Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Retro Review (Part One): Batman Begins

 As some of you may know, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy comes to a close this Friday with The Dark Knight Rises, and in the spirit of pre-gaming I decided to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight again this past weekend. If each part is a stand-alone entry in a larger story, it makes sense to take a look at the first and second chapters again. That way, I can walk into The Dark Knight Rises with plot points and small moments fresh in my mind. After all, if we are to believe the hype, Nolan has tied all of the films together with his third entry.

 I had actually seen The Dark Knight more recently than Batman Begins (quite a few times more recently) so I thought I'd focus on the first film today, a movie that I enjoyed with a few caveats. At the time it did wonders to erase the memory of Bat-nipples and "ice" related punnery, but I can't quite go so far as to say that Batman Begins was a total success. I gather you've seen the film by now (it's been seven years and if you're even considering watching The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, I strongly urge you to) so rather than deal with a plot synopsis, I'm going to jump right into what I think works, what I think doesn't necessarily work, and some adjustments to my reaction after seeing it again two nights ago.

 First, let's look at what works:

 - Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne
 - Treating Batman like the monster in a horror movie for his first outing.
 - The supporting cast (including Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer, Mark Boone Junior, and yes, Katie Holmes)
 - Keeping the villains (mostly) simple: mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) with limited use of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson).
 - In general, the idea that most of the film is grounded in reality, including how Wayne gets his "wonderful toys."
 - The chase scene between the police and the Tumbler (which is admittedly surpassed in The Dark Knight using similar geography).
 - Keeping the retelling of the "origin story" short and to the point, and extra points for Joe Chill (Richard Brake) killing the Waynes (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart) instead of  Jack Napier / the Joker (I'm looking at you, Tim Burton!).
 - How little Batman figures into the first half of the film, and when he does, how Wayne uses each outing to improve his skills.
 - The hallucinations resulting from Scarecrow's toxin, especially when we see Batman through Crane's drugged vision.

 What doesn't work so well:

 - Ra's al Ghul's ultimate plan, which is of a James Bond villain caliber, complete with a super gadget, speeding train, and exposition spouting guy at waterworks who tells us the same things Gordon, Batman, and Ghul have already said.
 - The cowl for Batman just looks clunky. Sure, they address this in The Dark Knight, but this isn't The Dark Knight, so I have to dock it points for the suit being cumbersome.
 - The fight scenes are a little "meh" and not always easy to follow, from the opening Chinese prison fight to the League of Shadows ninja battle to Batman's final showdown with Ra's.
 - As much as I like Liam Neeson as Ducard / Ra's, it might have been more effective to keep "week one" of Batman's tenure devoted to Crane and Falcone. If you really needed to add someone else, Mr. Zsaz is already in the film but mostly underused.
 - When Ra's arrives, Gotham begins to look less like a real city and things turn into "movie" reality, where the train fight looks like a soundstage and so do all the streets it passes over. It's a shift from what made the film so interesting to the typical "comic book movie" showdown.
 - Setting everybody in Arkham free in the "Narrows" turns out to be basically a wasted opportunity, as the film quickly shifts Gordon and Batman back to mainland Gotham as they race to Wayne Tower.
 - Similarly, Rachel Dawes' arc as a prosecutor ends up being much ado about nothing, as all of the setup in her building a case around Falcone and Crane disappears so that Batman can save her three times. She doesn't even do much in the chaotic prison break, other than protect a little boy (future Joffrey Baratheon Jack Gleeson) and taser (taze?) Scarecrow.

 What I didn't mind so much this time:

 - Really, it's just Bale's Batman "voice," which is kind of a Clint Eastwood growl. It used to bother me and sometimes make me laugh but to be honest with you, I don't mind it distinguishing Bruce Wayne from Batman. That he doesn't use it consistently is still a peeve, but otherwise it didn't bug me.
 - I mentioned Jack Gleeson, now famous for Game of Thrones, as appearing in the film, something I didn't realize until I put Batman Begins on again. It's not a big part, but he does appear in the middle of the film and then again during the climax.
 - In light of where it goes in The Dark Knight, I no longer mind the sequel-baiting "Joker" scene that closes the film, and the discussion between Gordon and Batman about escalation really sets the stage for the next film.
 - This is total speculation, but I suspect that The Dark Knight Rises will have a lot more in common with Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, especially with early reviews citing Ra's al Ghul as an inspiration for Bane (Tom Hardy)'s master plan. Also, it drives the "full circle" concept home more than simply continuing the post-Harvey Dent saga.

 Okay, so Batman Begins is pretty much the way I remember it: a mostly good film with touches of great that I enjoyed a whole lot in 2005 and still dig today. I think its flaws are more evident than The Dark Knight's, a review I'll get to on Thursday, heading into the weekend of the Batman. In the Nolan filmography, I'd have to put Batman Begins before Insomnia but after The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Memento. It's more polished than Following, and this isn't a "favorite to least favorite" scale, because I think there are fascinating aspects about all of his films, but it's not a movie I leap to revisit (like the first four are). It's a solid reboot of the Batman story when it was desperately needed and it set the stage for a spectacular sequel.

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