BATMAN BEGINS: All Creatures Feel Fear

Batman Begins (2005) – Directed by Christopher Nolan – Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Mark Boone Junior, Linus Roache, and Rade Serbedzija.

There is this thing that happens with superhero movies where the second films in trilogies tend to overshadow the first film, even if the first film was pretty darn great on its own: Spider-Man 2 trumps Spider-Man, X2 trumps X-Men, Blade II trumps Blade, Iron Man 2 … well, okay, this Sequel Shadow Effect isn’t a guarantee or anything, but it does happen with the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, as THE DARK KNIGHT has been widely (and justifiably) heralded as one of the greatest superhero movies, while BATMAN BEGINS has been largely relegated to the corner.

Heck, even the decision to refer to the Nolan films as The Dark Knight Trilogy is a subtle dig at BEGINS, and I’m guessing that somewhere in the Warner’s production or marketing offices they wish they had given the DARK KNIGHT title to BEGINS.

There is an upside to the second film in a trilogy becoming the dominant film, however. If the second film gets the bulk of attention (and spins in the Blu Ray player), re-watching the first film can be a really pleasant treat. I say this to encourage you to give BEGINS a new watch if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it, because this is an exceptionally well made movie. I’m probably one of the few who’s watched BEGINS more than I’ve watched DARK KNIGHT, but don’t read into that comment that I’m about to make the case that BEGINS is a better movie than DARK KNIGHT. They’re both excellent, and parsing out which one is better is an interesting chat but not the kind of conversation I’m going to invest in too heavily.

The reason I’ve watched BEGINS more is largely a product of when it was released and what it represented, which was something completely new to superhero movies. I don’t mean to overstate the literariness of Nolan’s film, but rather to point out the largeness of the film and the look of the film. Most superhero movies feel very isolated because superhero movies (especially origin stories) tend to be focused on an individual’s journey and focus on a specific setting, but Nolan opens the Batman mythos up to the entire world. Philosophically, Nolan’s BEGINS is interested in not just the individual, but the symbolism of the hero.

It’s been said a million times by a million people that DC heroes represent who we strive to be while Marvel heroes represent who we are, and Nolan is the first director to really examine the DC end of that idea, though it’s less about the perfect ideals a hero represents and more about the ramifications of creating something grandiose, of creating something that will inspire other people. Nolan executes this idea brilliantly by making Bruce aware that he’s building something in Batman that will become a symbol that goes well beyond one person in a costume stopping bad guys.

You can reduce BEGINS down to its core concept very easily; it’s about a boy who grows up and tries to live up to his father’s standards by taking a different path. I love this angle because so few superhero movies are about a man attempting to live up to the legacy of his father. We haven’t yet reached that stage in superhero movies, yet, where legacy characters take over the mantle, but Bruce (Christian Bale) is clearly attempting to become as good a man as Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache) was in his day, before he was murdered by a mugger in an alley next to an opera house.

There are plenty of superhero movies which deal with fathers and sons (both blood or surrogate), but this is the first time where living up to this legacy plays such an important and critical role in the film. (By the main character – the other best example of this aspect of a legacy character is Harry Osborn in the Raimi Spider-Man films.) And it’s the best example of a character deciding that the way to make the same kind of impact as his father is to put on a costume and punch people. Bruce is still exceedingly wealthy and if he wanted to walk in his father’s footsteps and build lots of new building and projects for Gotham, he certainly could. If Bruce were willing to be more critical of his father, he might admit part of his motivation to become Batman is because his father’s economic approach failed.

In the film’s final act, the big action sequence takes place on the monorail that his father paid to have built. On the night Bruce’s parents are killed, they take the monorail into the heart of the city, and we see that the cars are brand new, bright, and shiny. Obviously, this represents the dream of a better Gotham, and the end of the film, when the monorail has become an unsafe means of transportation and when the cars have become dirty, represents the failed execution of that dream. That Batman and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) have their final battle in the monorail is, of course, not a coincidence.

The argument between Bruce and Ra’s (or Ducard, as he identifies himself during the opening portion of the film when he’s hiding his identity) through the film comes down to nothing more than a differing philosophy in how to fix something that’s broken. Ra’s method is that one must destroy what is broken while Bruce holds out hope that Gotham isn’t beyond saving. In part, then, this philosophical difference is cause by a difference of opinion in where Gotham lies on the Scale of Broken – Ra’s thinks it’s beyond hope while Bruce doesn’t, but even if Bruce did think Gotham was lost, he would not be cool with killing hundreds, let alone thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands, of people in order to make something better.

Yet the film makes clear Bruce is not against destroying the city’s architecture in order to make Gotham better. He destroys the monorail because Ra’s is using it to unleash his toxin on Gotham, but symbolically (and BEGINS is all about symbols), Bruce’s decision to sacrifice one of his father’s great projects works as an indication that as much as Bruce loves his father, his father’s approach to fixing the city did not work. Bruce has such a hero worship for his dad that the move has to come symbolically. The same can be said for the destruction of Wayne Manor, which is caused by Ra’s League of Shadows. Bruce tells Rachel he’s going to rebuild the mansion to look exactly like it was, but Alfred (Michael Caine) suggests that Bruce could use this as an opportunity to fortify the corner of Wayne Manor that houses the Batcave. By keeping the visible mansion obsessively the same, Bruce seeks to rebuild the public face of the Wayne family (which is still his father’s face), but by expanding the Batcave, Bruce is also admitting that his father’s way did not work.

There’s two parts of the Batcave expansion that strike home with me. The first and most important aspect is that it’s Alfred who raises the idea that a literal reproduction of Wayne Manor isn’t all they should be doing. Alfred steps into the role of surrogate father to young Bruce, but his parenting style is less about providing direction as it is about providing re-direction when Bruce’s life has fallen off course. Throughout the film, it’s Alfred who is most keenly aware of the fact that Bruce is struggling to live up to his father’s legacy, and it’s Alfred who pushes him to embrace that legacy while still becoming his own man.

Michael Caine is phenomenal in BEGINS. Much life Michael Gough in the Burton/Schumacher Quadrilogy, he’s often the very best part of the movie. Caine oozes concern contained by his position, but he’s not afraid to speak his mind when he feels it’s absolutely necessary, though he usually tries to get his point across within the bounds of his professional position in the house. (This is my second favorite butler portrayal ever, after Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day.) BEGINS needs Caine to be good because of Bruce’s desire to live up to his father’s legacy, and because his father is gone for most of the film. For that matter, Linus Roache is also exceptional in BEGINS – there’s never any reason to doubt that Bruce would want to live up to his father’s legacy whether Thomas Wayne was the richest man in Gotham or its poorest. It’s Alfred who first has to step out of his professional boundaries, and that gives him insight into helping Bruce step out of his self-imposed familial boundaries, even if he’s not always a fan of the way Bruce accomplishes this freedom.

The second and smaller point the Batcave expansion brings up is Bruce’s ancestor who used the caves as part of the Underground Railroad. What I like about this aspect is that it allows Bruce to plug into the Wayne’s family legacy in a private way. There’s been previous Waynes using the shadows to enact change, and Bruce is now part of that tradition, too.

Ra’s is the third father figure for Bruce in the film, and it’s Ra’s who teaches Bruce how to perfect his fighting skills and how to use theatricality for his benefit. Ra’s teaches him about the power of symbols, too, and so Bruce is the product not just of Thomas Wayne, but Alfred and Ra’s, as well. It’s critical that Bruce takes what he considers the best parts of each three parental figures, while rejecting that which doesn’t work. I think Nolan does a fantastic job of creating Bruce as his own man in what he adopts and rejects from these three dads. As adamantly as Bruce rejects Ra’s philosophy, he still embraces Ra’s skills.

Lucious Fox (an excellent Morgan Freeman) is sort of a father figure, too, but he’s the kind of grandfather who just gives you lots of presents and doesn’t ask too many questions, meaning he treats Bruce both like he’s a child and like he’s his own man.

Nolan is more interested in Bruce Wayne than he is Batman, and those are the better parts of the film. Christian Bale is very good as Bruce, only okay as Bats, but that’s partly a product of design, too. Look at the Bat costume – it’s totally black. Lucious gives him the suit (which was designed for military use) and it’s already black, and Bruce proceeds to paint it a deeper black. It’s a bit ironic that in creating a symbol for the city, Bruce chooses the most colorless outfit imaginable. There’s a Bat symbol on the chest, but it’s the exact same color as the rest of the suit; there’s no way, in the dark, anyone is going to see it. In fact, if you look at the costume, the only two non-black areas are the exposed parts of Bruce’s lower face and the gold utility belt. Why’s the belt gold and not the symbol?

One of Chris Nolan’s strengths as a director is the performances he gets from his actors, and there’s good performances all over BEGINS. I’ve touched on Caine, Roache, Bale, and Freeman, but Gary Oldman is every bit as great as Sergeant Jim Gordon, one of the few straight-laced cops on the Gotham police force. Bruce is drawn to Gordon because he’s not on the take, and even though there’s not a huge character arc for Gordon, Oldman makes me believe Gordon is a well-rounded character who’s caught in an impossible situation where his best chance to make a difference comes in believing in an impossible person.

Cillian Murphy is good as Dr. Jonathan Crane, but the Scarecrow is better. Nolan has said that no other superheroes exist in his world and so it’s important, I think, for the first super villain we experience in this universe is just a guy who puts on a simple mask that becomes scary because he douses you with chemicals. It helps play into the escalation of villains that we experience throughout the trilogy.

Tom Wilkinson excellent as Carmine Falcone is first presented as Gotham’s equivalent to the Kingpin, but his power becomes stripped and lessened as we move through the film. We learn that he’s being used by Ra’s to move drugs into the city and when he tries to make a power play with Dr. Crane (Ra’s middle man), the shrink douses him with toxin and turns him crazy.

Katie Holmes has taken a lot of heat for her performance, but I don’t think it’s a matter of her being awful as much as it is her inability to reach the heights of everyone else in the cast. It’s a bit unfair to even put her in this film because there’s no way she’s not going to get swallowed up by the talent around her.

I really like BATMAN BEGINS, but I like the Bruce Wayne portions more than the Batman sequences. Nolan does seem a bit uncomfortable here with the notion of superheroes – that someone would choose to put on a ridiculous costume and go out to willingly punch and kick people – but I do like what he does with that in terms of the purposeful construction of a cultural symbol that Bruce engages in. I love the scope of the film, and I prefer Bruce outside of Gotham to Bruce/Bats inside of Gotham. No one gets shots of buildings on mountain sides like Nolan, and it’s these scenes where Bruce has yet to even consider becoming Batman where everything works.

It’s certainly not a happy movie, though, as is best evidenced by Bruce’s decision to create a symbol of fear rather than hope. Bruce is not the kind of guy who wants to inspire through the bright and shiny like his father did; he’s the kind of guy who wants to inspire through darkness. It’s a very cynical take on heroes and what motivates individuals to become better people.

BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t wholly embraced when it was released back in 2005, and as of this writing it’s only the 14th highest grossing superhero film at the domestic box office. And in another couple of days it will be passed by THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and drop into 15th place. To put BEGINS’ domestic box office performance into a bit of perspective – it’s total domestic gross was $205 million.

The Avengers did $207 million it’s opening weekend. And yes, Avengers has the benefit of 3D receipts, ticket inflation (though we’re talking a seven year gap, not seventy), and superhero movies now being the cool kid on the block, but we’re still talking about the opening weekend of Avengers doing more business than the entire domestic run of BEGINS.

That blows me away.

These are the superhero movies that did bigger box office that BATMAN BEGINS: Avengers, THE DARK KNIGHT, Spider-Man 1, 2, 3, Iron Man 1, 2, Incredibles, Batman, X-Men: The Last Stand, Amazing Spider-Man, Hancock, and X2. The much-maligned Superman Returns only did $5 million less than BEGINS, so to loop back to my original point, BEGINS is a much less seen and appreciated movie than DARK KNIGHT.

But it’s still a damn good movie and while I’m not going to fight anyone to the death arguing it’s better than DARK KNIGHT, I am always going to bang the drum for all the things that BATMAN BEGINS does right.

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2 thoughts on “BATMAN BEGINS: All Creatures Feel Fear

  1. It is definitely an awesome movie, my girlfriend and I watched it the other night to prepare for DKR (this was her first viewing but I’ve seen Begins multiple times). The only thing that doesn’t sit well with me, and it is a minor quibble in comparison to everything else, is the microwave emitter that can vaporize water in metal pipes but doesn’t do a thing to the water in human bodies standing right next to it.

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  2. I loved Batman Begins, and I’m glad to see others did as well. In some ways, while it’s arguably not the truly better movie, I loved it more than I did The Dark Knight. The latter, too, benefitted greatly from the whole “Heath took this character so seriously that he *died* bringing it to life” legend… it’s hard to know how it would have fared had he still been around afterwards. Not that I don’t see TDK as a great film, but something about that (the legend driving its success) eats at me.

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