Batman Begins: Grounding the Franchise

 

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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Recently, Christian Bale reported that he wasn’t thrilled with his Batman performance.  So, throughout the next two weeks, I will look back at all three of his performances in the Nolan trilogy.  I’ll start with the beginning of his run—Batman Begins.

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Bale played a much younger Bruce than anyone had at that point (besides Kevin Conroy in Mask of Phantasm).  And, he used the character’s youthfulness to his advantage.  30-year-old Bruce Wayne is unlike any others.  He is cocky, charming, and likes to mention that he is rich.  While former Batmen Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney were also charming as “public” Bruce, none of them acted as immaturely as Bale’s public Bruce.  When Bruce plays this “character” to his peers, he acts like an obnoxious goof.  My favorite scene is when he is in the hotel.  Bale is dating “two” models and hears something about Batman.  Bale turns to the talkers, with the dumbest face ever, and, when asked of his opinion on Batman, he writes off the Caped Crusader as a guy who “clearly has issues”.  This scene marvelously shows Bruce owning the childish rich boy persona.  It would have been nice to see more scenes like this, because they enhance the character.  Not only does Bale own that character, but also he is funny.  But Bale also plays a serious Bruce when training.

Besides The Animated Series, Begins was the first time we had seen Batman train.  And who better to train him than Liam Neeson?  Batman Begins does what I love about some of my favorite movies: it gives a slow burn at first; but once it gets going, it never stops.  Throughout these training scenes, you see how much the character grows.  From being a cocky guy in prison to a humble learner in the mountains, Bale elegantly transforms the character.  The first time Neeson and Bruce meet, Bruce is, in Neeson’s words, “truly lost”.  But by the end of this long segment, Bruce learns much about himself.  Of course, his self-discovery plays into the overall story.

The movie contains a lot of foreshadowing.  The training segments foreshadow the character of Batman, the villains, their plans, and the end battle.  If foreshadowing is predictable, then it usually is not productive.  That said, Begins is anything but predictable.  Many of the weapons that Neeson demonstrates are what Bruce uses as Batman.  This was a great way to show how Batman came to be, instead of having a stupid scene in which Batman names off his weapons.  Sure, there is a scene in which Bruce is buying his mask, but the training sequence is one of the main reasons why this movie works.

Bruce returning to Gotham was expected, but so much had happened before then.  It almost felt like an entirely different movie before that point.  In the prior “movie,” we saw Bruce prepare to take revenge on the man who killed his parents, confront the crime boss who runs Gotham, and we saw Bruce expose the lowest form of himself to his lifelong friend, Rachel.  All of Bruce’s low points set up the second half of the movie perfectly.

Bruce is not the only character; however, that builds the movie to its payoff.  In fact, every character in this film has a purpose.  From Falcone to Crane to Ra’s Al Ghul, you get to see Batman work his way up to more and more powerful foes.  The one problem about this pacing structure is that the first thing Batman does is go after the big crime.  He doesn’t even stop smaller crimes first.  He just goes after the biggest fish, which leads into Batman’s first appearance.

While the buildup is awesome, the action is, unfortunately, terrible.  The first problem is that when Batman is fighting people, you literally cannot see what is happening.  The camera is too close, the lighting is too dark, and cuts happen every quarter of a second.  The other problem is that none of the action looks great.  The action scenes are especially disappointing because we don’t see Bruce apply any of his training that we saw earlier.

This franchise starter made a bold and admirable move—its main villains were never before seen in live-action films.  Scarecrow was by far the riskiest villain, in my opinion.  Before this film, he was not an important character in the Batman universe, unlike Ra’s Al Ghul.  But, Cillian Murphy destroyed the role, and Nolan did a perfect job of bringing Scarecrow, AKA Jonathan Crane, to the real world.  Not many villains of Batman roll over well into the real world.  Ra’s Al Ghul seemed easy, but I was unsure about Crane.  He doesn’t fight, and he doesn’t use any weapons outside of his fear toxin, and a creepy mask.  The character seemed to bizarre for what was supposed to be a grounded take on Batman.  What I love about the character is that he is always calm, cool, and collected, but brings an aura of power over anyone.  This shows even more so when he puts on his mask.  The best thing about Crane is that he is not in the film a lot.  But when he is, his screen time counts.  My favorite Crane scene is on the dock.  Crane disposes of Batman brilliantly, showing how much of a threat he is, especially with his fear toxin.

At the end, though, the bad guys were not the threat; fear was.  The film is all about fear, which makes the “fear bomb” even more significant during the climax.  It’s cool to think that all three villains (Falcone, Scarecrow, and Ra’s Al Ghul) had a part in the finale, yet the movie did not feel bloated with too many villains.  The final bout, however, is not great.  Pitting Bale (not a fighter) and Liam Neeson (the worst fighter in the Phantom Menace showdown) against one another is workable, but not when there is cutting every single second!  Within three seconds, Nolan cuts FIVE times.  Why?  It’s an attempt to make the fighters look faster.  But does that really make the fight better?  If you cannot see anything, then how could it be great?  Once again, another fight was poor, but in this sequence we are somewhat compensated by seeing Rachel electrocute Crane in the mouth, and we are treated to the showdown between Ghul’s pawns and Batman.

Overall, I love Batman Begins.  The tone of the film is perfect, and the dirty brown look of Gotham City no doubt conveys that tone.  One other gripe I have with the film is Michael Caine.  Sure, Caine is an amazing actor, but not as Alfred.  Caine just plays himself.  Begins has some problems, but it hits it home with its story and main actors, and for me that makes it an extremely worthy restart to the Batman series.  Tomorrow I tackle Dark Knight Rises.  Oh boy.

+ Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne

+ The tone of the film

+ The villains

+ The build up to Batman

– Action Scenes

– Michael Caine

= 7.8/10

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