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Batman Has Bite

batman_beginsRe-imagined superhero saves a dying film franchise

Finally—an intelligent Batman that soars high. In a story that often moves against the typical currents that make up a major Hollywood blockbuster, director Christopher Nolan delivers a beautifully polished, wondrously executed Batman Begins. And with it, comes the rebirth of a franchise left for dead by the likes of George Clooney.

Out: the post-modern Batman weighed down by the theatrics of directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. In: a plausible Batman that digs deep into the psychology of the man behind the mask and draws its inspiration from classics like  The Man Who Would Be King, Blade Runner, the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and—surprisingly—Lawrence of Arabia. (Yes, you read that right.) What Burton’s Batman did for the campy ’60s TV show of the same name, Nolan does to Burton’s Batman (1989).

True, Burton successfully brought the Batman character to the big screen in ways we would have never imagined—and most agree that Schumacher turned the franchise into barely consumable mush—but Nolan serves us a real story about a real man and gives his audience something to really care about. Not only do we learn how Batman actually becomes Batman, we actually give a damn. That it respects all that the DC Comics launchedis commendable. This all comes together through the believable, often commanding performance of Christian Bale. Tall, beefed-up-and-brooding, Bale breathes new life into the character of Bruce Wayne using an everyman likeability that was never truly present in previous performances by other actors in the role. It was always hard to swallow Michael Keaton, or the fair-haired Val Kilmer, or—what were they thinking?—George Clooney as the Dark Knight. Here, there’s actually a Dark Knight to embrace—dark being the key word.

In “Detective Comics #33,” Bruce Wayne says, “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night.” In Batman Begins, he is. When a caped Christian Bale boldly proclaims, “I’m Batman!” for the first time to a Gotham City thug he’s captured on a rooftop, it’s downright terrifying because Bale owns every part of the terror that Batman can be. Unlike, say, Clooney in 1997’s Batman & Robin, there’s no time for glib remarks or clever leitmotifs. You see, when it comes to fighting crime, Batman is supposed to be a brute, something to fear. Nolan allows us to understand Bruce Wayne’s motives, his depth, the trauma that made him the man he is. And we root for him, whereas, say, in Batman Forever (1995), you found yourself hoping Jim Carrey’s Riddler would mangle Kilmer’s bat ears and call it a day. Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) and fellow screenwriter David S. Goyer (Blade, Crow: City of Angels, Dark City) hit all the right chords with the psychological makeup of Bruce Wayne during the film’s first act. Bruce is a tortured soul. Locked up in an obscure, Asian prison, he’s haunted by nightmares of his childhood, when he witnessed the brutal murders of his parents back in Gotham. When a mysterious stranger (Liam Neeson) bails Bruce out of his cell, he soon becomes his mentor. It’s curious to find Neeson taking on a role that recalls his Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. But there’s a brutal edge to Neeson’s character here as he teaches Bruce the mysterious ways of the League of Shadows, which leads to the man’s ultimate mind-body-soul transformation. He becomes a Ninja of sorts, capable of all aspects of the martial arts; the mysteries of mastering the mind. All the while, he’s being scrutinized by the League’s master Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai). These sequences create the hypnotic undertow that remains present throughout most of the film, creating a Batman that really plays out as if it were a modern-day opera with a protagonist evolving through each crescendo and decrescendo. By the time Bruce decides he must honor his parents’ philanthropic legacy by
returning to Gotham City, Nolan’s already bowled you over with enough emotional intensity and surprise action sequences, you wonder if he’s got anything left in him.

In fact, he does.

Back in Gotham, the morphing of Bruce into Batman is a pleasure to watch. All the more fun thanks to some fine writing, editing and the casting of stellar actors. Enter Michael Caine. His Alfred steals the show. There’s actually some fine chemistry between Caine and Bale here—and the smooth, comic relief Caine offers never dumbs anything down. In Bruce’s ambitious quest to forge his mind and body into a living, breathing weapon against injustice, Alfred comes along for the ride, first admiring the mission, then fearing its effects on the boy he’s had to raise and has grown to love.
Alfred isn’t the only ally for Bruce in Nolan’s story. Proving that he can always outshine his lead actors through work in a supporting gig, Morgan Freeman turns in another memorable role as Lucius Fox, a Wayne Enterprises employee who’s been shoved into the basement to perform scientific research. This comes in handy for daring Bruce, who finds Lucius’ gadgets and machinery perfect for his future crime-fighting endeavors. Here, Nolan creates what has to be the best explanation of how the Batmobile came to be. Rounding out the troika closest to Bruce’s heart is District Attorney Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes who—hate to admit it—manages to finally rid herself of the Dawson’s Creek stench that launched her celebrity. Holmes actually turns in a believable, heartfelt performance.
And then … the criminals. In Nolan’s Gotham—a sleek amalgam of New York, Chicago, L.A. and Tokyo—the major criminal element is a malevolent tripod: a crime lord (Tom Wilkinson), a shrewd Wayne Enterprises businessman (Rutger Hauer) and a youthful albeit smarmy shrink (the certainly destined for fame Cillian Murphy). Much of this plot revolves around a hidden foe bent on bringing Gotham down. The good news: In previous outings, we never really understood the lunacy behind foes like Mr. Freeze or The Riddler. The backstory here explains how those types of criminals could come to exist. There’s also a humorous element of surprise near the final frame of the film when Batman bonds with good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman in fine form) that gives audiences something to hunger for in future outings.

Is this the summer blockbuster we’ve been waiting for? Probably. Batman Begins has the emotional pull of Blade Runner, the heart of Superman and the intensity of Mission: Impossible. Still, it’s its own creature if not a crowning achievement for a director like Nolan, whose mind-bending flare finally has a chance to shine in the mainstream. Talk about super hero.


BATMAN BEGINS

***1/2 (out of four)

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes and Tom Wilkensen. Directed by Christopher Nolan.

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