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Batman Begins

Just a quick note before the review. As part of my comic book season I watched The Dark Knight Rises first followed by Batman Begins. However I wrote this review first, and wasn't sure I'd even do one for TDKR. As a result there is quite a little bit of overlap between the reviews.


Year of release

Directed by
Christopher Nolan

Written by
Christopher Nolan
David S. Goyer

Christian Bale
Michael Caine
Liam Neeson
Cillian Murphy
Gary Oldman
Katie Holmes
Morgan Freeman

Batman Begins

Plot - As a young boy, Bruce Wayne (Bale) witnessed the tragic death of his parents at the hands of a criminal. This traumatic event forever changed his life, so much so that as an adult he travels the world seeking to understand and fight injustice. His travels take him to central Asia where he meets a mysterious figure named Ra's Al Ghul and joins his group called the League of Shadows. Trained by Henri Ducard (Neeson), Bruce eventually rejects the group when he learns about their true intentions. Returning to Gotham, he takes an interest in his father's legacy; Wayne Enterprises. There he meets Lucius Fox (Freeman), the head of Wayne Enterprises' Applied Sciences division, and with his help he creates a new persona to fight the crime that has polluted his city - Batman. As Batman takes on the criminals and organised crime underworld of Gotham, a sinister new threat emerges; The Scarecrow, a masked villain who induces fear in his victims through the use of toxins who in reality is Dr. Jonathan Crane (Murphy), a psychologist who is using his position at Arkham Asylum for nefarious means. Battling against all these foes Batman comes to rely on the assistance of a local cop, James Gordon (Oldman). Unbeknownst to him however there are secret plans and individuals lurking in the background, including an old friend he could never have envisaged meeting again.

This might prove to be quite a controversial view but I have to ask, am I the only one who thinks that Batman Begins is actually the best film of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy? I know for definite that it's certainly my personal favourite, which I will admit puts me very much in the minority. Hell I may even be the only person on this whole board who feels that way. As a result this review is going to be slightly different from the norm. As well as reviewing Batman Begins I'm going to be dipping in and out of the sequels to help make certain points about this film.

One thing that I personally never quite 'got' was the amount of praise that Nolan got for grounding his Batman in reality. For all of its serious and real-world issues, and its foundation as a gritty crime drama when you boil it all down what you basically still have are guys dressed up as bats, clowns and scarecrows doing stuff that shouldn't exist in a 'real' world such as cars that can fly across rooftops. It made for an awkward marriage at times and it almost felt like Nolan was too embarrassed just to embrace the film for what they were - comic book films. It gives them the occasional air of pretension and arrogance, as if he feels they are above it. And with The Dark Knight Nolan took things into such a dark place that while I can appreciate some of its qualities (namely Ledger's tremendous performance) I don't think I could say that I actually like it; I just found it so grim and depressing that it was actually quite a tough watch first time out. In contrast I felt that Begins managed to find the best balance for a Batman film between the dark and gritty tone of the character, whilst still retaining the colourful and pulpy nature that should be inherent in a comic book movie. I think it's got some of the most fantastical moments of the trilogy such as the scene towards the film's conclusion where Batman flies along the streets of Gotham to confront Ra's al Ghul and his men.

That more fantastical element is also true of the film's setting. Another element where Begins is my favourite of the series is in regards to how they present Gotham. In the sequels I find Gotham to be a rather dull and bland place; it comes across just like any generic major city in the US. While you could argue once again that this is part of Nolan's attempts to ground the film in reality, as well as helping to place us in the action by having it take place on streets which look just like the ones we walk every day, I just found the Gotham we get here to be a much more vivid, interesting and unique place. It's got a much more gothic, even steampunk flavour to it with its monorail, billowing smoke and architecture. While the Narrows has the feel of a dystopia slum of a sort. All in all it was just a much more fascinating place to spend time in. And considering how iconic a part of Batman's story Gotham is I think that should be more of a character in its own right.

Film Trivia Snippets - While there are some questions over the story's authenticity, David Boreanaz was apparently the first choice for the role of Bruce Wayne but turned it down. Once he did many other actors were put under consideration. Keanu Reeves and Ashton Kutcher were both considered, with Kutcher reportedly being the studio executives' top choice. Nolan wasn't enthusiastic about this, resulting in the studio heads dropping the idea. In the end it was cut down to a shortlist of 8 actors who were asked to audition just days before the role would eventually be cast. Those involved were Christian Bale, Joshua Jackson, Eion Bailey, Hugh Dancy, Billy Crudup, Cillian Murphy, Henry Cavill and Jake Gyllenhaal. While Bale obviously won the part, Nolan was so impressed with Cillian Murphy that he cast him as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow on the strength of that audition. /// While his work on the Batman films has won him the adoration of many viewers, they could easily have been made without the participation of Christopher Nolan. Before he took on the project, Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct with Frank Miller set to write the screenplay based on his own classic tale “Batman: Year One.” In the end Warne Bros. decided not to put the project into production, apparently because the screenplay strayed a considerable amount from the source material, making Alfred an African-American mechanic named Big Al, the Batmobile a souped-up Lincoln Towncar and Bruce Wayne homeless. Also approached to direct were The Wachowski brothers, who even wrote their own treatment also based on “Batman: Year One.” In the end though they turned down the offer to make the Matrix sequels instead. /// The language used in the film by Ken Watanabe is neither Japanese nor Tibetan, or in fact any known language at all. It is actually just some gibberish he says he made up himself for the role. /// While shooting on the streets of Chicago, a person accidentally crashed into the Batmobile. The driver was apparently drunk, and said he hit the car in a state of panic, believing the Dark Knight's vehicle to be an invading alien spacecraft.
While I perhaps wouldn't go as far to say that Nolan began to suffer from delusions of grandeur with the two sequels I do feel that they had the tendency to feel quite bloated as they strived to become more and more epic. In comparison I find that Begins is by far the most streamlined, focused and economical of the trilogy. Like its successors it moves along at a fair pace and features a decent amount of action but I just felt that there was more room to breathe. It allowed the actors to flesh out their characters and have conversations which actually aided in that, as opposed to just being huge dumps of exposition. I felt that TDKR was particularly guilty of this. It tried to cram in so much story that so many issues were either glossed over, forgotten about or dealt with in the most simplistic and quickest of ways (Levitt's character knows Bruce Wayne is Batman because he can see it in his face? Really? ) I think that in general the writing on this film is just a lot tighter in terms of both the storyline and the dialogue. The interactions that Bruce has with other characters are better written and carry more of a purpose than in the following films. So often in the sequels it felt like the conversations where merely there to move the film and the character along and that the words could have came from anyone. But here I felt that Bruce had some great character moments with just about everyone - Alfred, Lucius Fox, Ducard, Gordon etc. Moments such as the first time Bruce visits Gordon in his office, when Alfred asks Bruce “why do we fall” as his home burns to the ground around him, all of his discussions with Ducard up in the mountains which create depth and build Bruce's character etc.

I think the writing was stronger in regards to the characters it creates. It makes the motivations for the characters a lot more clear; Bruce has to overcome his fear to become a defender of the city, as Batman he has to overcome his desire for vengeance to become the defender the city needs, Ra's al Ghul wants to wipe out Gotham and its extremes of decadence etc. In comparison I found the plans of Bane and the Joker to be more convoluted and confusing. I also felt that their actions matched their characters; quite often in the later films I felt that characters were just doing stuff out of character and for dramatic effect. The origins of the character are really well established. Along with showing us how the suit and the Batmobile come to light the film shows us who Bruce is and what it is that drives him. I also like how Batman seems to rely on his wits and intelligence a bit more in this film, alluding to the detective side of his persona, as opposed to the constant use of fists and gadgets in the sequels. The film not only introduces us to the real Bruce Wayne but to both the Dark Knight he becomes and the playboy facade that he creates to help mask his secret identity. One of my main problems with the writing of the sequels, particularly TDKR, was the amount of gaping plot holes. If I'm going to be honest however Batman Begins has a whopper of its own. While the central idea of the fear toxin in the water is interesting it makes no sense whatsoever. The bad guys have been introducing the fear toxin into the water for weeks in preparation for it being activated by the microwave emitter which will turn the toxin into a steam that will go airborne. So why in those weeks is no one affected when they boil their kettle or have a hot shower? And the film completely glosses over the fact that most of the human body is made of water, but the emitter has absolutely no effect on the people when it is set off. Unlike in the sequels however I loved everything else about this film so much that I can overlook and forgive the film for that.

Film Trivia Snippets - The film's title went through a number of changes. Initially it was known simply as “Batman 5” before becoming “Batman: The Frightening” for a while. To help prevent script leaks the film was then titled “Intimidation Game” to throw off the public. In fact when actors were initially approached they were not told it was a Batman movie as the script they were sent carried the title of “The Intimidation Game.” Michael Caine commented that when he first saw the title he assumed the script was for some kind of gangster movie. /// Some very esteemed actors were considered for roles in the film. For the role of Henri Ducard (which eventually went to Liam Neeson) Guy Pearce and Daniel Day Lewis were considered while Viggo Mortensen was actually offered the role and turned it down. For the role of James Gordon Chris Cooper, Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid were all considered. While when it came to the role of Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow actors under consideration were Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Jeremy Davies and most interestingly Marilyn Manson. Laurence Fishburne was considered for the role of Lucius Fox, while Anthony Hopkins was actually offered the role of Alfred but declined. /// During the scene where Christian Bale and Liam Neeson fight on the frozen lake, both actors could hear the ice cracking beneath their feat. The next day, the ice had broken and completely melted. /// The voice that Christian Bale puts on when he becomes Batman has become very famous, or indeed infamous. And it had its problems on set as well, with Bale actually losing his voice three times during filming due to the alterations he would make in his voice. /// The role of Batman proved to be very physically demanding on Christian Bale. Following his part in The Machinist, Bale was vastly underweight (about 120 pounds) when he was under consideration for the role of Batman. After he was cast Christopher Nolan told him to go away and become as “big as you can be.” Bale underwent a 6 month dietary and exercise regime which resulted in him weighing in at 220 pounds (about 40 pounds heavier than his normal weight). This time however it was deemed that he had become too large (friends of his on the crew dubbed him 'Fatman'), and he had to then shed 20 pounds very quickly to finally get in the correct shape. Bale has described the whole experience as being an unbearable physical ordeal.
One of the main problems that I had with the sequels is that I was unable to warm up to Christian Bale's performance in them. While I understand that the character developed and that the longer he was around the more he carried the weight of the world upon his shoulders but he became a character that I just didn't enjoy spending time with. He just growled and moped his way through the films. And we've not even gotten on to the issue of his silly Batman voice. That was a large reason why my favourite part of TDKR was Joseph Gordon-Levitt's story thread. Here however I find Bale to be a much more charismatic and likeable presence. He comes across as a much more vulnerable and relocatable character with more restraint on the half of Bale, things which all but disappeared in the sequels. And for a little while at least he seems to actually enjoy donning the suit and has a little fun with it, as opposed to it being the burden of later films. Hell he even smiles quite a few times throughout the film. In fact the film as a whole just has so much more humour about it. It may not go to the lengths that Marvel's efforts have (most notably Iron Man, Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers) but there are quite a few laughs to be found here, just making it a much more pleasurable viewing experience for me.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman all give very humorous and warm showings, with the only disappointment amongst the cast being Katie Holmes' Rachel Dawes. It's just a very bland performance completely lacking in any substance with every line apparently a struggle for her. Though the script doesn't help, giving the character some rather bitchy moments such as slapping Bruce and then turning him down at the end for some reason that I'm still not entirely sure on. And then there's the villains of the film. While they may have been overshadowed by Tom Hardy's Bane and especially Heath Ledger's Joker I think it should be remembered just how strong the villainous performances are in Begins. Both Neeson and Murphy are excellent. Neeson brings a great deal of strength and mystery to the role, and is helped greatly by the strong writing of his character. Initially he is set up as a mentor and surrogate father figure for Bruce before becoming his enemy, reflecting what Bruce could become if he allows his need for vengeance overwhelm him. I also thought the twist reveal of Neeson's character was well handled and really surprised me the first time I saw the film. It was a move that Nolan attempted to pull again in TDKR but that time it came off as very clumsy and unconvincing. While as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow I really loved Murphy's creepy, unhinged performance; a very charismatic showing. I also loved how the film portrayed the effects of the fear-inducing toxins that Murphy's Dr. Crane/ Scarecrow had at his disposal. Showing us the viewpoint of the affected party the picture becomes very twitchy and shaky, while some of the monstrous images the people imagine are great in their creativity. The demonic Batman is a particular highlight, being quite simply bad ass!

I think that Batman Begins may also perhaps be the strongest in terms of the action set-pieces. For a start Batman's rescue of Rachel from Arkham Asylum I thought was the best of all the vehicle-based action sequences across the trilogy. It's a thrilling sequence that sees the Tumbler flying across the rooftops of Gotham and destroying every bit of the city's infrastructure that stands in its way. I also preferred the way that the fighting scenes were presented here. The first time around I actually wasn't a fan of those scenes, finding the shaky camera and breathless editing quite irritating and tiresome. However I've come to appreciate the scenes a lot more compared to the action in the sequels, particularly being a fan of the attack at the warehouse. The stylistic choices and the hit and move strategy show us the actions of Batman from the perspective of the thugs he is attacking, showing him in a stealthy and terrifying way. Though I will admit that some of the later fights against the minions of Ra's Al Ghul are almost indecipherable thanks to the editing. I certainly think this film comes out on top when compared to the final confrontations of the sequels. In both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises I felt that after so much build-up the finales were rather disappointing and underwhelming. In TDK the tension surrounding the two bomb-laden boats I felt was a little flat and the actual fight between Batman and the Joker was really weak. These two are meant to be amongst the greatest adversaries of all time and yet their final fight lasts for about 30 seconds and its most interesting aspect were a few dogs. The film then rushes in a conclusion to the story of Harvey Dent/Two-Face whereas I think it would have been a lot more satisfying to have saved that for the 3rd film. TDKR's final battle was equally lacklustre I thought, not helped by how it was staged. In general I don't think that the hand-to-hand combat in the trilogy was all that exciting. It may have been more realistic but with just a series of elbow and knee strikes I didn't find it very dramatic. And in the fight with Bane it is presented in clear daylight and with little editing, making it seem duller and on occasion making it appear really obvious that they aren't actually hitting each other. Both just came across as lacklustre, convoluted, illogical and very anti-climactic. But in Begins I felt that the whole train sequence was a more eventful and dynamic conclusion told on a grander scale and one that carried a more emotional impact.

Conclusion - One of the iconic elements of Batman Begins is the line that Bruce's father, and later Alfred, delivers; “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” Well after the giant fall that was the risible Batman & Robin, this film showed that Batman could get back up. And in some style. For me it's the best of all the Batman films yet to hit the big screen, perfectly capturing the tone and delivering a rollicking good time at the movies.