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June 15, 2005

Batman Mini-Review

Three out of four stars.

I can't review a lot of this movie, because even the beginning contains interesting surprises -- not plot twists, but new glosses on the Batman origin story. Since these new bits gave me pleasure and the frisson of unexpected discovery, how can I reveal them to people who haven't yet seen the movie?

Just a sample-- after beginning with a very young Bruce's fall down the well into the bat-cave -- and his (by now) well-known fright by a swarm of bats -- we flash forward into the more recent past, where an adult Bruce Wayne is... a prisoner in a brutal Asian prison camp.

Why? Well, that's a good question. I won't spoil it by answering it. But it's an unexpected place to find Bruce Wayne, and the movie gets your attention early. Let's just say that while the standard Batman origin portrayed Bruce as driven and learning about crime and fighting during his seven year absence from Gotham, this movie just tweaks that a little. He's still driven, yes, and still learning-- but learning in an unexpected way. And he's less of the in-control type we figured he was -- he's a lost soul when we first meet him, having a notion of what he wants (vengeance, vengeance, and more vengeance) but no idea of how to accomplish that, and he's now just basically wasting his life on useless, purposeless violence.


I had fretted about the multiple villain format-- how the hell can you not only provide a detailed origin story for Batman, but work in three villains as well? The movie is clever, though, and handles it by providing yet another new gloss on the origin story. If you've read a single review of the film, you know what this new element is; but as I didn't know myself (I kept away from reviews), it was new to me, and a nice surprise. If you want to know, scroll over the following (written in invisible "white font" text):

How do you both develop a major villain (Ra's Al-Ghul) while developing Batman's origin story simultaneously? Simple-- you make Bruce Wayne an acolyte of Ra's Al Ghul's. Yes, that's right-- Ra's Al Ghul trained Bruce Waye/Batman (well, his top lieutenant Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson did anyhow; Ra's just barks out orders in an unspecified Asian language that may or may not be Mongolian), and attempted to recruit him into his fascist/terrorist "League of Shadows." Ra's, you see, has been recast. He's no longer an extremist/terrorist against pollution and overpopulation; he's a Nietzchean extremist/terrorist against criminality and moral decay. So, that has a certain appeal to the young Bruce, angry and lost, but not quite enough appeal to actually join with him.

It's a cool notion, tying Bruce directly to this interesting villain from his earliest days, and brilliant in terms of storytelling economy, as we simultaneously learn both about Bruce and Ra's. Actually, we learn more about Ra's than we're aware of at the time, but let's just leave that alone for now.

At any rate, the first forty minutes or so is a very effective flash-back/flash-forward structure between Young Bruce, 17-year-old Bruce (having quit Princeton and deciding, bit by bit, to devote his life to the pursuit of vengeance) and 22-24 year old Bruce, training in martial arts in a creepy, Shadow-esque mountain monastery with some supernatural overones.

All of this establishes Bruces psychological and physical transformation into Batman.

The movie continues going quite strong as Bruce returns to Gotham City to find Wayne Enterprises now in control of a souless and sleazy (but not quite evil) CEO (I won't spoil who plays him, as it was a surprise to me). Not having any business skills whatsoever, Bruce doesn't contest for leadership of Wayne Enterprises, but just asks for a job... in the one division of Wayne Enterprises that interests him: a DARPA-like lab for mothballed high-tech military projects. There he meets Lucius Fox, banished from the boardroom by the current board to waste his time archiving abandoned projects. Lucius obviously likes the new company -- he seems to work completely alone -- and he doesn't balk much when Bruce begins expressing interest in somewhat odd technology that's kept in storage in some dingy sub-basement.

So begins Bruce's last transformation -- his technlogical transformation into a menacing creature of the night.

And then the movie, which had been superb, becomes a bit overly busy and by-the-book.

The fight scenes are awful. Nolan brings the camera in too close to see anything and compound that error by quick-cutting beyond the eye's capacity to comprehend what the hell is going on. If only the brilliant fight-choreographers and cinemtographers from Bourne Identity had been brought in here; but Nolan seems to have just relied on the people he used for Memento and Insomnia, and while they're good craftsmen, they seem to know almost nothing about action film-making.

The first time you see Batman, this is excusable; the point is to conceal Batman, almost like a monster that strikes from the shadows (as Alien was), and the POV is with the victims, not Batman. He does an okay job of showing their fear of sudden violence, and I didn't mind that I didn't really comprehend the fighting in this sequence.

However, once it's established that he strikes from the darkness, it's sort of time to put that aside and begin showing him kicking some ass. The film never really does this, because Nolan just doesn't know where to set up his camera or how to cut a sequence so that the action can be followed, anticipated, and savored. It's all dark blurs of fists striking blurry faces.

It gets even worse near the end when batman has to fight men dressed up in Just as much black as he wears, and then you really have no idea at all who's kicking or hitting whom at any moment.

The too-busy second and third acts mean that important relationships get short-shrifted, as there's no time to explore any of them adequetely. I didn't mind that Katie Holmes was a cliched cipher -- the incorruptible DA babe of the suspicously youthful age -- because she's not a cannonical Batman character; she's just the obligatory babe/damsel in distress. But I was more disappointed that a relationship that should have been central and very intriguing -- between Batman and Jim Gordon, the one honest cop in the city -- just gets overly rushed. Gary Oldman does a find job here of playing the weary but decent Average Joe, and it would have been nice to see more of him, and more of him with Batman. As it is, all we get are a couple of brief scenes together.

Worst of all is the MacGuffin/Destroy the City plot. I don't mind the destroy the city plot per se; it's just that this one was rather implausible, and too "Hollywood." Why did a movie this f'n' smart have to suddenly introduce a Doomsday Machine plot contrivance? The movie had attempted to tell an action story using a wholy new lexicon; but here it reverts to standard-issue uninspired James Bondism. Been there, seen that, got it on DVD already. Thanks.

The rest of the movie had been fighting expectations of what an action movie could or should be; the last half hour or so just gives in to the Simpson/Bruckheimer template of Make It Loud, Make It Quick-Cut, and, if at all possible, Make the Final Battle Occur on a Speeding Bullet Train. You probably can figure out that, given the villain Scarecrow, the climax has to do with spreading gas through Gotham City; didn't we see this in the first Batman movie? The ultimate climax here isn't quite as lame as the horribly disappointing showdown between the Joker and Batman in the 1989 Burton film, but it's close to being that disatisfying.

Sure would have helped to have a decent fight choreography.

Nevertheless, it's a strong movie. I guess the best analogy is sex without actual orgasm -- it's pretty damn good, and it builds and builds in a very pleasing and exciting way, but ultimately you feel like there really should have been a little more to it at the end.

As everyone has pointed out, the casting is amazing, and it's doubtful you'll ever see this impressive a cast in any superhero movie ever again. Katie Holmes is being knocked a lot as the one weak actor, and she certainly can't compete with Neeson, Freeman, or Caine, but she's adequate. She's just too young, and her role is too cliched.

Bale is terrific as Batman, and one even begins to get used to that overdone growling whisper he uses as the voice of Batman. I still think it's too much -- Darth Vader sounded cool because he was cooly malevolent, not overtly so -- but not as bad as it first seemed. And he gets almost everything about Bruce Wayne right, from the anger, to the determination, to the venal playboy act he puts on to throw people off his real nocturnal pursuits. He's better than Keaton as Bruce Wayne, and that's saying something, because I thought Keaton did a great job in the role.

Call it kismet, but Bale naturally has very pronounced canines -- almost vampire-like -- and it's a bit eerie that this man-bat often looks like a youngish Dracula.

At any rate, definitely worth seeing, a blockbuster that's generally well-scripted, terrifically acted, and filled with gorgeous shots of Gotham (part Chicago, part CGI). I just wish Nolan had kept true to his concept of making this the smartest, most counter-intuitive superhero movie ever and not succumbed to brain dead simpson-bruckheimerism in the last reel.

Other Thoughts:

The movie doesn't track Batman Year: One precisely, but major elements are there, including fighting cops with the assistance of a bazillion summoned bats and a wonderful little coda at the end that I will not spoil.

One reviewer said, "I wondered if they'd gotten Batman's origin story mixed up with the Shadow's." Now that I think about it-- that's pretty spot-on, and I'm not just talking about the creepy monastery, either. You'll have to see it to know what I'm talking about. It's a bit of a swipe, but it works, and The Shadow did have a great origin, so why not borrow it a little? Hell, Spider-Man 2 stole its entire plotline from Superman II.

How does it compare with Burton's alleged masterpiece? Well I was never keen on Burton's movie. They CLAIMED they were jettisoning the old campiness of the series in favor of a "dark" version of batman, but in fact Burton's ultra-stylized funhouse of a movie was just a Gothic cartoon version of the old series campiness. This movie is much more realistic, in terms of psychology, dialogue, production design, and even city architecture, and I like it a hell of a lot more. It's more fun, too.

Young dopey fanboys are going to say this is a "dark" version of Batman. Well, it is and it isn't. There are signs of real moral darkness in Bruce Wayne. But ultimately, this is a hopeful and "light" movie. Bruce is almost consumed by his dark drive for vengeance -- but only almost. His basic moral groundings -- and his need to honor the memory of his sainted, murdered father -- keep him from actually embracing a truly dark and cynical worldview, as Ra's has. Bruce may be a violent, even murderous thug it some parts of his heart, but other parts of his heart are true-blue Boy Scout. And the Boy Scout in him ultimately prevails.... well, mostly. His mission changes subtly from Avenger to Protector and Savoir-- yes, sometimes being the Protector means being the Avenger, but Bruce keeps his eye on the ball-- here's here to save Gotham, to bring it back from the moral dead, not just to beat the shit out of criminals in alleys like some high-tech Death Wish Charles Bronson.

This movie is actually not a "prequel" to the Burton films, but a reboot, and a repudiation of them. The movie goes back to the comic book cannon to assert that it was a common thug named (ugggh) Joe Chill who killed Batman's parents, and not the Joker at all. I think it's smart to disown the artisitically and intellectually bankrupt Burton-Schumacher series and just start fresh.

A lot of reviewers have pointed out that Ra's' organization is an awful lot like Al-Qaeda -- an ideologically-driven terrorist cell bent on apocalyptic destruction of those they consider moral subhumans. That didn't occur to me as I was watching, and I suppose it adds another level of depth to the film. And even more interesting is the fact that Bruce almost joined this Al-Qaeda clone, which, I suppose, says something about lost young men looking for a moral purpose.


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posted by Ace at 01:22 PM

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