On Batman Begins

Continuing from the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman film series, is the reboot film series, beginning with Batman Begins, the first part of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. According to io9‘s aticle, “Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s Batman Begins Complement Each Other Perfectly“:

This weekend, a new man dons the famous cape and cowl. To mark the occasion, we decided to go back and see how Keaton and Bale, via Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, held up. Spoiler alert—they hold up really, really well.

Let’s start with Burton. Watching his Batman again, one of the first things that stands out is how many liberties the director and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren take with the source material. In the comics, the Joker doesn’t have anything to do with killing Bruce Wayne’s parents. Here though, he does—and it provides an essential element to this specific story. By linking Batman and Joker through both their respective origins (true to some versions of the comics, this Batman has a hand in “creating” Joker) the film makes the Joker not only an essential adversary, but a crucial piece of understanding Batman as a character.

And that character is revealed in a deliberate, doled-out way. The film starts with a boy and his parents walking through the streets of Gotham. Instinctively now, we sense this is Batman’s origin. But no, it’s another family entirely, and Batman himself punishes their attackers. Beyond that, there’s no pretense or teasing here. In the first scene of the movie, there’s Batman, full suit, kicking ass. We only see the full origin later.

I was also surprised to be reminded that, in this universe, Batman (Michael Keaton) has only been around for about a month. That’s a key piece of information, because it gives you a very specific sense of who Bruce Wayne and Batman are in Burton’s universe. Bruce Wayne, who is so famous in other iterations, isn’t so well known here. He’s a powerful figure, but largely mysterious to the public, and the fact he only recently set out to be Batman gives him a reckless confidence as well as naiveté, which results in a major twist. That twist being how his origin is intertwined with the Joker’s.

And let’s be honest. In all reality, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is the star of this movie. He’s top billed, gets all the good lines, and carries the majority of the movie. This works, because Michael Keaton’s Batman is still growing. His origin and motives are more of a secret than the Joker’s (we don’t see Batman’s actual origin until towards the end of the film) so he’s a bit less complex to start out with. Even his relationships, like the very fast one with Vicky Vale, feel a bit forced. (Alfred brings up marriage after date one. Bruce reveals his biggest secret after like date three.) It isn’t until the end, once all the cards have been dealt, that Batman becomes Joker’s equal in the narrative. And then he triumphs, as Batman should in a Batman movie.

Tonally, Burton’s movie holds a place all its own. It’s fun and frivolous, goofy and irreverent. Prince music blares throughout. It’s a movie made in 1989, for 1989, with a smart undertone that says this is a Batman meant to co-exist with other versions of the character. And yet, this particular Batman can only exist in the world of Tim Burton.

But after watching Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins again, there are a lot of similarities to Burton’s movie. How could there not be, when the former was such a huge, culturally influential hit? Both films show Batman as a hero in in his infancy. One a single month in, the other just a day. Nolan’s Gotham feels like Burton’s, several decades removed. Both are Gothic and dark, but Nolan’s is decidedly more lived in. Each film also begins as a smaller story that eventually becomes about saving Gotham City. And that’s where the comparisons end.

As you start Nolan’s film, it’s almost hard to believe this is a movie about the same character. You go from a comic-booky world of heightened reality to a harsh realism. How harsh? Batman Begins takes an hour for you to even get to Batman. This approach feels all too familiar in 2016—but, in 2005, it was delightfully jarring. You learn how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) became Batman, piece by piece, and it’s a fascinating way to spend a good chunk of the movie. Nolan and writer David Goyer answer all of these questions you had as a kid, or maybe 15 years earlier from Tim Burton’s movie. How did Bruce Wayne get to be such a great fighter? Where DID he get all those wonderful toys? With Batman Begins, Nolan gives us plausible answers.

It’s also kind of jarring, coming off of Burton, to see a Bruce Wayne who’s not only famous, but scared of it all. This version of Bruce Wayne is defined by his personal struggle, which we get very little of in Burton’s film. Nolan revels in his turmoil though and while that means a lot of the Batman action is back loaded into the movie, it doesn’t matter. The slow burn makes the Batman action much more rewarding—because we’ve been craving it. Plus, once the actions starts it doesn’t stop. Goyer’s script is a long fuse with a huge explosion, complete with call backs, humor and some insanely memorable and emotional moments. Moments like the first reveal of Batman, Batman’s “back up,” the first Tumbler chase, the film’s final line and Batman revealing his identity to Rachel.

Nolan’s handling of Batman’s love life also stands out on a rewatch. Unlike Burton, whose first movie has a better female character but a less realistic relationship, Rachel Dawes and Bruce Wayne have a much better story. There’s some sexual tension to be sure, but everything is rooted in friendship. The literal first scene of the movie is young Bruce and Rachel playing. So as they grow up and the story gets more complex, we believe the turns and betrayals in that friendship. It provides an emotional core that Burton’s film lacks.

But Burton’s film has one big advantage over Nolan: The Joker. Nolan gets there in the sequel, The Dark Knight, and not pitting Batman against a formidable villain in Batman Begins makes sense from a character standpoint. But the combination of Falcone, Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul can’t touch Nicholson. Then, in the end, the tease of the character acts as a catalyst, giving the ending an even more resonant feeling than it already has.

Burton and Nolan’s films were never meant to compliment to each other, but they kind of fit together perfectly. If it wasn’t for the ears and chest piece, each Batman could be a different superhero entirely. They have similar origins, but are from totally different worlds. The one film is more of a popcorn thrill ride, with lots of stupidity and weirdness. The other is a dramatic, emotional action movie. As movies, they’re very different and yet, because of Batman’s adaptability, each movie is equally perfect for the character.

Additionally, according to Digital Spy‘s article, “Batman Begins: 11 bat-tastic facts you probably never knew about Christopher Nolan’s superhero movie“:

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – which we would argue, perhaps controversially, is the best in his Dark Knighttrilogy – premiered on this day in 2005.

To mark the 11th birthday of the debut of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and his growly voice, here are 11 bizarre and/or hilarious facts about the superhero movie:

1. Celebrity psycho

One of the escapees from Arkham Asylum was long-time Batman villain Victor Zsasz. The non-speaking role was played by former James frontman Tim Booth of ‘Sit Down’ fame.

2. Joffrey!

The little kid Katie Holmes’s Rachel Dawes rescued was played by Jack Gleeson, aka Joffrey from Game of Thrones, who was just 11 at the time of filming. Knowing what he would become, do you think she’d change her mind?

3. BATCRASH

When the Batmobile was being driven through the streets of Chicago, a drunk driver without a license crashed straight into it. “[He] said he got so panicked when he saw the car that he thought aliens were landing, and he put the pedal to the metal,” said Christian Bale. Incidentally, Bale did most of his stunts but not when it came to the Batmobile, which he only drove for real off camera.

4. The cast of the film could have looked VERY different

Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson, Josh Hartnett, Band of Brothers‘ Eion Bailey, Hugh Dancy, Billy Crudup, future Superman Henry Cavill, future Joker Heath Ledger and Ashton Kutcher were all considered for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Marilyn Manson, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor or Jeremy Davies could have been Dr Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow before it went to another Batman candidate, Cillian Murphy. Anthony Hopkins turned down the role of Alfred. Daniel Day-Lewis and Viggo Mortensen were approached for Liam Neeson’s role as Ra’s al Ghul.

Reese Witherspoon, Rachel McAdams, Sarah Michelle Gellar or Claire Danes could have played Rachel Dawes and Gary Oldman was going to be a villain until American Beauty‘s Chris Cooper dropped out of the James Gordon role.

5. Christopher Nolan took pains to minimise the use of CGI in the movie

“For a film of this size, we probably have the record for the fewest CG shots,” he told Empire. “People said we should do a digital Batmobile. We said, ‘F**k that, we’ll build it for real’.” That said, he tried to use real bats for one day before deciding that computer-generated flying mammals were MUCH easier to manage.

6. The film was nearly called ‘Batman Beginning’

Writer David S Goyer suggested the title. “And then Chris just said, ‘Let’s just say Begins because then when it’s announced you can say I’m blah blah blah fromBatman Begins‘,” he said. “I was like, ‘Genius’. So from that point on, it was always that.” ‘Batman: The Frightening’ had also been considered at an earlier point before Warner Bros came to its senses.

7. Michael Caine’s homecoming

The stage at Shepperton Studios where the batcave was constructed was the same one where Michael Caine filmed his first movie, 1956’s A Hill in Korea 50 years earlier. “I had eight lines in that picture, and I screwed up six of them,” he told the Independent.

8. Christian Bale was cast in Batman Begins while finishing work on The Machinist

… For which he famously lost a scary amount of weight. He was told to get “as big as possible”, but as filming approached it turned out that he was too big for the batsuit, and had to slim down in a hurry. Bale says that the crew remarked, “Bloody hell, Chris, what are we doing, Fatman or Batman?”

9. Bale has admitted to dozing off on the sets of his movies

Unfortunately, he happened to fall asleep while waiting for his first scene with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to roll. “In the scene, I was meant to be waking up, so I laid down and just fell asleep. And I didn’t hear ‘action’,” he toldGQ. “So Michael and Morgan were talking, and I was supposed to join in. I woke up with Michael Caine poking me in the ribs and going, ‘Look at that! He’s bloody fallen asleep, hasn’t he? He’s bloody fallen asleep!'”

10. Nolan was completely captivated by Cillian Murphy’s dreamy blue eyes

“He has the most extraordinary eyes, and I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups,” he admitted.

11. The film hints that The Joker was on Batman’s horizon

You probably got the calling card reference when Gordon hands it over at the end of the movie, but did you spot that the officer identified as having recovered the card was one ‘J Kerr’. That’s some subtle wordplay going on there.

Furthermore, according to TechTimes article, “5 Ways ‘Batman Begins’ Changed Hollywood Forever“:

When Batman Begins hit theaters on June 15, 2005, we may not have known it then, but this film would go on to become one of the most influential in early 21st century cinema. If the American movie industry is basically superhero films and reboots, which, for the most part it is, then we have Batman Begins to partially thank for that.

Batman Begins received generally positive reviews with critic after critic pointing out how unique the film was compared with the Batman and other superhero films that came before it. However, it took some time for moviegoers to see the potential in Batman Begins. The movie grossed more than $15 million at the box office during its first day in theaters, which wasn’t disappointing, but it didn’t break any records either. The film would go on to gross more than $374 million worldwide, which pales in comparison to what the Spider-Man films that came before it and subsequent superhero movies earned. In fact, Begins earned only a hair more than the maligned Batman Forever, and when adjusted for inflation, it probably actually trails the Val Kilmer snoozefest.

In fact, the Nolan Batman films didn’t really pick up steam until the release of the second film in the franchise, The Dark Knight, in 2008, which was largely due to Heath Ledger’s exceptionally chilling performance as the Joker and his untimely death six months before the movie opened. That along with the shootings in Aurora, Colo. upon the release of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 have contributed to Batman Begins having a much lower profile in history compared with the other films in the franchise.

However, we see the influence of Batman Begins everywhere today. From what movies get made to how they’re made, Hollywood has followed the lead of Batman Begins in a big way over the past decade. Here are five ways Hollywood just wouldn’t be the same today without Batman Begins.

1. It Elevated Superhero Movies as an Art Form

Sure, superhero movies have always been beloved just as superheroes have. However, they hadn’t really been considered these great works of art worthy of Academy Award recognition until Batman Begins came along. The critical success of Batman Begins helped bring in the explosion of superhero movies a few years later, which we are still in the midst of today.

Batman Begins totally revolutionized the way a movie could tell a superhero’s origin story. The earlier moments of the film are told in a much less linear fashion than other superhero movies, moving from Bruce’s present in an Asian prison to the past of his childhood to the recent past of returning to Gotham after a stint at college within the first quarter of the film or so.

In that regard, Batman Begins took its title quite literally. The whole film is basically an origin story showing us how Bruce Wayne came to be the Caped Crusader we know and love. We don’t even get to see Bruce do his thing as Batman until about an hour into the film. Even more importantly than that, Batman Begins showed us that a freak accident or the death of a loved one don’t have to be the only catalysts for a hero’s birth. Yes,Batman Begins shows us the trauma the death of Bruce’s parents brought to his life. However, the Batman persona was really born out of Bruce’s fears and a desire to conquer them, which is a running theme throughout the movie. Batman Begins showed us that superhero movies don’t just have to be about costumes, fight scenes and special effects. There can be a deep psychological element to them as well.

2. It Made Everything Darker

Before Batman Begins, superhero movies were flashy action-adventure romps that were generally seen as light-hearted fare. However, Nolan took Batman Begins into darker territory, rooting Batman’s world in more reality, and a bleak one at that, with brutalist set design and muted, low-contrast cinematography.

Of course, Batman Begins wasn’t the only film around that time to help bring a more melancholy vision of comic books to the big screen. Frank Miller’s Sin City released that same year and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta the following year helped usher in a darker, more brooding and more cynical view of the world on film.

However, Nolan’s style has most often been cited by future filmmakers tackling other big-budget films, and not just superhero ones either. In fact, movies such as X-Men: First Class, Casino Royale and Terminator Genisys have all taken inspiration from Batman Begins. The upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder, even looks like it’s going to try to capture the same essence as the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan set a new standard for what a Hollywood blockbuster can be today to the point where every franchise reboot is expected to have the same level of grittiness and complexity as Batman Begins.

3. It Rebooted the Reboot Craze

Batman Begins wasn’t the first movie reboot, but it was one of the earliest to get really big, serving as inspiration for movie studios to churn out the countless reboots we see hit the silver screen these days. Batman Begins struck the perfect balance between keeping the flavor of Batman’s legacy while still having enough of its own unique style to stand completely on its own. Few franchise reboots since have been able to capture the same level of quality and prestige as the Dark Knight trilogy, but they’ll sure continue to try in the foreseeable future.

4. It Revived the Character of Batman

Batman Begins was hardly Batman’s first appearance on the big screen, although we’ve been trying to forget about 1989’s Batman, 1992’s Batman Returns, 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin ever since they premiered. Tim Burton’s Batman was probably the most successful out of this quartet, but they all have that element of camp of the iconic 1960s Batman television series, which, by the time Batman & Robin came out, made the superhero just seem like a joke.

With a film universally deplored by fans as Batman & Robin was, you might think no studio would want to risk making a movie about the Dark Knight ever again. However, Warner Bros. bet on the right director and star with Batman Begins. Nolan’s verismo and morose style coupled with Christian Bale’s nuanced performance as a more troubled and vulnerable superhero breathed new life into Batman and redeemed the character after those cinematic missteps. Batman Begins showed us a Batman completely different from what we had ever seen before, making us fall in love with him onscreen all over again.

5. It Put Christopher Nolan on the Map

Before Batman Begins, Nolan was a respected filmmaker, having written and directed 2000’s Memento, but he was nothing like the auteur and box office juggernaut that he is today. Batman Begins gave Nolan an outlet to showcase his talent and distinct point of view, providing a launchpad for a career that would later give us The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar, in addition to the final two movies in the Dark Knight trilogy. Batman Begins put Nolan on the world’s radar, and we’ve been curious to see what he will think of next ever since.

Finally, according to CinemaBlend‘s article, “Batman Begins Ended With A Specific Image For This Reason”:

It’s been over 10 years since the release of Batman Begins, though to some of you it may just feel like yesterday that Christian Bale was donning the cape and cowl and erasing the stain of Batman & Robin from our minds. The film not only gave a fresh start to Gotham City’s Dark Knight on the big screen, but also popularized the idea of reboots. As with any making of any film, a lot of time went into making Batman Begins a unique product both in front of the camera and in post-production, including one decision that might not seem like a big deal at first glance: placing the title card at the end of the move rather than the beginning.

Director Christopher Nolan explained to Forbes that the film’s title was deliberately dropped after the movie finished so that people would realize that correlation to the journey that Bruce Wayne has just begun. As Nolan put it:

Well, the intent behind putting the title card of Batman Begins after the last shot of the film was very much to draw attention to the meaning of the title, to really give the audience that thrill that Batman has started, he’s been created and the origin story is over, and now he’s fully formed. And that felt very important to do.

Nolan would continue to place the title card at the end for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. As the article pointed out, the director frequently draws attention to the titles of his films in the endings. like Guy Pearce’s Leonard leaving himself a memento to jog his memory in 2000’s Memento and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb possibly pulling off an inception on himself (a.k.a. still being in a dream) in 2010’s Inception. Nolan stated the reason for doing this is so that the main themes and ideas of these stories are “crystallized.”

Before the title card flashed across the screen, the final minutes of Batman Beginsshowed a meeting between the Gotham City vigilante and newly-promoted Lieutenant James Gordon after they stopped Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to poison the city. Batman’s presence has led to “bent cops running scared and hope on the streets,” but as Gordon points out, there is still the threat of escalation from on the streets. Case in point, Gordon pulls out the calling card of a new theatrical criminal causing chaos, teasing The Joker for The Dark Knight. After sharing a few more words, Batman jumps off the the GCPD building and glides away. Cut to black for a few seconds, and then bam! Batman Begins. Cue credits.

Although Christopher Nolan didn’t direct 2013’s Man of Steel, it’s worth pointing out that the Superman reboot, which he produced, also featured the title card at the end. Batman is getting a fresh start next year being played by Ben Affleck in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but since Nolan isn’t producing it, it’s uncertain whether Warner Bros will keep his tradition alive for future DC films.

According to The Los Angeles Times review:

Batman has finally come home. Not just to a story that painstakingly details his origins but to an ominous style that suits it beautifully.

Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” disdains the mindless camp and compulsive weirdness that mostly characterized its quartet of predecessors and unapologetically positions its hero at the dark end of the street. With Christian Bale in the title role, this is a film noir Batman, a brooding, disturbing piece of work that starts slowly but ends up crafting a world that just might haunt your dreams.

In doing this, Nolan, who co-wrote with comic book specialist David S. Goyer, has in effect brought the franchise back to its modern origins. That would be the appearance in 1986, three years before the first Tim Burton film, of Frank Miller’s somber and ominous graphic novel “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” which repositioned Bob Kane’s 1939 Caped Crusader as a contemporary figure of almost existential torment.

Nolan’s intention with “Batman Begins,” however, is to go beyond this and create a myth grounded, as much as myth can be, in plain reality. He wants his story to be as plausible as possible, a human drama set in a believable world that looks like one we could live in but prefer not to. A film that underlines the notion that Batman is that unlikely comic-book hero who does without super powers, someone, the director has said, who “really is just a guy that does a lot of push-ups.” A heck of a lot of push-ups.

Nolan was a shrewd choice to revive a franchise that has gone eight years without a film. One of the qualities shared by his exceptional but otherwise diverse trio of previous films (“Following,” “Memento,” “Insomnia”) is how skillfully they are put together on a craft level. This “Batman” is a carefully thought out and consummately well-made piece of work, a serious comic-book adaptation that is driven by story, psychology and reality, not special effects.

In fact, with Wally Pfister (who shot Nolan’s last two films) as cinematographer, “Batman Begins” tries, despite using multiple special-effects houses, to avoid computer-generated imagery when it can. The film relies instead on shooting in real locations (from the streets of Chicago to a glacier in Vatnajokull, Iceland) and extensive use of miniatures, albeit some whose 35-feet height was made possible by constructing the sets in an enormous former blimp hangar with ceilings that rise to 200 feet. Nolan also did without a second unit, preferring the tonal unity he felt would come from directing everything himself.

Though his name might not have initially been on everyone’s lips, Christian Bale turns out to be an excellent fit for Nolan’s conception of the Dark Knight. And though he gained back the 63 pounds he lost for “The Machinist” and added an extra 20 for good measure, there is a leanness, a sense of purpose about his performance.

Always a humorless, almost sullen actor, Bale uses those qualities to create a painfully earnest character driven to a life of crime-fighting almost against his will. Bale even employed the physically uncomfortable Batsuit to his advantage: “I used the pain,” he has said, “as fuel for the character’s anger.”

Though Batman’s alter ego remains wealthy socialite Bruce Wayne, being the Dark Knight is not a rich man’s whim. “Batman Begins” shows us in great detail how Wayne became phobic about bats as a small boy, saw that phobia contribute to his parents’ untimely death and, driven by despair, ended up fighting the world in a prison in Bhutan.

It’s there that Wayne meets the shadowy Ducard (Liam Neeson), the emissary of Ra’s al Ghul and the sinister League of Shadows, a group fanatically dedicated to the stamping out of evil. They offer to make him one of their own, and in the group’s Himalayan redoubt Wayne learns more than ninja fighting techniques and methods of psychological warfare. He learns that embracing his own fear, specifically that old phobia toward bats, will be the key to his transformation.

If this scenario sounds a bit standard, it is in fact the least involving part of the film, for “Batman Begins” does not immediately kick into its highest gear. Though the early days of a hero have an intrinsic interest, especially when they are as thought out as they are here, this backstory has a tendency to feel too pulp-fiction familiar to completely enthrall.

Also a problem, and one that recurs sporadically through the film, is that not all of “Batman’s” actors have equal facility with the admittedly difficult assignment of being both comic-book archetypes and real people. Bale, who seems to feel this role in his bones, handles it with aplomb, but both Neeson and Katie Holmes, who appears later as a putative romantic interest, never seem to be sure which side of the coin to favor at any given moment.

Once Wayne returns to Gotham and sets his mind on being Batman, the noir possibilities of a black-caped avenger and a city at night help things immeasurably. Not only does production designer Nathan Crowley’s “Blade Runner”-influenced look suit the film, but the specifics of Batman lore — the cave, the car, the suit, the swooping late-night flights — benefit from that dark treatment as well.

The Gotham scenario also showcases the best of “Batman’s” supporting cast. On the side of light, both Michael Caine as Wayne family retainer, Alfred Pennyworth, and Morgan Freeman as the film’s version of James Bond’s armorer Q make this kind of acting look easier than it is.

On the side of darkness, Cillian Murphy, last seen in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” is terrifically chilling as the evil Dr. Jonathan Crane and his alter ego, the Scarecrow, who can turn a simple burlap sack into an object of total dread.

The most encouraging thing about “Batman Begins” is how individual director/co-writer Nolan has managed to make an $180-million epic. Director of photography Pfister, interviewed in American Cinematographer magazine, offered an explanation.

“One of the reasons Chris likes me to operate [the camera] is that it shrinks down the whole process for him,” Pfister says. “We could be sitting on the set with 150 people and huge setups, but when the camera rolls, it’s just Chris sitting next to me with a little monitor, and the actors right there in front of us. His entire universe is in that 12-foot area, which brings the process down to a more personal level.” Bringing an auteur sensibility to blockbuster material may sound next door to impossible, but “Batman Begins” shows it can be done. If you’re willing to do the push-ups.

 

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2 thoughts on “On Batman Begins

  1. Pingback: On Batman: The Dark Knight | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Batman: The Dark Knight Rises | The Progressive Democrat

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