Tuesday, June 21, 2005
BATMAN IS BACK BABY
I am not typically into comic books--or graphic novels, as I hear they prefer to be called. In the 80's however--just as I was being ravaged by adolescence, Frank Miller's wonderful THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out. Suddenly, comics were considered art not camp and I started drawing Batman in the margins of all my school notebooks.
BATMAN BEGINS is a vision of Batman in the tradition of Miller's Dark Knight--forever leaving behind the technicolor antics of the 60's television show. Fans of Miller's Dark Knight graphic novels (like me) had long been hoping for a film that was more dark and more grounded what was always the central thread in the Batman canon--that he was an ordinary man made extra-ordinary by his own quest for revenge.
Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have turned this beloved icon on his cape. Batman is portrayed as a complex bag of swirling and dueling emotions. Bale's Bruce Wayne is sometimes petulant, sometimes self-righteous but always solid in his resolve. He is, at times, hard to like. Bale transforms from the younger, simpering misanthropic Wayne to the cool "alter-ego" of later life with believability. Always under the surface, however, one gets a sense that there is a boiling anger that is just waiting for a moment to burst forth. Bale's intensity is something to behold (why wasn't he Anakin Skywalker?). In one scene he is confronting mob boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) in a restaurant. Sitting in the booth across from Falcone, Bale's expression is almost a poker-face. As he speaks, his lips barely move--his voice is hardly above a whisper. He appears as though he could, at any moment, either burst into tears or launch himself across the table and tear Falcone's throat out with his teeth. His transformation into the Dark Knight is why the audience cares--why they/we are there. When he finally does don the cowl and cape--over halfway into the movie, the audience is well primed for what follows. Christopher Nolan deprives his audience the payoff of seeing Bruce in the final batsuit until the last possible moment. Even when he emerges in his full glory--he doesn't FULLY emerge. The kinetic fight scenes where the newly born Batman is fighting several thugs is at once both chaotic and beautiful. Batman is a ghost moving among the men, clobbering them--dropping them with a flurry of kicks and punches. His cape flutters about, shrouding him from sight and meshing him with the shadows in a seamless fashion so that you're never quite sure where Batman is and the shadows aren't. The wonderful tableaus of him perched atop buildings (an admitted cliche' in most comic themed films) mark him as somehow part of the very surroundings. The visual look of this film has more in common with the final scenes of BLADE RUNNER thyan it does Tim Burton's original.
This re-imagining (a term currently all the rage in Hollywood) of Batman is a triumph in many ways. This is no franchise movie. There isn't any real obnoxious product placeement to speak of--no Burger King tie-ins. BATMAN BEGINS succeeds much MUCH more than it fails and it's few failures can be forgiven on the whole (the whole "poisoning-of-the-water-system" plot is not very isnpired). BATMAN BEGINS soars.
I would like to take a little moment to address the moral/spiritual issues of BATMAN BEGINS. Personally, I am troubled by any personal journey that is motivated by vengance masquerading as justice--and the film addresses those issues somewhat. The notion of redemptive violence--when the hero exacts justice through the violent destruction of his enemy, is counter to everything I believe personally. Batman is a troubling figure--especially in this day and age where people somehow seem justified acting as vigilantes against the "criminal element" in the war on terror. Compassion, empathy--these are themes that are admirably addressed sporadically in BATMMAN BEGINS. They are discarded ultimately as the film slips into action-movie-mode. Still, it does deliver and it's worth a look nonetheless.