As an uncanny, but manifestly unplanned, counterpoint to the new ‘Star Wars’, Warner Bros, director Chris Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer serve us up ‘Batman Begins’ – a movie which is, if not its thematic twin, at the very least a spiritual sibling of some kind.
Maybe there’s something in the water that’s made this summer’s first two big movies share so many concerns, and deal with them in such similar manners? I don’t know. More sensibly, perhaps, they’re simply products of the same culture at the same time and being as they both are, deeply concerned with the archetypal, it’s entirely believable that they’d have so much in common. They both feature an extraordinary, traumatised individual struggling with both their demons and a corrupt environment and eventually winding up in an iconic black cape, after all.
Whatever the reason, though, the result is two filmic stories about the same things, and with the same moral, albeit with that moral expressed through entirely different aesthetic styles.
Both films’ most important scene is a moment early on where their ostensible anti-hero teeters on a moral precipice; a mentor and friend asks, nay orders, him to behead an unarmed man on the grounds that he simply deserves it. Where Anakin Skywalker failed this test of his moral fibre, Bruce Wayne passes it and as the not-yet-Batman goes on to point out it is the compassion which limits, contains and tempers his anger that separates him from those he would fight. It’s what separates the hero from the villain, Skywalker Senior from Wayne Junior, the dictator from the democrat. What, we see, truly defines Bruce Wayne as a man is that despite being raised to lead, he wishes to protect, rather than dominate, the weak and lost. This Bruce Wayne is a man who has contemplated murder, but he’s never for a moment considered what it might be like to rule.
This brings us to the most important thing about this movie – the cold dead hand of Frank Miller’s exhilarating but ultimately deeply limited view of the Bat is nowhere visible here. One cannot conceive of Miller’s hard-right, Nietzschen Bruce Wayne living on the streets to learn what it’s like to starve or insisting that his mission is not directed against those who break laws, but against those who willingly harm others. This Batman is a liberal of sorts, a balance again to the absolutist Anakin of ‘Episode III’, and he’s all the better a hero for it. Screenwriter Goyer has, incidentally, gone on record as saying ‘Our story is not [Miller's] Year One’ and it’s very hard to see how you could make a film about Batman’s origins containing less Miller without basing it primarily on the work of 50s Bat team Dick Sprang and Stan Kaye. This movie is less than 1% Miller. There’s more of (Shiny Shelf hero) Christopher Priest’s work in here than there is of Miller’s, in fact. Frank’s contribution consists of elements of the Gordon/Batman relationship and the antepenultimate scene – which nods at the last page of the aforementioned ‘Year One’. (Comments that Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon looks like Miller’s design miss the point that they both look like the great comic book editor Archie Goodwin.) Frank Miller’s take on Batman is so irrelevant to this film’s universe that the one scene he reprises over and over again in his Batman work, his blood-spattered, broken glass re-statement of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s ‘I shall become a Bat’, doesn’t even get a look in.
Instead of the overworn Miller-isms we get huge dollops of Denny O’ Neil’s (the creator of Ra’s Al Ghul lest we forget) scripts, specifically ‘Shaman’ (LOTDK #1 – 5) as well as most of Denny’s Ra’s stories. Little bits of Denny’s world, from the pre-teen Wayne finding what will become the Batcave to the details of the night of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths constantly occur. It is his take on most of the characters that holds sway in Nolan and Goyer’s world.
This is entirely hunky dory with me, Denny is the most important creator in the history of the Bat once one exempts those involved in his creation and his work should be respected and drawn on. It was O’Neil who worked so hard to place the incorruptible Bruce Wayne on an unimpeachable moral high ground from which he can never be removed as a character, a vital counterpoint to the arguable sociopathy that runs through much of what Batman does. In the days before Denny’s ‘Knightfall’ there was earnest debate in the letters pages of the Bat books as to whether Batman should be prepared to kill his enemies. Can you imagine that discussion happening today? No. Yet in the current pop cultural climate of torturetastic TV (yes, Jack Bauer I’m looking at you) and ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Use Whatever Means Are Neccesary’ you’d expect it to have done. It seems inevitable, but it hasn’t even come up – and that’s thanks to Mr O’Neil’s sterling work in defining Batman’s heroism. Something there that we should all be grateful for.
I realize how nice it is to be able to think of a Batman movie in these terms; theme and variation, morals and meaning, influences and politics. Aaaah, do you remember the bad old days of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, pontificating, punning dialogue, somnambulistic actors, insultingly debased versions of beloved characters and only the sight of Alicia Silverstone in a grey pleated miniskirt to keep one awake? I don’t. Not anymore. They’re been banished, replaced by humming memories of Christian Bale’s agonized humanity and the astonishing dignity of Sir Michael Caine. In fact, every time I try to list the cast of ‘Batman Begins’ to someone I wind up missing a major actor out because there are so many very fine performers on display. It’s Rutger Hauer’s best screen work in decades. Who knew that Cillian Murphy could be that terrifying? Isn’t Morgan Freeman the only possible Lucius Fox? Liam Neeson as, essentially ‘Dark Qui-Gonn’, is utterly enthralling, exuding charisma and power in a way he has never done on screen before. Katie Holmes is confident, powerful and entirely convincing as a District Attorney. Tom Wilkinson is outstanding and Gary Oldman is absolutely bloody amazing.
Behind the camera, the odd couple pairing that is director Chris Nolan and screenwriter David S Goyer turn out to be the perfect team to bring the Bat back to the big screen. One is a skilled hack (a term I don’t regard as pejorative) with an obvious love for, and knowledge of, the material. The other is a maverick indie film boy with no prior interest in the character or his world. What this means, or seems to, is that Goyer’s screenplay presents us with a streamlined new version of Batman’s origins which draws on a variety of sources and interpretations, creating something which is both cohesive and instantly recognisable in the process. Nolan adds the heart and directs the performers, but seems primarily interested in getting that script onscreen in a visceral, louring, steam-heated style.
So, problems then? Only a very small number. There are some small children in the film who performances don’t gel. There’s some info-dumping which seems to have been added ex post test screening and the location and nature of ‘the narrows’ is not as clear as it maybe should be. At times Gotham is blatantly London and its surroundings blatantly Kent. At others the dialogue goes off a cliff, and while the actors don’t visibly stuggle with it you know deep down they must have done (There’s another ‘Episode III’ parallel right there, actually). In the end these are tiny things, small fry complaints; the sort of thing that smoothes out on a second viewing whether in the multiplex or on DVD. They are a small price I willing pay for all the extraordinary, spectacular and human things about this portrayal of Batman’s beginnings. I’ll come clean; I really wasn’t sure Batman could be done in the cinema again – from the highs of Burton to the lows of Schumacher was such a painful and audience assaulting journey, and summer has changed so much, that I wasn’t sure it could ever work again. In that regard what Nolan and Goyer have achieved is remarkable. For an encore, I fully expect them to raise the dead.
So, as the evidence that reality is being reshaped entirely by my own personal whims continues to mount daily, the real question has to be – can this summer’s remaining popcorn releases sustain this level of quality? Can they maintain the two heavy hitters’ blend of visual ?lan, contemporary commentary and disciplined darkness? Well, no – not unless Spielberg turns his ‘War of the Worlds’ into the commentary on the American Empire that the novel is on the British Empire, of course. That, not beyond the realms of possibility, would be really worth seeing. Rather wonderfully, it would fit the tone of this ambiguous, ambitious popcorn summer rather well.