Michael Bay takes a lot of flack for his films, but whatever you think of them you have to agree that he’s pretty good at blowing stuff up. Directing an action movie is actually a special skill, and not one that everyone always gets right. Some directors fall prey to the shaky-cam, others use too many wires and end up making their actors look like they’re full of helium. The real trick of helming a superhero franchise is that in the end it’s not enough to fill your movie with nothing but kick ass stunts, nor is it enough simply to nail proper character development. A truly great superhero movie successfully scores with all elements: story, character, atmosphere, and action. The Batman universe’s new entry, Batman Begins, misses being the definitive take on the character precisely because helmer Christopher Nolan is no action director. In spite of that, the movie works because he gets the Dark Knight in a way no one else yet has.
Nolan’s attempt is called Batman Begins and as the title suggests it covers the most boring of superhero genre necessities, the origin story. Next year director Bryan Singer will try to restart the Superman series by picking up where Richard Donner left off, but Nolan is going the opposite war here, he’s giving Batman a total reboot. Behind the cape and cowl (at least when Bruce Wayne finally gets around to putting it on) is British actor Christian Bale who most recently won acclaim for doing a Lindsay Lohan impression in The Machinist.
Begins follows Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman, from the murder of his parents in a back alley to training in a remote Chinese dojo under the tutelage of a mysterious martial arts master. Batman, unlike most superheroes, isn’t driven so much by a desire to do right as he is by a burning need for vengeance. The screenplay by Chris Nolan and genre veteran David Goyer builds towards that admirably, taking time to languish over Bruce Wayne’s internal conflict for at least an hour before he actually wraps himself in a bat symbol. In that time we’re treated to flashbacks and flash forwards, training montages, and words of wisdom from Bruce’s crime-fighting instructor Ducard as given life by the perfect on-screen mentor, Liam Neeson.
Once Wayne returns to Gotham, we’re thrown still more exposition as the film tries to put a realistic spin on the vigilante character. Batman’s car for instance is an abandoned military tank prototype, a little more plausible than a Rolls Royce that can climb walls. Time for more montage, this time while Bruce paints his costume, sharpens Batarangs, and orders his mask from Taiwan. Yes, Batman’s cape is made in China. Isn’t everything?
By the time Batman takes on his first mission, we’re well and fully primed for some action. It’s here that Nolan really does something different, by first showing us the Batman from a criminal’s perspective. Our dark clad hero lurks unseen in the shadows, luring criminals in and then in the blink of an eye dragging them mercilessly up to a rooftop. Batman’s initial costumed outing plays a lot like a scene from Alien, with the caped crusader hanging from the ceiling as he awaits unsuspecting prey. When he finally attacks it’s in a blur of darkness and pounding kicks, for the first time we fully understand what it is about him that strikes so much fear into the heart of his opponents. This shadowy, obscured introduction to Bale in costume is wonderfully effective, provided that we’re given an opportunity to clearly see the icon at work in costume as the rest of the movie progresses. This is Batman after all, and we’re here for the action as much as the character.
That’s where Nolan’s movie really hits a roadblock, because the action never goes much further. Subsequent fights are shot with extreme close-ups and in overbearing shadow. We don’t get many good looks at Batman in motion, and anything approaching a wide shot is obscured in heavy clouds of steam. The film’s climax features a powerful hand to hand battle between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul, but with Nolan’s camera three inches away from the Dark Knight’s cowl I’d be hard pressed to tell you who is punching who. I admire Nolan’s reported refusal to over-use computer generated effects on his film, but if this sort of off-screen action is the result perhaps he should have considered throwing in some nice animation. Tim Burton managed to give us a few thrills without computers so I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse.
It isn’t that Batman Begins isn’t visually stunning, it is. Nolan has a distinct visual style that pays off in gorgeous ways when put to work on Bats. Watching him descend from Gotham’s pollution streaked sky into a hive of villainy has never looked quite so eerily beautiful. There’s a great chase sequence involving the new Batmobile too, its new tank-like structure opening up new opportunities for destruction. I also love the way the film uses actual bats, it ads a unique air of significance to Batman’s animal persona that the other movies have never had. Aside from a rather odd scene in which Batman fights the equivalent of hordes of lumbering zombies, sharp believability seems to be the watchword here, in place of Burton’s Gothic influence or Schumacher’s wacky circus act.
For me, the film is at its best when breathing life into the people around Batman. Future police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) plays a pivotal role in the story, except we’re catching him before he’s even made Lieutenant. You’ll like the way Goyer’s screenplay develops a relationship between Gotham’s last honest cop and the controversial vigilante, it’s the first time that’s been explored on-screen outside of some half-hearted references. Bruce Wayne’s butler/father figure Alfred benefits as well, and of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s played by a venerable actor like Michael Caine. I could have done without newly appointed tabloid centerfold Katie Holmes mucking things up as an obligatory girlfriend, but her role isn’t important enough for a lackluster performance to drag the movie down.
Batman Begins is a solid re-entry into the comic book hero’s crime riddled world. Missing is some of the exhilaration and fun of its predecessors, in its place is a closer examination into the nature of the character. If there’s fault to be laid, put it at the feet of Nolan who seems to understand the character, but not his karate chops. You won’t see a lot of good “Pow!”, “Bang!”, “Boom!”, or “Zowie!” in this version of Batman, Nolan appears incapable of making that sort of movie. Luckily, the film otherwise captures the Batman so well that any missing excitement can be forgiven.