starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes
When I talked to my brother (Chris) yesterday morning about his midnight viewing of Batman Begins, he said "This is how I should have felt after Revenge of the Sith."
You see, as with Sith, I was nervous going in. My nervousness about Batman Begins centered not on the repeated nut-kicking of my childhood by Lucas over the past five years (Sith), but rather around these four reasons:
- I love Batman: He's not my favorite super-hero (if pressed, I'd say my favorites were maybe Hank Pym or Cyclops, but my love of super-heroes is wide and deep, so it is a hard call), but he's definitely top-ten. And, over the years, he's the only one who has been there consistantly. If you flipped through my collection of graphic novels, he's easily the single most represented hero. Something about Batman, written and drawn properly, just rocks. From Batman: Year One to the Killing Joke to Arkham Asylum (my favorite Batman story) to the Long Halloween to the Dark Knight Returns to Kingdom Come (perhaps my favorite graphic novel of all time), Batman is a badass across too many dimensions to count.
- the previous Batman stinkers: I loved the original Tim Burton Batman, but was among the few who didn't like the second. I agreed with the majority that subsequent Batman movies stank it up, each worse than the previous. I was afraid of, well, more Alicia Silverstones, more Tommy Lee Jonses, more "nipples on the bat-suit," etc., etc. Over-zealous filmmakers with too little knowledge, too little respect, and too large a special effects budget have fucked-up his story before (I'm talking about you, Schumacher).
- two villains: Everything I read talked about both Scarecrow and Ra's al Ghul as the two villains. Now, the "two villain" thing is where I think the first round of Batman movies started to stray -- when you spend time telling the back-stories of two villains, how're you gonna have time for Batman? Especially Batman and Robin. Or Batman, Robin and Batgirl. Or, Batman, Robin, Batgirl and [insert random lame love interest here]?
- which transitions perfectly into - lame random love interest: Now, I've no problem with Katie Holmes -- she's a simple, lovely actress, and one of the few teenage TV "starlets" who have anything interesting to bring to the table, aside from beauty. But, in what I hoped was going to be this gritty tale, I didn't want any lame "damsel in distress" undercutting Bruce's guilt and rage over the death of his parents as a reason to become Batman.
Fortunately, director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan clearly knows his Batman, in a way Joel Schumacher and even Tim Burton just did not. This is a dark, serious movie, which just happens to be about the birth of a super-hero. Because that hero is Batman, it works, and damn well. Nolan and David Goyer's screenplay is excellent -- based in large part on pieces of Batman: Year One and Year One companion stories like the Long Halloween, this is a gripping, well-paced story of a man coming to terms with his past, the death of his parents, the injustice of a society where he is rich and so many are poor and desperate, and the hope that things can be better. And, oh yeah, a story about putting on a suit of black armor and a cape and kicking people's asses.
Because the writers and director take the subject matter seriously, the actors are allowed to do so as well. While there is ample humor in the film, especially in the friendship between Bruce Wayne (Bale) and his family's long-time butler, Alfred (Caine), and between Wayne and Freeman's Lucious Fox, there's no attempt to pepper the thing with cheesy one-liners. All the actors (and a finer set of actors for this film I can't imagine) grab onto these roles as they would any other, and wring truth out of them. There's no self-consciousness about being in a "comic book movie" here, as can be sometimes seen even in other excellent comic book films, just simple, straight-forward realism, perhaps heightened a bit under the circumstances, but not strained in the least. Oldman, Hauer, Wilkinson, Murphy, Caine, Freeman, Bale and Neeson all do wonderful jobs, as does Katie Holmes, in a role which, thankfully, figures strongly into the plot not just as a romantic distraction, but as a smart, integral, important character, who helps shape Batman not through her need, but through her expectations that Wayne live up to his potential. Seldom do you see a female character like that in a comic book film (unless she's one of the superheroes), and it's certainly never been seen before in a Batman movie.
Fast-paced, action-packed and filled with bits that will delight comic fans and non-fans alike, this is a truly fine movie. Some have complained about Nolan's fight scenes -- that they are too fast and difficult to follow, but I loved them. The kind of staged, choreographed, extended combat normally seen in a film like this doesn't really make sense for Batman. Batman hits hard and fast from the shadows, lurking, waiting, and striking down his opponent at a moment of weakness. Batman doesn't stand still, exposing himself to gunfire and goodness knows what else -- he's just a man, after all. These battles may not seem as satisfying to some as a ten-minute Jackie Chan-style martial arts fight scene, but they are appropriate to the character. I'm sure that, as Batman takes on some bigger hitters in future films (like Killer Croc and Bane), we'll get to see longer fights, and everyone will be happy. But I really liked what Nolan did with these.
Did I say "future films?" Yes, I did. Word is Bale has signed on for two more Batman movies. If they are anything like this one, I'm there, opening night, midnight show. Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Christian Bale and the rest of a superb cast have revived what seemed a doomed franchise, much to my delight and the delight of comic geeks everywhere.
As my brother said, "If only Revenge of the Sith had been this good."