Thursday, June 26, 2008

Batman movies - Batman Begins

While watching the crapfest that was Batman and Robin, I kept thinking about what I would write for my blog. The problem was that there were so many awful things about the movie that I was sure that I would forget to write about many of them. Watching Batman Begins, I had the exact opposite problem. I'm sure that there are plenty of good things that I'll forget to write about.

After seeing B&R when it was in the theater, I was pretty jaded. As far as I could tell, we'd never get a decent superhero movie made, or at the very least, a decent Batman movie. It took a long time, but the first two X-Men and first two Spider-Man movies (especially Spider-Man 2) started to give me a bit of hope. When I heard that they were making a new Batman movie, and they were basically going to completely start over and ignore what came before, the hope grew. Learning that Christian Bale would play the lead and even better, Christopher Nolan would direct really started to get me excited.

At WonderCon, Christian Bale made an appearance at the DC panel to promote the movie, and Kirsti and I were both in attendance. I remember the feeling that I had after the interview, as not only was this actor clearly a fan of the comics (as he made specific references to comics instead of just general comments that previous actors had made) and he had a reverance for the character. I had never seen this before. Even with the Burton films, it seemed as though the movies were being made by people who may have drawn some inspiration from, but certainly weren't devoted fans, of the comics.

When I finally saw the film, the first comment out of my mouth to my friend was, "There are no other Batman movies." While I've come to appreciate the older films for what they are, as I no longer say to myself while watching them, "Dammit! They should have done that differently!" I would certainly tell a person who only planned on seeing one Batman film that Batman Begins would be the only one that they'd need to see.

So, let's break it down. Since I have more good things to say, let's get the bad out of the way. Honestly though, there isn't anything that really bugs me. Some folks have complained about Katie Holmes, and while she certainly isn't great, I feel the same way about her as I do about Chris O'Donnel in the previous two movies - not bad, but not really good either. I think that mainly she gets criticism due to the fact that she's surrounded by some of the best actors in the business, and her chops just aren't up to their level. So what though - Maggie Gyllenhall is playing her character in the next movie, so no damage done.

I can't really come up with anything else. I found the action scenes to be a bit confusing the first time I watched it, but now I have come to appreciate them for what they are - they're supposed to be chaotic, and they reveal just enough to let you know what happened. Another thing, which only occurs to me when I think about it, is that they changed a lot of story elements from the comics. However, I won't even call this a bad thing though, as all the changes that they made actually improve the story (at least, it's better for the format of a movie), and they're not just arbitrary tweaking of the characters by people who don't give a shit about getting it right.

So, how about the good?

Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne - not so much that his performance is great, but that this movie actually focuses on the title character, unlike the previous films, and Bale is able to carry the movie and make Batman the most interesting character, despite the fact that there are a lot of other compelling ones in the film. What a concept - making Batman the main character of his film!

Morgan Freeman and Lucius Fox. It's funny, because the previous movies made the characters less interesting than they were in the comics, but this movie makes Fox much more important and interesting than he ever was in the comics. His role is expanded quite a bit for the film, but it makes perfect sense, as after all, Batman needs somebody who's more of an inside man in Wayne Enterprises so he can get the weapons and gear that he needs. Also, Freeman adds his usual gravitas to the role that it hardly feels like a token black character. He actually does something and the movie would be missing something important if you took him out.

Michael Caine as Alfred. I've seen the movie several times, but I still smile at the fact that they got him to play the part. He has the character's dry wit down perfectly, and he also makes you believe that a guy would be so loyal to one family for so long.

Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. In Frank Miller's Year One comic book series, Gordon became an even more important part of the whole Batman story, being one of the few good cops in a corrupt city. The first Burton film touched on that idea, but for the most part, you could cut the character and nothing significant would be lost. Again, it's not just so much that his performance is great, but the character is well-written. Still, this is a testament to his acting ability, since he's able to play such a decent, good-hearted guy after many roles where he was basically a creep.

Liam Neeson as Ducard/Ra's al Ghul. This is one of those instances where they changed a lot of the details about the character, but the soul of what he's all about was fully intact. In the comics, he's a centuries-old guy (resurrected many times via the Lazarus pit) who is determined to wipe out most of humanity in an effort to improve the world. (Like the best villains, he truly feels as though he's the real hero.) He attempts to get Batman to marry his daughter, Talia, as he figures that only Batman is worty to bring him an heir. It's different in the movie, but the point is the same - he feels that he's the good guy and he's willing to use extreme methods to achieve his goals. Also, he felt that Bruce Wayne was worthy of taking his place one day. As for the Lazarus Pit and his daughter, while not mentioned, they aren't necessarily contradicted in the film either. They could be virtual deleted scenes for a comic book purist.

The Batmobile. Watching the other films, I actually liked the design of the Batman Forever car the best, but it still looks like a big movie prop, just like all the others. This one, while not as impressive looking at first, actually looks like it can do the things that it does.

The Scarecrow. There was just enough of him for him to be interesting without having to devote more time to explaining his origin. Not all villains need to have their motivations explained, as this instance certainly proves.

It's actually about something. This movie has a few running themes throughout it. One theme deals with the difference between vengeance and justice. The other is about overcoming your fears. Also, in true Joseph Campbell, heroic cycle fashion, it deals with the self-realization of the hero, as he finally figures out what he's supposed to be doing. I really can't say the same thing about the other movies, and I think that this is why the movie rises above the genre. I remember some non-comic book friends of mine were skeptical of this movie came out, but then they agreed that it was a great movie. (One of them, while hearing me talk about what a good job they did with it, scoffingly said, "Come on, it's Batman! How good could it be?" Later on, he actually described it as a "great" film.)

And that's the thing with this movie. While it certainly gives me what I want as a comic book fan, it's not just a good comic book movie. It's a good movie, period. I'm a fan of comics, and I'm a fan of movies. This one appeals to both sides.

My grade? A

Here's hoping for an A+ from The Dark Knight.

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