erik lundegaard

Batman Begins

Batman Begins (2005)


Bruce Wayne should’ve truly hated Gotham City. As a young man returning from Princeton, he should’ve voiced his hatred for the city that took away his parents, calling it a cesspool, a place of hopeless corruption. He should’ve flown his Travis Bickle flag and talked about a real rain coming and washing away all the scum off the streets.

If he did, Ra’s al Ghul’s offer to destroy Gotham would’ve had weight. Ghul (Liam Neeson) would’ve handed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what he’d wanted since he was a boy, since he saw his parents murdered before his eyes; and in that moment, Bruce would’ve discovered that what he’d always wanted wasn’t what he wanted:

Ra’s al Ghul: You know Gotham is dying. It’s dying from the inside. It’s a cancer. It’s time to put it out of its misery so more good people like your parents won’t die. Are you strong enough for the task?
Bruce Wayne: I... My hatred of Gotham came from the weakest part of me. I see that now. But I’m stronger now. Thanks to you.

Thus Ra’s al Ghul would’ve trained a man to do a task for which the very training made him ill-suited. The filmmakers could’ve worked this into a major theme: that the desire for destruction is borne of weakness, the desire to save comes from strength. And Bruce Wayne was strong now. He was Batman.

Instead we have what we have. Bruce Wayne carries a hatred for Joe Chill, the two-bit mugger who killed his parents, but not for Gotham, the city that created Joe Chill. Ra’s al Ghul’s offer is the offer of a madman. It’s treated as such. None of it resonates.

Carmine Falcone, we hardly knew ye

The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a cape crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. It’s dark and moody and realistic.

So why is it curiously unsatisfying?

I blame the relentless direction of Christopher Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s a flat-lined film.

There’s also a problem with the villains.

We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:

You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand.

That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.

Really? That’s it?

Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad.

But Crane, too, is a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.

Batman is thus a product of criminals. Joe Chill gives him the thirst for revenge, Carmine Falcone sends him on his mission, and Ra’s al Ghul trains him to be Batman.

But that’s not the problem with the villains. The problem with the villains is that we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.

  • “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
  • “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”

Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.

Guhl’s logic, as the head of the League of Shadows, is bizarre stuff. Cities are dying so let’s kill them off. He mentions three: Rome, London, Gotham. He says:

The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.

But Rome survived. So did London. So will Gotham. Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this? “Restore what balance, you self-important twit?”

Got guilt?

Most classic superheroes were created by young men in the 1940s, or by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, which means there’s always room for improving their origins. Modern movies usually oblige. That’s not an “S” on his chest but a Kryptonian family crest (“Superman: The Movie”). “A weak man knows the value of strength” (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). “I missed the part where that’s my problem” (“Spider-Man”).

Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer introduce two improvements, or complications, to the classic origin of Batman. Back in 1939, Bruce chose a bat as his symbol because “criminals are a cowardly lot”; Nolan’s Bruce chooses a bat because he is a cowardly lot. As a boy he fell down an abandoned shaft and startled the bats in the caverns under Wayne Manor. It led to a lifelong phobia. As an adult we see him overcome this phobia, standing tall as CGI bats flit all around him. It’s a cool scene but... Doesn’t it recall, a bit much, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy? It’s bats instead of rats, but both phobias are overcome with willpower. Bruce Wayne just doesn’t grill and eat his.

The second complication borrows from Spider-Man’s origin, which—alley oop—borrowed from Batman’s.

Batman was the first costumed hero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and is out for revenge. He wants to get the bastards. Twenty years later, Spider-Man was the second superhero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime, but Stan Lee added a twist. When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar, Spider-Man, seeking revenge, gets the bastard, then realizes the killer is a petty crook he had the opportunity to stop days earlier. So Spider-Man fights crime less for revenge than from guilt. He’s trying to cleanse himself as much as society.

Nolan borrows this idea for “Batman Begins.” The Waynes leave an opera early because young Bruce is afraid of the bat-like characters on stage, and they wind up in a nasty back alleyway where the mugging/killing occurs. If Bruce hadn’t been afraid, he realizes, they wouldn’t have left early. If they hadn’t left early, his parents would still be alive.

Except Nolan doesn’t do much with this. Alfred (Michael Caine) soothes young Bruce’s guilt; and as a young man, training in the ninja arts in the Himalayas, Bruce tells Ghul, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” That’s about the only time the word “guilt” or “guilty” is even spoken in the movie.

Batman is a character obviously associated with anger rather than guilt so I’m not sure why Nolan even introduces the concept. Besides, Nolan’s notion of guilt is Catholic rather than Jewish. He thinks it can be cleansed. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber) knew better.

The ghost of William Dozier

So Bruce Wayne spends seven years abroad learning about the underworld and ninja arts, returns to Gotham as an avenger, creates a bat persona, and slowly, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the weapons developer for Wayne Enterprises, arms himself. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asked in the 1989 version. That Batman created his own. Nolan’s outsources.

Some traditions are kept: Bruce still slides down the batpole to the batcave, where the batmobile still resides. The batmobile is now like a tank with big wheels, and after one of the best scenes in the movie—Batman’s descent through the bats at Arkham Asylum—we get one of the worst: an extensive chase scene around Gotham. It’s the kind of car chase, common to Hollywood, where the chased performs impossible stunts (literally driving over church rooftops; literally chewing the scenery) only to find several police cars right on his tail. If Gotham cops were really that good, Batman wouldn’t be needed in the first place.

The entrance to the batcave is improved upon. It’s now hidden by a waterfall and a chasm, which requires jet propulsion to leap over, all of which beats the flopping vehicle barrier of the ’66 TV show. But surely any interested party could follow the tire tracks? Hey, they lead here. Hey, it’s under Wayne Manor. Hey, maybe Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how gritty and realistic they try to make these guys, there’s always some absurdity sticking out. The biggest absurdity being, of course, a man who wears a bat costume to fight crime.

Second-half plot? In his effort to “restore the balance,” Ra’s al Ghul imports Dr. Crane’s crazy powder to Gotham, where minions pour it into the water supply. The plan is to use a microwave emitter, stolen from Wayne Enterprises, to evaporate the water and cause everyone to go nuts and tear each other apart. Dark and gritty but ... a bit of a William Dozier vibe, no? I can see the ’60s version of the microwave emitter: silver, with knobs and an antennae, wheeled in by a middle-aged, hipster-dressed minion, while Ra’s al Ghul (Roger C. Carmel) rubs his hands together and whoops it up. There’s also the problem of Ghul reappearing and burning down Wayne Manor. It’s poetic justice, yes, since Bruce burned down Ghul’s Himalayan hideout, but Ghul handles Bruce so easily here it feels a trifle convenient. I get another Dozier vibe. Will Wayne Manor burn to the ground? Can Alfred return from his mission in time to get Bruce out from under the heavy log beam?

There’s a girl. I haven’t mentioned her yet. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood playmate, who grows into a tall, girlishly attractive, forever threatened assistant D.A. She’s disappointed in young Bruce (slaps him when he talks about killing Joe Chill); she’s disappointed in playboy Bruce (“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, in the movie’s most famous line, “it's what you do that defines you”); but after Batman saves her from Dr. Crane, and after he reveals his true identity to her, she shows up in the ashes of Wayne Manor and says she’s never stopped thinking of him. Then she kisses him. Yay! But no. We get this exchange:

Rachel: Then I found out about your mask.
Bruce: Batman’s just a symbol, Rachel.
Rachel [touches Bruce’s face]: No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved—the man who vanished—he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again.

What the hell? Throughout the movie she’s been bitching that Bruce doesn’t care about Gotham the way she cares about Gotham. Now she finds out he cares more, now she finds out that the man she loves is the true avenger of the city she loves, and she still blows him off? And I thought I had problems with women.

The above dialogue might’ve resonated if Bale, as Bruce, had seemed hard, cold and distant around Rachel, but his face and voice actually soften when she’s around. He’s constantly revealing his true face to her. She just doesn’t see it. Neither does Nolan.

British invasion

Good cast, though. Bale is tall, dark, good-looking, and plays intense and off-kilter well—probably because he’s intense and off-kilter. Still, he’s a straight man here, so, as with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman,” you surround him with talent: Freeman and Caine and Wilkinson and Murphy and Gary Oldman, wonderfully plain as Jim Gordon. That’s a lot of Brits. Too many? Who isn’t British in this thing? Batman is. So is Alfred, Ducard, Gordon, Crane, Falcone, Finch, Loeb, Joe Chill, Judge Faden, and Thomas and Martha Wayne. Americans are allowed Fox, Dawes, and Flass (Mark Boone Junior), this movie’s Lt. Eckhardt. “Hey, we need a fat, scummy cop.” “What do we have in Yanks?”

“Batman Begins” is acclaimed among fanboys, and currently has an 8.3 rating on IMDb, but to me it’s mid-range stuff. We push aside interesting villains for dull ones, twiddle our thumbs during car chases, and wait for a girl who isn’t worth it. Nolan misses opportunities even as he maintains a pace that’s overly relentless. It beats erect nipples but it hardly makes my nipples erect.

Still, the Joker card at the end set up the sequel well. Wonder how that went?

—April 20, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard