Batman Begins

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

DON'T BE SCARED

An underacted comic book film? Batman Begins is structured, at least for a while, around subtle, understated performances - Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Linus Roache in a classy turn like Robert Burke with an imaginable interior. Roache's pleasant performance is more important than his screen time might suggest; as Thomas Wayne, his character must be of sufficient stuff that it must always show in young Bruce as he becomes himself. Bale's persona as Batman must always answer to the standard set by the elder Wayne - Batman himself is an ongoing attempt to answer the loss of the father, and if we are too easily tempted to extend that to an archetypal concept, we would do well to remember the individual case, not losing sight of Bruce Wayne's actions germinating always in his father.

If Batman prowls the night because his father was killed (much more the position of Batman Begins than any maternal concerns), it helps the sympathy value of his case if the father in question is an honorable, classy one, whose too brief time with young Bruce was sufficient to instill him with the solid ethical base required to guide him through his life, rather than the somewhat more cynical assertion that he creeps through the night doling out discipline because his father disappeared from the picture at an important age, leaving him only the most outlandish method of creating the discipline he needed from ages twelve through eighteen: by projecting guilt (his own, at his father's death) onto common thugs and low-lifes, then punishing appropriately. Batman doesn't take life; this was not a punishment his father would have likely considered appropriate. He only seeks to create a civil, caring, well-behaved city-family like the one he lost.

While these subtexts have always been there for the looking in Batman's comic-book world, they tend to be passed over, meaningless as they are. Batman as a series has drawn many of its strongest moments from the idea of discrediting them, from Batman exalting the higher functions: he eschews guns, avoids killing, utilizes gadgets and inventions, hones his mind to become The World's Greatest Detective, a title bestowed upon him for a long span. It's all tied together - probably not much of a stretch to wonder if some of that widespread philanthropic donation isn't compensation for an extensively guilty conscience, let alone for the damage caused to Gotham by his nightly adventures - but his emphasis on mental agility, even as he must by necessity practice its physical counterpart against the heat-packing criminal element, is his commitment to overpowering those dirtier psychological secrets.

To the film's credit, this 65-year, thousands-of-issues struggle is recapitulated in Batman Begins. The conflict is set up in the origin story, and while Batman Begins has the benefit of telling the story itself, superhero films fail if they stray too far; the origin must be visible from any point along the line, and Batman & Robin simply doesn't offer that connection. Batman Begins does, playing up the counterpoint to Batman's intellectual resolve, for even as he strives to overcome the guilt of his parents' death, seeking to serve Gotham out of superego morality rather than compensatory, low revenge, it reminds him and the viewer that a more visceral psychological factor is at work: when Batman Begins is about fear, it is at its strongest. If you've been around Batman a long time, you may know a number of his phases; he's in black now, but he was in gray and a fairly bright blue for a while, and the costume from the 1960s television show isn't too terrifying. Take a look at the cover of Detective Comics 27, though, the first appearance of 'the' Batman (scarier still with the definite article, less a heroic name, more a freak of science, an oddity, an unknown quantity). He's a very creepy character. Cynics may wonder, after sixty years of evidence, why word doesn't get around the criminal community that Batman talks tough but isn't going to kill you, and will in fact probably save you if you slip off a ledge running away after he catches you mid-felony, but Batman Begins reminds us via his first sudden appearance at the docks (without any Peter Parker public sneak previews), without the crooks living in an established superhero world, that he must have been pretty scary. In 1939 and 1940, Batman had no compunctions about lethal force, and killed more than his share of criminals. He doesn't have to be a kiddie-ready hero, an aspect Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were relatively successful in restoring, until Joel Schumacher ran rampant with the neon glowsticks and silver-toned Batsuit, modeled like the third Batman action figure in any series, when they've run out of authentic costumes and have to put out a Night-Scuba Batman to pad the toy line. Batman Begins brings back the black, the body armor, the bats.

SO WELCOME BACK, BABY, TO THE POOR SIDE OF TOWN

Rather than the films continuing to pick the "next" two Batman villains, working their way down the checklist from most famous to least until Batman 8 featured Maxie Zeus and Clayface III, Batman Begins gets it very right in its selection of Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy is perfectly dry and glib, the character much revamped from the Ray Bolger-styled character of the comic to a more workmanlike appearance in the film, more plausible and significantly more ominous. One of Batman Begins' strengths is the way in which it takes place in a fairly realistic world, and Scarecrow holds down his corner of this aim in more ways than one: not only with his new appearance, dully scientific methodology, and lack of grandiose criminal scheming, but through being fairly unsavory out of costume as well, reminding us that just because a villain isn't cackling maniacally and hurling thematic weaponry doesn't mean he isn't a danger; Dr. Crane's role as corruptible bureaucrat is probably as damaging as his role as Scarecrow.

This isn't to say any of it is joyless; Crane's smugness isn't without humor, a point underscored by what I can only imagine is a subtle Ichabod Crane joke upon being set loose in perma-Scarecrow form after his inpatient stay in Arkham.

It's a shame Arkham Asylum's breakdown isn't what it could have been. On the other hand, it's lucky it isn't what it easily might have been. The concept was a holdover from early drafts of the script of what would have been Batman V (what comes after Forever?), when creative staff, having exhausted every single one of the first five Batman villains that came to mind, thought it might be fun to use up the rest of them in one go by having them break out of Arkham, the mythical maximum-security supervillain jail of the Batman universe. The idea of using up the villains was scrapped, but as a story element, the Asylum breakdown remained. Fans of the classy Arkham Asylum graphic novel, in which the Joker invites Batman into a lunatic-run Arkham for a little psychological self-examination, may be disappointed at the relatively staid physical and psychological portrayal of the building, and comic stat-collectors may be disappointed at the relative lack of X-Menesque cameos (Victor Zsasz doesn't really cut it when you're hoping for a Doctor Destiny appearance), but considering how the original concept would likely have turned out, all computer-generated Killer Croc and little class, it's probably for the best.

This isn't to say it's not a wasted opportunity; the breakdown of Arkham and chaos in the Narrows are the perfect high-stakes cataclysm for the end of this film about fear, with its stories about the gap between the common man and the powerful, about the responsibilities of the wealthy, about the Wayne family trait becoming more than noblesse oblige; when Ducard blames Thomas Wayne for messing up the economic warfare instigated by the League, we understand that Wayne wasn't just a rich guy with enough to be generous, not just a corporate giant with a side interest in philanthropy, but a man standing by the side of his city to fight an invader - albeit a fiduciary one - and this lesson, among others, is eventually taken to heart by his son. No wonder Ducard misjudges Wayne's second-guessable actions on that fateful night: Ducard is equally adept at micro- and macro-warfare, able to plan attacks both martial and economic; he has seen Wayne's stand against the latter and equates his lack of martial skill to a lack of willpower, not understanding how a man can possess one (economic) skill and not the (physical) other.

First, then, we endeavor to separate Bruce Wayne's extensive philanthropy from simple guilt, guilt of (by allowing his parents' death) robbing the city of the future good works of his father, a motivation beyond the already-potent guilt of being born wealthy. This is manageable, but the important part comes in the form of elevating it even beyond unguilty goodwill to responsibility: the responsibility of a city's guardian to its people, shepherd to flock, parent to child. It's never charity work, but another weapon in defense of the city, always a tool in his utility belt: as batarang is a bane to gun-wielding hand threatening a citizen, so a new wing of the hospital is a bane to economic impoverishment threatening the citizenry.

The assault on the poor of the Narrows (that is to say, all of the Narrows), then, makes sense. Like his father before him, Bruce Wayne is an economic warrior, and chaos in the Narrows is the front line. This, on its own, is relevant to the character and to the story; the threat against Gotham as a whole is overkill. It does underscore a cold point left unsaid - that the powerful of Gotham wouldn't be overly concerned with the breakdown of Arkham as long as the raising of the bridges kept the murderous rabble from the city proper - but doesn't this simply serve to cement Batman's character? If he and a select few others are the only ones to brave the fray while Gothamites watch disenfranchised rioters tear up their own neighborhoods, then we can see that he has grown beyond his inherited wealth and position to understand what it means to fight to save a city, especially one thought beyond saving, both by tongue-clucking establishment types and by the very anti-establishment League of Shadows.

Why abandon it, then, just as it's getting good? Almost as soon as it's set up, it's through. Rachel Dawes shelters a poor helpless kid. Batman beats up three guys and heads off to fight crime where it's important, underneath the center of the city in a building bearing his name. Don't cut to the century-old speeding-train gag. The poisoned ghetto is where the final battle should be fought. Work the fear angle, not the kid-in-danger angle. Work Batman against the poor or not against the poor, turned against by those he is coming to help, those who don't understand his intentions, who have been made to fear their would-be savior by the forces who have done them harm, and who would, in a reversal of the traditional superhero mask, fear him even more if they knew who he really was.

Work Jim Gordon the faithful servant of truth, work Gordon the guy who beats up Flass - created not as Christopher Nolan's guy Mark Boone Junior but as a six-and-a-half-foot blond Green Beret - for threatening his pregnant wife. Work Gordon the beleaguered, bespectacled guy in his undershirt throwing out the trash, not Gordon the "I gotta get me one of those!" sidekick or comic. Give Gordon something to do but don't make it joyriding the Batmobile. Gordon has his own story, and it's his grip on integrity as the rest of the crooked department crumbles and destroys itself.

Let Batman deal with the crazed populace who fears everything at this moment, just as they fear him the rest of the time. The conflict was inevitable. There's no avoiding their fear; this is a casualty of his efforts to terrify crime.

The classy underacting in this film - Roache's warm dignity, Neeson's even keel, Oldman's humble turn, Murphy's smarmy frankness - serves multiple ends. It keeps the film fairly grounded in reality, an absolute necessity if the central fear motif is to retain any weight. It keeps the movie feeling adult, a tough challenge of recent comic-adapted film, several of which merely ramp up the grit, the murder, and the nighttime exteriors to try for the same result. It keeps the movie good, an even rarer accomplishment.

Christian Bale, though, out-underacts them all. As Batman, he's the most animated we've seen, trading in the usual flat, low tones for a coarse bark that mixes his intimidation tactics with the idea that he's actually concerned by something under there. As Bruce Wayne, he refuses to play James Bond. Sure, he's younger, and by the time Clooney stepped in, Bruce Wayne had had plenty of time to perfect his act, so to some extent it's only natural that Bale would play it a little more hesitant. More to the point, though, he understands that Bruce Wayne is only an act, ginger ale in a champagne flute. Rather than a cocksure trickster, though, Bale sees the Wayne persona as a necessity - a fortunately wealthy means to an increased arsenal, a well-positioned turret for the financial side of the battle, and little else but a shield for the Batman persona. To that end, Bale makes sure that Bruce Wayne never really inhabits the Bruce Wayne role; even when we meet him he has done what he can to shed his name and place. Throughout his return he does his best to shirk his duties as Wayne - he doesn't call Rachel, doesn't go to work until it suits Batman's purposes.

What is it about Wayne that requires this blankness? Whatever it is, it's something that Christian Bale seems to understand. It's not an uninteresting coincidence that Bale gained some notoriety and cult status from his turn as Bateman in American Psycho. Bateman and Batman are at odds, as much so as two characters can be, but it's in Bateman that Bale honed the blankness he would need to understand Bruce Wayne. Both characters are empty, reflections of their time and place. Bateman is very much a reaction to 1980s Manhattan, a person created by it and a literary construct created by the knowledge of it. "Patrick Bateman" is a mythical creation to cause conflict within his territory, purging it of at least some of its iniquities. His morals and methods are different, but his role as urban bogeyman has a distant echo in Batman, who prowls his own city by night, a mythical creation to police his homeland, not under the guidance of the law, but according to morals that are specifically his own. One asks what you can do when society cannot govern behavior, and the other asks what you must do.

Bateman and Batman are both ciphers, less actual people than urban barometers. Through these conduits flow the psyche of the city, the knowledge and terror of pain and crime. They are the loss of the father and the lack of faith in the police.They are the positive and negative terminals of vigilantism. Finally, Batman is starting to sound scary again.

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
Contents
The Hills Have Eyes 2

Hostel Part II

Six Degrees

Shark

Jericho

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Justice

The Hills Have Eyes

Love Monkey

Out of Practice

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Batman Begins

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To Hit Armor Class Zero

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8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter

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60 Second Wipeout

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