128“It's not who I am underneath. But what I do that defines me.”
Back when Batman Begins was released on standard DVD, I had the privilege of being able to wax lyrical about what I was convinced was my favourite superhero movie. Now, so tantalisingly close to seeing The Dark Knight, I have the opportunity to revisit the first instalment of Christopher Nolen's and Christian Bale's epic re-evaluation and updating of the classically dark urban mythology. Does it still hold up in a world that is now so steeped in violence - on a grand scale in some unfortunate nations and up close and personal on almost every street in our own homeland - or has its message been lost amid the staggering cavalcade of comic-book adaptations that have flown, swung and transformed our way since 2004?
What follows is essentially the review that I wrote back then, but with a few, ahem, little extras.
Ahh, yes ... Batman Begins. A lifelong Bat-fan, I've adored Burton's beautiful depictions and the wonderful Animated Adventures, including the vibrant new interpretation “The Batman”, abhorred the camp excesses of Schumacher and continue to devour every comic book that I can put my hands on. For me, Batman symbolises something far greater and deeper than any other hero, and it is something that is primal, realistic and devoutly urban. It's a dangerous place out there, and the creeps really do run circles around the law - and Batman brings to a crystalline head the feelings of the man on the street. Through intense personal loss, and wracked with guilt, Bruce Wayne does what he does out of a desire for revenge and, above all, anger. He takes the fear back to the thugs and the scum. But, not until Christopher Nolan's gritty and emotional spin on the legend, has the Dark Knight's sheer rage and hunger for violence been so thunderously portrayed. Together with the masterful Christian Bale, cementing his position as my favourite actor (actually surpassing Russell Crowe - they both share the talent and the forceful screen presence but Bale does it without any of the cocksure arrogance) with this rich and textured performance. I've been a fan of his since American Psycho, but it was The Machinist that really marked him out for me as an incredible, and risk-taking, star. So, when Bale became the Bat and Memento's Nolan took the helm, I knew that this would be a voyage that I would relish. I knew that, at long last, the real Batman would be born. And here, truly, Batman Begins.
“You are in Hell, little man. And I am the Devil.”
“You're not the Devil. You're practice.”
It's always tricky to handle origin stories, and with superheroes undergoing more rebirths and re-imaginings than any other types of character, the danger is that people don't really want to see the back-story all over again because they're already so well-versed. But Batman has never been treated to it in a movie before, and his beginnings, in my opinion, have to be revealed if we are to understand his persona and all of its terrible flaws. He is a tragic character, as much a victim as all those he seeks to protect. In David S. Goyer's story, we get the initial murder of the wealthy Waynes before their terrified son's eyes, his subsequent and futile attempts at ill-conceived revenge much later on, and then, in the perfect addition to the Bat chronology - so necessary, yet so lacking until now - we get to see him train, forging the skills and the determination to wage his war. Under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson - Hollywood's movie-mentor of choice) he learns the ways of the ninja and begins to understand the deep, dark hunger burning within him. He longs to fight injustice, to bring fear to those that would prey on the fearful, but he needs to be taught the means and the mechanics first. He has the passion and the strength but lacks the direction - when we first meet him he is just shapeless, misdirected rage. Nolan cuts these scenes of realisation and transformation from brawler to crusader in such a way that they do not become episodic, by splicing in flashbacks to heighten the importance of Bruce's metamorphosis from aimless millionaire to focussed warrior. The strong emotional undercurrent is never wallowed in, nor tainted by saccharine. Instead, it feels genuinely cruel and hard and unjust. Bruce Wayne is a fractured man, the pieces hopelessly lost until he dedicates his life to one noble aim, forsaking all happiness, and virtually all humanity, honing what's left of his being into a weapon. Wow, we all want to be Batman - the costume, the fighting skills, the Batmobile - but hey, what about the psychosis that riddles him? What about the damage he receives, both physical and spiritual on practically a daily basis? What about the restless need to right the wrongs of a corrupt and unforgiving society? And, most pertinently, what about the lack of a social life, and romance? Not much time for a girlfriend. Doesn't sound so good now, does it?
“As a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”
Check out the scene of Wayne battling on the ice with Ducard for a glimpse of the unending pain and guilt that he feels. When Ducard tells him whose fault it really was that his parents were murdered, there is an expression on Bruce's face of absolute fury - and this is essential to instilling the idea of the madness that rules the man. Only Bale could generate such pure hostility. Look in his eyes. Bale's Wayne is not the gossamer-thin shadow that Keaton brought to the screen, nor the pouting sham of Kilmer - his is a dark and three-dimensional character, not just a plain-clothes foil to the big guy in black. His rendition is a powerhouse of fury, hate-filled and certifiable. He's out for blood and, to be honest, he doesn't even need the costume. By the time he dons it, half the movie has gone by, yet we never feel short-changed. Wayne is the main character, make no mistake. The Bat is just a suit he wears for work.
“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
It is also a wonderful and inspiring narrative that finally sees the Bruce Wayne side of Batman becoming as important as the Caped Crusader. In fact, the point of Goyer's and Nolan's screenplay is to show that there is, in actuality, no difference between the two. Wayne doesn't need body-armour and a cowl to knock the stuffing out of an opponent. When we first meet him as an adult he has purposely placed himself in the nastiest prison he could find, just so that he could enjoy battling scumbags morning, noon and night. The key word there, folks, being enjoy. In the comics, Batman has always taken a great delight in dishing out righteous whup-ass, and finally he gets the chance to do it the movies. Okay, it's only a PG13, and Nolan appears to have kept the specifics of the brawling at a distance, or so fast-cut that you have to watch it in slow-mo to see the moves (the beauty of a digital disc, fight-fans) but there is a real sense in the combat of the pure savagery of Batman. All elbows, knees and skull-cracks - Bale's beefed-up body-blows are about as far from Adam West's roundhouse “Kapows!” as you can get. Look at his sneer of indignant scorn when he selects one of Ra's ninjas before pouncing on him, the brutal bone-mashing combinations he employs to lay waste to a circle of dockyard mobsters, or the super-charged head-butt crack delivered to a mob boss's noggin. That moment, alone, was enough to have me cheering in the cinema - all six times that I went. At last, an ostensibly noble hero is prepared to ruthlessly batter and maul with absolutely no respect for the Queensbury Rules. The skirmishing depicted in Nolan's dark and bitter world is an emphatic statement that the Bat is here ... and he means business. He may not purposefully set out to kill people, but his pummelling fists and feet will sure as hell maim and disfigure them. Bale's avenger is not just burdened by his rage, he seems proud of it, too ... and truly able to wield it as a focussed weapon.
“What's the point of all those push-ups, if you can't even lift a bloody log?”
The baddies, unlike in Burton's highly stylised take where they were the stars of the show, at first glance, don't seem to hit the right buttons. Ken Watanabe's Ra's Al-Ghul has a split personality with Neeson's Ducard that was evident right from the start, which rather negates his presence somewhat. Even Ducard's maladjusted mentor/warrior and his League Of Shadows feel a little too whimsical. For all-powerful ninjas who have sacked cities in their time, they are surprisingly feeble when matched up against one playboy millionaire with a costume fetish. But they, and the equally in-effective squads of mob-goons do provide plenty of welcome boot and gauntlet fodder for the Bat. Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow (a fabulous creation in the comics) is oddly affecting in his day job as Dr. Jonathon Crane, yet sadly less so when he puts the mask on, for all its potency when mixed with his patented fear toxin. The outlandish vision of him riding a police horse, and dragging its previous owner behind it, is a brilliant image leaping straight from the comics, although it's over far too soon. Splendid CG morphing is relied upon to allow his shuddery shrink to assume the full menace of his straw-fixated alter-ego, yet even here, his maggot-crawling mask rapidly becomes more mouldy than macabre. The surprise, though, comes from mob boss, Carmine Falcone, another deep-rooted character from the coolest graphic novels. Played by none other than The Full Monty's own gnome-loving Gerald, Tom Wilkinson, who effortlessly greases up the part of the well-connected wise guy, despite the slightly iffy Italiano accent. Love his howling-mad fit when sprayed with fear toxin! And then there's the greasy, low-level enforcer and corrupt cop, Flass, cuts the right slobbish seediness of an opportunist grabber. The scene where he is dangled upside down from the top of a grubby apartment block by Batman ranks as one of the best moments in the film. All together now, “Swear to MEEE!”
“I hope you weren't with the fire brigade ...”
And what of the few good folk in the fallen city of Gotham? Michael Caine, as the ever-faithful Alfred, steals every scene that he is in. The much-touted back-story of Alfred having been in the SAS, or something, is never actually mentioned, but we instinctively feel that this guy has been around a bit, done a few things and can handle himself. Caine's knack for comedy is well-used and is wholly in-character, too. There's that great bit when he and Bruce discuss the reasons for the Batman persona as a cover for protecting those nearest and dearest - Bruce assumes he means his childhood sweetheart, Rachel (played by Katie Holmes) to which Alfred coyly replies, “Actually, sir, I was thinking about myself.” Caine also carries a lot of the emotional weight on his shoulders, too. The pain of Bruce Wayne's life has never been so acutely observed, and the beauty of this is that it is actually presented through Caine's magnificently restrained grief. The young Bruce might not be the greatest actor in the world, but it doesn't matter when just one watery flicker of Caine's eyes and a hastily suppressed choke are all that's needed to twist that dagger in your heart.
“I see you took my advice about theatricality a little ... literally.”
Katie Holmes, herself, has received some flack for her performance, but this may well be to do with her sky-high and excruciatingly cringe-worthy lovie-dovie stuff with Tom Cruise round about the time of the film's release. Actually, she's not that bad at all. She doesn't quite look like a leading light DA in the most crime-ridden city in North America, but her moments with Bruce are tender and reveal a depth of emotion that plays much better when just hinted at in the mostly unspoken manner that the pair affect. Gary Oldman, I feel, is a little disappointing as the younger Lt. Jim Gordon. Set up as virtually the only cop in Gotham who isn't on the take, we actually see too little of him to understand fully why Batman would seek him out as an ally. The book Batman Year One, from which this movie is only slightly inspired, dealt with Gordon's own crusade far more successfully. Of course, this is only the start of their indomitable crime-fighting relationship. Much better value is Morgan Freeman's gadget-expert, Lucius Fox, a disgruntled employee lurking in the bowels of Wayne Enterprises. It might smack of bringing an unfortunate James Bondian-style Q to the proceedings, but then again, if we are to have a believable Batman rampaging around the city, then we need a guy that can equip him. Freeman's voice, as ever, delivers the performance. But, when I suit up to battle the baddies whilst out dog-walking, I'll have paid Lucius a visit, first.
“Does it come in black?”
And the Batmobile? Oh my God - when I first saw this film and that black Lamborghini-tank gunned its engines and roared through Gotham, flattening cop-cars left and right, ploughing through buildings and hurtling over roof-tops, I was in adrenaline heaven. I found it hard just trying to keep myself in my seat, I was that exhilarated. And, rest assured, motor-mayhem-buffs, it is every bit as awesome on Blu-ray. I'm not even going to attempt to describe just how good this sequence is for fear of going into superlative-overuse-meltdown. Instead, I'll mention the naff bits that are in there, too. Look for the cop who shouts through the loudspeaker for Batman to get out of the vehicle - he's the same one that later on asks for a description of the rogue machine he's just been shouting at. There's also a few too many stock-filler shots of people's reactions to the Batmobile as it thunders past. And, just how did Batman get the thing into the heart of Gotham without drawing attention to himself in the first place? But, so what, eh? That electrifying moment when Batman screams out to Rachel, as she succumbs to Crane's fear toxin, and the Tumbler plunges through the waterfall, is sheer cathartic action-orgasm. Still one of the most exciting sequences that I've seen - a perfect marriage of editing, stuntwork, visuals and music. Though, for indelible imagery to go down in the Hero Hall Of Fame, let's not forget the incredible image of Batman as literally a monster-bat from hell, or the pulse-pounding escape from Ra's Al-Ghul's temple in the snow, and most magnificent of all, Bruce Wayne's moment of realisation down in the bat-filled caves beneath his manor. Something swells within you as he stands amid the cyclone of bats and the mighty score (reviewed separately) just builds and builds. The film may incorporate the superhero staple of the frenzied train-fight set-piece, but it is suitably bone-crunching and full of kinetic editing. Nice to see Shane Rimmer chewing the expositional fat, too. Oh, and look out for Tim Booth, from fave-band James, as a shaven-headed psycho and Brookside's whiny-voiced Stephen Walters as a nonplussed Arkham inmate whose cell Batman thunders through.
“There's a storm coming.”
Perhaps now, with a little more water under the bridge, some of the less impressive elements become more obvious and tiresome. That little kid who stumbles into Batman as he scales the outside of his apartment - “It's you, isn't it?” - is a deplorable addition only partially redeemed when one of Ra's goons casually brushes him aside later on. The veritable army of cops marching into the doomed Narrows just before the bridges are raised also has the dubious ally of Katie Holmes striding alongside them - “I'm a Gotham City District Attorney” she informs the one-man roadblock as if that sentence alone gives her the right to enter a war-zone. And listen to that phone-call she receives as she stands talking to Bruce on the front steps of Wayne Manor - “Rachel Dawes,” she answers before ripping into the caller with the line “Who authorised this?” without giving them time to have said anything other than hello. Daft little things, I know, but still irritating. And let's just hope that any countryside shots of Bruce's rebuilt estate in the sequel don't look so obviously English as they do here.
But the smart-play here is that this is all introduction. Scene-setting. If Ghul's lunatic scheme to destroy Gotham (New York on steroids, according to Nolan) seems a little shoe-horned in, and a bit of a formulaic jump from the grass-roots crime-fighting that has gone before, it becomes a vital element in procuring the next batch of villains. With the terrific invention of the dreaded Narrows engulfed with fear toxin and the crazed psychos from the more down-to-earth, yet still gothic, Arkham Asylum on the loose, Nolan and Goyer have paved the way for the franchise to continue in much the same way as Batman's quest - in earnest. The Joker's calling card that Gordon delivers is a supreme hook for future audiences, ensuring that this only the first chapter, and the stakes are certainly raised for Part 2, The Dark Knight.
“I never said thankyou.”
“And you'll never have to.”
But, in this age of the underdogs seeking heroes, building them up and then shooting them down again, it is worth remembering that Batman, as evidenced by the hidden meaning behind the above quotation, is actually not fighting this war - a war that nobody else is prepared to fight - for us. He's fighting it for himself.
If one moment truly sums up the majesty, relevance and the doomed hopefulness of this rebirth, it is when Nolen's camera leaves Gordon puzzling over the shackled form of Falcone's bizarre spotlight image in the clouds and soars up towards a lone figure atop the roof of Gotham City, a living gargoyle content at last, and the Zimmer/Howard score swells with tremulous pride. The hairs literally stand up on the back of your neck. Although, inevitably, his peace and sanctuary will be all-too brief, this one iconic image informs us that the definitive Batman has begun.
Long live Batman.
And bring on The Dark Knight.
Full coverage of the sequel coming soon!!!
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