Friday, July 08, 2005

Batman Began

I am a longtime Batman fan, reader of both Batman and Detective Comics, who did not like Batman Begins.

The movie falls short of achieving a compelling narrative and compounds this failing through its misuse of the readily available Batman source material.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I loved Batman: Year One, and I consider it the best available telling of the Batman creation myth. I remember feeling an acute sense of anticipation when reading it as a young man; it was the first comic book that provoked an emotional response. Because they were first for me, those four Frank Miller written issues represent my personal Batman creation myth. I have never been able to replace them in their position of primacy in my experience and knowledge of Batman. By revealing this bias, I hope that you will have a better understanding of my comments.

Directed by Christopher Nolan and written by David S. Goyer, using characters created by Bob Kane, Batman Begins attempts to cram the Batman creation myth and a suitably threatening super-villain story arc all into the same movie, doing no justice to either narrative. This movie would have been better had it been all of one or the other.

For a movie based on the creation myth to work, Batman has to appear amateur enough to convince us that he has just begun his career. This includes the telling of Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma, cataloging his (apparently) dissolute formative years, and showing us his first, tentative steps to become the mature, cold, and confident Batman. In order for us to feel that we are witnessing a character being born, we need to see his mistakes and appreciate his learning process. Remember: this man is psychologically scarred and a little bit crazy. Even later in his career, when he has fully mastered self-control, his rage is always there, bubbling under the surface. “I feel a lot of pain, sometimes I like to share it with a guy like you” is how Batman introduces himself to a crime boss in Year One.

While it is played up to the point of comedy, in JLA the other superheroes do not really like Batman all that much. He is too intense, too driven by rage to make others comfortable in his presence. I would like to see some of the characters in the movie worry about Batman’s sanity more than they worry about his safety.

The Ra's al Ghul training sequences, while interesting from a kung-fu movie perspective, lack the coherence necessary to move the story along, mostly because they are too brief and do not fully encompass the whole learning process.

Secondly, despite his amateur status, at least in the context of this movie, Batman has to be strong enough to defeat two super villains (Scarecrow and the aforementioned al Ghul), the mob, a corrupt and pathetically ineffective Gotham police force, and a super-secret society of super villain led ninjas (or somesuch Japanese-movie-themed warriors) with a weirdly complex super weapon. All at the same time he is courting a childhood sweetheart, buying back the family business, making all sorts of allies and friends, and having the inevitable Q moments.

I did like the dissolute billionaire sequences, as they speak to Batman’s fractured personality, both in the hotel and at Bruce Wayne’s birthday party.

Commissioner Gordon, a star player in the Batman: Year One series, and one of the most important parts of the Batman world generally, could have been edited out of the whole movie with little loss to the movement of the story. This is not a good thing. The Gordon character is interesting and important enough to deserve a movie of his own. Maybe of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead movie with Batman only on stage for fleeting moments.

I give Batman Begins the Judge Dredd award: good to see that you had your heart in the right place, you made a valiant effort, but not quiet right.

Check out Ponderance because he disagrees with my review but likes a lot of the same things I like.
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