Well, now, I’m surprised. Batman Begins is not terrible.
It’s not good either. Not good at all. It has damning faults in three areas, and since this film is the first critically praised one I’ve thrashed–at least the first critically praised one currently still in the theaters–this post is going to be a little more “formal” than we’re used to around here.
I’ll get the good stuff out of the way. Christian Bale is good. Now, that’s not actually the biggest surprise–though I imagined it would be since Christian Bale has long been my candidate for the worst working “serious” actor (Hayden Christiansen or someone like him doesn’t count). For evidence, I offer Velvet Goldmine and Shaft. Still, I’m not surprised, since I thought as much from the trailers. Bale might belong in this sort of film–something big and emotionally empty. Whenever he tries to act “real,” he as convincing as … oh, Samuel L. Jackson. No, the big surprise of Batman Begins is Katie Holmes. She’s good. She has some terrible lines and the way she says “Bruce” is annoying, but she’s actually quite good.
Nolan’s direction is adequate. The “epic” shots of Bruce Wayne in China are between annoying and stupid. Never knew so many Chinese people spoke English, I guess those recent college graduates who go over to teach English really get into the boonies. There are a few excellent shots in Batman Begins, but the direction is in no way superior to Tim Burton’s take on the material and I don’t even like Burton. Nolan shoots Batman really well. The costume, in the publicity shots, is incredibly silly. It might not have nipples but it obviously has limited motion. Nolan hides it in the dark.
Now for the damning faults. I made notes during the film, so let’s see if that provides any structure (I doubt it).
Firstly, the guy who plays Bruce Wayne’s father. He sucks. The kid who plays young Bruce Wayne, he sucks too. I hated him. I wish the mugger had shot the little British twit who couldn’t keep his accent. And what was the deal with the mother? She had three lines. For the entire movie, it’s all about Papa Wayne. Apparently, Bruce didn’t love his mother very much. Oh, and there’s some awful exposition explaining Gotham City to young Bruce and the audience (in the film’s only incredibly offensive CG portion). If the Adam West TV show did an episode about the death of the Wayne parents (it didn’t, but if), it would have done a better job.
Damn, I wanted to segue into the next point from that one, but I got all caught up in Adam West’s tighties… Basically, Gotham City is the most important city on the face of the globe. Everything that’s anything is all about Gotham City. And, conveniently, Wayne Enterprises or Industries or whatever the movie calls it, is the world’s most important company. Batman Begins has no concept of scale. Robocop took place in Detroit, but managed to convincingly set-up the huge corporation effecting the film’s world. Batman Begins doesn’t do any such convincing. In fact, it goes so far to tell the viewer Wayne Inc. is the huge corporation that effects everyone. In dialogue.
But for such a huge metropolis, again, Gotham City seems to have only one neighborhood, just like in the other movies. There’s the skyline, of course, which looks a lot like Chicago on a bright day, but the only neighborhood where anything ever–visibly–happens is called the Narrows. And it’s small. But Batman actually doesn’t need that much space to play with. Because he doesn’t actually fight crime. He fights corruption and he fights masterminds, but only if it’ll further the plot along. Batman’s first fight is the drug importers who clue him in to the larger scheme at work, his next fight is to save Katie Holmes, who he makes his wary ally–who’s being attacked by agents of said importers’ boss. I think the next fight is with the film’s only supervillain, the Scarecrow, a psychologist gone evil.
There’s no “first night out,” which shows the audience the hero doing all sorts of heroic shit. Superman is the perfect example (and where the name for the sequence comes from). Batman doesn’t show any concern for the people of Gotham themselves. He doesn’t beat up any spousal abusers or average muggers, it’s all got to be about furthering the lame story. And it is a lame story. Batman Begins is all about Bruce Wayne “becoming” Batman. Well, we all know he’s going to become Batman. Somewhere along the line, shouldn’t it be a choice? Shouldn’t we think, oh, not everything is predestined, that there’s a living, breathing, thinking character at work here? Not just someone who can be an action figure and be slathered on underwear… But there’s not and that’s one of the major reasons Batman Begins fails. It asks the audience to take the character seriously, then refuses to do so itself. Would Bruce Wayne have become Batman if he didn’t have body armor or finding the “batcave?” The film never convinces us he would. It’s all about synchronicity.
Did I mention the annoying little kid he meets in the bad neighborhood who reappears later in the film? Because Gotham City–though the world’s sparkling jewel and the only place a serious terrorist would attack–has a limited number of SAG card-carrying citizens.
Now for the actors. Let’s call them the Pork Pack. I though the Ham something or other, but couldn’t think of a second H-word. I didn’t want to give this one away at the beginning, but Bale and Holmes turn two of the five acceptable performances in the film. Liam Neeson is awful. Michael Caine is slightly less awful. Gary Oldman (who’s got terribly written scenes) is bad too. These three suck, nicely put. They’re silly. Neeson in particular is giggle-inducing. Morgan Freeman is fine but has nothing to do. Rutger Hauer does good. He has shit to do, but he spins it interestingly. Mark Boone Junior (anyone else remember this guy, he was great in Trees Lounge) has a small role and is a welcome breather. Cillian Murphy (Christopher Nolan’s great discovery) sucks. Tom Wilkinson sucks too. Most of the Brits in the film playing Americans can’t hold their accents the whole way through, I think Bale is the only one who does…
The film has some nice sequences. I’m not wild about the entire car chase, but some of it was good. There was no weight to it, of course, it was just an excuse for them to use the Batmobile. The end is particularly hilarious, because the whole thing boils down to an over-the-top Steven Seagal Under Siege movie (just without the good acting). There’s a bomb on a train business. What else… Oh, the DC logo at the beginning. This addition is the saddest. Warner’s is doing it to counter the familiarity of the Marvel logo before their movies. Warner is doing it, not DC. Batman belongs to Warner Bros. From 1989 to 2002–with that first Scooby-Doo teaser–audiences around the world have associated Batman with the Warner Bros. logo. And now they’re supposed to associate it with the new DC logo? Why, because the DC logo will be on the underwear? Because no one who sees Batman Begins and is unfamiliar with the comic books is going to find anything they like in the comic books. If you want to read a Batman comic book, you’ll have to spend a few hundred bucks just to understand what he’s talking about–reborn Robins, brainwashing and whatnot. Batman Begins has little to do with the comic books and nothing to do with the spirit of the current Batman character. Anyone who says otherwise is either stupid, a salesman, or an deliberate liar.
Batman Begins tries to present the audience with a Batman we can identify with. A “realistic” Batman to identify with. Because the whole thing about identifying with Michael Keaton’s pains and human struggles, well, to hell with all that, he can’t compete with Tobey Maguire. And there are moments when Batman Begins almost succeeds. Unfortunately, none of them are when Bale’s in costume (though he’s fine as Batman too) and most involve Katie Holmes being around.
Except, it’s not called Tom Cruise’s Fake Girlfriend Begins. And, yeah, the title is lame. At best it’s a sentence fragment, at worst it’s a grammatical offense to the language Coca-Cola’s ad department (the people who said that the average American doesn’t understand the difference between “everyday” and “every day”) would appreciate.
Oh. I forgot to mention the shitty music. It’s really shitty.