June 16, 2005

Batman Begins

Batman Begins is, to put it bluntly, the best film I've seen the year. The promise I'd seen in every other incarnation of the character, be it the mediocre preceding films or the very solid but episodic animated series, is realized here. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman all provide the definitive portrayals of their respective Batman supporting characters. While Batman himself is probably too big for any definitive portrayal, Bale is the best actor in the suit, and the second behind Kevin Conroy for best voice for the role.
Like Reeve for Clark Kent/Superman, Bale creates essentially two extraordinarily different characters for the lead. The movie spends nearly the entirety of its running time bringing us into Bruce Wayne's life, so that we understand and sympathize with him by the end. We never see Batman from Batman's point of view. Only through three characters' eyes do we even get to see him clearly — Sgt. Gordon, the last honest cop, Rachel Dawes, assistant D.A. and Wayne's childhood friend, and finally a little boy, who comes from a broken home and takes inspiration where he can get it. The rest of the characters who encounter Batman are criminals, and they see only the legend behind the man. A flash here, one bad guy's gone. Turn around, the other guy just disappeared. You're next, living a horror movie and Batman is the monster.
Unlike the previous movies, where the villains overshadowed Batman in presence as well as screen time, Batman hangs over the Gotham underworld like the Shadow over Mordor in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the great achievements is that this Gotham has an underworld, among everything else you would expect of a fully fleshed-out city. It strikes a completely opposite take from the previous Batman saga, where Gotham was cramped and repetitive but never comprehensible. This Gotham feels huge, yet the movie takes the time to paint all of the proceedings into a coherent urban geography. This is the Narrows, mob boss Carmine Falcone (masterfully played by Tom Wilkinson)'s domain. That is Wayne Tower, at the centre of upscale downtown. Each location has it's cast of key players, who fit in like extensions of the set. It is essential that each be placed instantly as their given piece of the puzzle, because this film is ambitious - no less than six signature villains of various types and inspirations, all interconnected in a complex exchange of affairs.
If Clark Kent had the conflicting influences of Jonathan Kent and Jor-El to help shape his adult identity as Superman, this film gives Bruce way the conflicting influences of Thomas Kent and Henri Ducard to help shape Batman. Batman, as conceived in this film, could not exist without either. Thomas Wayne gave Bruce his idealism and his drive to see Gotham towards safety. Henri Ducard gave him the cruel brutal means and tactics through which to succeed. Bruce Wayne lacks super powers, so it is through Ducard's training that he becomes more than a man. The clash of ideals between Thomas Wayne's mission of compassion and Ducard's unyielding quest for vengeance is at the heart of this film. Both play into what Batman is, and each provides the check against the other that allows Batman to succeed where both ultimately fail. Justice unhampered by compassion is as criminal as the acts which required justice in the first place. Yet compassion without consequence for failure is neither sustainable nor ultimately desirable.
Finally all the pieces fall into place in a single medium and in a single story: how a scared and traumatized boy grew up to fight back against the darkness. The tenuous relationship between justice and the law, personified through Batman's relationship with Gordon. The full dimension of the relationship of between Bruce Wayne and his butler - which not only moves the plot along but has surprising emotional heft as well. The fantastic criminals, like the Scarecrow, are placed in a greater tapestry of Gotham's criminal underworld, and pleasingly, the real villains wear suits and ties rather than Halloween masks and garish costumes. The whole thing builds to a cohesive whole, creating a world no less complete or innovatively conceived than the Star Wars saga. We may never get a portrayal of Batman this good again. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

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