In the late 1970s, American cinema changed when the blockbuster movie took shape: Jaws, Star Wars, and—among others—Richard Donner's Superman. The blockbuster was soon identifiable by big budgets, star power, and scope of story and design, with lavish sets, costumes, and photography. Superman inaugurated its own sub-genre of the blockbuster film: the comic-book movie. Sure, there had been comic-book movies before, but they had been, for the most part, unintentionally bad (or intentionally bad, in the case of 1966's Batman). Superman reinvented comic-book movies by taking seriously the source material, at least part of the time, and, of course, making us believe a man could fly.
But Superman's God-child story makes him the remotest (if perhaps the most admirable) of heroes. Among the most popular of "superheroes" in the DC Comics roster is Superman's sometime partner Batman. Like the Superman franchise in the '80s, the '90s Batman franchise began strongly and descended into chintziness and self-mockery. At the turn of the century, adaptations of the output of DC's rival Marvel began to turn the tide from overblown, script-deficient train wrecks to new directions: fresh filmmakers began to strike deeper emotional chords and political echoes in their comic-book films, as in Ang Lee's Hulk and Bryan Singer's X-Men films.
If you accept the premise that comic-book movies have the potential to be the primal, populist tales of our time—the pop operas, as they are sometimes called— you're halfway to understanding why Batman Begins is such a great movie. Director Christopher Nolan weds the best of the blockbuster with the stuff of opera (Nolan quotes Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele for good measure) and Greek tragedy. Admittedly, some will never be able to get past the notion of a man dressing up as a bat, and many will consider the film's pathos to be bathos in its shifts between moody drama and explosive adventure. But it is precisely Nolan's skill at bridging the two genres that makes Batman Begins the ne plus ultra of comic-book films.
Batman is one of the only superheroes whose power is grounded solely in non-mutated, undiluted human potential. In Batman Begins, a mysterious martial maestro named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) mentors Bruce Wayne by instructing him that he must become "more than just a man," which eventually leads Wayne to adopt his bestial disguise to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. The film begins with eight-year-old Wayne experiencing terror for the first time, flashes forward to Wayne as a rootless soul practicing rage on the unsuspecting. The intervention of Ducard leads the young man to truly face the tragic loss of his parents, in order to channel his anger, guilt, and fear. Wayne learns fighting disciplines, becomes adept with a variety of exotic weaponry, studies ninja stealth, and learns Ducard's most important lesson: to adopt "theatricality and deception."
Ducard soon reveals an agenda, shared with the sinister Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The reborn Wayne faces a choice: die, or join Ra's al Ghul's League of Shadows—an international cabal devoted to decimating wickedness and criminality and replacing it with a new world order. Wayne refuses to meet evil on its own terms, a decision which triggers a dramatic exit that tests his hard-won abilities. Soon, Wayne is winging his way back home to Gotham City after a seven-year absence. Rejoining Alfred (Michael Caine), the Wayne family butler who raised Bruce in his parents' tragic absence, Wayne plots his re-entry into the sprawling and corrupt metropolis that still bears the stamp of his philanthropic family. Alfred and Wayne Enterprises (as run by Rutger Hauer's sleazy CEO) have declared the long-missing Wayne dead, complicating his access to his birthright.
Wayne strikes up a friendship with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a former Wayne Enterprises board member whose dead-end position in Applied Sciences reflects his resistance to the new company line: greed. Fox piques Wayne's interest with an assortment of discarded military-armament prototypes: body armor, a magnetic grappling gun, and a tank-like behemoth dubbed "the Tumbler." Meanwhile, Wayne and Alfred have begun spelunking into the caverns beneath Wayne Manor, the perfect setting for the burgeoning hero to face his fear and set up shop as a stealthy crime-fighter. All that remains is for Wayne to recruit the two people in a position to help him fight for justice: trusted policeman Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes, finally coming into her filmic own), who just happens to be Wayne's friend from childhood.
Co-screenwriters David Goyer and Nolan (and crack production designer Nathan Crowley) scrupulously establish the reality of a concept that has so often spun off into absurdity. Every choice has a motivation, and every gadget a logical origin. (In this regard, Batman Begins not only outstrips other comic-book movies, but the lion's share of cinéma fantastique: sorry, Bond, "Q" still has some 'splainin' to do.) With their narrative efforts, Goyer and Nolan pave the path for exploration of the central theme of fear, propelled by exceptional but possible villains like Ghul and the two master criminals plaguing Gotham City: crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and pathological psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a.k.a. "Scarecrow." Like the Joker and Two-Face (great Batman villains being eyed for sequels), each of the film's villains—Ghul, Falcone, Scarecrow, and Joe Chill, the mugger who slays Thomas and Martha Wayne (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart)—fulfills a two-sides-of-the same-coin duality with Wayne, thanks to Goyer and Nolan's delicate manipulations.
As a theme, fear proves a skin-crawlingly apt artery to today's all-consuming War on Terror, and Batman Begins allows for ambiguity. One bad guy expels a white-powder fear toxin that resembles anthrax, two wantonly kill individuals who get in their way, and another sees the entire city of Gotham as a lost-cause Sodom scheduled for demolition. As his own self-styled brand of vigilante, Batman struggles with ethical issues (guided by father figures on both sides of the law) that remain largely unresolved by picture's end. Though he does what he thinks is right, he cannot entirely resolve his thirst for vengeance.
As a man, Bruce Wayne must learn to supplant his father and claim his power (Wayne Tower, against which the villains strike, represents that masculine power) as, mythically, every son must. With this growth, Wayne rediscovers the responsibility of wealth, though, tragically, he must mask with playboy antics his true self, to protect loved ones and the integrity of Batman. The film's extended climax includes a birthday party and a symbolic fire that clinch Batman's beginning; a coda with Gordon points Batman toward an uncertain future of criminal escalation that Batman's very existence may propagate.
Though comic-book fans will always find something to grouse about, Batman Begins should give them every reason to be pleased. The few variations on the multiple historic Batman origin stories are imaginative and worthy of the comics. Though Nolan patiently observes key dramatic scenes, action cinema fans can gorge on multiple sequences that capitalize on film's unique difference from comic books: motion. Editor Lee Smith adopts a kinetic style that charges the fight scenes without robbing them of coherence (quick cuts and shadowy lighting also spark the element of fear and preserve the Dark Knight's mystery). A "Batmobile" chase caps a thrilling, furiously paced sequence that derives, in part, from Miller's Batman: Year One scenario of cops versus the baffling vigilante stealing their thunder (some "panic in the streets" moments also allow Nolan to surrealize Batman as an agent of fear, with one shot recalling Arkham Asylum).
Nolan covers as best as he can the script's few flaws, like the hastily-established and abruptly resolved "MacGuffin" of a doomsday device, and the film's most incredible, if mundane, plot device: the insistence that, during the finale, the characters can easily find each other in the panicked streets of Gotham. But never mind the bollocks, and observe the finest ensemble ever assembled for a blockbuster summer movie (mostly British, natch, and ably supported by Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemmings). Let's call it ideally cast, and leave it at that, other than a round of applause for Christian Bale. Bale's delineation of Wayne's seismic shifts of feeling and identity—and his growling transformation into the raging Batman id—is the sort of unique work that has a high degree of difficulty and a potent impact, but usually goes ignored during awards season.
Batman Begins is an appropriately tough movie, busy but efficient, rich and thoughtful, and ornamented with visual appeal and exciting action. At last, the beginnings of this enduring character of American popular fiction get the full treatment on film, and the filmmakers' emphasis on beginnings only primes the pump for the promised sequels. Yes, Mr. Nolan: as a good showman should, you've left us wanting more.
[For Groucho's complete coverage of Batman Begins, including interviews with Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, Sir Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, David S. Goyer, and more, head over to Groucho's ever-expanding Batcomputer!]
Batman Begins on Blu-Ray rolls out the same master used for the HD-DVD release, and it's a good one. It's hard to imagine a contemporary mainstream film more challenging to transfer than Batman Begins, with so much of it taking place in shadowy settings. But this is a sharp and vibrant transfer, getting the colors right and sorting out very clearly the detail amongst the shadows. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track packs a wallop, bringing the theatrical experience home.
This Blu-Ray special edition preserves in standard definition all of the extras from the initial release, with one exception (the DVD's interactive "Inner Demons Comic," with sound effects and written by Goyer, has disappeared) and two added bonuses: the dazzling "The Dark Knight IMAX Prologue" (6:37) featuring the opening sequence (shot with IMAX technology) of Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight, and a Picture-in-Picture track that's effectively a video commentary while watching the film. It's a good collection of behind-the-scenes footage and interview segments with many of the film's talents.
The original DVD extras kick off with "Tankman Begins" (5:12), a not terribly funny parody produced for the MTV Movie Awards. Host Jimmy Fallon takes a ride with Batman (the Tumbler chase reedited); Andy Dick and Jon Heder have cameos. "Batman—The Journey Begins" (14:16) covers the outset of the film and its conception with Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, writer David S. Goyer, production designer Nathan Crowley, producers Charles Roven and Emma Thomas, and fight arranger David Forman.
"Shaping Mind and Body" (12:49) is an in-depth look at the fights scenes, with Bale, Nolan, Jennings, Forman, and Neeson commenting. We also get a ton of stunt rehearsal footage of fight practices (including those of Bale and Neeson) and the initial demonstration of the Keysi fighting method chosen for Batman. "Gotham City Rises" (12:48) covers Gotham (including the Narrows), Wayne Manor, and the Batcave, with Nolan, Bale, Franklin, Crowley, Thomas, visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs, director of photography Wally Pfister, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, producer Charles Roven, Cardington supervising art director Steven Lawrence, and producer Larry Franco.
"Cape and Cowl" (8:18) allows Nolan, costume designer Lindy Hemming, costume FX supervisor Graham Churchyard, Bale, Gary Oldman, and Goyer to explain the reasoning behind, creation of, and wearing of the Bat-costume. It includes a bit of initial test footage of Bale "flying" with the cape. "Batman—The Tumbler" (13:40) is, obviously, about the car. Nolan, Bale, Katie Holmes, Goyer, Crowley, Pfister, Corbould, Jennings, special effects workshop supervisor Andrew Smith, stunt performer George Cottle, and stunt drivers George Peters and Dean Bailey comment, as we get glimpses of the prototypes and test footage.
"Path to Discovery" (14:14) details everything you wanted to know about the film's first act. Participants include Nolan, Goyer, Crowley, Neeson, Bale, Pfister, Franco, Thomas, Corbould, art director Susan Whitaker, stunt coordinator Paul Jennings, and stunt performers Buster Reeves and Mark Mottram. "Saving Gotham City" (13:01) is all about the film's climax, with Nolan, Sirrs, Corbould, Holmes, Jennings, Reeves, Pfister, Lawrence, Franklin, miniature unit supervisor Steve Begg, and Double Negative's sequence lead Matthew Tywford pitching in observations.
"Genesis of the Bat" (14:53) discusses the character's comic-book roots with Nolan, Goyer, DC Comics president/publisher Paul Levitz, DC's Batman editor Bob Schreck, Batman writer Denny O'Neil, DC VP/executive editor Dan DiDio, and Batman artist Jim Lee (note the shameless plugging of All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder).
A Stills Gallery offers U.S. poster art (9 images), international poster art, (14 images), and "Explorations" (40 unused poster designs). "Confidential Files" are organized into three categories: "Hardware" (Utility Belt, Memory Fabric Cape, Prototype Military Suit, The Tumbler), "Enemies" (Scarecrow, Ra's Al Ghul, Carmine Falcone), and "Allies and Mentors" (Detective Sgt. James Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Lucius Fox, Alfred Pennyworth, and Henri Ducard).
The DVD easter eggs are reclassified as Additional Footage: "Reflections on Writing Batman Begins" (1:57) finds Goyer discussing the secretive writing process with Nolan. In "Digital Batman" (1:06), visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin explains the creation of the sparely applied special effect. "Batman Begins Stunts" (2:29), a montage branded as proprietary footage from "Wayne Enterprises Applied Sciences Division Testing Labs," shows tests of the Tumbler, Batsuit, fight choreography, and a fire gag.
Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:13). It would be nice to have a "Play All" option for the documentary footage (and for the "Inner Demons" comic to be included for completeness' sake), but the Blu-Ray delivers a reasonably thorough look at the film's production and background (maybe next time a feature on the music?).
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