(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Grief, Strife, and Vigilantism?

Batman Begins

“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. ... And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.”

— Genesis 6:5-7

1.

At first glance, the career of writer-director Christopher Nolan is supremely disappointing. How could the man who gave the world the spectacularly smart Memento now be whoring with playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne?

The trajectory appears clear. Nolan started with the small-budget Following, which established his aesthetic, concerns, and penchant for structural trickery. Memento confirmed him as the most exciting filmmaking talent in years — serious, inventive, rigorous, dense, difficult, and provocative, but without sacrificing suspense or exhilaration.

Then came the slide. In 2002, Nolan re-made Insomnia, a nearly great 1997 Norwegian movie to which he added nothing. And now: Batman Begins, a cowl-and-cape flick that would appear to be a tremendous waste of Nolan’s talent.

But it’s not.

In Batman Begins, the filmmaker uses the superhero mythology to create an epic study of ethics, evil, fear, and justice. It’s a bracing, dark, provocative, and serious work that at last transcends the juvenile roots of the comic-book genre. It’s not just the best superhero movie ever made, but likely also the best mainstream film of 2005.

2.

Batman Begins deliberately strips the fantasy and glamour from the superhero narrative. Nolan, co-screenwriter David S. Goyer, and the production team have clearly worked to purge this Batman movie of Tim Burton’s meaningless, baroque gothic-ness, Joel Schumacher’s soulless, fetishistic sheen, and the fun of being able to whip the sorry ass of just about anybody. As a result, the film demands to be taken seriously; its Gotham is recognizable, both visually and in its ills, and there’s little humor or opportunity for escapism. An emphasis on the logistics of being a superhero further grounds the movie.

Batman/Bruce Wayne emerges more tangible than ever before in this telling — a man. Batman gets bruises, plays the role of philandering spendthrift only to maintain appearances, relies on a brilliant weapons inventor to outfit him with all that fabulous superhero bling, and — gasp! — is forced to face the consequences of his own actions. Following this route, there’s a logical explanation for the entire Batman iconography, from the Bat Signal to the Bat Cave to the Bat Mobile. Even the evil plot makes sense, driven not merely by megalomania but by an earnest cultural concern.

Structurally, Batman Begins doesn’t resemble the twisted Following or Memento, but Nolan’s approach is still a risky one: Batman doesn’t even make an appearance for an hour. The movie begins in a prison camp somewhere in Asia, where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has gone to understand the criminal element. He was arrested for participating in the theft — in one of the movie’s few jokes — of a shipment belonging to Wayne Enterprises, his father’s company.

In flashback, the movie shows the younger Bruce falling down a hole on the Wayne manor and being attacked by bats. His resulting fear of the creatures leads to his family’s early exit from an opera performance; making their escape into an alley, Bruce watches as a mugger guns down his parents. When the murderer is released from prison years later, Bruce goes to the courthouse with a gun, intent on killing him. But a hit man gets to him first, and Bruce’s guilt over being unable to protect his parents is exacerbated by his failure to avenge their deaths.

In prison, Bruce is visited by a mysterious man (Liam Neeson) who calls himself Ducard and represents the League of Shadows, a centuries-old vigilante group led by Ra’s Al Ghul. Ducard is intrigued by the darkness within Bruce — his fight, his strength, his anger, his penchant for self-punishment, his willingness to abandon his billions for a curious immersion in the underworld. Ducard invites Bruce to the League’s headquarters at the top of a mountain, where he is forced, through hallucinogens, to overcome his fear of bats and learns the way of the ninja — the use of deception and distraction to confuse, frighten, and defeat one’s opponents.

When Bruce has proved himself as a warrior, he is asked to join in the League’s ultimate mission: the destruction of the cesspool that is Gotham. He declines, in a typically over-the-top Bruce Wayne fashion that destroys the League complex. But Bruce doesn’t believe in killing people (on purpose, at least), and shows this by saving Ducard.

Returning to Gotham, Bruce Wayne begins to develop his Batman persona. With the help of Wayne Enterprises researcher Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he adapts military prototypes — from body armor to compact, high-speed tanks to fabrics that use electrical charges to become rigid — for his own crime-fighting purposes. Other allies include Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of Gotham’s few honest cops.

Batman’s first target is the crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), but an investigation leads him to the psychologist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who just happens to be the proprietor of a place called Arkham Asylum. Crane has been testifying regularly that Falcone’s goons are insane, and on the side he’s been donning a burlap mask and dispensing fear-preying gases. His victims call him “Scarecrow.”

3.

Nolan’s and Goyer’s script for Batman Begins is frighteningly tight, and its ingeniousness is likely to be overlooked; most moviegoers will assume that they’ve adapted an existing story for the movie.

I’ve never read a Batman comic book, but cursory research revealed a surprising level of originality. Ra’s Al Ghul, Ducard, and Scarecrow all exist in the Batman universe, but as far as I can tell, they’ve never been part of the same story. The screenwriters have fashioned a complex, elegant script that creates pairings and motives so natural that they become alchemical.

The story is respectful of the Batman mythos without being restrained by it. Nolan and Goyer have taken significant liberties with characters; particularly satisfying is the fusion of Batman mentor Ducard with the League of Shadows (the League of Assassins in the comics). The synthesis of the Batman background with the obligatory sinister plot pays surprising dividends in the way the two narratives play off each other in an ethical discussion about whether a community can and should be saved.

The movie also lays the groundwork for not only sequels but the pantheon of Gotham villains. The combination of criminals, Crane’s psychotropic drugs, and Batman’s presence will lead to the emergence of insane psychopaths who will terrorize the city for years to come. The movie’s coda suggests, convincingly, that the Dark Knight is responsible for the creation of the nemeses (the Joker et al) he’ll soon be facing. It’s nothing less than an authoritative and necessary re-ordering of the Batman storyline after more than six decades of the character’s existence.

Bale is a masterful Bruce Wayne, alternately wounded and insincerely cheerful, and his hoarseness as Batman gives voice to his duality. Oldman stands out as an effective everyman, shedding his typical creepiness, and Caine, Freeman, Neeson, Murphy (from 28 Days Later), and Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) are pitch-perfect.

Beyond the script and the impossibly good cast — which includes a greasy Mark Boone Jr. as a crooked cop — Batman Begins is a beautifully realized production. Chicago stands in for Gotham, providing a backdrop that feels real through its familiarity, and the special effects have a welcome physicality; to the degree that it’s used at all, CGI is subtle.

Some critics have complained that the movie’s action sequences are difficult to follow, but that’s in keeping with the League of Shadows philosophy — that to create an advantage over one’s opponents, a warrior needs to become invisible; Nolan’s directorial approach is to give the audience the anxious, pounding heart of the bad guys.

4.

Batman Begins is, for a superhero movie, inordinately concerned with morality. Good and evil are typically given and constant in Hollywood fare, but Nolan will have none of it. The movie nimbly invokes the eternal question of whether there needs to be an accord between means and ends.

Batman has long been a figure of uncertain aims and obviously disreputable methods — a force for justice, but not goodness. This is certainly not a new angle for the Batman property — he didn’t get the nickname Dark Knight for nothing — but it gains prominence in the context of the origin story and the philosophy of Ra’s Al Ghul.

Here, there’s a political element to the movie, in the way that Batman is similar to and contrasted with both Ra’s Al Ghul and Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s doctor father. The three figures — all of whom consider themselves agents of righteousness — sit on a spectrum. On the right is Ra’s Al Ghul, who in his way of destroying cultures that are in his view beyond salvation recalls Yahweh’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and, earlier, humanity except for Noah. On the left is Thomas Wayne, a healer by trade who believed that crime and poverty were best combated through charity, such as the multi-level subway system that he built during an economic depression. (A philanthropist FDR?) Ego drives both men — it’s no accident that the center of the subway system is Wayne Enterprises — but also an unfailing belief that what they’re doing is correct and will succeed. Batman is a synthesis of the two — with the training of the ninjas and the virtually unlimited financial means of his father, a vigilante hell-bent on saving the city — yet he’s full of doubt. How can one man possibly battle all the evil in this metropolis?

Batman Begins’ Gotham features at least six levels of corruption, and each is represented distinctly by characters in the movie. There’s the street-level criminal at the bottom, personified by the man who kills Bruce’s parents, followed by mundane organized crime, in the form of Wilkinson’s very ordinary mob boss. On the corporate level, we have Rutger Hauer’s Wayne Enterprises CEO, more concerned about public relations than public safety. And we have the bought-and-sold public servants, in the form of Boone’s cop and a judge, who ensure that all of the above can operate with relative impunity. In Nolan’s vision of Gotham, the wicked control everything, and it is in that context that Batman is born.

Above those pedestrian evils — operating for survival or profit — are the more-traditional superhero foils. There’s the deranged, in the person of Scarecrow; he’s the only villain in the movie whose purpose appears purely evil, because he doesn’t have a core philosophy or much to gain financially. And lastly there’s Ra’s Al Ghul, a warrior who believes, perhaps correctly, that the world needs to be purged every now and again to be healthy; that idea gains resonance as it becomes increasingly clear that Batman is facing a depth and breadth of evil that one person, no matter how strong, cannot overcome.

5.

It’s striking that a group of young, talented, independent genre filmmakers emerged in and near the 1990s and have all gravitated to films based on superheroes/graphic novels: Bryan Singer (born in 1965, The Usual Suspects in 1995), the Wachowskis (born in 1965 and ‘67, Bound in 1996), Robert Rodriguez (born in 1968, El Mariachi in 1992), Darren Aronofsky (born in 1969, Pi in 1998), the Hughes brothers (born in 1972, Menace 2 Society in 1993), and Nolan (born in 1970, Memento in 2000), to name the most prominent.

Singer made the first two X-Men movies and is directing the new Superman flick, Aronofsky has been attached both to Batman and Watchmen movies, Rodriguez made Sin City, the Hughes twins made From Hell, and the Wachowskis were screenwriters for the upcoming V for Vendetta.

Those projects all seem to stem from a love of comics, rather than a vision of what the filmmakers could bring to the stories. But Batman Begins fits nicely into Nolan’s oeuvre. Bruce Wayne’s tunnel-visioned (and perhaps misguided) obsessiveness bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain damaged, short-term-memory-impaired guy called, much to his chagrin, Lenny.

Like Memento’s Leonard Shelby (and Insomnia’s Will Dormer, for that matter), Bruce Wayne is a protagonist to Nolan not because of nobility or heroism but because of the way his intense focus is offset by how lost he is. The filmmaker is holding him up for inspection rather than as a paragon, fascinated by who he is, what he does, and what brought him to that place. There’s a genuine ambivalence in the approach; Nolan understands that both Leonard and Bruce are as likely to do harm with their single-mindedness as good.

Instead of being merely a testament to the impression comics made on the filmmaker, Batman Begins finds Nolan leaving his unique imprint on the genre, the lead character, and his mythology. Here, at last, is a superhero film that is not just technically and narratively competent, but one that reflects something greater than itself, to an amazing degree.

The only major problem with the movie is that it doesn’t seem to offer any satisfying place to take the franchise. How do you top this?

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