Posted on 06 July 2012.
Countdown to “The Dark Knight Rises”: Part 9 of 11 – “Batman Begins”
If you missed it here is Part 1 of 11: Introduction to Batman “The Gift”
And here is Part 2 of 11: A look Back at Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’
And Part 3: ‘Batman Returns’
And Part 4: ‘Batman Forever’
And Part 5 ‘Batman and Robin’
Part 6: ‘Batman: The Animated Series’
Part 7: ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’
Part 8: ‘Batman: Arkham City’
It’s more than cliché to describe things as emotional roller coasters. It’s a quick reference to get. You visualize the ups and the downs. Your heart and stomach seemingly temporarily lodged in your esophagus. Unfortunately, the roller coaster description doesn’t take into account the thrills the ride is supposed to provide. What activity can simultaneously make you thrilled, then underwhelmed, then depressed, finally turning you toward ambivalence and apathy? If that’s the way the Batman ride at Magic Mountain works (appropriately enough, it’s called “Batman: The Ride”), then I guess the analogy is more than apt, because that’s exactly how I felt through the stages of my Batman fandom from unwrapping my first Batman toy through Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin.
Once that film hit and it graced (probably not the word I’d use to describe it, regardless of the fact that I just did) my sightline, I was ready to give up. My favorite character had been kicked to the curb by the film industry and I was happy to just let it happen. There was an X-Men movie coming to screens soon and I could just latch onto my second-place medal in the shape of Wolverine. Of course, that movie disappointed me before it was even released (I still hate the costumes) and maybe comic book movies just weren’t for me.
As each year passed, fewer and fewer new movies excited me. I went to college and was taught the beauty held by older films. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick became my super heroes. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly – my objects of affection. Actually, the sentence doesn’t really work for Cary Grant, but he’s still a stud. Any desire to watch what could be deemed a “flick” had been seeped out of me, much like the artificial butter on that proverbial popcorn you’re required to consume when taking in one of those films.
When Batman Begins arrived in 2005, I knew nothing about it. It was as much on my radar as the new Adam Sandler movie (which that year was The Longest Yard. *No, I’ve never seen it.*). I was still singing the hook from J. Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” from three years before (specifically the “bridges were burned part”). Instead of a girl doing me wrong, it was a man named Joel Schumacher and a mastermind named Warner Bros. Like a jilted lover, I didn’t want to dive back into the pool again. The movie arrived in theaters with nary a peep from me. But then something happened. Talk was positive. People started clamoring about the movie and how different it was from any previous incarnation.
At that point in time, Christopher Nolan’s name meant two movies to me. A perfectly fine film in Insomnia and the excellent Memento. Regardless of the latter’s greatness, it wasn’t a paragon of action, nor could it be intrinsically linked to what I’d imagine a “Batman film” to be. That was due to a lack of imagination on my part and I was happy to be proven wrong.
After much time and goading, I finally sat down in a theater to watch the film. It was a non-stadium-style-seating theater in a college town that was pretty packed by the time we sat down, so we sat close to the screen. I still wasn’t particularly excited for the experience and definitely had whatever anticipation there was brewing within me diminished by the proximity of the screen to my face. Despite the issues, I was seeing a new Batman film for the first time in eight years and the sour taste from all those moons ago would slowly evaporate from my taste buds as each minute passed.
As a Batman fan, it’s odd to think how little I knew about the character’s beginnings going into Nolan’s reboot of the franchise. There’s never been a true origin story covered by either Tim Burton or Schumacher in the previous films, outside of some brief flashbacks. And even then the only part of the story we’d ever been given was Bruce Wayne and his parents leave the theater and are mugged by a thug. The thug shoots both of his parents dead. That’s our hero’s humble beginning.
Outside of the murder of his parents, even “Batman: The Animated Series” never truly filled in the gap between what brought Bruce from being an orphaned child to a cape-donning crusader. There are brushes with him learning the art of ninjitsu, but these are told via flashback as well, never really bringing the viewer up-to-date. And though Ra’s al Ghul was involved in the show, they were in latter episodes I had either never seen or never bothered to connect from when I was younger.
Luckily, as Nolan says in one of the Blu-ray extras, the timespan between Bruce’s parents’ death and his rebirth had never really been filled in anyway, so they were at liberty to do so and I was off the hook not being as hardcore a Bat-fan as I purported to be.
Scarecrow looks like he's got a bad episode ready to happen.
I found it initially difficult to get with the idea of Bruce Wayne being in prison and fighting with samurai swords due to my lack of knowledge about that period of the character’s life. It was unfamiliar territory for me and as the typical reaction goes when you don’t know about something, you fear it. Luckily, that’s exactly what this movie is all about. Overcoming your fear. Then embracing it. In fact, though that’s not a directly quote, it’s a decent paraphrase of what Ducard says to Bruce during their training together. Of course he then adds using that fear to combat those that prey of the fearful and that just doesn’t really fit the theme of either this writing or my viewing.
After my initial reluctance and upon further viewings of the film, I’ve embraced the training sequences. They’re obviously a necessity to get you to believe how Christian Bale went from being a toothpick in The Machinist to resembling a stallion in this. However, there’s little more joy had in the origin story than during the construction-of-the-suit sequence. I could have easily spent a half-hour purely on this spectacle. Batman’s costume is the fetish of all his fans and the scenes of him selecting each piece is the pornographic footage we’d been salivating for. This is done with such perfection that I’m convinced one of the reasons Iron Man is viewed to be so successful is because it took its costume construction cues from Batman Begins.
As mentioned above, the resounding themes within the movie are both conquering/embracing your fears and the ability to get back up after falling down (No, Chumbawamba did not make an appearance on the soundtrack).
The theme about fear pops up throughout the movie. It’s initially verbalized by Ducard during his training sessions with Bruce. The trainings are all about bottling up the fear that brews within Bruce and channeling it into something else. Ducard would like it channeled into anger. Bruce just wants to overcome.
After the training, Bruce retreats to Gotham with dreams of becoming more than a man, and transforming himself into a symbol. Learning from Prince’s past mistake, he chooses one that’s clearly definable. At the same time, it allows him to embrace one of his own fears – bats.
With the symbol concocted and the Batman costume created, Bruce is ready to rid the residents of Gotham of Carmine Falcone, the gangster who rules the streets with an iron fist of fear.
The Batman cadre of villains has a nice roster to fit any occasion and none of them satisfies the theme of fear (with the addition of never being part of a Batfilm before) than the Scarecrow. Dr. Jonathan Crane uses his burlap sack mask that could only be creepier if it was worn by a mute child (watch The Orphanage to get the reference, or just this clip: http://youtu.be/oXfHOY3CC0g) and his patented “fear toxin” to induce terror in criminals in order to get them moved from a potential jail cell to a padded one.
Scarecrow uses his two-step fear combo on Batman, culminating in lighting the be-winged Bruce on fire. This merges the two themes into one as Bruce needs to shake off the fears the toxin induces and get right back up to continue fighting crime.
The tools at Bruce Wayne's disposal help make him Batman.
Dr. Crane is ultimately a puppet for Ra’s al Ghul’s plans for destroying Gotham altogether. It’s amusing the scheme they’ve hatched has to do with tainting the city’s water supply, which I mentioned when talking about “Batman: The Animated Series” seems to be a go-to Batman villain scheme as it’s done by Scarecrow in an episode of that show and by Joker in an installment of the ‘60s “Batman.” At the very least, Batman Begins differentiates himself from that “Batman: TAS” episode with the microwave emitter acting as trigger of the tainted drinking water.
The great divide between Batman Begins and any other filmed version of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is Chris Nolan set out for realism. Bruce doesn’t have super powers. He trained hard to get to where he is. He’s grounded and woven in the fabric of the Gotham community. Even if he’s their richest citizen and not remotely included in their 99%, he represents them without being a card-carrying member.
The only times the film becomes a “movie” in the winking/nodding sense is with some of its buttons to finish scenes. Dialogue like “Does it come in black?” after taking a joyride in the tumbler or “Dr. Crane isn’t hear right now, but if you’d like to make an appointment…” when Scarecrow suffers from a taste of his own medicine, caters to a certain type of moviegoer and brings levity to the situations. I’m not saying those lines aren’t amusing and/or chuckle-worthy, but I believe they’d been stripped from any draft if they’d existed at all in The Dark Knight. I’d either blame studio meddling on being afraid to just embrace the realistic take or perhaps on co-writer David Goyer’s involvement (he only has story credit on the two “Dark Knight” films). It’s obviously an easy thing to overlook in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of the things that separates it from even its successor, The Dark Knight.
Batman Begins works as a great title in many ways. It signals the start of a new franchise. It triggers a rebirth of the character. It renewed my faith in what Batman could be. I’m thankful people braver than I struck out to see the film before me and assuaged my fears by forcing me to see it myself. In the end, that’s what the movie is all about.
Next week: Nolan provides us with perhaps the best superhero film ever made and without a doubt the darkest in “The Dark Knight.”