Batman Begins
Director: Christopher Nolan

BATMAN. 1989

Director: Tim Burton


Director: Joel Schumaker

Director: Russell Mulcahy

Reviews by Paghat the Ratgirl

Critics surprisingly enough hailed Batman Begins as the best in the franchise & possibly the best adaptation of a comic book hero ever. This was an exaggeration since in reality Tim Burton's Batman (1989) which started it all remains the better film, & Michael Keaton was the better Batman. Burton's Batman Returns (1992) has by far the best villain of the series (Danny DeVito as the Penguin) besides the most endearing Catwoman ever (Michelle Pfeiffer), whereas Batman Begins offers up banal villains.

The series only began to fall apart when Joel Schumaker changed Burton's dark vision to high camp in Batman Forever (1995), & trucked out Robin with gigantic codpiece to fulfill Schumaker's personal sexual fantasies of the Batman & Robin man/boy love subtext. Val Kilmer was immediately recognized as an inferior Batman, & Chris O'Donnell was patently embarrassed to be tricked out as Schumaker's fantasy of the boy lover. Jim Carrey as Riddler & Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two-face were played like throwbacks to the ridiculousness of the Adam West television series.

Poison IvyKilmer had the good sense not to make an ass of himself again, so George Clooney came on board specifically to prove Kilmer was not the worst Batman of all time. In Batman & Robin (1997) George clunks around foolishly in the Batman suit & Chris O'Donnell tries to look less embarrassed as Batman's catamite.

The homosexual subtext does derive from the comic book itself, so wasn't entirely the doing of a gay director, but Schumaker just couldn't find the balance. Then there was Arnold Schwarzenager hamming it up as Mr. Freeze, pushing the cornball campiness to the limit. Oddly enough Uma Thurman turned in a charming performance & was even better as the nurdy Dr. Isley than as the reborn as Poison Ivy. I like the film for Uma's cutesie character, but overall the film was all joke & no adventure.

Batman ReturnsSchumaker pretty much eradicated even the memory of Tim Burton's so-successful gothicisms, but nobody forgot they liked Michael Keaton best as Batman. Keaton's success was not his physicality so much as it was his weak chin which Christopher Bale in Batman Begins shares. The Batman headgear just looks better with a pointy chin; square-jawed Clooney just looked like he was wearing a funny hat. Keaton also delivered that simple line "I'm Batman" with such simple psycho conviction nobody ever forgot that, & Christopher Bale pushes the borderline madman a lot further in his vocalizations. There's no question but that Bale makes a great Batman, as had Keaton in his day.

Christopher Nolan's first stroke of directorial genius was to dismiss the Schumaker drag ball fiascos & return to the darkness of Tim Burton's vision. The film even ends with a tie-in for Tim Burton's first Batman. Nolan's "prequel" shows Gotham City extremely grubby, worse than New York during a garbage strike, in the grip of a profound economic Depression. A secret society of shadowy martial artists are responsible for Gotham's bad luck. Despite having their headquarters in some unnamed Asian country probably in the Himalayas, their primary goal in the world is to destroy Gotham City, for what reason we're never told, one of several critical flaws with the story that undermines its intended seriousness.

The ShadowThe first act is pretty much plaigiarised wholesale from the equally ill-considered "origin" myth concocted for The Shadow (1994), wherein Alec Baldwin as the Shadow learns all his secret mystical methods of controlling the minds of men through supernatural martial training in a Tibetan monestary.

This was not initially part of the Shadow's mythology, which in the original pulp magazine & radio program was entirely related to the gangland criminal underworld. His foes were the same as those for Elliot Ness. But as Batman Begins steals this bad "origins" material from the movie version The Shadow, so too had The Shadow stolen the idea of comic-book costume villains from Batman.

Not only is did the movie Shadow train in Asia, but his Yellow Peril arch enemy dresses up like a medieval Chinese knight. John Lone is an interesting actor but he was totally laughable as the last Khan, a mini-supervillain in a totally stupid mini-supervillain suit. And giving him a prefrontal lobotomy at the end was not funny, not justice, not interesting.

The injury done to the Shadow myth did not go over big with the public, which was justifiably a boxoffice bomb. A less effective Batman was never supposed to be what the Shadow was about.

This modern fantasy of going to an Asian monastery to be turned into a super-ninja master of martial arts & invisibility is an awful explanation for how Batman learned to fly around Gotham. Worse, the whole first act of Batman Begins is Yellow Peril racism. Like the stories that inspired the Anti-Chinese Act of 1882, the film posits an Asian conspiracy to destroy Gotham. Initially Bruce Wayne is trained in order to become part of the secret army of shadow warriors who hate Gotham. Because Bruce doesn't actually hate Gotham, he learns all the secrets of the Society has to teach him, then sets their monastary on fire & kills the supposed Asian leader of the Gotham-hating cult.

The yellow peril villain is played by Ken Watanabe in an offensively useless performance. It even turns out that he's a front-man for the caucasian villain, so the film gets to have it both ways, Asians are evil, & Asians are too putrid to be the real power behind the conspiracy.

In this kind of racist subtext, authors don't really believe anything as sissy & disgusting as little yellow people are super-powerful, so the actual ringleader is Lian Neeson. Thus it turns out that Bruce goes all the way to some generic Asian mountain retreat to get trained by a white guy who could've lived down the road form the Wayne estate. When Wayne kills everyone in the monastary except his trainer or fellow white man, he unwittingly saved the top villain, the smarter-than-yellow-people Neeson.

Thank god the deep & profound ignorance of the first act does not much afflict the story when it gets back to Gotham, where it never should've left. Nolan sort of wanted a more serious villain than the leotarded costume dorks Batman usually defeats, so Liam Neeson is just a dude, not a silly costume. In order to also have a comic book foe too, a secondary villain is provided, Dr. Crane the Scarecrow, played with buggy-eyed weirdness by Cillian Murphy who just about steals the show.

Dr. Scarecrow has poisoned the Gotham water supply but the psychoactive drug is harmless unless it is breathed, so no one gets hurt by drinking the water. Make sense? Of course not. It gets dumber. Leem Neeson has stolen a microwave canon that'll evaporate all the city's water supply so the drug can be breathed. The resultant LSD bad trip we're informed will cause the whole city to destroy itself, despite that the sampled examples of individuals on this drug seem to be reduced to helpless terror rather than psycho killers, so clearly the arch fiend's plot wasn't going to work even if Batman hadn't stopped it from happening.

If this alleged "best" of the Batman movies sounds stupid, well, it was stupid, but you just gotta focus on Christian Bale playing it all oh-so-seriously & appreciate that. If you try to appreciate the plot, you'll have to first undergo a lobotomy. Bale's performance once he gets in the bat costume is gritty & scarey. He definitely takes lessons on delivery from Michael Keaton, but he amps up the angle of insanity, so that criminals really do worry this is one nutjob vigilante totally willing to do them injury. And as point of fact this Batman takes so many chances with human lives, his antics would certainly have killed plenty of innocent civilians. He does kill bad-guys pretty much mercilessly, & he enjoys destroying property, damaging millions of dollars worth of property every time he goes out cruisin' for a bruisin'.

There is no ultimate defeat for The Scarecrow, he just sort of withers away as a character. The last we see of him he has been tazored by the district attorney (Katie Holmes) & the audience I saw it with laughed at him as he rode away screaming on his horse. It was effective comedy, but it was puzzling that his story-line never actually concluded & had no place to go. The rest of the film is taken up with a badly orchestrated finale on a speeding monorail as Batman & his ex-sensei played by Neeson have a boring fist-fight. All the fight choreography is second-rate throughout the film, & the final fight is just quick cuts & motion, no actual proof that either actor bothered to learn some martial arts moves. The monorail crashes & the day is saved, not by Batman but by the future Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). It's no big deal finale but by being busy-busy with way too much happening at once, it somewhat patches over the banality of the villain & the lack of significant climax.

Supporting roles were a mixed bag. Oldman plays the future Commissioner Gordon really well, & it was such a relief to see him playing something other than his standard-issue psychopath. Morgan Freeman as the inventor of all Batman's gizmos is enjoyable even though he merely walks through the role. Katie Holmes as the judgemental damsel in distress is insipid. Michael Caine as Alfred is a bit shy of adequate; he's always just being Michael Caine, & a more unusual character actor should've been found who could more convincingly be Alfred. And by far the worst is Neeson as an arch enemy who just reeks of banality, not so much awful as neutral or indifferent. Cillian Murphy as the secondary villain far out-did Neeson's unmemorable Henri, but the script too much misuses Cillian's Scarecrow character for it to matter much that he's good.

Viewers who didn't like Tim Burton's comic book villains seem to appreciate that the villain this time was Neeson as a relatively ordinary Joe (or Henri) without need of costume (never mind that he surrounds himself with goofy looking ninjas). My own sense is that Burton made the comic book villains Joker & especially Penguin credible even for all their absurdity (while Shumaker could only make such villains increasingly ridiculous). By contrast Nolan couldn't make Neeson's villain the least bit memorable. His film is deeply flawed by the unimaginative & racist first act. It is badly plotted with major loose threads. The support cast is uneven. Burton did it all with greater balance.

Even so, Nolan has made a very entertaining serious-seeming Batman movie, & Christian Bale has done superbly in the starring role, resulting in a film worthy of comparison to Burton's initial achievement, while Schumaker's campiness had never been anything but the Adam West series with bigger budgets.

The more one thinks about the specifics of Batman Begins the stupider it gets, so don't think about the script. The more one looks at the supporting roles, the poorer they look, so just keep focusing on Bale's performance. And definitely appreciate the effectively gloomy Gotham sets.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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