Batman Begins

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The plot in a nutshell
Bruce Wayne, scarred by an event of his childhood, searches for a way to save his birth city of Gotham from falling victim to crime and corruption.  For the first time, we get to see a fairly complete intro story into the origins of this classic comic book hero.

Christian Bale takes up the mantle of the Bat this time around, and this film throws out the old films, and even the comic books, to restart the character clean.  Fans of the character will see some familiar faces, with some minor changes, while other aspects will be quite different.  One thing for sure - this is not your daddy's Batman.

Relatively Spoiler Free Thoughts
Since it's the first question on everyone's mind, let's get this out of the way right up front - this is the best Batman movie ever done, bar none.  The character has never been treated like this before, and thankfully he has finally gotten his due.

The new film takes us back to Batman's roots, a story often told but rarely in detail. All the major elements are here - Bruce's fear of bats, his parents getting killed in an alley behind a theater, their wealth, Alfred the butler who raises him, they've even returned to the name of Joe Chill as the killer. But there are updates all along the way as well, including a nifty little tie in between Bruce's own fear of bats, and his parent's death, giving him even more guilt in the process.

Some purists - mostly the foolish and stupid - will spend all their time complaining that this minor detail is different or that one is new. At it's core however this is the classic Batman we've been waiting for, a man driven by hate and revenge who somehow finds the fine line between vigilante and justice, and must struggle regularly with walking it.

The first third of the movie deals with Bruce coming to grips with this very concept. He claims he wants justice, but what he really wants is revenge, and when he can't have it, he spirals into a life of self destruction. Not without purpose though, and the story ties together very nicely why Bruce is doing what he is doing, and what the driving forces behind his actions are, through flashbacks.

We get to meet some well known villains like the Scarecrow and Ras Al Ghul, and some lesser known ones like Carmine Falcone and even the serial killer Victor Zsaz. There are the usual nods to the hardcore fans that pay attention, but none of them are ever distracting or without purpose. And there's no need whatsoever to know anything in advance about any of these characters to completely enjoy the film.

The first third of the film works so well because of some excellent acting all around. The story develops a warm and loving relationship between Bruce and his father, and while it tends to ignore mom, this is mainly due to the need to provide greater explanation around that father/son relationship. Because we see this, we better understand how Bruce feels about himself as a man, and we also understand how it is possible for Ducard to step in as a replacement father, providing mentorship and guidance. Neeson is excellent as Ducard, bringing a wisdom and power to the role without the excessive overacting so often inherent in comic book bad guys on the big screen. Unfortunately, the very young Bruce Wayne isn't the most convincing, although I thought that he did a good job in some of the more heart wrenching scenes.

The other supporting cast is as fantastic as Neeson - Gary Oldman is the kind of Jim Gordon (he's not yet a commissioner here) that we've needed, a good cop capable of building a relationship with Batman that will actually work; Michael Caine as Alfred gives us just the right mix of humor with love for the the young Bruce; and Morgan Freemann as Lucius Fox provides a truly believable Q to the Bond side of our Batman.

One of the complaints of most Batman films is that he's never a detective in any of the films. A man seen as brilliant in both the comics and cartoons is reduced to a costume wearing fighter. That's not the case here, and we actually get to see him *gasp* eavesdropping, spying, questioning suspects, and quickly putting two and two together logically.

Once he takes on the mantle of the Bat, he's still learning. He and Alfred haven't done anything quite like this before of course, and there are some wonderful scenes where reality is allowed to step right in, and Christopher Nolan and David Goyer actually have reasonable answers. Just how would you go about getting a Batman cowl made without arousing suspicion? Don't worry - it all makes sense.

Or at least as much sense as it can. You'll still have to suspend your disbelief at times, but this film does bring a greater dose of reality to the character than we've seen before.

The layout and design of Gotham itself is wonderful, with a dark, earthy feel. That earthy appearance, makes the decay look all the more natural, and all the more impossible to reverse. We get a true appreciation for just how difficult his task will be, and the outcome isn't simply wrapped up in a couple hours. Will there be sequels? Oh yes, and Nolan has said he sees this as a trilogy. But it doesn't feel like the film was altered simply to make sequels possible, but that it's simply a far bigger story to tell than one movie can handle.

The film also manages some real humor, with several laugh out loud lines, and several others that will provide much needed breaks in the tension. It doesn't always work, and there were two or three corny lines that fell flat, but there's nothing as awful as Batman 3 and 4, where the cheese flowed like a Wisconsin farm on Friday.

If there's one thing that the recent super hero movies have proven, it's that not taking the material seriously is certain doom. However, simply taking the material seriously does not mean instant classic, and throwing in an excellent director on top of that doesn't seal the deal either - just think Hulk. But Batman manages to get it all right, from script to direction to cinematography to musical score to acting, and does so in a way that's highly entertaining.

There's a couple missteps, particularly around the character of Rachel Dawes, Bruce's pseudo-love interest and assistant district attorney. I'll delve into that a little deeper in the spoiler section, but while it had it's problems, this wasn't an awful situation like Keaton and Kidman, so don't get too nervous.

After seeing the movie, and thinking back over it, I was surprised to realize that most of the tired, old clichés of action films are here. There's the car chase sequence, but it's unlike any car chase you've seen before, not just in one way, but in several ways. Then there's the hero running from a ball of flame - you have to have that in an action movie. And yet they manage to make it seem new, or at least threatening. The movie actually proves that it's not so much the clichés that are the problem, but their execution. Done well, these old stand bys can still excite and entertain.

There are two technical aspects of this movie worth mentioning, if only because they were such hot topics of early debate. The costume and the batmobile - people either loved them or hated them when they first saw them. The costume works well in the film, and is completely believable as both armor and stealth. And then there's the batmobile, or more accurately in this movie, the Tumbler. This think simply rocks, and it's design was the key reason that they could even create an exciting chase sequence. I'm willing to bet sales of the toy version will shoot way up, as it's easily the best toy currently out based on the film.

I also want to bring up one other aspect of Batman that this film touches on briefly. In Kill Bill 2, Bill has a nice little monologue about Superman, explaining why he's different from other super heroes. His claim is that he's not Clark Kent, and that Clark is the mask he wears. His claim is that he's really Superman, because that's who he is genetically. He was born with the super powers, and Kent is actually a mask showing all the things he likes least about humanity.

I've always argued that while it was spiff dialog delivered convincingly, it wasn't true. Sure, Clark is often portrayed as toning down his bravery, but he's never not the man he truly is. To imply that Clark isn't who he is implies that he came from his home planet as an adult, and took on this persona late in life, when in reality, Clark Kent is who he grew up as. His core values, his morality, his ethics, all were developed by Ma and Pa Kent, instilled in him as Clark, not as Kal-el. He didn't choose to be Superman, any more than Peter Parker chose to be Spider-man. Great power is forced upon them, and because they are responsible people (as Peter Parker and Clark Kent) they must take on the mask of their characters to do what is right, and still protect the loved ones in their life.

Bruce Wayne has no loved ones in his life. Okay, so there's Alfred, but Bruce has generally never acted as though Alfred couldn't take care of himself. He does not have great power thrust on him - he takes it. He creates the Batman because that is who he truly is, not Bruce Wayne. Wayne is a mask he wears to allow him to do what he does, not because it is is actual life or his actual personality. In fact, he must stop acting as his normal self, specifically to allow himself to not be recognized, much like Don Diego Vega had to appear completely unlike Zorro. It's no surprise that the early roots of Batman were heavily based on the Zorro character.

The movie implies at one point that the Batman costume is to protect those in Bruce's life, but that's not the main purpose. Sure, it works to that effect, but not in the same way as Superman's costume does. If the threat of danger to the loved ones of Superman was gone, he could walk around all day in the costume (or in actuality, do all those amazing things without the guise at all). However, even if there was no threat to Bruce's loved ones, he simply couldn't do what it is he does. He wouldn't be allowed by the established powers, and he wouldn't instill the fear that the symbol does. This is why it's so dangerous, because the man that was once Bruce Wayne could be completely lost in the persona of Batman, something that's been explored in the comics on more than one occasion.

This idea - that Bruce is the mask and Batman the man - becomes important by the end of the film, and will be something I hope to see them explore further as the franchise continues.

Of course, in the end neither Superman or Batman are that black and white. Parts of Clark Kent are masks, and parts of Bruce Wayne are who he really is. These are people whose personalities exist in both places, and because of their surroundings and situations, cannot bring the two distinctly different aspects of their personalities together in one piece. And that's probably why the argument that Bill posits on Superman is flawed - attempting to take complex characters and define them in such black and white ways will always lead to debate, since there is no one completely right answer. It's fun though, and geeks can spend hours on this kind of thing. This movie is sure to be one that is discussed a lot over the coming weeks, and deservedly so. Nolan and Goyer have created a new Batman, building off the icon of the past, that is sure to be successful with the masses and hard core fans alike.

I've been ragging on the old movies a bit in comparison with this film, with good reason, but there is one thing that Keaton did better than Bale - the Batman voice. Bale tries, but he never quite gets it right. Still, it's a fairly minor nit in an otherwise excellent portrayal.

This isn't a perfect film, but for an intial movie that brings Batman into a more realistic portrayal, it works extremely well. It sets us up for even better work in part 2, just as the initial Spider-man film allowed them to do such an outstanding job with their part 2. I had high hopes for this one, and it managed to pull it off. Of course, that means expectations for part 2 are going to be even bigger, and considering what it looks like they plan on tackling...

Rating - Hit the theater.
You'll definitely want to see this on the big screen. There are some beautiful wide shots of both wilderness scenary and Gotham itself that deserve the treatment. This is an excellent sounding movie too, with a great use of surround sound to set mood and amplify the tension. This will make a great DVD for the home theater enthusiast, so I'd recommend picking it up then as well.

Spoiler Laden Thoughts
Now it's time to discuss all those nifty spoilers...















Probably the only big spoiler here is that Ducard is really Ras. I didn't think it was a big surprise, but some might find it so, and it was definitely the one 'twist' they included. It also wasn't tacked on just for the sake of having a twist, but was critical to Bruce's acceptance and relationship to Ducard/Ras.

I did think that they stumbled a bit with the Rachel love interest. I was glad to see that while he brought her back to the cave, he drugged her so that she could not know who he was or where she actually was, unlike that atrocious sequence we saw with Keaton and Basinger.

However, I was disappointed that he ended up so freely admitting to her who he was. C'mon man, make her work for it! It wasn't as bad as I imagined though, since she understands that they cannot be together, and unrequited love does add a nice touch to the mythology. It also gives him a second person inside the Gotham legal structure, making getting away with what he does slightly more realistic for future films.

I also liked the set up for the Joker for film 2, and that while the fate of both Ras and Scarecrow can be debated, there's no need to revisit them.

There are many plot points in this film that set up things for the future, like the burning of Wayne Manor, allowing them to rebuild with the Batcave as the focus. This rebuilding is also very symbolic in terms of what I mentioned earlier - Bruce Wayne is now just a mask, and Wayne Manor will be rebuilt to afford comfort and ease to it's real occupant, Batman.

There is a critical moment in this film that also makes it different than any other super hero movie that came before it - Batman lets a villain die. It's not about killing bad guys, as that kind of goes with the territory. But in big scenes, when the villain is sure to die, the hero - whether it's a comic book movie or not - always "does the right thing" and saves his sorry ass life. Usually, the butthead turns around and attacks said hero immediately, causing himself to end up dead anyway. But the hero normally saves even the lowest of the low, proving he's a better man.

When Batman says "I'm not going to kill you...but I don't have to save you.", he's making a break from this tradition. This is not something the Keaton Batman would have done, or the Reeves Superman, or the Macguire Spider-man. Even the recent Daredevil found superhero religion by the end of his film, allowing the big bad to be taken alive. This is a subtle point perhaps, but one that will probably have a lasting effect on the character, at least in the Nolan/Goyer films.

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