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Batman Begins

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 12/19/05 02:00:11

"Steps on its own cape."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The knock on the Joel Schumacher Batman films was that because they were so campy and goofy, they ruined the image of a character who sprung from a darker genesis. Christopher Nolanís Batman Begins was supposed to be the film that set the property back on track, but a funny thing happened Ė Nolan ended up making a film so clumsy itís impossible to take seriously.

Batman Begins certainly wants to be darker and more serious than the films that preceded it. It opens with the origins of the character, as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embarks on a soul-searching journey around the world that culminates at a mountaintop sanctuary housing a ninja training school run by the League of Shadows. After refusing to help the League destroy Gotham (they believe it is too decadent), Bruce returns home and uses the skills he has learned to wage his own war on the criminal underworld.

Batman Begins does an okay job of getting into the psyche of Bruce Wayne, probably more so than any previous Batman film, but itís hardly a deep psychological study. Bruce has fears and he successfully conquers them while using their power to transform himself into what criminals will fear. Itís a perfectly reasonable device, but it only goes so far.

Ultimately, the filmís reliance on remaining true to the source material and its spirit may be its undoing. In the first Batman movie, the man responsible for the death of Bruce Wayneís parents was the Joker, presumably because it made for a better climax to the film. However, in the comics Ė and thus in Batman Begins Ė the murderer was a relatively anonymous thug with the moniker Joe Chill. Joe Chill? Are we really being serious here? Only a comic book writer could think this constituted a legitimate-sounding name for a character.

Thatís a fairly minor gripe, however, compared to the real problems in the film. The most distracting of these problems is the dialogue, which throughout is both frighteningly stiff and, at times, so expository it borders on insulting. The comic book as a medium uses static images to tell stories, meaning it does not have the luxury of much narrative text as books do, nor can it quickly reveal information through moving images the way film can. As a result, the dialogue often needs to be somewhat stilted so that it can get its point across as quickly as possible. Nolan and David S. Goyer werenít making a comic book, but they donít seem to have realized it while writing the screenplay. The film is full of stiff, didactic dialogue, one-liners that probably sounded better on paper, and sometimes whole scenes of awkward exposition.

But it isnít just where the film resembles a comic book that it struggles. A common part of the Batman mythos features Bruce Wayne as a genius who designs his own gadgets; here, he is basically given the equivalent of James Bondís Q in Lucius Fox (a largely wasted Morgan Freeman), who has conveniently been inventing various devices for Wayne Enterprises that the company hasnít sold but which prove useful to Batman. To call this overly convenient and just plain silly is not underselling it.

Then thereís Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), playing the role of Mary Jane Watson. Her part might not have been so bad if sheíd just been an old friend of Bruceís, but the attempt to force a romance angle into the story just doesnít work; there isnít time to develop it and the denouement is pointless as a result. Holmes is also saddled with many of the filmís worst lines Ė but then, everyone gets their fair share.

The villains are okay, between Raís Al Ghul, the Scarecrow, and the generic mob element, but their existence within the plot falls apart under scrutiny. Why would Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), a tremendously powerful mob boss, team up with the Scarecrow? They want fundamentally opposite things. Is Falcone really that desperate to have a few henchmen declared insane when he already controls much of the bureaucracy? I donít buy it. And if the Scarecrow is already the inside man for the League of Shadows, what purpose were they hoping Bruce would serve?

Batman Begins is easily better than Joel Schumacherís Batman films on tone alone, but it succumbs to too many action movie staples to pull the franchise completely out of the doldrums. One-liners like Gary Oldmanís ďI have got to get me one of thoseĒ upon seeing the Batmobile really arenít funny, and they donít lend any respectability to the tone Nolan thinks heís establishing in the rest of the piece. Maybe the problem is just the universe. For as dark as Batmanís origins in the 1940s may have been, the established ďRogues GalleryĒ for the series has always been a bit campy; that rears its head here with the Scarecrow, who can be genuinely creepy at times but has far too many canned jokes (for example, saying ďLighten upĒ before setting Batman on fire). He is also not nearly threatening enough of a villain; Batman struggles with him once, then returns to the magical Mr. Fox to get an antidote for the hallucinogenic gas the Scarecrow sprays and doesnít have to worry about being affected thereafter. Since thatís the only weapon the Scarecrow hasÖ well, itís not much of a fight, is it, especially when Batman hands out the antidote to all his friends? Even the Riddler posed more of a threat to Batman than this.

It may not be awful as a marginal entertainment, but Batman Begins sure seems to want us to take it seriously, and itís not very good at being serious. Campy and awkward even as it aspires to sober and profound, the film never finds enough depth to give itself the chops it wants to have, nor is the dialogue good enough to match the attempted tone. Perhaps the effort will eventually get the Batman franchise moving in the right direction, but for all the promise of the first step, Batman Begins doesnít move it nearly far enough.

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