by Russell Fox
Melissa and I just got back from watching Batman Begins. Oh man–what a fine and rousing adventure movie!
And that just shows a lot intelligence on the part of David Goyer, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and everyone else involved in constructing this film and its main character. More than any other of the great classical comic book characters, Batman was always the one for whom the matter of origins weighed most heavily. Superman is a Great White God from outer space; he lands in the Heartland, is raised decent and good, and serves justice and the American Way because he can and should. Spider-Man’s origin is far richer, psychologically speaking, and makes for a great and moral story, but central to it is an element of happenstance and whimsy (a radioactive spider? a pointless, random crime? Peter Parker, local pencil-necked geek, climbing walls?). But for Batman, the driven and transformed Bruce Wayne, you can’t understand the obsessive willfulness, the brute intentionality of the character, unless you work through the origin step by every painful step. He’s not born to responsibility and heroism (Superman), he doesn’t have it thrust upon him in a manner both burdensome and liberating (Spider-Man), he makes it. How could he do that to himself? (Which is both a "why" question and, quite literally, a technical "how" one.)
This movie gives us a consistent take on Batman as a symbol pulled from a crucible of hate, fear, and aristocratic noblesse oblige. That last is a very important if subtle addition to the film’s characterization of Bruce Wayne; there is always a slight undercurrent of "how dare he!" to both Bruce Wayne’s assessment of his foes as well as his assessment of his own failures and fears. The film smartly presents Bruce’s father as manifesting just the slightest touch of condescension towards the little people (even the criminals!) around him, making more reasonable Bruce’s revulsion at himself for not being everything that he needs to be, for being like ordinary people. (This also lends a lot of understated pathos to his conflict with the League of Shadows; they aren’t just a bunch of pretentious bad guys, but rather folks on Bruce’s level, whom he can see himself alongside and whom, therefore, feel some genuine anger at the fact that Bruce refuses to be on their side.) Not that it’s a fabulous study of class politics or anything, but there were enough little touches–Gary Oldham’s Jim Gordon, so ordinary that we see him taking out the garbage; Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone, a thug who knows he’s a thug and lets it show–to make it clear that this isn’t some accident: some real though went into thinking about how to tell a story about a multibillionaire becoming a caped crusader in a divided, corrupt, poverty-stricken city. A lot of people have played around with the label "dark knight" so long attached to Batman, but I’ve rarely seen that sense of fate and tragic necessity presented so well.
Anyway, enough of that. The way they explain and present the Scarecrow is fantastically good, the fight scenes are brutal and exciting, the Batmobile is a brilliant creation, and the fate of Wayne Manor was, for me, a total surprise that made perfect narrative sense. I loved the film’s treatment of characters from the comic book, both old and new–Lucius Fox, Joe Chill, Detective Flass. The costume is great; the gadgets are fabulous. If you’ve read Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, you’ll get to see on screen the totally cool climax to the S.W.A.T. team seige from chapter 3. And, of course, you have Michael Caine’s Alfred knitting the whole thing tightly together. This was the one film I was more anxious for this summer than any other, and it doesn’t disappoint.