Posted on 8/22/11 02:35 AM
The words 'substance' and 'blockbuster' are rarely found in the same sentence. Nor indeed are the words 'auteur' and 'commercially reliable'. But Christopher Nolan is living, breathing proof that the two can come together and make astonishing work. Having won over mainstream audiences with Memento and Insomnia, Nolan uses his particular blend of non-linear storylines and visual hyper-realism to breathe new life into a long-dead franchise.
With all the acclaim being accorded to The Dark Knight (most of which it deserves), it is easy to forget just how good or how strong Batman Begins is. It's not just good by Batman standards, or by prequel standards; it has its own, stand-alone identity, a headstrong independence which defies and ignores all that has gone before it. Gone are the Gothic spires of Tim Burton's Gotham City, or the day-glo camp of Joel Schumacher's costumes. This is a new whole new world, in all its meticulous and frightening glory.
All of Nolan's films are stunning to behold, but Batman Begins takes his craft to new heights. He is famous for not using a second unit, allowing him to supervise and construct every shot just the way he wants it. This means there is no jarring difference between the film's dramatic scenes and the external effects designed to show us the city. Even in the most effects-heavy parts of the film, we never question who is behind the camera, guiding these scenes and determining their significance.
Nolan has the same gift for visual verisimilitude as Ridley Scott, whose masterpiece Blade Runner was a major influence on the young filmmaker. Both directors are able to construct seamless, immersive worlds on screen which are simultaneously strange and familiar. They have a beauty which both comforts and surprises us, allowing the filmmaker to play with the clichés and always come up with something new. But while several of Scott's films are truly style over substance (Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me), Nolan has yet to make a film which forsakes narrative substance for the sake of visual splendour.
What makes Batman Begins so rewarding, so gripping, and arguably so radical, is that there is a constant and unrelenting focus on the story. No matter how much we jump back and forth in time, or how many bad guys get hit, we never doubt that the movie is in control of itself and is yearning to move on to the next important piece of character development. The fact that we have to wait an hour before Christian Bale even dons the bat-suit is a clear sign that the filmmakers want to do this properly. They have avoided falling into the trap of either the original films, which often put the narrative on pause for a kid-friendly set-piece, or the Star Wars prequels, which waded through years of turgid back-story for a few minutes of vaguely dark action.
Mark Kermode once described this film as "a little independent, weird, art movie, trapped within the body of a $140m blockbuster." And he wasn't far off. Batman Begins is much less a superhero film per se than it is a detailed philosophical examination of the nature of fear and morality in a chaotic world. Both our protagonists and his many enemies have fear and intimidation as their source of power -- the former by their bribes and weapons, the latter by stealth and an incorruptible desire to do good. But rather than keep it as a straight fight between good guys and baddies, the film questions the motivations of our hero on a frequent basis. The supporting cast, particularly his old flame, push him on his motivation for doing what he does, in the way he does, regardless of how little they actually know.
This is a film in which the desire to do good can so easily be blurred into the desire for power; in which the lines between justice and vengeance are frequently re-drawn; and in which the triumph of good over evil is neither complete nor reassuring. In the film's closing scenes, Gary Oldman warns Batman that he is potentially doing more harm than good; this enemy may have been extinguished, but a darker menace lurks on the horizon which will be harder to defeat.
At the centre of all this is the idea that to defeat evil, one must understand it and even adopt part of its methods if the ends justify the means. The League of Shadows, headed up by Ra's al Ghul, are a symbolic forewarning to Bruce Wayne of what he could become should he fully embrace his fear. Liam Neeson's character is a Nietzschean figure, who has channelled his desire for justice so purely that it has consumed all his remaining humanity. Bruce Wayne should if anything be more brutal, since he wishes to atone for the death of his parents. But when he is asked to slay the farmer, his humanity intervenes and he refuses. This pivotal scene confirms Wayne's incorruptible nature; he may become feared, but he will never let the fear become him.
One criticism of this film from some quarters is that this new emphasis on darkness and philosophical soul-searching has taken all the fun out of the character. In fact one of the pleasant surprises about Batman Begins is the extent to which humour still resides. Not only do we get impressive popcorn-worthy action sequences, but we also have a script which grows more sarcastic and playful as all the battle lines are drawn. There aren't any laugh-out-loud moments, but that's not why the film exists.
The film is inhabited by one of the best all-star casts outside a Robert Altman film. Christian Bale is brilliant as Batman, drawing on his great work in American Psycho to make Bruce Wayne totally three-dimensional. He plays Wayne with a tortured intensity which makes his pain all the more palpable. The supporting cast is completely solid, with the best performances coming from Cillian Murphy as the chillingly creepy Dr. Krane and Michael Caine as the affable father figure Alfred. Special mention should also go to Gary Oldman as Gordon and to Liam Neeson, who gives one of his best performances in years.
The only real flaws with Batman Begins come when it attempts the widest possible appeal. The last twenty minutes, is completely over-the-top and rather cavalier on the part of the director. It's not so much a punch in the face as a flick on the nose; not especially painful, but you still feel annoyed that it happened. Moreover the opening scenes, before Bale reaches the monastery, are very jumpily edited so that only the most devoted will be pulled in.
Nonetheless, Batman Begins is a really great film which does not deserve to be neglected in the wake of The Dark Knight's success. It is a stunning combination of style and substance which avoids all the pitfalls of its counterparts and predecessors. Together with The Dark Knight, it has become the gold standard against which all subsequent superhero films have been measured, and more often than not come up short. It may not be Nolan's best film -- that remains Inception -- but it is a fantastic demonstration of how art and money are not so easy to separate.