Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)

In June 2005, Warner Bros. threw its hat into the comicbook ring with a very different breed of superhero. Of precisely the same generation as Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Batman Begins was as important strategically as it was ultimately culturally, not least because it paved the way for the studio’s much anticipated Superman reboot the forthcoming summer, a film which stood well apart from Batman intellectually, if only in the sense that it socialised the hero as a despondent dad who pined for the romantic attention of his once biggest fan. While Raimi’s Spider-Man (arguably a precedent-setter for the new millennium) celebrated the vintage and colour of the genre, Batman was and is a deeply modernist tale tracing the formative years of its tormented idol, a bleak comicbook film at one with disillusionment and a rather cheap sentimentality.

The script expends its originality and bite — not to mention sympathy for its central hero — in the long first act, a movement embellished with familial and romantic intimacy, personal loss and latent suffering, so much of it in fact that one almost loses respect for the more palatable business of almost-superhuman fighting. It’s hard to feign interest in this revolutionary supply of dark, psychologically rich material given the result is often so saccharine. The film indulges a preadolescent nightmare of suffering terrible instantaneous change, here thrust upon the whimpering child Bruce Wayne via the trauma of corny Wayne Senior’s murder, but more to the point by the shortcomings of Gotham City’s judicial system and its inept attempts to satisfactorily reprimand the killer. As if the threat of public intimidation and corrupt courthouses were not trite enough, the sitcom-style vignettes which complement these story developments are, with few exceptions, crass and laboured, no selfreflexive comment on the mawkish sentimentality with which patriarchal values and preoedipal concerns are handled in modern commercial cinema intended.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fights Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)

Having established why the principles of individualism and freedom are indissociable from the personal backstory of Wayne, the film becomes more conservative but altogether rewarding when Christian Bale’s now adult billionaire, on sabbatical in the Far East, endeavours to better comprehend the criminal mind and in the process grudgingly come to terms with his own diminution of power. Here, the film and its strangely accented (insofar as the emphasis is so clearly on Bale the icon as male militarist as opposed to friendly superhero) marketing campaign coalesce. In fact, the male ascendancy and initiation ritual, largely dramatised here for the most part in China where Wayne, in the company of a band of monastic warriors, perfects the art of unarmed combat, is clearly on a par with the original Star Wars series and particularly its central rites of passage conceit. Wayne’s ritual of initiation into the League of Shadows and final confrontation with its puppet leader is engrossing, not least because it showcases a peculiar blend of Newsies-like rebelliousness and authoritarianism by way of American Psycho, a fitting if casual comparison. However, like Mary Harron’s clunky adaptation, director Nolan’s reluctance to stray from the material world of comicbook fantasy seems to support the suspicion that both filmmakers maintain a confounding lack of confidence in Bale’s abilities under should we say more reflective circumstances.

Still, Batman makes its intentions clear when the first of a range of great actors arrives to flesh out the stalwart supporting cast. Having appeared in 2005’s hopelessly muddled Kingdom of Heaven as something of a divinely sanctioned paternal figure in whose image lives Orlando Bloom’s Balian as the defender of Jerusalem, Liam Neeson surfaces once again as the surly-mannered tutor/paterfamilias, his contribution sullied this time only by much Gotham-based bloodletting in the finale and a succession of action setpieces that skew proceedings accordingly. Ken Watanabe, cast as another sword-wielding artist in Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003) but perhaps more appropriately to type in prestige titles such as Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), is here apportioned strictly Hitchcockian duties as the primary MacGuffin in the amusingly baffling League of Shadows. Gary Oldman, surely the one inspired artist amidst all this plastic gloss, has a duty to perform his honourable serviceman-cum-Sergeant-cum-Lieutenant without flair. In this, his James Gordon does what only franchise regular Alfred Pennyworth could do in previous instalments, aligning Wayne with the communal social world and serving as a figure of goodness without artifice. It’s impossible to shake off one’s despair, however, at the sheer banality of the film’s token female character. Screenwriter David Goyer, it seems, composites Julia Roberts’ district attorney in Conspiracy Theory (1997) and Kim Basinger’s reporter from the original Batman (1989) to conjure for actress Katie Holmes the sexless Rachel Dawes, an assistant DA whose soppy backstory is indeed uncovered early here to elevate her death in The Dark Knight to melodramatic heights. It’s precisely the sort of role which, unfortunately, is disproportionate in scope to the quite remarkable media attention lavished upon the actress in those post-Access Hollywood/Paxil days. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, meanwhile, slot into place as amusing helpers, the merest hint of three-dimensional complexity in their roles subsumed by the insufferable persistence of yet more city-in-great-jeopardy business and their industrious attempts to problemsolve tricky dilemmas (for one, a fear-inducing hallucinogen is bound for Gotham where it is to be pumped into the water supply). Okay, Caine is cheery and provides good heart to this adolescent fantasy, but cinemagoers once repelled by Tim Burton’s peculiar little circus in Batman Returns (1992), or the deplorably pantomimic break from etiquette that typifies Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) should realise that little has changed in spirit or in execution. For one, Cillian Murphy’s demented Jonathon Crane, who for many offered a glimpse of what the new franchise would yield under Nolan’s direction, strays irredeemably close to mimicry, his plainclothes persona matching the ostentation of Batman's pre-betrayal Jack Napier. The fate of his character suggests that the classical restoration of order will be given primacy over the complex development of future accidental villains.

Batman (Christian Bale) and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)

All of this invites a question: is the modern blockbuster attracting more high-end filmmaking talent than it deserves? In the current Hollywood system, among established filmmakers, blockbuster work is desired in an almost auteurist entrepreneurial spirit, yet in blockbuster work a spirit of, to adapt a Camera Politica term, “massification” must prevail. Some I know see in Batman Begins a revolution of the modern blockbuster but I see in its architecture a token remodelling, enjoyable yes, at times stirringly so, but in the absence of real conviction or cultural authority it is still playing by corporatist rules enforced by a monumentally powerful conglomerate. The spectre of more nineties-era buffoonery, for instance, never far from mind on a viewing of Batman Begins, surfaces again with a string of chronically uninvolving plot devices, each more testing of one’s patience than the last. The aforementioned setpiece involving a contaminated water supply echoes 2005’s Sahara, not to mention the innumerable Bond prototypes it itself lampoons. Batman’s inevitable alliance with the GCPD’s Homicide Division, despite allowing for more interaction with Oldman’s cautious Gordon — a sceptical fellow until the ordinarily robust institutions of society are radically devalued in times of crisis — covers old ground already charted in Burton’s original. And likewise, the perfunctory batmobile chase sequence, whilst justifiable inasmuch as it supports a humorous exchange between Wayne and Caine’s Alfred thereafter, is another boring affair fit only for a viewership whose cinematic counterparts are those policemen, gormless and gobsmacked, who issue the standard double-take when prompted to do so.

The visual representation of the city as a mechanistic organism outside one’s control is disappointing: the many interconnected train networks which tie into the Wayne Tower building recall similar elevated constructs in other adventures, the boundless, spiralling forms of Batman & Robin’s (1996) cityscape for instance as conceived by Barbara Ling, the skyscraper-madnesses even of the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), whilst Nathan Crowley’s design for the city’s lowest levels, exemplified in the slums of the Narrows, is perhaps happier in the context of Metropolis (1926) or even Blade Runner (1982). There have in recent years been better movie cityscapes. I, Robot’s (2004) inventive use of live action plates, digital horizon lines, set extensions and keyframe animation (executed jointly by Weta Digital and Digital Domain) makes up for any lapse in quality at a story level, against which the urban dystopia of Batman Begins can only really be measured as an incoherent muddle, a smoking warehouse facility flattered by pushy, itchy shots of panoramic CGI.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Alfred (Michael Caine) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)

As I’ve said, there are stirring moments in it, along with moments of neat rapport — one firmly believes in Wayne’s adoption of his father’s former role and more so his training for privilege in martial arts. The score, drawn together by the same old faces (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard), is capable of the odd light touch, but is admirably rousing at the other extreme when evoking rebellion and malice and freedom in the avenging son. There is, then, enough here to applaud, but no more than there is to deplore. At the first screening I attended in the summer of 2005, a damn-near incomprehensible projection in IMAX format, the film excited enough fans to merit affectionate applause in its final scene. In that sense it is perhaps important and I don’t blame them. This is an improvement on the general idiocy of its predecessors, but if Nolan’s goal is to marry his franchise by some alchemy with the faux adolescent horrors of the Grand-Guignol he must first build up some conviction.

18 July, 2010


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