Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (2005) – It was a dark time in our history after the debacle that was Batman & Robin. Eight long years passed with no Batman movie at all. There had been consideration of letting Joel Schumacher continue the franchise. There was the screenplay for Batman Triumphant, which would have featured the Scarecrow (Schumacher was considering Howard Stern) and Harley Quinn (Schumacher was considering Madonna, and Quinn would be reimagined as the Joker’s daughter out for revenge). That movie was not made and we can all thank heaven for that. There was a script based on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One movie floating around. Some borrowed the concept but stayed a little less true to Miller’s comic with such bizarre changes as making Bruce Wayne homeless and Alfred into an African American mechanic named Big Al. That movie was not made either. (As awful as it sounds Darren Aronofsky was attached so I confess to a morbid curiosity about that one.)

The savior of the franchise came in the form of Brit director Christopher Nolan. Before Batman Begins Nolan was primarily known for the twisty 2001 mystery/thriller Memento, about an anterograde amnesiac attempting to solve and avenge his wife’s murder. (He had also done the black-and-white English film Following and the American remake of the Swedish inverted neo-noir Insomnia.) He co-wrote the script with David S. Goyer (known primarily at the time for Blade). This story would be about Batman starting out, like Year One, but be more influenced by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. It also laid the groundwork for one of the best cinematic trilogies that I can recall. I’m not sure how much of that was intentional from the get-go. Indeed a lot of the series seemed to be adjusted as it went on, but after seeing all three it’s hard to accept that there wasn’t some kind of plan all along. It popularized the “gritty reboot” (which was soon applied to the James Bond franchise as well).

Bruce Wayne(Christian Bale) is in a Tibetan prison. That’s certainly a less-than-conventional way to begin a Batman movie. He is kicking the asses of the criminals who outnumber him. He is approached by a man calling himself Ducard (Liam Neeson), who tells him of the League of Shadows. The League, a vigilante group dedicated to restoring balance to the world, operates under the leadership of Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and is willing to train Bruce. However, Bruce is unwilling to employ the lethal methods of the League and returns to Gotham to become the caped crusader known as Batman. There he wages war on the mob, headed up by gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). However Falcone is into some deep stuff involving the corrupt administrator of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy)… and even Crane is working for someone much worse.

The supporting cast of this movie is better than your average superhero movie. Sir Michael Caine plays the role of Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred with a paternal spin only hinted at in the earlier movies (the the Cockney accent is somewhat less in line with Alfred’s usual more sophisticated depiction). Linus Roache of Law & Order turns in possibly the most idealized version of Thomas Wayne ever depicted in his brief screen time. We’ve always known that Bruce’s parents’ deaths motived him to become Batman but we never really FELT it before this movie. Of course he had to avenge them! Thomas was like the best dad ever! Gary Oldman, known to many for over-the-top villain roles, portrays a quiet decency in the role of Sergeant not-yet-Commissioner Jim Gordon. The best reinvention of the film is the character of Lucius Fox, as played by Academy Award winner and credit card commercial voice over dude Morgan Freeman. Fox in the comics (and excellent animated series from the 90s) he was a business wiz and friend of Bruce’s who Bruce trusted to run Wayne Enterprises. In Batman Begins, he takes a role more similar to Q of the James Bond series (complete with wisecracks). It’s a popular enough take on the character that they’re begun incorporating it into the comics.

What doesn’t work? Well, I don’t think Katie Holmes is quite as awful as every seems to think she is in this movie (or most movies, for that matter) but she is outclassed by pretty much everyone else onscreen. Of course when you have a cast loaded with Oscar-winners and nominees that’s bound to happen to a woman still primarily known for her role on a teen soap. Although it’s not a problem with the film itself, it does bug me that Batman enemy Victor Zsasz (Tim Booth, lead singer of the band James [you know, the guys who did “Laid”]) is portrayed as a mob hitman faking insanity instead of a GENUINELY UNHINGED mass murderer (though at least they keep his trademark tally-mark scars are visible on his neck in one scene). Of the changes from the comics that’s the only one that irks me. In my mind, movies based on comic books are all like “alternate universe” stories so I don’t really begrudge them their lack of adherence to traditionally-accepted canon (which is itself in a pretty constant state of flux anyway).

I will point out one thing… and this is by no means a negative. The movie is [mostly] set in the United States and is about an American icon… but there are virtually no Americans in the primary cast. There’s Freeman, Holmes and Mark Boone Junior (who plays Gordon’s corrupt partner Arnold Flass). Leaving aside characters who are SUPPOSED to be foreigners like Ducard, Alfred, Ra’s al Ghul, and the presumably the very Croatian-sounding homeless man played by Rade Šerbedžija they’re pretty much all Europeans playing Americans. Christian Bale is Welsh, Cillian Murphy is Irish, Tom Wilkinson is British, Rutger Hauer (the CFO of Wayne Enterprises) is Dutch, Linus Roache is British, Sara Stewart (Martha Wayne) is Scottish, Gerard Murphy (Judge Faden) is Irish, Tim Booth is British, the late Larry Holden (D.A. Finch) was Northern Irish, and Colin McFarlane (Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb) is British. Richard Brake, who plays Joe Chill, is Welsh-born but American-raised. Cross-cultural casting is fine by me but DAMN!

Origin stories always have some weaknesses, especially for a character as well-known as Batman. Yeah, we KNOW his parents got killed by mugger Joe Chill (Richard Brake) outside a theater. Plus, since it’s BATMAN Begins, we know where he’s going to end up (as BATMAN). Still, the movie makes it work. I can’t really decide what I like better: that Christopher Nolan brought us what amounts to a new high-water mark for Batman films or that the massive success of those films lets him bankroll his own projects like The Prestige and Inception? I choose both. Batman Begins might be the weakest of Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” but that speaks to the overall quality of the films involved, not any real weakness of the film’s part. I love Tim Burton’s Batman films. I even rather like Schumacher’s Batman Forever (which, somewhat unfairly, gets lumped in with the shitfest that was Batman & Robin). But THIS. IS. BATMAN. Batman Begins marked a new… well, beginning and amazingly enough, it only got better from here…

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