Origin of the species: Bale as Batman
Maybe I’m getting long in the tooth. Maybe I lack the inner-fanboy spirit. Maybe I’ve seen this same movie one too many times. Whatever the reason, Batman Begins left me cold.
Cold, bored, unengaged.
It’s not that I don’t admire director Christopher Nolan’s attempt to instill depth into the franchise — a franchise left in campy disarray after flam-boy Joel Schumacher got his incompetent paws all over it. But Nolan’s vision goes too far in the other direction. It’s dark, grim, humorless, without even a spark of fun.
Nolan, who made the marvelously inventive Memento and the frigid and static Insomnia is, quite frankly, out of his depths in summer blockbuster territory. Batman Begins needed a Spielberg or a Sam Raimi or a, God forbid, Michael Bay, someone who could deftly juggle the nuances of action filmmaking with character development (we’d better scratch Bay from that list). Nolan’s got the development thing down in spades, but it’s not enough.
True to its title, Batman Begins explains, detail by meticulous detail, the origins and the psychology behind Batman — a.k.a. millionaire Bruce Wayne, whose single-minded vigilantism is fueled by two childhood-induced traumas — a flurry of bats and the cold-blooded murder of his parents in a Gotham City alley. Working with screenwriter David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity), Nolan burrows deeply into the guilt-tormented mind of the Dark Knight, and aided by Christian Bale’s anger-stoked portrayal, arrives at a superhero movie that should at the very least make the United Legion of Fanboys get down on their knees and cry out in holy reverence, “All praise the Batman! He is reborn!”
Batman Begins lacks the stylishness of Tim Burton’s two forays — Batman and Batman Returns. And it lacks the action-packed clarity of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and the narrative complexity of Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2, both of which remain, to my mind, the best comic book superhero movies to date.
Freeman and Caine
Nolan intertwines the motives of not one but three villains — Mafioso lord Carmine Falcone (juicily overplayed by Tom Wilkinson); The Scarecrow (the unsettling, androgynous Cillian Murphy), a creep in a burlap mask who induces panic in his victims with a baby powder-like substance containing a psychotropic hallucinogen; and Ra’s Al Ghul (a vacant Ken Watanabe), commander of a band of stealth ninjas known as the League of Shadows whose mission is to purify the world of its corruption. (Gotham City, in case you didn’t guess, is rife with corruption.)
Wayne’s obsession with wanting to understand the criminal mind leads him into the very heart of the League of Shadows, high atop a mountainside in Tibet, where he’s guided in the martial arts by a very serious-minded mentor, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). He parts ways with the League — somewhat explosively — when called upon to commit an act of murder.
Back in Gotham, Wayne sets about creating his Batman persona, aided by a paternal butler (Michael Caine) and a wily inventor named Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). There’s a romantic interest — feisty D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) — and a lone ally on an otherwise corrupt police force: Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), who, as we all know, will later go on to become the city’s police commissioner.
The movie references The Great Depression, yet it appears to take place in an altered modern state, in a world where old fuses with new, where the set of Blade Runner meets the set of Metropolis. Nolan has brought a few things up-to-date, including the Batmobile, less a slick rocket car and more a turbo-charged mega-tank with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But the various staples remain — a trusty utility belt, a razor-sharp batarang, and a cape fashioned from “memory cloth” that allows Batman to soar, bird-like, when given a jolt of electricity. Considering that Batman, unlike Superman, Spider-Man or any of the X-Men, has no special powers, Nolan’s additions are helpful in explaining how an ordinary man performs such extraordinary feats. It’s also an attempt to remind us that this Batman is thoroughly mortal. And yet we never really fear for Batman’s safety because, let’s face it, one doesn’t kill Batman. He’s as invulnerable as the Man of Steel. Maybe more so.
Nolan seems comfortable when the film deals in clench-jawed dramatics, but once he’s called upon to present high-speed action, he falls flat on his face. Batman’s fights are blurred, incomprehensible flurries. You need a Garmin navigator just to make sense of them. And while the movie’s big Batmobile chase is speed-worthy, it hardly knocks you out of your seat. You get the sense that Nolan isn’t interested in the action, that he’s simply accommodating the summer blockbuster genre because that’s what the kids come for and he’d better damn-well deliver or lose his job.
With his sturdy jaw, jet-stream lips and potent, ferocious growling delivery, Bale may just be the best Batman to date (apologies to Adam West). Seeing him out of cape and cowl, however, dapperly tuxedoed as the super-grim Bruce Wayne, it dawns on you that in about ten more years, and with a little lightening up, Bale would make a terrific James Bond.
Batman Begins is the first superhero film in which the titular hero is more interesting than the villains he confronts. That may change in the next installment, in which it’s made clear that The Joker will make a blazing return (is Jack Nicholson available? If so, hire him now). If Nolan sticks with the project, maybe he’ll learn from his mistakes and emerge with a stronger second film. My advice? Lighten up. Have a little fun. And for gosh sakes, let us see the action.