Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Does it Come in Black?: My 10th Anniversary Tribute to BATMAN BEGINS



"But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, you become something else entirely."
"Which is?"
"Legend, Mr. Wayne."

And with those words, a legend was reborn. Today marked the 10th anniversary of the release of Warner Brothers' and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Looking back like most pop-culture enthusiasts, the film was a major reinvention of the character, ushered in the era of the reboot, and has had a lasting impact- for better or worse- on superhero filmmaking. As a Batman fan, though, I couldn't help but celebrate the milestone from a personal perspective. Between being a superb picture and the most faithful adaptation, Batman Begins remains my favorite film about the Caped Crusader.



Still haunted and angered by seeing both of his parents murdered in front of him when he was a small boy, billionaire heir, Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale), disappears from his home in Gotham City to search the world for a way to combat evil. He is recruited by Ducard (Liam Neeson), a gentleman who mentors him to be a member of a secret society of warriors. Bruce eventually rebels against the group and returns to Gotham City, a urban sprawl ruled by crime and corruption, with mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) at the center. With the help of his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), and his company's tech guy, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce combines his skills, gadgets, and his childhood fear of bats to become Batman, a terrifying symbol for justice.



Batman, the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, has been my favorite fictional character since I was 12. I had been a fan of Batman before that, through years of watching him and his sidekick, Robin, on Saturday mornings and the 1966 movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. But it was the summer of 1989, the mania that swept the country in anticipation of Warner Bros' big-budget Batman starring Michael Keaton as the title hero and Jack Nicholson as his arch-rival, The Joker, that turned my casual fandom into complete obsession. I became enthralled with the character and the mythology of Gotham City. The 1989 film reinvigorated my interest in comics and love of gothic fiction, as well as opened me up to new concepts in art, classical music, and film. Because of that movie, Batman has been an obsession that continues- and continues to evolve- to this day.

Thanks to the comics, Tim Burton's movies, an acclaimed animated series, and tons of action figures from Kenner, Batman was a pop-culture staple throughout the majority of the 1990's. And then 1997's Batman & Robin happened. Unlike the dark, edgy Burton pictures, that movie (and to some degree its predecessor, Batman Forever) was nothing more than a campy, candy-colored cartoon that was constructed - poorly- just to sell toys. Everything that was cool and relevant about the character was sucked out by Batman & Robin just like what POP did to U2 that same year. Soon, the one-two punch of Blade and The Matrix- both WB properties, ironically- changed the way audiences perceived movies with comic-book sensibilities, paving the way for the success of Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man on the big screen. Even though there were some highlights for fans, such as the animated Batman Beyond and comic arcs like The Long Halloween and Hush, for a few years after 1997, Batman was old news to the general public. A punchline. It was "Pow!", "Zap!", and "Wham!" all over again. Dark times for The Dark Knight.

In 2003, Warner Bros. got underway on a new Batman movie. Audiences may have moved on, but the studio never gave up on one of their biggest franchises. Two of the most documented attempts to revive the character on film included one that would pit Batman against Superman (Hm, I wanna say I heard something like this before?) and a straight adaptation of Frank Miller's four-issue miniseries, Batman: Year One. At this point, I didn't really care all that much. The deeper I got into the comics, the less valuable the previous films became. I was sure Warner Bros. would never really do a more faithful version of Batman. I didn't even know who this Christopher Nolan guy was anyways. I hadn't seen Memento by that point.

The casting was the thing that started to grab my interest. Christian Bale, known at the time for the controversial indie black comedy, American Psycho, was announced as the next actor to take on the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This took me by surprise; Warner Bros. wasn't going with a star this time. Being a fan of Bale's performance in American Psycho, I found myself clapping for the studio for choosing a guy I felt could get the job done.

More casting news followed, and I started to get excited. Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's faithful butler, Alfred, was a no-brainer. Plus, what a coup to get an actor like that for a Batman movie, considering how the last couple of films turned out. Add to that, the likes of Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy signaled to me this was not going to be the kind of Batman movie I had grown accustomed to seeing as a teenager.


Up until the movie's release, I had no clue what kind of movie this was going to be. I remember all of the trailers centered primarily on Bruce's training. The film had this aura of mystery behind it, despite the internet world's attempts to uncover as much of it as possible before its unveiling. I even remember the marketing behind it being kind of scaled-back. For a Batman movie, anyways. Still, with the Dark Knight being my favorite character, I was there for Batman Begins that Thursday night preview in the summer of 2005.

The picture I saw that night was one I thought I would never see. Batman Begins was the Batman film I had always wanted. Unlike the previous franchise, which reduced the title character to a supporting role for movie stars to act goofy as the villians, this Batman movie was about... well, Batman. In addition, it was the best action/adventure movie I had seen since the original Die Hard. I fell in love with the movie. I went back to see it two more times that summer. Back when it was affordable to do so.

Ten years later, Batman Begins remains a remarkable movie. Inspired by comics such as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, as well as 1978's Superman The Movie, Christopher Nolan fashioned a Batman movie with scope, thrills, and class. This is the best kind of action film. One where the balance of character, story, plot, and visuals is effortless.  For the most part, the cast is extraordinary, especially Bale going out of his way to not only bring a Bruce Wayne worth being invested in, but also giving us the most physical and fearsome Batman ever. It's a gorgeous film to look at too, thanks to the cinematography of Wally Pfister. What is surprising, now and then in equal measures, was the restraint in the use of CGI. It is only there to enhance what is on screen, rather than this century's standard practice of essentially creating all we see on screen. The action scenes are greatly executed, but the most exhilarating is the car chase involving the newly-designed Batmobile, or The Tumbler, as it is called in this film. It's up there with Bullitt, The French Connection, and To Live and Die in L.A.


Even though it was Nolan's intention to have the character "grounded", the film looks and feels like a Batman story. The actors inhabit the roles they play. Michael Caine has had a career that spans decades, but he is Alfred in this movie. Hell, Gary Oldman even looks like Jim Gordon in the comics. Bruce's moral center is clear and present in this film, something that wavered in many of the others. The gothic tone of the comics is still very much a visual and thematic factor in Batman Begins. The sepia color that is present in the film and its promotional materials gives it a silent-era monster movie vibe. The one thing that drew me to the character of Batman is his willingness to go into the places no one else will. Whether it is a dark alley, a dungeon-esque sewer, an asylum run by the inmates, or in the darkest parts of our minds, he jumps in so that we, the reader, can experience these from a safer distance. Batman Begins is the ultimate cinematic version of that. The theme of fear and the appearance of Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow brings that element of the comic to nightmarish life.


I tend to rank all the Batman movies by both their quality and their adherence to the source material. For me, Batman Begins remains at the top of the list. And I don't apologize for that. The sequel, The Dark Knight, isn't even #2. I'm not knocking The Dark Knight at all. It's a magnificent film. A spectacular crime drama. It just doesn't feel like a Batman movie the way its predecessor is. Compared to Batman Begins, both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises fall short due to Nolan's overwhelming dedication to that grounded approach and a conceit that Batman needed to transcend where he came from. The gothic feel of the first picture is absent. Batman's moral center drifts toward the extreme by the end of The Dark Knight, and then seems non-existent in the final movie. Everything is all so, so serious. Why so serious?

Regardless, I will still watch anything that has Batman in it, because he still is my favorite fictional character. Each iteration of the superhero means different things to different generations, and, as a fan and student of this character, I know better than to deem one better than the other. It's all a matter of personal tastes. As someone who got sucked into the mythology at the end of the Eighties, Batman Begins was and still is, for me, the film that did that version of the character true justice.



Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video, and for streaming on Amazon.com

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