It’s tempting to call Batman Begins the Citizen Kane of super-hero movies; at any rate, it’s the closest thing so far.
Oh yes, it’s one of the very best, along with Superman and Spider-Man 2. It’s also the most sophisticated, nuanced, mature super-hero movie to date, and the most masterful, in-depth origin story ever filmed. It avoids the campiness found even in the first two Superman films and the cartoony psychology and relationships of the Spider-Man films. At the same time, it’s more operatic, mythic, and larger-than-life than the
Above all, Batman Begins succeeds where the earlier run of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed: It creates a compelling, complex personality behind the cowl, a hero who is more than a figurehead in his own film, overshadowed by colorful adversaries. At last, the Dark Knight has a soul.
Batman Begins invites the Citizen Kane epithet for other reasons. Citizen Kane broke new ground in non-linear, subjective storytelling; and while director Christopher Nolan’s real breakthrough in this regard was his previous effort Memento, Batman Begins takes a more modestly non-chronological approach to a much larger portrait, a bigger story.
Like Kane, Batman is the story of an ambitious, fabulously rich, larger-than-life protagonist, a man living in the shadow of childhood trauma, struggling to define himself and what he stands for, driven by his obsessions, ultimately standing outside ordinary human society. The great difference, of course, is that Charles Foster Kane ultimately loses himself, whereas Bob Kane’s caped hero finds himself.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds. No similarly iconic pulp hero is harder to define than Batman. Superman was born great, and Spider-Man had greatness thrust upon him, but Batman achieved greatness. Yet Superman and Spider-Man have clearly defined characters and personalities that have remained fairly consistent and durable throughout their histories. For nearly seventy years Superman has appeared in various pulp, radio, animated and live-action television, literary, and cinematic interpretations, with over a dozen actors behind the mike or in the tights, yet he’s pretty much always recognizably the same character. Spider-Man has a similar integrity over his shorter and less varied forty-odd year history.
The same can’t be said for Batman. The trappings remain consistent: Orphaned in childhood by a gun-wielding mugger, millionaire Bruce Wayne trains himself to fight crime, with an arsenal of weapons procured with his family fortune and a giant cave under his ancestral estate as a base of operations. His personality, though, shifts wildly in different decades and media. Varying portrayals include a revenge-obsessed vigilante, a friendly, Superman-like civil servant in incongruously cooler colors, a grim champion of justice, and of course a camp icon climbing bat-ropes and escaping ever goofier deathtraps devised by over-the-top costumed villains.
Of the three actors in the four big-screen Batman movies released from 1989 to 1997, no two seem to be playing the same character. The ominous dark knight of the celebrated 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” is nothing like the camp hero of the 1970s “New Adventures of Batman” cartoons, so close in spirit to the cheesy live-action 60s show that they actually featured the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward.
Ironically, of all super-hero icons, Batman has the clearest and strongest roots in prior pulp mythology. Where did Superman come from? It’s hard to say. No remotely similar character existed prior to him; he seems to have appeared from nowhere, almost as if he really did arrive from another planet. By contrast, Batman’s cultural forerunners are easier to spot: Zorro, the Shadow, the Phantom, and Dick Tracy among them, along with the titular character of the 1926 silent film The Bat, who was actually a villain.
Batman isn’t a villain, but from the beginning he was meant to be scary. “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot,” muses Bruce Wayne all the way back in 1939. “So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black, terrible… a… a…” As if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window… “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat!”
Batman’s dark side was considerably softened by the introduction of Robin in the 1940s and the lighthearted take on the character in the early 1950s — but the dark side eventually reasserted itself, most influentially in the 1980s in writer-artist Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.
On the big screen, Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns might be described as an awkward fusion of the two halves of the Batman mythos’s split personality, the dark and the camp (with Schumacher’s sequels tilting decisively into camp). Unfortunately, this mixture of moods left no room for Batman (or Bruce Wayne) to emerge as a cogent personality, and the title character wound up being a cipher, a hollow straight man unable to stop overacting co-stars from stealing the show.
Now, though, Batman begins anew. Forget the previous Batman movies: Batman Begins isn’t a prequel, but a reboot — a clean slate for the Dark Knight.
What emerges from the tragedy and drama of Bruce Wayne’s life, eventually, is a fearsome id pressed into the service of the superego, aggression channeled by conscience. Lacking the super-powers of other heroes, Batman depends on fear and stealth, and isn’t above terrifying a confession out of a thug. But he fights for justice rather than revenge, he won’t kill, and would even risk his life to save an opponent.
“Your compassion is a weakness your enemies won’t share,” warns an enigmatic early mentor known only as Ducard (Liam Neeson).
“That’s why it’s so important,” counters Bruce.
Ducard introduces Bruce to a man he calls Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Wantanbe, The Last Samurai), Arabic for “the demon’s head.” Ra’s (properly pronounced “Raish,” but here given the common mispronunciation “Roz”) leads the mysterious League of Shadows (known in the comics as the League of Assassins), dedicated to combating the scourge of human decadence — but its methods include murder, fear, and ultimately weapons of mass destruction aimed at an urban target. Batman, of course, fights to save his society from corruption, not destroy both together, and in an ambitious third-act showdown he wages a literal war on terror against this overtly al-Quaedalike adversary.
This third act is perhaps the most satisfying of any first installation in a super-hero franchise, easily outdoing Spider-Man’s underwhelming confrontation with the Green Goblin, X-Men’s preliminary exhibition match with Magneto, and arguably even Superman’s climactic struggle with Lex Luthor.
What all of these earlier films do is to pit their heroes right out of the gate against their archnemeses. In two of the three cases, this has the effect of diminishing the villain: Luthor becomes a comic figure rather than a truly menacing mastermind, and the Green Goblin is reduced to also-ran status; only Magneto survives with his formidable dignity intact. With Batman Begins, by contrast, Nolan is clearly pacing himself, saving the Joker for the sequel — yet the energy and scale of the third act is anything but an anticlimax.
Fundamentally, though, Batman Begins is an origin story, and a penetrating, insightful one. It’s the first retelling of Batman’s origins I’ve seen that goes beyond the nominal fact of the murder of Bruce’s parents to explore who Thomas and Martha Wayne (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart) were, and how young Bruce was shaped by his relationship with them — and by their murder. The details of that defining event in this retelling are perfect, from the production the Waynes were attending and the reason they sought the theater exit, to the moment of suppressed apprehension on Thomas Wayne’s face as he takes in their surroundings. Dr. Wayne’s last moments have the indelible force of a searing childhood memory, and we feel Bruce’s loss acutely.
The film also pays tribute to Frank Miller’s take on Batman’s origins by, among other things, including an earlier childhood trauma in which young Bruce takes a fall into the huge cave beneath his parents’ mansion, and has a frightful encounter with its flying inhabitants. Later, Bruce’s father assures him that the bats were more scared of him than he was of them. “All creatures know fear,” Dr. Wayne says.
“Even the scary ones?” Bruce asks.
“Especially the scary ones,” his father answers.
Perhaps most crucial of all, though, is a later event in Bruce’s life, original to the film, that brilliantly sets up all the key elements of Batman’s persona: his superhuman dedication, his masked anonymity, his repudiation of firearms, his principled commitment to justice rather than revenge, his method of fear. This inspired sequence begins with Bruce, now a young man of the world, returning to Gotham to testify at a parole hearing parole hearing for Joe Chill (Richard Brake), the two-bit thug who killed his parents. Chill’s testimony at the hearing is perfectly calibrated, humanizing the character without overdoing it; and Bruce realizes that words are empty.
At that point we see that Bruce is prepared to throw his life away on a massively stupid act of vengeance — until a dramatic series of events brings home to him how pointless this would have been, and how much larger the problem is than one petty thug. Then comes the moment when his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) realizes what Bruce had intended to do, and slaps him, not once but twice, telling him, “Your father would be ashamed of you.” It’s devastating because it’s true, and it’s followed by an even more eye-opening encounter with a local crime boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson).
That night, in a way, Bruce Wayne grows up, and makes a fateful decision to give up his life in a very different way from his earlier plans — one that will take him down a long, hard road to an unknown destination, and will ultimately open new possibilities to him instead of closing them.
Besides the League of Shadows (and Falcone), Batman Begins has another peddler of fear: Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy in the film’s best performance), aka the Scarecrow, an arrogant, corrupt young psychiatrist who specializes in paranoia and hysteria. Both the Scarecrow and the League use a hallucinogenic fear-toxin, a plot device responsible for nightmarish imagery that is among of the film’s most striking — and frightening (too frightening for young children).
On the side of the angels are Lieutenant (someday Commissioner) Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few straight cops in Gotham; Wayne family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), Bruce’s foil and conscience; and Wayne Enterprises veteran Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who like “Q” in the 007 films provides the hero with the technology he needs his mission.
This impressive cast is a major part of the film’s success, aided by the astonishing production design of Gotham City, which looks like Manhattan to the third power, with gleaming skyscrapers, a futuristic elevated monorail, and a bleak, sordid underbelly.
If Batman Begins stumbles at all, it’s in taking on so much story and development that a few things fall between the cracks. Gary Oldman’s Lt. Gordon is terrific, but Nolan could have given his uneasy relationship with Batman more time to develop. And a brief exchange between Bruce and Rachel following a public stunt designed to bolster Bruce’s public spoiled-playboy image suggests a context that the film hasn’t established. Still, one can accept the film’s suggestive indications of a larger continuity it can’t fully recount.
A more nettlesome shortcoming, though still a minor quibble, is in an area where Batman Begins ought to have excelled: the combat sequences. Where previous movie Batmans were so bound in rubber and laytex that they were about as flexible as plastic action figures, Nolan and company took the trouble to give their caped crusader the mobility and physicality needed for his calling. Yet, for some reason, every time Batman goes into combat, the film resorts to quick, close camerawork and rapid-fire editing that make it impossible to see what’s actually happening.
This is perhaps understandable the first time, where we haven’t yet gotten a good look at Batman and the whole point is that he’s playing the shadows, staying out of sight. In subsequent sequences, though, it becomes unsatisfying — an odd lapse for a film that’s so focused on utility and practicality.
If Batman Begins isn’t quite the Citizen Kane of super-hero movies, it may be largely for this one misstep. Perhaps it’s The Godfather of super-hero movies instead. That might be even better… especially if Nolan and Bale go on to make the super-hero equivalent of The Godfather Part II.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.