Sunday, April 27, 2008

Batman Begins

"Batman Begins" (Christopher Nolan, 2005) There is the good Batman and the bad Batman; in Batman Begins we are invited to understand why our superhero (Christian Bale) is the conflicted fellow that he is, and how he transforms himself into the man in the mask, the superhero without super powers, a truly human avenger. Apparently, because this is a Christopher Nolan movie and everything has to be a little more complicated than necessary, it is not only because our hero was traumatized by witnessing his parents' death but also because Bruce, a timid little fellow as a child, grew up with a fear of bats after a nasty experience down a well, said phobia later leading to the family leaving the theater on that fateful night. Because he gets involved with the League of Shadows, ninja vigilantes who apparently have been responsible for cleansing the world of evil since the sack of Rome. See, I told you Nolan was nothing if not complicated. You can almost hear Jagger singing 'Sympathy for the Devil' at one point as Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) ticks off the number of cities he has laid waste to in the name of justice. In this world where there is a fine and dotted line between good and evil, the League both save Wayne and become his nemeses.

Wayne's first reaction to the death of his parents is to seek vengeance in particular on their killer, an act he is only deprived of by the intervention of the crime boss of the city (Tom Wilkinson) who will, of course, figure in the story later on as will the corrupt chairman of Wayne Enterprises (Rutger Hauer) both of whom working for, you guessed it, for Henri Ducard. Another conflict for Bruce - the money he relies on to fund his crime-fighting comes from the profits of a company working for the bad guys.

The movie's relationship with technology seems off-kilter too - one of the better things about this telling of the tale is seeing the development of the character; Wayne is feeling his way into the role, experimenting with the suit and the iconography. He is aided by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) playing a kind of Q figure as well as by the ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine). Yet, in the denouement, it is all so crash bang slick. We see little of the man himself other than jump-cut fight sequences or high-speed chases as he zooms around in his high-tech Hummer-style car that looks more like a bug than a bat.

Did I mention there was a love story too? The young Wayne has a playmate, the daughter of we assume the housekeeper of Wayne Mansion who grows up to be a D.A. (Katie Holmes) - one of the only incorruptibles left in the city. So just in case we don't get the moral dilemma of Bruce Wayne's double identity, she is here to make sure we do. How can he reveal his love and his true identity when he needs to play the role of callous playboy to protect those he loves? Even though it is a refreshing take on the Dark Knight after the Burton/Schumacher franchise, in many ways, Spider-man just did it better.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Two things:

The "falling down the well to be traumatized by bats" has been a part of the Batman iconography for the last twenty years--I think it might have originated with Frank Miller, but it might also have been the work of Denny O'Neill. Can't remember which (The same incident was used briefly in "Batman Forever" with Val Kilmer)

Then, Henri Ducard is not...Henri Ducard. That should be made clear--and Bruce has had the luck, a twisted luck, to avoid dealing directly with the underlings who murdered his parents, and finds himself delivered to the very man who ordered their deaths--the same man who seeks him out to become a part of the League of Assassins, that being Ra's Al Ghul. Like the League itself, Nolan is all about sleight of hand and obfuscation, and that leads to the final irony--which I thought was a neat touch--that to avenge his parent's death, he doesn't need to kill the man responsible--he just doesn't need to save him from the destruction his actions have created. It's a good solution to the puzzle of the man trying to avenge his parents, but not kill, which is the essence of Batman (and Superman, though movie-makers conveniently forget this part)--they're both orphans and victims of tragedy. They don't want to see another person die. And they do what they do to keep it from happening.

Spider-man fights because when he was weak his uncle was killed--then he goes and whacks the wrong guy who did it (well, we thought he did in "1," but find he didn't in "3."). That was better? Batman is cured of his guilt trip, "Spider-man" (the character) wallows in it.

I have problems with the soapish nature of "Spider-man," which was a weakness of 1 (besides the too-blunt, and ultimately dull action of it) and the complete downfall of 3. 2, however, satirized the "hearts and flowers" aspect of S-man, and it's why its the best of the three films.

My quibble with BB, as will become clear when doing "Now I've Seen Everything: Christopher Nolan," is that the last act is an action jumble that should have concentrated on Batman/Ras Al Ghul instead of following every step of Gordon and the Katie Holmes character as well. It took away from the central story to concentrate on peripheral characters.

Jon said...

Thanks for the clarifications. I definitely agree with the confusion of the last act.

Though I am still not clear about the irony - if Ra's Al Ghul is responsible for his parents' death, then it seems unfair for there to be a kind of double indemnity about it - Bruce feels that he is responsible because he makes his parents leave the theater. Are we supposed to understand that the mugger is in fact an assassin? - it is kind of convenient that he is waiting outside the right fire exit but then you never know with these ninjas, I suppose.

My comment about Spiderman was primarily that having decided to include the love interest in BB, then I think that Nolan needs to follow through on it more. And secondly, that in 1, it deals with the development of the superhero character and iconography more effectively.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I don't know about the irony... part of Henri Ducard's training is to purge Bruce's self-destructive guilt from his psyche. Ducard strips Bruce of the emotional "baggage" that will hold him back--but never Bruce's inclination to not kill. For Ducard, that is weakness, but for Bruce, because he associates it with the murder of his parents, it's a strength. He saves Ducard in his training, but he defies Al Ghul's philosophy by not taking his life. It doesn't limit his strategies, though. (Alfred also works on turning Bruce's guilt--he's never short of father-figures)

As for Joe Chill, the Wayne's murderer--he was a thug hired to kill the Wayne family by Falcone (the mob boss played by Tom Wilkenson)--who, in turn, is in the employ of Ra's Al Ghul. You could say that makes Chill an assassin, but he's basically just a hired thug as opposed to being a ninja-member of The League of Assassins. I suppose the Wayne's could have gone out the main entrance, but they were public figures...using public transportation...and they were targeted. They were being tracked.
I suppose there was somebody covering the theater entrance, but the Wayne's chose to exit into the iconographic back-alley, and Chill was the "lucky" gun-man. And he is killed "Oswald-conspiracy-theory-style" to keep from talking. He's just a cog in the bigger machine.

As far as the Katie Holmes "muse" character, she'll be back, but portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhall--a step up--in "The Dark Knight," and since she works in the prosecuter's office, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a complication with the new DA--some guy named Harvery Dent--played by Aaron Eckhardt. That's some good casting there. We'll see. "The Dark Knight" looks to be a pretty full movie.

What "Spider-man 1" does well is to show nerd Peter Parker's joy in his new found strength and powers--it takes you along on the high of that journey. "Batman's" story is always that lonely road to The Mission. "Spider-man" says "with great power comes great reponsibility." For "Batman" power doesn't enter into it--the responsibility is there, powers or not. Powers would just make the job easier. I think Bruce Wayne thinks Peter Parker is a snot-nosed little whiner ("What I could do with spider-powers...")

Jon said...

Again, I appreciate your insight. Ultimately though, I think I struck by how much your critique of S-M 1 for its dull action applies far more for me to BB.

Jon said...

Of course, that should read 'I am struck'.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I don't think BB's action was dull.
I found it annoyingly obtuse--the Batmobile I thought was pretty neat--the hand-to-hand combat I felt could have been easily replaced by a spinning black cloud with fists coming out of it knocking the faceless, personality less henchmen away for all the good they did. Maybe they could obscure it with an animated "Pow!" or "KA_RUNCH!"

Someone should look into that.

I can't remember a satisfyingly done Batman fight. It should be about strategy and using the other guy's strengths against him.

On the other hand, I got annoyed with "Spider-man" 1's fights because it was usually two guys punching each other and "THE BIG QUANDRY," as opposed to S-M using his unique abilities to defeat his foes. I sat stewing through the whole movie, and when I brought it home for K to watch she wanted to stop it after the fight with Uncle Ben's "killer." A good point, there.

I loved, however, "Spider-man" II, which I thought better than any of the "Batman's," and is on a par with "Superman," which I think is the best "super-hero" movie, despite the liberties taken and the goofery displayed. Both are perfect summations of what the public knew about the characters, and staked new appropriate ground for the future.

Does this constitute one of those "panel discussions" we were talking about? John? Yo, JOHN!