Batman Begins

For those of you who like such things, Neal Stephenson writes about the new Star Wars movies versus the old ones in a Times editorial. He's right to point out one of the important things about the Star Wars movies, at least the original ones, is that it made technology a 'fun' topic for movies. Everything before then had the new digital age as the end of democracy (Lucas's own THX-138) or the end of the current form of humanity (2001: A Space Odyssey). Star Wars predicted that the age of digitization would more or less involve silly drunken digital pictures, finding cheaper airline tickets and looking up tour dates for obscure bands – and not at all involve evolution replacing humanity by star babies or emotionally odd machines.

It's also funny where he asked "who was the republic fighting?" and nobody, including myself, was actually all that sure.

Batman Got on my Nerves

Now I can all see exactly the idea behind the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. When the kids of the 70s all had B-movies reels, Flash Gordon and diabolical Nazis in their pop culture vocabulary, they got the same products repackaged back to them as their “own” movies. My generation grew up on comic books. Not just any comic books – but the moody violence of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and the expressionistic teen angst put to four-colors of the Image artists (Mcfarlane, Liefeld, Silvestri, Lee).

Harry Potter aside, there isn't much left in terms of new bankable franchises where the audience already knows most of the story walking into the theaters. The miners are getting deep, hitting the last remaining ores of 50s television (Bewitched, The Hooneymooners), late 60s/early 70s cinema (Guess who's coming to dinner?, The Longest Yard) and 70s television (Dukes of Hazzard, Starsky and Hutch). It doesn't help that the some of America's “auteurs" are aping the sentiment by re-making successful foreign films as American films – the most egregious example being Soderbergh's "Solaris", and the most accomplished is probably a tie between "The Ring" and Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia."

He was running me amock.

And now Mister Nolan has inherited the Batman title. In the same way all of our parents knew what a swashbuckling space smuggler looked like, everyone my age knows who Bruce Wayne is, even if they've never read a comic book. I feel silly trying to expand an essay out of this movie; you probably already know if you are going to go and see it or not. So I'll make this short.

The first thing is that more money went to the supporting cast than extensive special effects, which was an excellent idea. There are less fireballs or bizarre Matrix-esque freeze frames, and more Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. Caine's old-school butler and Oldman's perplexed cop especially standout against the background. Chicago kids will love that the movie was filmed here – seeing the Batmobile fly over the Wacker Street bridge and later screech across Lower Wacker drive was a nice touch (I think the Merchandise Mart was Arkham Asylum).

It's been a day and the editing for the action scenes are still making me queezy. The editing is all Michael Bay – you never are quite sure where the actors are standing or what they are doing in relation to each other. This shouldn't be that hard – the movies where people kick and fight each other that audiences adore (the first Matrix, Crouching Tiger and other Hong-Kong action, Blade) all allow you to clearly see what is going on. They are entirely composed of mid-range shots with a strong linear focus to them (The vampire missed his kick, then Blade stabbed him with his sword). It's particularly bad with the chase scene, which should be a perfect Blues Brothers style pileup of cars (cinematically, if Chicago is good for anything, it’s for car chases). But the jump-cuts and non-sequitur shot sequencing gave nobody the simple, but essential, satisfaction of watching a car make a fast turn. This becomes even more of a problem during the last battle set on the El.

Perhaps the idea of perfectly framing a grown man in a rubber suit kicking someone was too much for Nolan to bear, and that he thought he could dodge, or perhaps even make atmospheric, a lot of what was going on by making it incoherent. It didn't work. It is notable that he didn’t do this in the beginning of the movie where it was just Bruce Wayne learning how to sword-fight in the hills.

He ridiculed me, calling me a bum.

The co-scriptwriter is David Goyer, who in addition to being an excellent comic book writer, brought you the script for the 2nd and 3rd Blade movies. Blade can get away with chatting it up about Big Ideas while delievering a roundhouse kick to someone – Christian Bale in a rubber suit cannot. The scenes where he's supposed to be the scariest as Batman come off as the most absurd. Bale plays the best asshole in current movies (see American Psycho, the new Shaft), and his Bruce Wayne is perfect – at least they keep the standing around in the Batman suit to a minimum.

At the end of the film you have gotten three movies – an excellent first one of the training of Bruce Wayne, a pretty good one of Batman's first days on the job, and a third one where Batman has to save the day that may make you dizzy. Don't feel ashamed to leave 2/3rds of the way through the movie.

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10 Responses to “Batman Begins”

  1. Dave Says:

    Well, I have to disagree slightly, I was grinning like an idiot child throughout the whole movie. I didn't find the action that scrappy, and I figure at the end of the day it's probably got more to do with getting the rating than it has to do with Nolans sensibilities or weaknesses as a director. With the sheer amount of horrific elements, cuttting the violence, or at least obscuring it probably seemed like a good way to get a PG. Yes, it was noticable, but it didn't put me off. And the action scenes were a hell of an improvement on Tim Burton's.

    Also, I liked the inclusions off little bits of Frank Miller batman (the car from Dark Knight, lots of little bits of Year One). To be honest, it's probably the best Batman movie it could be in the current climate, especially given that there hasn't been a good Batman comic since Hush, and even that's debatable.

    At the end of the day, this was one of the few superhero movies where the character was as interesting without the suit as with it. And there was no Prince soundtrack.

  2. mike Says:

    Perhaps I'm being a little bit rough as, after seeing it on an IMAX screen, I felt really naseaued for at least a full day (and even still a bit now). There were parts, particularly in the middle, that I really enjoyed.

    Lots of nice Year One touches – I really liked the Wayne as gigalo with drunken models which is lifted from Year One as well.

    Arkham Asylum (Grant Morrsion/Dave McKean) is the best Batman comic since Frank Miller's btw :)

  3. Dave Says:

    Ooh, controversial. I bought the hardback 15th anniversary edition, which has the original script in. Reading that, you get the idea of just how mucch of a tool Grant Morrison can be. He mentions so much symbolism that simply can't come across because of McKean's artwork.

    I loved that book when I was fourteen. Now, I'm not so sure. Mckean's art (at the time, he's much improved since then) comes across as a high-schoolers art coursework. He had no sense of restraint. If you look at some of the panels, he's actually gone over them with a gold marker pen. Mixed media nonsense.

    *Ahem*

    Anyway… You got to see it on IMAX? You lucky, lucky bastard.

  4. mike Says:

    Also "Batman: The Long Halloween" is better than the *cough* (hack job) *cough* storyline "Hush." Jim Lee has only been a good guest artist (I'm excluding original run X-Men) when he returned to his own series Wildcats with Alan Moore after James Robinson and Travis Charest put all comic creators to SHAME – those two are amazing.

    Grant Morrison kinda scares me. When I was 12 years old I read his "author's intro" to the first collection of Doom Patrol comics – Crawling From the Wreckage – and then went out to the library and got Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach", which Morrison had recommended as being an excellent read about math. The book had made me so interested in algorithmic approaches to math (and, well, everything) that I majored in it years later and (kinda) worked the field I work in. Morrison is thus as accountable as to where I am as anyone.

    So I was worried to see him on a Disinformation DVD doing a talk at a podium where he was completely insane. He talked about doing so many drugs he ended up on an alien ship. *That* is the person I can owe enough of my formative years too.

    so I understand be wobbley about Arkam Aslyum. It's good, but probably didn't live up to the hype the industry and creators wanted. Everyone should be applauded for the last several pages where they do a box per person's mind.

    and after giving it a day or two to swill around in my mind – Michael Caine is awesome. amazing. excellent. worth your $9 right there.

  5. Ed Says:

    I have to say, the remake of "Insomnia" is one of the most brutally bad things I've ever seen. On its own, it stands as a decent if unmemorable movie. When you see the original in contrast and are confronted with the extent to which it was "Americanized" it's pretty sad. No, it's really sad.

  6. Ed Says:

    I just saw this Batman film.

    Overall, very good. I enjoyed it. Three gripes:

    1. Disregarding the 1st Batman movie. They just ignored the fact that the story of the Waynes' murder and the Joker were already told. Granted, the 1st Batman strayed very far from the comics. But it was not only an excellent movie – it was also the first comic-turned-film that really made non-comic fans sit up and say "Wow, this is really compelling." Which, of course, opened the floodgates for hundreds of comic-movies since. Few of which have come close to being as outstanding as Nicholson, Keaton, and Michael Gough.

    2. Why did Christian Bale feel compelled to so badly over-act the "Batman in costume" parts? He sounded like Henry Rollins trying really hard to take a shit (and failing). Overall I think Bale was chosen mostly for his anonymity – putting a "star" in that role would bring with it a lot of expectations whereas the overwhelming majority of the public haven't a clue who Bale is. And this movie made it clear that this is because he is a bad actor with limited range. He is a good Bruce Wayne but a mediocre Batman. But when you look at the other actors who auditioned (on imdb) I'm thankful Bale got the part. I mean, the guy who plays "Angel"? Jesus christ.

    3. Christopher Nolan either can't shoot action or was just experimenting too much. Mike is right – it was absolutely nauseating. It gets mad bonus points for avoiding CGI-overload, but all he did was cut the camera every 1/8th second and move it around a lot. It just looked like the camera was rolling down a flight of stairs. Put the fucking thing on a tripod and take the time to have actors or stuntment do what you want rather than just piecing together 100 different 1/8th-sec film clips into a fight scene.

    Overall, superbly cast. More notable for who they did cast than who they didn't. Look at the original choices – Viggo Mortensen instead of Neeson? Anthony Hopkins instead of Michael Caine? Fishburne over Freeman? Chris Cooper over Oldman? Those would have been horrid picks. Liam Neeson was terrific and Michael Caine literally carried parts of this film that should have been utterly implausible just by walking on screen.

    The best news is that they ditched Katie Holmes (proud grad of the DJ Tanner School of Acting) for the sequel.

  7. mike Says:

    It was hard to believe that they let Bale's voice as The Batman in the final cut. He sounded awful. Awful in that way that made me kind of embarressed at liking most of the movie as much as I did. He could have done a dandy voice and it would have worked better.

    I love the impression that the producers, in order to avoid having a 9-figure summer "Daredevil" disaster on their hands, went to the A-list supporting cast with a blank check and was like "listen, show up _and do a good job_ and we'll cover it." Because the support staff, especially Caine, didn't phone in their performances. I was pleasantly surprised by that.

    Katie "What kind of lens should the camera use to catch my nipples?" Holmes will thankfully not be back. She's no doubt getting 'cleansed' in a Scientology basement on Lincoln Avenue.

  8. Ed Says:

    So which was a bigger bomb – Daredevil or Elektra?

    And yes, I think they will be telling Christian Bale to tone it down for the sequels. Everything about the movie was enjoyable but that really sort of broke the mood. You'd get into the movie's world and then all the sudden you'd just want to laugh at him. It was like a loud fart during sex.

  9. Dave Says:

    Yeah, I do have to concede that Bale's growling was a low point in the movie. I think what a whole bunch of people want to say, but will never just come out and say, is that the 90's cartoon was pretty much perfect. Better than any of the films. Little things like the difference in voice between Batman/Bruce were so well handled.

    Personally, I didn't like the Burton movies. They were too concerned with sets and over-the-top design to really get to the heart of the characters. I think Burton saw his budget and just decided to make an enormous expressionist-style movie with slightly less wobbly sets. And fucking Prince… Jesus. I find it quite painful to watch the first movie now. But at least it didn't have penguins with missiles strapped to their backs…

    Still don't quite get the problem with action. Pretty much any modern movie that wants to get a rating has it's action scenes cut the same way. Ever since Gladiator did it, choppy, 15 cuts per second editing has been where it's at.

    I think Elektra flopped hardest. Speaking as a true fucking geek here, I didn't go and see it. That's pretty profound for me. I usually watch damn near anything culled from a comic, through some sense of misplaced loyalty, not to mention morbid curiosity. And that includes Daredevil.

    I hope they're very happy together though. They can have many vapid, talentless children.

  10. A Fan Boy Wannabe Says:

    Having lost my source of comics after being married I am now running into a strange sort of comic withdrawl syndrome. I went back and read the comic where Superman dies (and he should have stayed dead) and also reread Flowers for Rhino which is still a fantastic story. So, I guess what I am looking for is a top ten of comics from the Fan Boys that I know so well.

    I know that this is a big order, and perhaps it can't be done… but there have be far larger and far heavier gauntlets that have been thrown before this one.