At Last, A Knight

by Russell Fox

Melissa and I just got back from watching Batman Begins. Oh man–what a fine and rousing adventure movie!

Unless the idea of costumed bad guys and good guys fighting each other and running cars over one another just turns you off completely, go see it immediately–it’s sharply plotted, intelligently acted, and thrillingly put together. The backstory never plods, the big set pieces are lightened by humor and unexpected narrative twists, and the characterization and themes consistently build throughout. I didn’t even think Katie Holmes was that much of a drag. It’s not the best super-hero movie I’ve ever seen period–that would be Unbreakable, though of course that film doesn’t play by the usual comic book rules (or rather, it plays exactly by those rules, but the first time you saw it you didn’t realize it was doing so until the very final moment). I’m not sure it’s the best "traditional" super-hero movie I’ve ever seen either; it makes me want to re-watch Spider-Man 2, which set the bar very high. But without doubt, it’s the best super-hero "origin" film I’ve yet seen.

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.

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21 thoughts on “At Last, A Knight

  1. No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. Superman isn’t the Great White God. He’s the ultimate establishment man. He does what he’s told by the prevailing establishment and doesn’t think for himself, and he does so because he knows he’s alien but feels an overwhelming drive to fit in. Spiderman is always the small time hero, the “friendly neighborhood Spiderman,” who somehow manages to rise above all the petty concerns (e.g., the antagonism from the local news rag or the controversy over his vigilantism) and defeat the bad guy. Getting bitten by a spider or dying in a random crime in a big city, these are mundane things–they could happen to anyone. Batman is an aristocratic, right wing zealot. His blue-blooded background leads him to take a paternalistic and protective view of the non-elite (what you call noblesse oblige). But his solution is not welfare and bureaucracy or charity or social programs, but law and order all the way.

    Anyway, I wrote a mini-review of Batman Begins in the last paragraph of my response to Dennis Potter’s answers to my criticism, since I wrote the tail end of it waiting for the movie to start on Wednesday morning. For those of you who don’t want to dig through my critique of Dennis’s historical relativism, here it is:

    good flick; though it borrows some elements from Year One (same ending with the joker card), it’s not as Frank Miller as it should be; that said, it weaves the post-Moore superhero tail far better than any previous Batman effort, but not as well as Spiderman 2.

    At this point I’ll add what I think was the main weakness of the plot. The main antagonist, doesn’t really come into the plot as the real villain until the very end. This is because it’s very hard to make a man who is pathologically spouting off about social darwinism a credible villain (this can work much better in a comic book where the actual villain’s presence is required less often). So other people do the dirty work until Ras A Ghul is ready to begin exploding things. This made the movie feel like too much of a block buster that went for the easy booms and bangs than a more thoroughgoing approach would have brought.

    And the fight scenes had too many camera cuts. Not the cool cuts that make Batman appear out of nowhere, but the fight scenes that should have been fluid had enough complicated camera work to give you the impression that nobody actually fought for more than a second or two at a time when the movie was being made.

    Even so, these are just nitpicks. Great cast, great pace, great immersive cinematography, good plot, and overall a very, very good flick.

  2. “No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. Superman isn’t the Great White God. He’s the ultimate establishment man. He does what he’s told by the prevailing establishment and doesn’t think for himself, and he does so because he knows he’s alien but feels an overwhelming drive to fit in.”

    Hmm, that’s Frank Miller’s take on Superman, but I don’t think it stands. I really think the best understanding of the character keeps in mind the image of all those upstanding matinee idols of the past–the Gary Coopers and Henry Fondas, hard-working patriots coming to the big city to set things right. He came from Smallville, remember?

    “Spiderman is always the small time hero, the ‘friendly neighborhood Spiderman,’ who somehow manages to rise above all the petty concerns (e.g., the antagonism from the local news rag or the controversy over his vigilantism) and defeat the bad guy. Getting bitten by a spider or dying in a random crime in a big city, these are mundane things–they could happen to anyone.”

    I think that agrees with what I was trying to say, but you put it very well. For Spider-Man, you have a constant feeling that he’s in over his head, winging it, triumphing despite having forgotten his locker combination. He was always my favorite, by the way–I read Spider-Man comic books more devotedly than any other for years.

    “Batman is an aristocratic, right-wing zealot. His blue-blooded background leads him to take a paternalistic and protective view of the non-elite (what you call noblesse oblige). But his solution is not welfare and bureaucracy or charity or social programs, but law and order all the way.”

    Again, that’s Miller’s take (and not just his: in Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the two young characters–immigrants trying to break into the comics business in the 1930s–speculate that the attraction of Batman as a character is the fact that’s he’s partly crazy). Clearly, the movie doesn’t go the zealot route, though elements of it are there. I think it struck a nice balance between cold, calculating will and outright monomania.

    “[I]t’s very hard to make a man who is pathologically spouting off about social darwinism a credible villain…So other people do the dirty work until Ras A Ghul is ready to begin exploding things. This made the movie feel like too much of a block buster that went for the easy booms and bangs than a more thoroughgoing approach would have brought.”

    Admittedly, the final set pieces had all the usual blow-it-all-up-tropes (it seems like half of Gotham had been wrecked by the time it was over). And given Ras A Ghul’s sudden reappearance, I guess there was a kind of “whoops-better-hurry-up-and-unveil-the-evil-master-plan” feeling to the ending. But still, as I said, I think those set pieces were broken up by some clever story-telling choices (Jim Gordon driving the Batmobile, Wayne Manor burning to the ground). My only major complaint, actually, is that by making Ras A Ghul central to Batman’s origin, you lose the respectful formality that always attended their relationship in the comic book (I always liked how Ras referred to Batman as “Detective”).

    You’re absolutely right about cinematography–a great film to look at.

  3. I’m right there with both of you. Begins is right below Spider-Man 2 but well above pretty much everything else.

    I think you guys have covered the bases pretty well. One thing I liked was the very natural slant. Batman’s origin is explained in a credible way and his costume looks like something you could actually fight in. And then, the picture is painted with dark yellows, browns and blacks. It thinks it provides for a real, earthy feel that’s quite refreshing in contrast to Burton’s gothic romanticism and Schumacher’s modern, neon take.

  4. Thanks for the interesting review Russell. I’m now even more excited to see this (and I’m not a comic book guy at all).

  5. Russell, I still see Clark as the one who hails from Smallsville. Superman is from Krypton. While Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne have alter egos that fight the bad guys, Superman has an alter ego that does newspaper work–absent Clark Kent, there is still a Superman. Thus, I see the relationship as inverted. Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne put themselves into Spiderman and Batman, while Superman puts himself into Clark Kent. This is why I see the establishmentarian Clark as key to understanding Superman’s identity.

    Now I’ll freely admit that my Superman is a little bit influenced by Miller. But I see Waid’s treatment as far more definitive (and his Clark Kent must hide and his Superman has no problem showing off), and I think that Busiek’s Samaritan (from AstroCity) tells the supeman tale as any well as any Superman tale I know of. But I’m too influenced by Moore to see Superman as the embodiment of matinee idols.

    Part of what prompted me to say that you’ve got it all wrong was your statement, “[Batman is] 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.” But I never ended up actually addressing it in my comment. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire aristocrat son to a father who is a brilliant surgeon and who literally takes care of his city in many ways. From his early youth, Bruce’s role model displays devout responsibility and heroism. This is only solidified by his parent’s sudden martyrdom (in the eyes of an 8 year old). I think that the movie shows this nicely.

    I definitely consider Miller’s Batman to be the definitive take in terms of both modern and historical continuity (as Kavalier and Clay represents). Rucka’s Batman is quite fun, but he writes the Batman story, understandably, as more of an espionage thriller.

    I agree with you that the movie soft pedals the zealot aspect, but I think it’s because mainstream, blockbuster movies shy away from things that can be interpreted as overtly political in a way that comic books do not (yet). I also agree with you about having Ras A Ghul be Bruces fighting trainer. I was uncomfortable about this but couldn’t put my finger on it, and you hit the nail on the head. Ras A Ghul as past fighting master obscures the outlook of almost gentlemanly rivalry between him and Bruce that Ras A Ghul seems to entertain in the comics. I don’t know if you noticed, but Ras A Ghul first introduced himself to Bruce as Henri Ducard. I wonder if the movie was purposefully conflating Ras A Ghul and Ducard or if that’s a remnant from an earlier version of the script.

  6. Batman Begins was amazing. We are going back to see it again tonight. I recommend it to everyone!

  7. I really loved Tarantino’s riff on Superman at the end of Kill Bill volume 2. Clark Kent is how Superman sees us.

    BTW – I thought Batman was near perfect except for the end.

    (** SPOILER **)

    The way the chemical weapon is deployed is just dang silly. It really turned me off. Everything else was perfect. I’m honestly surprised it isn’t doing better in the box office. (Unless word of mouth seriously picks it up) This is in my opinion the best comic book series out there. If it weren’t for the final peril in the city I think I’d say it would be hard to top. I’m really looking forward to Bryan Singer’s Superman though after seeing what he did with X-Men. (Of which I really fear now that its been handed over to Brett Ratner)

  8. Very nice post, Russell, I concur.

    Clark, I’m curious as to why the chemical weapon bit bothered you so much. I mean, the movie is about a man who dresses like a bat to fight crime during the night. Within the context of the premise, I thought there really wasn’t anything out of place with the chemical weapon.

  9. A few things.

    1. Microwave reflect easily and attenuate quickly. Thus a microwave transmitter would never pierce the pipes and would be a *horrible* way to evaporate water. Further the amount of power necessary would be amazing. For an attempt to make Batman more realistic, the weapon really seemed like Adam West ought be calling. Yeah, this is only something perhaps a geek would worry about. But they were so clever with the other aspects of the engineering with only a few goofy silliness. (A two ton truck not crashing through the roof of an old building, for instance)

    2. If you put the chemical in the water pipes then the chemical goes *through* the water pipes. i.e. there wouldn’t be much left in the pipes by the time the Microwave thing comes along. It would all be in the waste treatment plant running off into the Great Lakes, or where ever it is that Chicago disposes of waste water. (Yeah, I know, it wasn’t said to be Chicago, but there were a lot of hat tips to Chicago – which was actually something I really liked about the film)

    3. If one wanted to disperse a chemical weapon, then why no do it in a more normal way? A mortar shell with the powder would work wonders. So would dozens of other dispersal methods that could leave Batman in a more interesting position. Further I think they could then have played up the parallels between the Army of Shadows and Al Queda a little more.

    It’s not a huge thing. I halfway suspect it was the studios that made them do it. But it was the only wrong note in an otherwise perfect movie.

  10. I was amazed at how good this movie was. I had been really excited for Spider-man (my favorite superhero) and was a bit disappointed by that. I didn’t think that the sequel was as great as everyone else seems to think. I still think that Superman has the best origin story, though I really wish that Otis had never existed.

    All of this rambling is leading up to me saying that Batman begins might be even better than either Superman I or II. Those who remember my comment on movie cliches will note that Batman does not end with the “Disney ending” that I hate so much. Good for Batman!

  11. Clark, your critique of the chemical weapon deployment reminds me of the way I tease my daughters when they watch cartoons. On PBS there’s a cartoon show called Dragon Tales, and it features several dragons. One of them has 2 heads and jumps rope. Whenever he jumps rope, I comment, “That’s so fake. Dragons don’t jump rope.” And Sesame Street is always “brought to you” by a number and a letter; what’s up with that? At any rate, I’ll grant you that the chemical weapon thing was ridiculous. They also, for example, open up a water main to pour the chemical into it. But the water isn’t just passing through the water main. It’s pressurized. Opening up the water main would have flooded the building. And was there any way to explain the tracer signal that summons the bats except that Miller gave Batman such an object in Year One? Of course the movie was fake. It’s a story!

  12. True DKL, certain stories require a level of suspension of disbelief. But even still, the more realistic it can be made the better. There’s a fun website that trashes on movies that use bad physics. One of the most fun is their 17-page thrashing of the unrealistic elements in The Core.

  13. I think there’s a difference between a kind of suspension of disbelief in a cartoon than in a movie aiming for a degree of realism. The whole terrorist scheme in Batman Returns reminds me of that old Adam West movie where UN members are dehydrated into dust. It’s just out of place.

    As a funny aside though The Far Side author used to mention how entymologists and other biologists used to write in complaining when he had some feature of the bug or other creature wrong. The fact that the bug was wearing clothes and talking didn’t phase them. Still I think it highlights things. People can suspend disbelief on one or two elements

  14. I wasn’t sure I’d like this movie but with everyone raving about it I decided to check it out. I thought it was excellent! I sure wasn’t expecting that much sword fighting in a Batman movie.

    My only complaint was that it was too long. But only because I have a hard time sitting for that long in a movie seat.

    I don’t think the sound in the theater we saw it at was that great, because it was really loud, and often the music drowned out what the actors were saying. I thought the music was awesome though.

    And Christian Bale is the best Batman since Michael Keaton (I thought the others sucked).

  15. Susan M,

    You thought the music was great? I thought it stayed out of the way of the movie, I guess. It certainly wasn’t as memorable as the Elfman score. Superman still has the best score or any superhero movies.

  16. Well it was really loud in the theater I saw it at. So loud it was hard to hear the actors over it. I don’t remember it now, but it probably had lots of drums during the fight scenes, I love that.

  17. We saw it last night and loved the flick. It is officiall now my favorite super-hero flick.

    I liked the Spider Man films well enough and was satisified with X-Men 2 but I thought this one was better than any of them. Perhaps the fact that I grew up as a Marvel purist colors my expectations though. (Yeah, I used to have actual subsrciptions to both Spider Man and X-Men in the 80s. I planed to be a comic Book artist for a living when I was a kid.) Anyway, since I paid no attention to DC characters I think I came into this movie without any expectations. I was very pleased with the attention to details and attempts to close any glaring plot holes. I’ll have to check out the first Batman again to see what I think now, though.

    BTW — As superhero flicks go, Hellboy was a surprisingly good one too.

  18. BTW — I also loved Unbreakable, Russell. Everyone I tell that to looks at me like I’m insane… I guess they all went in expecting The Sixth Sense II or something….

  19. “But without doubt, it’s the best super-hero ‘origin’ film I’ve yet seen.”

    That was exactly my impression. I’m not sure if I like it better than Spiderman-2, but I really liked it. Great acting all around, give or take a Katie.

    I looked up Batman Begins on Rotten Tomatoes and it seems the few bad reviews were mostly “it’s no Memento, Nolan’s slumming.”

    On a semi-related note, I watched Memento with Allison on our wedding anniversary. Let me just say that that’s a weird movie to watch on your anniversary.

  20. I hear Batman Begins is coming out on dvd October 18th with lots of featurettes and documentaries. No info yet on commentaries. There will be a one disc version and a two disc special edition. Really, this was one of the best movies of this year, IMO.

    Can’t wait to add it to my dvd collection!

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