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The Bat's Progress

 

Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.8

 

Posted: June 15, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It would seem that each generation gets the Batman movie it deserves. The era of go-go boots and Woodstock got Adam West as a square authority figure; the 1980s got Tim Burton's style-over-substance fantasy noir (and, in a blatant case of "What were we thinking?, Jack Nicholson as the Joker). And the decade of Friends, Vanilla Ice and Beverly Hills 90210 was awarded with an increasingly vapid series of self-involved spectacles, courtesy of Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Joel Schumacher.

As further proof that our cinematic Batmen have been reflections of their times, we now have Batman Begins. In the post-9/11 landscape, our perfect Batman is apparently a suave, handsome playboy who relieves the tension of foiling the Byzantine plots of clandestine organizations by cavorting with bubbly arm candy. He's also got a couple of surrogate father figures, one of whom is a big help in outfitting him with cool high-tech gadgetry, including one bitchin' car. In short: He's James Bond with pointy ears and a cape.

Well, if you're going to reinvent the Dark Knight's movie franchise, there are worse models to work from. The Batman franchise has always enjoyed its own strengths (like the single most colorful rogue's gallery in crime fiction), offset by a protagonist whose very ordinariness -- his lack of superpowers beyond a singular determination and deep pockets -- often underlines the absurdity of his superheroic premise (how messed up do you have to be to dress up like a bat?). A little Bondian structure could only help.

Admittedly, the James Bond films have had their own periods of self-parodic excess. But they've also followed an easily identifiable template, from the love interests and guy-friendly toys to the elaborate set pieces and now-standard-issue quips. And while the Bond films are set in their own kind of fantasy world, their more "real-world" feel would be a welcome, grounding change from the too-stylized environs of Burton's and Schumacher's Gothams.

That real-world grounding certainly helps Batman Begins. The first half of this re-imagining, which details how wealthy heir Bruce Wayne learned the physical and psychological tactics that would later serve him in such good stead, benefits immensely from its far-flung but identifiable locale. Having witnessed his parents' murder at an early age, young Bruce Wayne (a magnetic Christian Bale), heir to a fortune that includes the multi-faceted conglomerate Wayne Enterprises, has embarked on a pilgrimage to buff himself up into a man of action, which, as the film opens, means scrapping with felons in an Asian prison.

At the invitation of a mysterious figure named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne leaves the prison to train with a group known as the League of Shadows, a secretive organization dedicated to eradicating crime. Under the tutelage of Ducard and the watchful eye of League leader Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), he hones his fighting skills via a healthy dose of the ninja arts. But disagreement over a critical philosophical issue -- Wayne, who believes in the justice system, won't act as executioner -- leads to a violent parting of the ways.

Once he's returned to Gotham City, Wayne begins putting his own plan into motion -- that plan being to become more than a man, to become an idea, the better to strike fear into the hearts of the superstitious, cowardly criminal fraternity. His plan begins to take shape thanks to help from a couple of co-conspirators: Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family's trusty butler; Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a Wayne Enterprises employee who watches over the cutting-edge ideas the company has never gotten around to implementing. Wayne enlists another co-conspirator to help him take down the bad guys: James Gordon (Gary Oldman, playing very much against type), perhaps the only honest cop left in a city decayed by corruption.

He also seeks the approval of his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now an assistant district attorney whose zeal in pursuing the local crime boss (Tom Wilkinson, delivering some questionable line readings) places her in (yawn) terrible danger. The character would perhaps be taken more seriously if she were played by someone other than Katie Holmes, who isn't quite believable as a determined D.A.; she still looks and sounds like Joey from Dawson's Creek. When she's making her way through the chaos-torn streets of Gotham, you expect Gordon to take her in for breaking curfew.

Ironically, and unfortunately, Batman Begins becomes a bit less interesting once Bruce dons the famous Bat-mask. It becomes simply another standard superhero movie, albeit one with a less-than-fully-realized backdrop (this Gotham isn't much to look at, save for a rail system that plays heavily into the plot) and a less-than-menacing villain -- the Scarecrow, whose ability to manipulate his victims' fears provides some nice visual moments. Cillian Murphy, who basically comes across as a more feminine version of Smallville's Tom Welling, smirks well, but neither the performance nor the role are enough to kick things into the necessary gear.

Of course, we soon learn that the Scarecrow (usually a B-list Batman villain) isn't the main antagonist at all. But by this point, things have settled into the customary action-movie formula of big explosions and car chases. These are handled with aplomb by director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), but we've seen them all before. (It doesn't help that Nolan chooses to downplay the intriguing fact that both hero and antagonist are after the same goal; they simply differ in their methods and outlook.)

The over-long final stretch aside, Batman Begins is memorable for the glimpse of a better, leaner Bat-franchise it provides. It's at its best when Bruce Wayne is still learning the ropes of the crime-fighting game, and getting the hang of the nifty playthings at his disposal (like the Tumbler, an all-terrain Bat-tank). If future installments follow that trajectory -- showing us the hero-in-progress instead of the assured icon who never makes a mistake -- and continue to be set in a world that more closely resembles our own, they'll be more than enough to erase the Bat-sins of Batman and Robin from our consciousness forever.

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