Saturday, August 18, 2007

reVIEW (17)

With The Dark Knight currently filming and set for a 2008 release, I thought I’d take this one out of deep freeze.

Since the turn of the millennium, DC Comics has had a nearly null presence in the multiplexes, while their long-time four-color competition, Marvel, following its surprise hit in 1998 in Blade, has littered the pop culture consciousness with X-Men and Spider-Men, Hulks and Daredevils. And while DC attempted to rise to the challenge with last year’s Catwoman and this year’s Constantine, neither were what one would classify as excellent cinema.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins changes all that.

It’s been 15 years since Tim Burton’s hit, Batman, and 8 since the florid, gaudy explosion of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (which effectively killed the Bat franchise), and Nolan has managed to bring us the first Batman film that really and truly is, about the Batman.
Whereas past Bat films have had the tendency to play up the eccentricities of the Dark Knight’s bizarre villains, casting recognizable, A-list Hollywood names to further that agenda, Begins’ sights are firmly set on the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne, on the dynamics of his guilt and fear, so thoroughly intertwined in the tragic murder of his parents in front of his little boy eyes.
Excellent choice, Christian Bale, to essay the Dark Knight this time out. The young actor’s physicality, intensity, and commitment (he quickly bounced back from the emaciated insomniac he played in the ultimately disappointing El Maquinista to get into shape for Begins) serve him well, as we see Wayne from more dimensions and angles than we’d previously been allowed access to. What we have is the most substantial, and thus, most credible Bruce Wayne/Batman thus far. It was, after all, Bale’s intent to give the definitive performance of the character(s), and in this, he has succeeded admirably.

Of course, even the best actor can crash and burn if the script and the director are inept. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here.
Sharing co-writing credit with David Goyer (who also penned the scripts for the Blade films, as well as Dark City), Nolan delivers a film that is decidedly more complex—emotionally and psychologically—than past Bat films, and one that clearly has more adult sensibilities. For all their dark subversiveness, Tim Burton’s Bat films had a quirky streak of humor running through them; Nolan’s Begins is far less cartoony, more grounded in the reality of the character, and the seedy, corrupt milieu of Gotham City.

Presented as a tightly-packed, urban sprawl, this Gotham is no less the nightmare of a city than the gothic noir metropolis in Burton’s films (as realized by the late Anton Furst in Batman, and Bo Welch in Batman Returns). Here, Gotham is a city where hope lies bleeding in the filthy gutter, where criminals like Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone flood the streets with drugs, line their pockets with politicians, judges, and cops, and profit from the misery of the masses. The kind of city whose hero would be a creature of shadow, treading the fine line between justice and vengeance; a hero who isn’t scared of collateral damage (though I had hoped that as Bruce Wayne, he’d have paid for all the property damage the Batmobile caused), a hero whose greatest weapon is fear.
Ideal then, that the film not only feature the villain Scarecrow (28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy, who was actually on the shortlist to play Batman before Bale drove off with the cape and cowl), who uses a chemical to amplify his victims’ phobias, but that the story focus on Bruce Wayne’s fears as well, not simply of bats, but of the possibility of failing in his dead father’s eyes.
There hasn’t been a comic book film with this much thematic cohesion—of story, plot, and action—since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (for my money, still better than the sequel).

With material of this integrity already in hand, Nolan takes the further step of surrounding the lead star with heavy-hitting thespians like Wilkinson, Gary Oldman (as Sgt. Jim Gordon, one of the few good cops left in Gotham), Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox, Wayne’s personal Q), Liam Neeson (as Ducard, Wayne’s Miyagi), and Michael Caine (as Alfred, Wayne’s Man Friday). In fact, there’s enough Oscar mojo here for younger cast members Bale, Murphy, and Katie Holmes (as Wayne’s childhood friend/love interest, Rachel Dawes) to get their own gold statuettes through osmosis.

Thus, with the leathery flap of a bat’s wings, and the sturm und drang theatricality of the operatic undertones of Bob Kane’s 66-year-old Dark Knight, DC Comics has snatched silver screen glory back.
And with Bryan Singer’s eagerly-awaited Superman Returns set to take flight on June 30, 2006, DC looks to be seriously flexing its celluloid muscles, something that should give even the mighty Marvel pause.

(Batman Begins OS courtesy of

(The above review was previously published in 2005 under the title, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Bat?”)

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