Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan – Batman Begins (2005)

Director Dissection is a series of posts highlighting a specific director with the intention of reviewing all of their directorial efforts, with the intention of gaining a better understanding of their work as a whole and showcasing their lesser known films. Christopher Nolan, a favorite of mine, is the first in the series and my goal is to get through his filmography before his next movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is released on July 20, 2012. (Goal not met, obviously) Batman Begins is available through Netflix Home Delivery.  

Previous posts: Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002)

*** I am writing this post the day of the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. To review Batman Begins, and in preparation of watching the newest installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I re-watched this film and only thirty minutes after finishing, I went on line and found out about the terrible situation in Aurora, Colorado. My deepest condolences go out to the families that are and will continue to be affected by this awful act. Living in Tucson, AZ, I was instantly taken back to a year and a half ago when the shooting ripped through our community and it just destroys me inside to think that something so thoughtless and awful could happen time and time again.

Having the day to think about what has happened, I would like to caution anyone from blaming this film, or any film for that matter, for the selfish acts of one individual. We have much bigger societal problems concerning this shooting than media. Music, film, television, video games… always seem to be the scapegoat for situations like this and we cannot let ourselves be fooled into thinking that this man’s actions can be justified so simply. I write this with utmost respect for anyone affected by this event, and do not mean to belittle anyone’s pain or suffering. ***

Batman Begins. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros., 2005. 140 mins.

“ICE to see you!”, “What killed the dinosaurs? The ICE AGE!“, and “In this universe, there’s only one absolute… everything freezes!”, is a tiny sampling of the comedic gold that Mr. Freeze’s churns out in Joel Schumacher’s second addition to the Batman film series in 1997, Batman & RobinThat, along with countless unforgivable missteps (the bat-suit nipples and American Express product placement come quickly to mind), spelled doom for Schumacher and another caped crusader sequel. In 2003, in response to the success of MementoWarner Bros. hired Christopher Nolan to reboot, and rebrand Batman closer to the initial vision that Bob Kane and Bill Finger had in 1931. A darker, more realistic Batman, compared to the campy, cheese ball, character that Schumacher morphed from the Tim Burton imagining of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

Batman Begins (2005) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Batman Beginslike so many other comic book movie reboots, takes us through the Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) back story, surprisingly not done by any of the other cinematic incarnations of the dark knight. Aside from the obligatory death of Wayne’s parents, Nolan takes us through the journey Bruce takes to become Batman. After a failed attempt to exact revenge on the man that took his parents’ lives, he stand up to the mob boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), and realizes how ill-fitted he is to stop corruption in Gotham. He finds himself in an East Asain (not entirely sure which country) prison where he is discovered by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who represents Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, a group feared by the criminal underworld that fights for true justice. Wayne trains to become a member of the league, learning the skills and the mindset he uses to become Batman, until he is ordered to kill a murderer. He turns against the League of Shadows and Ducard, and burns down their monastery to escape, but he saves the life of Ducard.

Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham and starts his crime-fighting venture by employing the help of a handful of like-minded allies to fight corruption. His longtime butler and caretaker since the death of his parents, Alfred (Michael Cane), is his confidante and works to keep him grounded. Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), the head of the R+D department at Wayne Enterprises, provides Batman with all his snazzy gadgets. And under the mask he recruits his longtime friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a straight-laced Gotham prosecutor, and Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Dawes is investigating Dr. Johnathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a key witness in the successful insanity pleas for Falcone’s men, who is using a fear-inducing aerosol to frighten them to the point of insanity and move them out of prison and into Arkham Asylum. Meanwhile, Batman looks into Falcone who has been smuggling drugs into the city, a portion of which is laced with the same drug Crane has been using. The sinister plan is to dump the hallucinogenic into the water supply, and with a  microwave emitter (stolen from Wayne Enterprises) vaporize the drug, essentially drugging the entire city. Henri Ducard, who reveals that he is the real Ra’s Al Ghul, with the League of Shadows have engineered this plot to have Gotham tear itself apart through fear.

A large current running through Batman Begins is the class struggle that is present in Gotham. As a child, Bruce is shown the railway system that his father has built, to provide cheap efficient transportation to all of Gotham. When we see the train later in the film, as Rachel is being stalked by Falcone’s man, it has been run down and is peppered with graffiti. And as the film ends the train is completely in shambles, crashed into Wayne Tower to stop the microwave emitter from reaching the central water system of Gotham.

Before deciding on destroying Gotham through fear, Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows tried to tear down Gotham through economics (possibly through corrupt capitalism like the real world saw shortly after this film was released). The worsening economic situation could have lead indirectly to the death of Bruce’s parents. And Gotham was only saved through rich generous folk like in response to their deaths. A plot point driven home by Ra’s Al Ghul when he confronts Bruce at his birthday party. (If a larger point was meant to be made here about our economic system, Nolan painted too broadly to make an effective point either way.)

Also the main area of unrest in the film, the Narrows, is a slum. The drug shipments coming into Gotham are headed for the Narrows, and the two scenes located there before the finale remind me of Fincher’s city from Se7en. The only character that comes to personify the Narrows and the lower class of Gotham is a child that Batman comes across while spying on an apartment where some of the drug has been delivered. He escapes a harsh argument between his parents to the wet fire escape to find Batman, a symbol he has clung to for hope. We know nothing else of him, but we get another scene with him when Rachel finds him during the prison breakout, where she and Batman come to his rescue. Gordon could have been a sympathetic character from the lower class of Gotham but we are not privy to his personal life in this film.

Bruce Wayne’s main focus while donning his alter ego is to bring justice the people of Gotham who have been taken advantage of by the criminal underworld and the corrupt infrastructure around them. To take away the fear that has been used to govern their lives. While the groundwork for an exceptional exploration of these ideas was established, the film never delves deep enough for the audience to care about these other people. The struggling people of Gotham are not given enough of a face for this important underlying issue to fully be realized.

While some of the lofty thematic goals do not entirely pan out, one reason Batman Begins should be commended is for its atmosphere. Christopher Nolan’s goal from the start was to create a Batman based, at least mostly, in reality, and while comparing this film to Batman & Robin or Forever wouldn’t even be worth you time, comparing this to the highly respected Batman, by Tim Burton (which I love), Begins is much more realistic. These characters are not cartoons or caricatures. Possibly the biggest aspect in the believably of this world are the performances and casting. Christian Bale is the perfect mix between Bruce Wayne and Batman. He may be slightly more successful in his portrayal of the bratty playboy millionaire than menacing Batman, but Nolan’s focus on Bruce Wayne as the protagonist rather than the superhero makes this seem more of a directing decision, than a deficiency.

Michael Cane and Morgan Freeman play vital roles in Wayne’s support system and miscasting these roles could have been disastrous. These two characters provide a human element for Bruce to connect with, without  which he becomes more of a reclusive loner. They also provide some levity to the film, allow for a release from the darkness.

As for the antagonists of the film, I think Cillian Murphy as Dr.Crane/Scarecrow is the best of the lot. Although his character is sped along in the middle of the film and gets quickly disposed of at the end of the film. Murphy performance is spot on, but he is given little to do other than advance the plot while Ra’s Al Ghul is off screen. Liam Neeson provides some clout as the leader of the League of Shadows but it is hard to enjoy the hero/villain relationship for either of these characters because of the fragmented nature of their screen time.

Placing Batman Begins in comparison with the rest of Christopher Nolan’s work, as is the aim with the Director Dissection series, has been the most difficult thus far. While there are glimpses of common techniques used, non-linear story telling to introduce Wayne’s back story (does not add nearly as much to the film when comparing it to Memento or Following), placing the viewer in the mind of a character with the visualization of the fear toxin, and maybe the most crucial and effective characteristic is the mental struggle with oneself. In Following the protagonist allows his voyeuristic tendencies to cloud his judgement and put his trust in the wrong people. In Memento Leonard experiences an existential crisis concerning the importance of his actions if he cannot remember them (even though he may never remember going through the crisis at all). And in Insomnia Detective Dormer must readjust his belief that his actions, while potentially resulting in the greater good, have left him morally bankrupt. Batman Begins makes Bruce Wayne question his character early on, when he convinced himself to kill his parents’ murderer. More importantly he questions his actions after his father’s house has been burnt to the ground. He sacrifices his life to save the people of Gotham and must deal with what Batman stands for, a unwavering stand for good, in Batman Begins and even more so in the films to follow in this series. Bruce says that what he fears the most are bats in the film, but examining his actions and what drives him, it becomes clear that what he truly fears is losing the ones he loves. He also fears his potential inability to protect these people, possibly one of the reasons he runs away from Gotham after confronting Falcone.

Although, overall this film lacks the feel of a Christopher Nolan film, in the realm of superhero movies Batman Begins represents a refreshingly realistic take on comic book movies. It seems reasonable that with the task of reinventing a much-loved character like Batman, coupled with the fact that Nolan was working with his first blockbuster budget ($150 million), the film caters to the superhero crowd rather than turning out a potentially risky film that resembles Nolan’s other films. For most of this review I’ve focused on a good amount of negatives, but this has more to do with the comparison between this Batman film and Memento rather than the quality of the film standing alone. As a superhero movie Batman Begins is extremely enjoyable and the tone of the film is a breath of fresh air for the genre.

7 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★★

“You traveled the world… Now you must journey inwards… to what you really fear… it’s inside you… there is no turning back. Your parents’ death was not your fault. Your training is nothing. The will is everything. If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely.” – Henri Ducard

***Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan will continue with his 2006 film The Prestige***

______________________________________________________

Other Observations:

♦ Bruce Wayne is celebrating his 30th birthday in this film. while The Dark Knight Rises takes place 8 years after The Dark Knight, this means in the last film Bruce Wayne is somewhere between 38 and 40 years old.

♦ This film starts a cast of actors that have followed Christopher Nolan to other work, most notably Michael Cane, who has been in ever film since. Christian Bale is in The Prestigeand Ken Wanatabe is in Inception

♦ In a scene later in the film, Bruce Wayne goes out to diner and makes a comment about the insanity of a man who dresses up like a bat. This interaction reminded me a great deal of American Psycho, and the character of Patrick Bateman.

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