Thursday, June 16, 2005

Zaki's Review: Batman Begins

What a difference a decade makes.

When last we saw Batman on the big screen, the Caped Clooney had just dispatched a neon-blue Arnold Schwarzenegger, been joined by Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, and was ready for more camped-out, grotesquely over-the-top adventures.

How far Warner Bros. prized franchise had fallen since its heyday with 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, both directed by Tim Burton. Instead, under the helm of Joel Schumacher, 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin saw the series morph into a garish resuscitation of the 1960s Adam West-Burt Ward television series that forever etched words like “Pow!” and “Zowie!” on the collective psyche.

All told, the previous Bat-films are textbook examples of franchise self-immolation. It’s a testament to how thoroughly Schumacher scorched the Bat-Earth that the only option Warner Bros. saw open was to start from scratch and rebuild its cash cow from the ground up, which it has done with the help of director Christopher Nolan.

Nolan, himself armed with the street-cred of helming such highbrow thrillers as Memento and Insomnia, and the geek-cred of co-scenarist David Goyer (of the Marvel Comic-based Blade trilogy), finally gives us Batman as he was always meant to be. After several years away from the silver screen, DC Comics’ Dark Knight has returned with a vengeance, never more driven, more dangerous, and, paradoxically, more human than in Batman Begins.

The lesson for the loyal Bat-fan is that good things really do come to those who wait. And the wait has indeed been an interminable one. What Nolan, Goyer, and star Christian Bale have done is to reinvent the Caped Crusader in true epic fashion. From the snow-capped peaks of the Far East to the towering skyscrapers of Gotham City, Nolan has created the definitive Batman film for the ages -- grandiose in both reach and scope.

Batman Begins for the first time makes us privy to the breadth and depth of Bruce Wayne’s journey, from the death of his parents in a random act of street violence to his emergence as a solitary force for justice in the crime-wracked alleyways of a decaying city. At its core, Batman Begins asks what makes Bruce Wayne tick? What drives him to don the likeness of a flying rodent and dish out punishment to street thugs? It is about the distinction between justice and vengeance. This dichotomy is what ultimately occupies the film’s thematic and moral center.

Bale, the fourth actor to don the black rubber suit on the big screen, electrifies from his very first scene, steadily and assuredly anchoring the film for the entirety of its 2 hours-and-change running time. This is a stark contrast from earlier entries, which saw the oversized personalities and scenery-chewing antics of everyone from Danny DeVito as the Penguin to Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face to Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy effectively make Batman an occasionally-glimpsed guest star in his own movies. In a further welcome move, Nolan has also stacked the supporting roles with a veritable who’s-who of award-winning talent, creating a treasure trove of rich relationships and character interaction for the audience to invest in.

Michael Caine steps into the role of Wayne's trusted family butler and confidante Alfred Pennyworth. Gary Oldman plays James Gordon, one day a police commissioner, but for now the only honest beat cop in Gotham. Morgan Freeman essays the role of Lucius Fox, the genius designer who unknowingly outfits the Batman with much of his crimefighting arsenal. And Liam Neeson makes a welcome appearance as a man calling himself Ducard, who trains Bruce Wayne in the ninja disciplines (not to mention providing him with the inspiration for those trademark scalloped gauntlets).

If there is a weak link in the cast, it is former Creek resident and current Scientologist-in-training Katie Holmes, who never quite sells the reality of her role as a crusading district attorney who shares a history with Bruce Wayne. Holmes joins the long line of disposable love interests who have populated these films, from Kim Basinger to Elle McPherson.

Filling the requisite roles of the villains, Cillian Murphy is appropriately creepy and unnerving as the sadistic Dr. Jonathan Crane, better known to comic fans as The Scarecrow, and Ken Watanabe makes a memorable appearance as the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul -- along with a surprise addition in the film’s final act. Each of the villains in the film work to move the story along and never overshadow the titular character, something that regularly plagued the previous series.

One can't discuss Batman Begins without making special note of the film’s production design, specifically its depiction of Gotham City. Eschewing the stage bound, gothic style of the previous entries (there’s nary a statue of a giant naked man to be found), Nolan's Gotham inhabits a kind of hyper-reality, vividly depicting a sprawling metropolis suffocating on its own corruption and indolence.

It’s hard to fully encapsulate how gratifying it is to see a film like Batman Begins. By unflinchingly embracing the “verisimilitude” of its own reality, Nolan has created a Batman epic that races so far ahead of its predecessors that they simply cease to exist. Armed with an ambitious script spanning several continents and a cast comprised of multiple Academy Award winners, Nolan has brought to the screen that rarest of beasts: a comic based movie that dares to be taken seriously.

What a concept.


Anonymous said...

Great review Z-man! I couldn't agree more. As a long-time reader of the Batman comics I found Batman Begins to be THE quintessential Batman film. It will be hard to top but sure do hope they try. My review will be up shortly although it won't trudge too far from your own. Cherie loses cool points for not liking it.

FrankWit said...

Just saw it today myself, and couldn't agree more. The way it was a movie before it was a "comic book movie" is what sold me.

Omar said...

Saw it impromptu and the whole time kept thinking: "Wow, they're taking it to the next level". Bale's Bruce Wayne, Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinnesque character and the creepiness of the character really stood out for me. Though the second half of the film wasn't as strong as the first half due to some choppy action sequences, it was still very well done, and had to be the way it was to separate itself from Joel Schumacher's uhmmm "movies". I can't wait for part 2.

I Butterfly said...

I sigh relievingly in the knowledge that Batman Lives!!! Um, rocked my ass!!! I loved that the vilians did not overshadow or become overexposed in their own star power. Cillian Murphy was glorious. Too bad Katie Holmes didn't bite it in the end...The movie wasn't cheesy (another plus from previous adaptations), but I woulda put up with a weepy "aw, my bitch friend is dead" scene. Bale in the party scene...*siiiiiiiiigh* Good review, Wacky Z. I got your back. Peace out.

Kash said...

Have not seen it yet but it is the first Batman film in a long time that i actually cannot wait to see...good words Zaki.