Wednesday, July 16, 2008


“It's not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me”, he gruffly barks. And how true is that? For two previous films, he has been a subject of ridicule and blasphemy. A big public joke, playing grab-ass with Robin in a series of increasingly homo-erotic horror shows. Yet, he’s here, back in black, and being handled with the sort of respect and mystery that he deserves. That quote is very true when you think about it. No matter which actor is under the cowl, it’s his action and behaviour that characterize him. So long live the Dark Knight, winged scourge of the underworld, and prominent figure in the cinematic dreams of millions. His name is Batman, his re-emergence as a vital pop-culture icon occurs in Chris Nolan’s majestic film, Batman Begins, and this is 7 Days Of The Bat – Day 6.

Remember what an unexpected delight it was to return to the murky streets of Gotham back in 2005? I went into Batman Begins with zero expectations, prepared for emotional abuse and visual battering, praying for something to restore the faith. And I got it, in Bat-Spades (OMG, LOL)! Not only was it a complete reinvention of what a Bat-film should be, it was as perfect a Batman film as there ever was. It packed the seriousness of the Animated Series, the atmosphere of the Burton flicks and none of the nipples of a Joel Schumacher trainwreck!

Batman Begins is a startling work of superhero adaptation that has only grown stronger with subsequent viewings. Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Memento and Insomnia, was the ideal man for the job, and buried Batman in a gritty world of moral ambiguity and madness. And fear. The reason why Batman Begins works so well is that it emphasizes the mythic nature of the character, while providing an absorbing and plausible character study of the man underneath the big ears. Tim Burton got it half right. Nolan pointed for the horizon and swung away.

But it might all be for nought if Christian Bale had never come into the fold. Has there ever been a better casting job for a comic book hero? Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire and Ron Perlman are definitely aces, but none have the level of gravitas and intense dedication of Bale. His Bruce Wayne is the trickiest of characters, a likable and identifiable man who is quite mad and dangerously delusional. Make no mistake about it, Batman is a necessary evil for Gotham, but the man underneath is treacherously unstable. And Bale not only understood this, but ran with it, making Bruce Wayne, the man, every bit as fascinating and entertaining as the Batman.

The emphasis on Bruce’s journey was a key decision in the franchise; as it toned down what many felt was the chief distraction of the series: the colourful villains. Nolan realized that the greatest foes work in small doses, leaving the audience wanting more. For this reason, I find Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow to be one of the most entertaining trouble-makers in the Batman cinematic canon. The wonderful sleaze and ruthlessness in Murphy’s portrayal, and when Dr. Crane finally does go cuckoo and becomes the Scarecrow we all know and love, makes him an A-class adversary. His lack of screen-time had me, and many others, desiring more. That’s proof of his success.

Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul is more intriguing, as he is the most human of Batman’s on-screen rogue’s gallery. There’s nary a dash of eyeliner or prosthetics on him, and as fiercely (and physically) portrayed by the Irish actor, he’s also the most noble and “grey”. Ra’s makes a lot of sense, and is, in many ways, no less loony than Bruce Wayne. Is his fatalistic plan all that more brutal than the onslaught of evil that will result from Batman’s vigilante quest? His final battle with Batman, the most physically brutal fight in any Bat-film, is dirty, painful and punishing. And when Ra’s fate hits him like an out-of-control mack truck, it’s a strangely cathartic moment of on-screen violence. He was a noble and dangerously intelligent man. If only he had been able to shift his ideologies a hair to the left.

Another important shift from the previous Bat-flicks, was Nolan’s emphasis on a great supporting cast of compelling characters. Michael Caine’s Alfred? Leagues ahead of Michael Gough’s one-note caricature. Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon? A series casting high-point. Who’d have thought that a professional nut-job like Oldman would be the perfect candidate to bring the working-class dignity of the future Commissioner to the big screen? He’s brilliant, and sets the high mark for future entries in the, no doubt, endless franchise. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox? An absolute ball, playing to Freeman’s strengths as a mentor and warm personality. Freeman has rarely been as mischievous and fun. Even Katie Holmes, who I feel was unfairly criticized, imbued her Rachel Dawes love interest with a level of emotional truth never before seen in the series. She felt like a real person, as opposed to a stage-prop. Plus Tom Wilkinson, as mobster Carmine Falcone, chews the scenery with relish, yet makes his villain mesmerizing whenever he’s on-screen.

As an origin tale, Batman Begins is among the best. The shooting of Bruce’s parents, the discovery of the Batcave, the meeting with Carmine Falcone? Each moment captured and portrayed the required shades of pathos and authority. We understand the trip, not just the destination. The moment when Bruce, fighting back apprehension, slowly rises to his feet, enveloped in a swarm of frightened bats, causes a chill flashes up by spine upon each viewing. It’s a perfect mixture of visuals, sound design and haunting score (by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard). I dare say it’s my favourite single moment in the whole damn thing.

There has been rampant online whining about the shift that the plot undergoes in the third act. Myself, I’ve never had any sort of trouble with it. It’s perfectly fitting that Bruce, who has thus far recklessly raced the Tumbler around downtown Gotham, and viciously taken down mobsters (Especially in the glorious dock-side smuggling scene), would go into action mode when necessary. After the half-way point, when Batman comes to fruition, all bets are off and things are going to get ugly. He's young, clumsy and careless - Not graceful and precise like he will be later. As well, Ra’s Al Ghul’s master plan (Which is hinted at, not hammered upon, throughout the film. Nice touch.) is cruel, messy and determined. And I appreciate that Nolan doesn’t shy from highlighting the human cost that occurs from it. A lot of people are killed, and Gotham can only hope to clean up the mess. It’s a daring move to leave these threads hanging, and I’m glad Nolan had the conviction to do so.

As we stare down the gun towards the impending Dark Knight (Which I’ll be seeing in roughly 12 hours), we can only guess how this set-up of Nolan’s Bat-universe will pay off in the future. But as it stands, Batman Begins is a master-stroke of a film: Dramatically gripping, darkly funny, wonderfully acted and viscerally rousing. It’s my favourite Bat-film, and the one that is the closest approximation of Bob Kane’s original universe. Now let’s see what happens next!

Best Batman Dispatch:
Batman leaving Ra’s Al Ghul to ride the crazy train straight to hell.
Technicality!: Rachel Dawes’ taser takedown of Scarecrow. Funny and awesome!

Best Villain Dispatch:
-Gotta love how Ra’s (posing as Henri Ducard) hands Bruce’s ass to him when he arrives at the mountain top sanctuary.

Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Lines:
“Swear to me!”
“It's not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me.”
“You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”
“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

Best Villain Lines:
“Now, I wouldn't have a second's hesitation of blowing your head off right here and right now in front of 'em. Now, that's power you can't buy! That's the power of fear.” – Carmine Falconi
“Dr. Crane isn't here right now, but if you'd like to make an appointment...” – Dr. Crane
“Would you like to see my mask?” – Dr. Crane
“Gentlemen, time to spread the word. And the word is panic.” – Ra’s Al Ghul

Best Iconic Bat-shot:
Batman crouched on the subway railing, with the taser charge stuck in his armor.

-When the prisoners are all released from Arkham, briefly visible is Mr. Zsaz, a serial killer from the comics with tally marks scarred into his skin, representing each of his victims. Mr. Zsaz also appears in the courtroom in the beginning of the film where he is being transferred to Arkham.
-A pair of Batman pajama bottoms can be seen hanging from the line in the scene where Batman talks to the little boy in the Narrows.
-The three notes Bruce, and then later Alfred, play on the piano to open the entrance to the Batcave are the same three notes that begin Black Sabbath's "Black Sabbath"; 1970. These are known in music theory, ominously, as "The Devil's Intonation".
-The calling card that Gordon shows Batman is a replica of the Joker Card from the 1989 graphic novel "Arkham Asylum".

Worst Moment:
Ummm... Errr... That is has to end???

Success As A Batman Film:
5 out of 5

Success As A Film:
5 out of 5

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