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Dissecting the Classics – Batman Begins

November 11, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I am nervously and stubbornly anticipating the Justice League movie. While DC has only released two films I’ve genuinely liked in the last decade, I’m still holding out hope. After all, they managed to figure out how to make a good Wonder Woman movie, so surely they can put their best foot forward for the greatest superhero super team of all time. Right?

With that in mind, I’m trying to stay positive about DC. Which means the next two weeks will be dedicated to two of the best movies featuring DC characters ever made.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Batman Begins

Wide Release Date: June 15, 2005
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Produced By: Charles Roven, Emma Thomas & Larry Franco
Cinematography By: Wally Pfister
Edited By: Lee Smith
Music By: Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
Production Company: Legendary Pictures, Syncopy & Patalex III Productions
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Starring:
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth
Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes
Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox
Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon
Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghül

What Do We All Know?
As arguably the most popular superhero of all time, Batman has been featured in several films over the decades. 1989, and 1966 both having movies I liked enough to do columns on them. But even with proper acknowledgment, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 reboot of the franchise is the first film to get Batman completely right.

Eschewing the campier elements of both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, Nolan’s film is primarily a character study on Bruce Wayne and what drives him to be Batman. It’s as straightforward and realistic as comic book movies get, with just enough spectacle to deliver for the summer blockbuster crowd. And while its direct sequel is inarguably the better known film, Batman Begins is a classic in its own right.

What Went Right?

The main reason this film is the best movie about Batman is that it is fully devoted to living up to its title. We don’t just see Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered; we see his childhood fear of bats, the aimless anger of his college years, the training he receives from the League of Shadows. Even when he returns to Gotham, we see him establishing contact with Jim Gordon, using Lucius Fox as his personal Q, and getting the inspiration for his persona by conquering his fear of bats. When Batman debuts proper halfway through the film, the moment feels truly earned.

Another key reason this film works is how well Gotham City is realized. It may not be the iconic sets of the Tim Burton films, but Nolan’s Gotham is evil to its core. Crime lord Carmine Falcone runs wild, police and judges are on the take, poverty makes violent crime so common the people are numb to it. Dr. Jonathan Crane keeps dangerous psychopaths out of prison and in Arkham to conduct experiments. And the League of Shadows has infiltrated every level of its infrastructure. This is a city that needs the Batman; not just to fight crime, but to inspire its people and give them hope. Making the implausible plausible is something Nolan excels at.

Another thing Nolan is very good at is filling his movies with great actors. Christian Bale has his star making turn as Bruce Wayne (with all due respect to American Psycho), playing an emotionally vulnerable Bruce while also shining as both Bat and billionaire playboy. But look at this cast; Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone, Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghül. Not to mention Rutger Hauer and Ken Watanabe in supporting roles, or Cillian Murphy’s big break as the Scarecrow. It’s really hard to have a bad movie with that much talent.

The screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer is also a strong point. While they rarely simulate authentic conversational dialogue and rely a little too much on dramatic irony (i.e. repeating dialogue with new context), they do deliver a script that feels like a modern myth. Batman is shown to be both a symbol of hope and fear, with the later being the primary theme of the film. Each character either is controlled by fear, or has learned to control fear and use it as a weapon. But the movie also finds time for both powerful emotional beats and for dry witty humor. You won’t find many comic book movies with dialogue this good.

What Went Wrong?

Usually, I devote this section to pointing out flaws, but in this case I feel inclined to defend something that a lot of people dislike; Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. No, Katie isn’t as good as most of the cast. Yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is better. But I’ve never seen her as this big mark against the film that others do. She’s serviceable throughout and really good in a few scenes. Rachel herself is actually a pretty great character, being the one genuine peer to Bruce in a sea of father figures. She embodies the idealism that separates Batman from criminals, a vital element in why this version of Batman works.

As for actual flaws? Yeah, I’ve got a few. The film peaks about midway through and while it isn’t boring, it is hard to get invested in the third act. Especially since it features two things that Nolan can’t seem to make work in this film; comic book weirdness and action. All of the combat action is pretty underwhelming, which is a pretty big flaw in an action blockbuster. Some shots with the Batmobile have also aged poorly. But the bigger problem is that the film is so grounded that elements like the fear gas in the water supply just seem even hokier than they normally would. The swarm of bats only makes sense if you’ve read Frank Miller’s Year One and know what it’s referencing. None of these issues are enough to derail the movie, but they do stick out.

And In Summary…

While not everything in Batman Begins is perfectly smooth, the important stuff works like gangbusters. Batman is finally the centerpiece of his own film, with both personal character development and a thorough knowledge of what Batman stands for. Both the director and star-studded cast elevate the film by treating it as completely serious drama. This film’s success paved the way not just for it’s own sequels, but for the politically minded Captain America sequels and for Logan. It’s a vital piece of comic book movie history, a must see film only superseded by its own sequel.

Speaking of sequels. Man what a great movie The Dark Knight was right? I wonder if it still holds up almost a decade later? Gee, I wish I had a weekly column where I could talk about that movie…

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride

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