story, I feel as Dr Johnson did about the plot of Cymbeline: it is beyond criticism because one cannot criticize unresisting imbecility. I do not expect the plot of a summer action movie to be plausible; but I do ask for a certain focus. The story shifts between three — no, make that four — villains. Not only does the locus of ultimate evil keep moving about, but it is hard to figure out exactly what everyone is up to. Even the exotic weapon to be used to devastate Gotham — something called a weaponized hallucinogen — requires too much awkward exposition. One is nostalgic for the day when there was one super villain with one simple evil device — Goldfinger and his bomb to blow up Fort Knox, for example.
But those early Bond films — not to mention Christopher Reeves’ Superman outings — now seem like the Nutcracker Suite compared to the digital glut and frenetic scene cutting of the action films now turned out by Hollywood. Not only are the villains in Batman Begins makeshift and undeveloped, the individual scenes do not unfold at the proper pace. Some are done quite well — Nolan knows how to use the camera — but you have no time to savor them, because the director is already cutting into the next action sequence, which begins in media res and is quickly over. The idea must be that after a generation of computer games, young audiences have no attention span whatsoever.
Batman Begins does have its compensations. In fact, on several levels, it is a decent piece of film-making. Nolan’s Gotham City is gloriously sinister and can take an honorable place with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s futurist LA in Blade Runner. It is a dystopian nightscape that lodges in the memory like a bad dream. Christian Bale is charming as Bruce Wayne and suitably dark and elusive as Batman. Michael Caine is an inspired choice as his butler and co-conspirator in bat-doings. But is that slightly ironic expression he wears throughout the film the idea of the director or his own ineffable gloss on the absurd proceedings? In any event, the aging star provides both comedy and a necessary ballast, as he has done in recent films like Miss Congeniality.
Overall, Batman Begins seemed to entertain a packed audience in Manhattan, where I saw the film, although the couple sitting next to me was not so absorbed as to forgo several conversations on their cell phones. My two teenagers gave it two thumbs up, which is probably more important to Warner Brothers than the reactions of an aging baby boomer who spent his pre-VHS salad days watching Bergman and Ford movies in revival houses which have long since been put to other uses.
Hollywood has had a string of bad summers at the box office, and this revived Batman is supposed to lead a pack of movies that will reverse the downward trend. The endless medley of trailers before the movie began, however, did not augur well, although Steven Spielberg’s new version of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds has possibilities. For wit and coherence, viewers like myself will have to downsize and wait for the next Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson film to come along.
George Sim Johnston is a writer in New York whose articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report.
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