by Will Erickson & Casey Simonson
From the October 2015 IssueCASEY: With Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman on the way in just a few months, I found it fitting to revisit one of my least favorite superhero movies of recent years – Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – hoping that perhaps I wouldn’t hate it nearly as much as I did in my first viewing. All of my friends know that Begins is one of two films I’ve fallen asleep during while actively trying to watch. (The other being the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House, which I recommend you avoid at all costs.)
Regardless, while Begins was not as much of a snoozefest upon revisit as I remember it being, I still find it to be a pretty bland film. Primarily, Begins suffers from a problem that I will here call Spider-Man 3 syndrome, named as such because Spider-Man 3 is packed full of as many Spider-Man characters and references from the comics, as if seeing Venom, Gwen Stacy, Sandman, and some version of the Green Goblin on screen at once was really fan service. Unlike Spider-Man 3, however, Begins seemed to get away with this overstuffing of characters, at least critically, with the late Roger Ebert giving it four stars. But I’m not entirely convinced that Nolan pulls it off, or that Batman Begins is even a good film.
It largely comes off like two separate films that are only vaguely related, and with a runtime of nearly 2 and a half hours, neither of the two sections seem fleshed out enough, feeling mashed together and entirely too long. The first prominent segment of the film comes with the origin of both Bruce Wayne and his Batman persona. While I am a massive proponent of eliminating origin stories in films for well-known superheroes, I’ll let this one slide for the sake of argument. The tone established by Nolan in this particular section resembles that of a martial arts film; the color palette brown, the cinematography heavily influenced by Asian cinema. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul seems to be set up as the villain here; a man who once trained Bruce Wayne, but will eventually fall out with him. However, this tease at something different is not what we ultimately end up getting once Christian Bale dons the Batsuit.
Instead, it’s an overly dark, overly serious Batman movie where the antagonist is the Scarecrow, despite not showing up until the film is nearly at its halfway point. In addition to the Scarecrow, we get Falcone and some other guy who makes an attempt to take control of Wayne enterprises, bringing the “primary” antagonist count to roughly four. It’s jumbled, it’s confusing as hell, and eventually – though it waits until a mostly boring climactic sequence to explain the connection between all of these villains in the first place – it does connect.
Begins tries to juggle a thousand different plotlines, but can’t seem to get the important ones in place. I never fully figured out what Scarecrow’s motives were, or why even the League of Shadows thinks that destroying the whole city of Gotham is the proper solution to controlling the excess of modern society (Ra’s al Ghul says it, I swear). For a film that was lauded for its realism and truthful Batman origin story, it comes off as gritty for the sake of being gritty and different, as if taking a billionaire running around in a muscle-tight kevlar body suit seriously was something we ever really wanted.
WILL: It’s difficult for me to talk about Batman Begins without reflecting on the 11-year-old boy that saw it for the first time in theaters in 2005. I had grown up watching weathered VHS recordings of the campy 1960s Adam West Batman, and Tim Burton’s chilling interpretation of the concept had managed to both terrify and enchant me. As much as I adored these versions, the ultimate adaptation for me was Batman: The Animated Series, which managed to capture the terror, drama, and fun of the concept without ever feeling tonally inconsistent. These were all the things informing my idea of a cinematic Batman as I rode my bike across town with my older brother to see my first adaptation in theaters. Even with such high expectations, I ended up loving the film and I’ve revisited it often since.
I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare Begins to Spider-Man 3, although I do see how a connection could be made. While Begins does have many antagonistic characters, I feel that each one holds thematic importance and has a valid place in the story. Spider-Man 3 feels like the visions of multiple different people forced into a compromise, but Begins feels cohesive and deliberate. It’s clear throughout the second act that Scarecrow and Falcone are simply pawns in a much larger plan, and every scene involving them does a good job of pointing to a mysterious higher power that is influencing these powerful men. This buildup allows for a satisfying final act that focuses around Ra’s al Ghul.
I must emphasize that Liam Neeson is only revealed as the mastermind at the end, as he was initially introduced as a mentor figure, with a very similar mentality and motivation as Batman. Up to this point, Ra’s was believed to be an ultimately evil and foreign entity, who is cold and quick to anger, forcing Batman to destroy him. Revealing this villain as someone more relatable and integral to Batman’s origins and struggle represents a temptation that Batman faces: the draw towards brutality and revenge. This helps us better understand why Ra’s must destroy all of Gotham in the climax. Beyond the story justifications, Ra’s shows how the brutality of anger and revenge seeks ultimate destruction without redemption or forgiveness. Ra’s sees the environment of crime and greed that creates Batman and views it as being beyond redemption, thus seeking to destroy it for that reason.
This reframing also gives more thematic weight to other antagonists. Falcone is an important villain because he represents those who would do crime and hurt others within Gotham. Our Wayne Enterprises CEO, William Earle, represents the other side of that coin. He is the selfishness and greed that exploits Gotham and endangers the world (it was, of course, his dealings that create many different weapon designs including the microwave emitter that factors so heavily into the finale). We are meant to despise these characters and their actions because in doing so, we are tempted to desire their destruction, a temptation we share with our masked protagonist.
The reason that Batman is better than Ra’s, is that he can see beyond these “monsters” of excess to find the good of Gotham. The best aspects of the city are also represented through characters, like Gordon, the pillar of justice, Rachel, the fighter for the law, and the unnamed boy, a symbol of innocence.
Our final villain is perhaps the most important symbolic character, as the Scarecrow represents using fear as a weapon. His presence is important because Batman learns to turn this weapon against the villains who so often use it. He would use fear to protect the good rather than hurt them, and that makes his character fascinating. I feel these characters are all essential to make the audience connect with Batman as a real human, rather than just a comic illustration in a cowl and a cape.CASEY: I will not disagree that each character is representative of some aspect of both Batman’s maturity into Batman and his love for Gotham, but my problem more stems from how necessary all these characters are. Part of what makes The Dark Knight a far superior film is how much we get to see of the antagonists and how they really feel like fleshed out characters. While obviously some of this one-dimensional-ness can be attributed to performances, particularly that of Katie Holmes and Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, some of these characters are just lacking depth.
Let’s take the Scarecrow for an example. His motivation, which is largely explained in one line, ends up being revealed to be money. This is fine for a comic book movie, but not when the claim was that this was going to be a human story with realistic characters. His only character trait after this reveal seems to be that he is doing this for money, or maybe just to scare the pants off of some mentally ill people. But there’s never any human depth to it. This problem is obvious in the source material too, but I come to expect more when trying to adapt comic-book characters into a world that more resembles our own.
Aside from the story element of the film, I find the pacing atrocious. As I kind of got to before, it really feels like two different films, all mixed together with Nolan’s trademark editing style. But the slow, drawn-out scenes with long takes that encapsulate the opening third of the film don’t really ramp up into anything by the time we’ve made the switch to Gotham and are faced with the fast-paced, quick cutting we’ve come to expect.
Realistically, on the spectrum of superhero films, especially for the time, Batman Begins is pretty good. But it’s not great, it’s not a masterpiece, and I doubt it will go down as a classic. That’s not to say some of it isn’t spectacular. Gary Oldman, as always, feels like he’s giving a performance of a lifetime, and the majority of the practical effects are dazzling. But despite its successes, it doesn’t live up to the promises made by Nolan that we would see a realistic and human portrayal of the Batman story. Admittedly, my expectations are a primary reason for my distaste for the film. But, I will say: my dislike is somewhat dulled by the existence of The Dark Knight, which still stands as my favorite superhero film.
WILL: Some characters are lacking, that can’t be denied, but this is hard to avoid in any film that has such a large and varied cast. However, with every character that is lacking like Rachel or Scarecrow, there are two characters that are perfectly cast and implemented.
It is pretty widely believed that Michael Caine perfectly inhabits the role of the servant/father-figure Alfred, and his role is completely essential in helping the audience believe that Batman is more than just an insane man in a rubber suit. Morgan Freeman also slips perfectly into his role of Lucius Fox, managing to make a character that feels justified in giving out such advanced tech (which forms the backbone of a successful Batman). Of course, you already covered the incomparable Gary Oldman (his name be praised), who is so adorably endearing that he can make blowing up a train’s railway feel pleasant and satisfying. While there may be some weaknesses in the cast, I feel that these pillars more than manage to hold up the final product.
In terms of the pace, while I think certain stellar scenes in the beginning definitely emulate the asian cinema style you refer to, I feel as though the editing rarely escapes the deliberate and quick Nolan style. Certain scenes, like the final test of the League of Shadows (perhaps my favorite scene in the whole film) display a much slower and more eerie pace, but I feel that is repeated for many scenes, like the steady stalking leading up to Batman’s first big reveal. At the same time, some scenes in the beginning, such as Batman’s introduction to stealth, distraction, and theatricality, have the quickest acceleration of any scene in the film. I feel that the pacing only works because of the thematic center of the film: the Gotham Monorail. Everything about this film emulates this element, from the pacing, to the editing, and even to the film’s soundtrack. For me, this is what keeps the film from becoming boring. The whole thing feels like a constantly accelerating disaster waiting to happen, and I didn’t feel like Nolan got lost in the woods of his own universe until The Dark Knight Rises decided to throw every last idea Nolan had into one big pile.
Batman Begins is certainly not a perfect film, or even a perfect Batman film (we both know that’s The Dark Knight), but I truly believe it’s one of the great superhero films that’s worth revisiting. Even with its flaws, there are scenes that so perfectly encapsulate the feeling and concept of Batman, such as the terrifying scene where Batman interrogates a dirty cop by hanging him upside-down from a building, that it’s essential viewing for any fan of the character or superheroes in general.