Batman Begins

Origin stories rule, despite some godawful clichés.

By Demented Toddler

Batman Begins has plenty in common with this month's other comic adaptation, Sin City. For starters, both films feature Rutger Hauer, and comment on the quality of coats.

Frank Miller has had a hand in both – this ‘reboot’ of the dark knight franchise is partly based on his Batman: Year One.  When Miller came to write it in 1986, he'd already shown a fascination with corruption and mob rule. Resurrecting marvel comics' daredevil franchise, he brought new life to Marvel's crime boss character, the Kingpin. In Year One, he explored his interest further. Cop Jim Gordon arrives in Gotham, he sees the city's rottenness: its bent cops, its crooked commissioner, judges, mayors. He crawls into the city on a train: ‘no way to come into Gotham… in an airplane, from above, all you'd see are the streets and buildings. Fool you into thinking it's civilized.’ Bruce Wayne, coming home by air, regrets his choice of transport: ‘I should have taken the train. I should be closer. I should see the enemy.’

Christopher Nolan has picked up the theme. This is a more venal Gotham than in previous films. The Penguin's dodgy mayoral campaign in Batman Returns was a (narrative) means to an end, whereas mobster Carmine Falcone's machinations here are more than that: a symptom of a diseased society. There is a real sense that its cure will involve more than just putting bad guys in jail. Like New Labour, batman will have to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.  One-man Malthusian check, R'as al Ghul, looks to take this notion to the extreme, to implement a final solution to Gotham's problems. Not as keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater, bats will seek to save the city from R'as, and then get down to the real work of saving it from itself.

Nolan and scriptwriter David Goyer try to tie this issue of widespread moral rottenness to another of the film's main themes: fear (Batman: Intimidation was a rumoured proto-title). This is largely done through an early rant from Carmine ‘The Roman’ Falcone to the young Bruce Wayne, explaining how he controls the city's dishonest officials not just through their individual greed, but through their collective cowardice; their fear of upsetting the status quo. In almost exactly the same way as Sin City's Senator Roark explains how he could get away with shooting bed-bound Detective Hartigan in a hospital full of doctors and cops, Falcone waves a gun in Wayne's face, declaring his impunity even under the eyes of Gotham's great and good.

Nolan does like his themes (his Insomnia was all theme and no point), and whilst they give the film some credibility, and are at times interestingly handled, they, like the characterisation, can be hamfistedly overwritten. Dialogue is not the film's strong point, mainly for breaking the well-established rule that one should ‘show, not tell’. This is a big crime on film, and an insult to the intelligence. One of the best scenes has Wayne, over-excited and full of adrenaline from one of his frantic first outings in the batsuit, entering his own birthday reception at Wayne manor in a tux. The lump-in-throat-inducing subtext is that his role as billionaire playboy doesn't suit him at all; that he's natural as Batman but faking it as Bruce. This is ruined later when Katie Holmes' character gives a pat explanation of it like some tiresome analyst. That said, the film still outperforms its predecessors in how interesting it makes Wayne, and how his scenes hold the attention as much as the bat-action, rather than being lulls in it.

Part of Bruce's struggle is reconciling himself to doing justice in the face of a desire for revenge.  Batman Begins could so easily be a revenge tragedy – it's dark, and frightening, borrowing from the horror genre to good effect in presenting both hero and villains. It's got malevolence, malfeasance, madness and poisoning, and an heir returning to find his dead father's empire usurped. But Batman distinguishes himself from Sin City's Marv, Hartigan and Dwight, enforcing justice rather than seeking revenge. Just as Marv fails to get the satisfaction he wants in torturing and killing the unmoved cannibal Kevin, so Bruce's desire for retribution is thwarted when his parents' murderer is killed in front of him by someone else. Rather than try to get his kicks on the next most responsible person, he is (literally) slapped into taking a more civilised approach.

Plenty of time is spent on how Bruce made himself Batman, and how his work is really too much for one man. The movie goes where even the comics haven't been in much detail, almost like an Oscar speech for the superhero – ‘I'd like to thank my ninja trainer, my butler trained in combat medicine, the guy who gives me all my hi-tech gear, the one decent cop in the city…’ The comprehensive background makes fun watching, but misses the point that Frank Miller and other bat-writers got – that making it believable is not about explaining how the gadgets work, but about fleshing out the characters.  Nolan spends too long explaining how the costume got made and where the piton gun came from. In Year One, Miller devotes many pages to Jim Gordon, who will later become the famous commissioner. He has a baby on the way, a crush on a co-worker, trouble giving up smoking.  It's ironic that the characters should prove more three-dimensional as line drawings, and a shame that the film's top drawer supporting cast is so under-used.

It's easy to criticise the film for not doing what its writer and director might have set out to do – they had a studio to please as well as themselves. Goyer's claim that ‘even a line the audience would love, if it doesn't make sense, if it's just there as a sort of easter egg for the audience, he won't do it’ just doesn't stand up. The film has its fair share of wry quips, cringeworthy romantic lines, and other godawful clichés. And Chris Nolan's no Sam Raimi. But he makes a credible stab at taking on his subject, remains true to the best of the comics, and most importantly, provides a couple of hours of good superhero fun. Origin stories rule.
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