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In-depth Analysis of BATMAN BEGINS
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Author:
Cary Ashby

It's safe to say audiences loved "Batman Begins." The question remains: just how good is the movie? Where does it stand in the grand scheme of other Caped Crusader Hollywood projects and super hero films?

I propose these questions in the context of the previous movie franchise directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Batman fans also have to consider such high-quality super hero flicks starring Spider-Man and the X-Men along with the first two Superman movies, easily considered the best of the lot.

First of all, let's get the easiest definable context - what the film is and isn't.

"Begins" is simply the fifth Batman movie in 16 years. It is not affiliated with the previous movies directed by Burton and Schumacher. It is not a prequel. "Batman Begins" is its own movie, that (hopefully) will start a new franchise. All these things are virtually ignored by film and pop culture critics who have reviewed it. A classic case of lazy journalism.

Now that that's straight, let's see how "Begins" stacks up against: the comics, other super hero flicks, the various Batman animated projects, the Burton-Schumacher films and Christian Bale's performance versus other Batman actors.

Comic book connections, relationships

Fans would argue that "Batman Begins" is the real deal with close ties to the Dark Knight's comic book adventures, especially the works of writers Dennis O'Neil, Chuck Dixon and Frank Miller, to name a few. Visually, the Caped Crusader and his universe look similar to the art of Miller, Jim Lee, Graham Nolan, Dick Giordano, Neal Adams and Jim Aparo.

Like the comics and animated series, relationships are important in the movie's storyline. Although Batman is considered a loner, relationships with Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox and Jim Gordon help him be a better crimefighter and arguably, a better all-around person. These relationships weren't explored to much depth in the Burton-Schumacher franchise.

Nolan explores them in depth in "Begins." We'll use family butler Alfred Pennyworth as an example of Nolan "getting it" on film.

Alfred takes pride in the Wayne family legacy and cares deeply for Bruce himself. Both Michael Gough and Sir Michael Caine are lovable in their roles, but Caine adds a sense of dignity to the role of Alfred, essential to the comic creation. Caine's Alfred also seems to be a true part of Bruce's life and serves as the foster father he needs. Gough's Alfred is witty, but his main role seemed to be to dispense unneeded romantic advice.

There are some subtle differences with the comics. Those differences, however, don't take away from the power of the film or its storyline.

The "Batman Begins" Batmobile has no bat symbol or fins, which is a lament of many fans - including this one. The movie version of Jonathan Crane is strictly associated with Arkham Asylum and does mental evaluations for defendants in court. In the comics, Crane does fear experiments on his college students before becoming The Scarecrow.

My biggest gripe is that Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer didn't find a way to use Talia, Ra's al Ghul's daughter. She is arguably the unrequited love of Bruce Wayne's life. She is a HUGE part of his love life.

The tension of Batman's desire to bring down Ra's al Ghul and Talia's devotion to both men could have been an amazing part of "Begins." When Wayne discovers Ra's al Ghul's plot to destroy Gotham City would have brought that to a head. I can't begin to imagine where Nolan and Goyer could have taken the movie.

Unfortunately, Talia's existence was ignored and Ken Watanabe as Ra's al Ghul has the equivalent of an extended cameo.

Assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes is a movie creation, but she plays an important role (pardon the pun) in Bruce Wayne's life. She forces him to take a hard look at Gotham City, seeing how corrupt it is and how hope has faltered since his parents were murdered. This experience not only teaches Bruce that guns aren't the answer, but that Gotham's residents need a symbol for hope.

Batman in the comics has always opposed the use of guns. And there's no doubt Batman considers Gotham his city.

Wayne/Batman in "Begins" is a man who cares - for people and his city. That fits perfectly with the comic book character.

The verdict? Nolan nails the spirit of the Batman comic books.

"Begins" and other super hero flicks

"Batman Begins," like "Superman: The Movie," is an origin story. I imagine the relationship between "Begins" and Nolan's sequel might be similar to the Superman movies; the first one received critical acclaim and left us wanting more movies about the DC Comics legend. Come to find out, the sequel managed to blow the original out of the water.

We Batman fans will hope that theory comes to pass. Unlike the Burton-Schumacher films and the last two Superman movies, fans can hope that the quality this newest crop of Batman movies remains high.

Both "Begins" and "Daredevil" use the work of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller as a jumping-off point. "Daredevil" essentially is the screenplay version of the classic story of "Daredevil" No. 181. It also focuses on Miller's stories about Elektra, the Kingpin and Bullseye prior to that monumental issue.

Nolan's film is based loosely on the "Batman: Year One" storyline Miller penned in "Batman" Nos. 404-407, the "Shaman" storyline in "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" Nos. 1-5 and "The Untold Legend of the Batman" mini-series. In fact, the scene in "Begins" when Batman calls the horde of bats to Arkham Asylum is based on a scene in "Year One" when bats mask an injured Batman's escape from an abandoned building surrounded by Gotham's Finest.

"Batman Begins," however, has more of a direct connection with more recent comic book blockbusters. Whether it was intentional or not, Nolan borrowed heavily from the ways those films told their stories.

"Begins" focuses heavily on character development. Some might say to the point of neglecting the "action" portion of the action-adventure genre - at least in the first part of the story.

But consider "Spider-Man" and Ang Lee's "Hulk." Both films develop their main characters (through their careers, relationships with other characters, their thought processes, etc.) before the audience ever sees Peter Parker or Bruce Banner do their thing as Spider-Man and the Hulk.

The payoff is huge. Delaying the inevitable - revealing the hero in all his glory - is almost a cinematic cliche, but it works in "Batman Begins," "Spider-Man" and "Hulk." Our anticipation is palatable. We the audience go ballistic when we finally see "The Moment" - our hero on the big screen.

Screenwriter David Goyer also borrowed "a few pages" from Bryan Singer's X-Men movies and even the "Star Wars" saga. Each of them share a vision for an overall story.

Goyer plans on making "Begins" and the sequels essentially one long story. Maybe it's more accurate to say Goyer plans on writing events in one story that carry over into the subsequent film. (That's yet another similarity to the Spider-Man and X-Men movies.)

He was quoted in November that the second film will introduce district attorney Harvey Dent while Batman and Gordon battle The Joker. That sets up Two-Face in movie number three.

So far, so good. The conclusion of "Batman Begins" segues perfectly into Goyer's vision for the sequel.

"X-Men" and "X2: X-Men United" also are tied together. Having watched both back-to-back recently, the continuity hit me like a freight train. There are two obvious storyline themes there: the challenging of living with mutants and Wolverine's quest to discover who he is.

Include Wolverine's antagonism with Cyclops and both men's love for Jean Grey along with some seemingly random, throw-away quotes that foreshadow future events and you've got two movies that flow like one story. Goyer and Nolan appear ready to use that same formula.

Batman animated projects

Since the animated series use the comic books as their foundation and vision - and "Begins" does the comics justice in spades - this is a fairly easy context. However, there are a few things worthy of mentioning.

Christian Bale uses Kevin Conroy's vocal technique of doing two distinct voices for Bruce Wayne and Batman. Critics and fans alike have praised Conroy for consistently nailing the Batman character. Bale uses a version of both Conroy's and Michael Keaton's "Batman voice" that's even huskier and grittier - making the Dark Knight just plain scarier.

Again, we see the importance of relationships in the animated series and movies. Audiences don't see how Batman relates to his "supporting cast" of other Gotham City heroes since "Begins" focuses on the Dark Knight as a solo hero. As a result, we don't have any reference for the chemistry Nolan's and Bale's Batman might have with characters such as Robin or Batgirl.

One might speculate that Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer will continue to make relationships an important element in the new Batman movies.

Let's go back to Harvey Dent, who is rumored to be introduced in the next film. Nurturing the importance of Bruce's friendship with Dent (as reflected in both the comics and animated projects) would make Dent becoming Two-Face in the third film that much more poignant.

An aside: "Batman: The Animated Series" started about the time of "Batman Returns" during the highly acclaimed Burton movies. However, the series and its offshoots became successful on their own by relying on what's been established in the comics. Until "Batman Begins," fans and critics said the animated projects were the only recent medium in which Hollywood got Batman, et. al right.

Are we sensing a pattern here?

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Previous live-action movies

In order to put "Begins" into the best context here, short reviews and comparisons of each film are necessary. I will highlight specific cast members, when appropriate, and discuss "Batman Returns" and "Batman & Robin" together.

"Batman" (1989) - Visually stunning, Burton's vision brings a literal and figurative darkness to Batman and the streets of Gotham City. The audience is introduced to Batman within the first few minutes of the film, however Jack Nicholson perfectly cast as The Joker steals the show in character development, screen time and onscreen charisma.

As a result, either directly or from the natural flow of making the remaining films, Burton sets the precedent of having the villains outshine Batman. A definite no-no in a film with the Caped Crusader as "the star." Unfortunately, Batman never gets to shine in any of the four films, which is not an issue in "Batman Begins."

Burton did stay true to The Joker's comic book origins. However, he took too many liberties with 50 years (at that point) of Batman's history by ignoring his relationship with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and creating a movie tie-in to the murders of Bruce Wayne's parents. The biggest sin of all is the deaths of Batman's arch enemy and several henchman - something the comic book Dark Knight's code of honor would never allow.

The double shootings of the Waynes are very late in the movie. It gives the feeling of being an after-thought. The storyline moves along well enough and Burton could have decided to never use the flashback sequence. Besides, Batman has enough motivation to stop The Joker - he's a homicidal maniac.

Nolan "corrected" all this by developing the Gordon-Batman working relationship and using Joe Chill, just as in the comics, as Thomas and Martha Wayne's murderer. The nicest touch is Gordon, at the conclusion of the film, expresses concern about how crime might escalate with Batman in the picture.

Chill, unlike the comics, has deep ties to each of the villains in "Begins." However, that directing decision is used to symbolize how corrupt life in Gotham City is. Ultimately, it works within the context of the film. Having Jack Napier (who later becomes The Joker) be the shooter in "Batman" feels forced.

"Batman Forever" (1995) - Three films into the original franchise, Val Kilmer finally brings both a physical and tortured presence to Wayne/Batman. Joel Schumacher's vision of Gotham emphasizes big sets and over-the-top buildings with random splashes of neon lights.

Audiences see the stubborn side of Wayne when he takes the orphaned Dick Grayson under his wing, but forces Grayson to fight crime < and come to grips with his family's murders - on Wayne's terms. That tension in the Dynamic Duo carries over into and explodes in "Batman & Robin."

"Batman Returns" (1992), "Batman & Robin" (1997) - Two words perfectly summarize the problems here: too many villains.

Note that "Batman Begins" has at least three villains, but arguably that works within the context of the story.

Joe Chill and the Scarecrow are simply pawns in the grand scheme of corruption created by Ra's al Ghul and The League of Shadows. Keep in mind that Chill, in a 1940s origin story, has ties to a crime boss, so Nolan's film doesn't stray far from "the comic book truth."

"Returns" and "B&R" committed fatal flaws found in each of the last three movies. The directors picked random villains and then searched for big-name stars to play them. Sadly, the story and integrity of comic book history always took a backseat.

Michelle Pfieffer and Uma Thurman have a lot of fun with their respective roles of Catwoman and Poison Ivy. They are the high points in these two stinkers. It's the treatment and/or casting of the other villains that is disastrous.

Danny DeVito could have been a wonderful Penguin, but Burton's vision of a perverted, sickly Oswald Cobblepot was too different to be effective. He was downright gross and repulsive, with few redeeming qualities. The comic book and animated version is a dapper, civilized man of class, infamous for being a criminal mastermind. None of that was taken into consideration in "Returns."

Ultimately, "Batman Returns" is too dark and oppressive to be a good film. It's every bit as bad as "Batman & Robin," but for different reasons.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in "B&R" is cheesy and over the top. I firmly believe Schumacher cast him to "take advantage" of "Ah-nuld" doing painful puns, as he did in previous action flicks. It just doesn't work here; it's distracting.

Most every critic blames George Clooney for how poor "B&R" is. I blame Schwarzenegger's casting and a thinly conceived script featuring too many characters. Again, a bad case of lazy journalism.

Nolan took great care in making his casting choices for "Begins." Liam Neeson, as Henri Ducard, for example, is perfectly suited to play Bruce Wayne's ninja mentor. His onscreen presence exudes the inner peace balanced with a controlled viciousness necessary for the role.

The director seems to have chosen actors to play villains who would treat their roles with expect and would take them seriously. They weren't chosen because they are big box office draws, unlike the Burton-Schumacher franchise. In fact, the biggest names in the "Begins" cast have minor, but important roles: Sir Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox.

Ironically, some big parts went to relative unknowns (Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow). And in the case of Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, Nolan chose veteran actors well known for being chameleons, who disappear into each role they take.

The only connection I can make with the 1940s movie serials is that the cinematography of "Begins" is based in reality. And the 1966-1968 "Batman" TV series? Let's just say it will be remembered for making fun of anything Batman-related as much as Nolan uses "Batman Begins" to start taking onscreen stories about the Dark Knight seriously.

OK, so what? Nolan and Goyer emphasize storyline and fine acting over the power of big names. "Batman Begins" emphasizes how Nolan and Goyer want to present and treat the Caped Crusader, his supporting characters and the Gotham City universe. Nolan and Goyer made choices onscreen and off that show an enormous amount of respect for Bob Kane's creation.

To be kind, Burton and Schumacher's decisions seem random, disjointed and purely based on their own whims of what they want to bring to Batman. They forced their interpretations onto the comics characters in each film, instead of letting those stories inform their interpretations.

The winner? "Batman Begins" in a blow-out.

Christian Bale vs. Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne

The debate is on: who is the best Batman, Keaton or Bale?

First, Michael Keaton, who became the poster boy for super hero miscasting in the late 1980s.

Keaton didn't match the Caped Crusader's physique at all. Significantly less than 6 feet tall, he had to wear lifts in his boots and depended on camera angles to give the appearance of being taller than his castmates. Keaton wore a muscle-toned "armor" as Batman.

But Burton defended his choice to the media. He chose Keaton exactly because he didn't fit the "super hero type." Burton supported Keaton because he liked the "Everyman" feel of having Keaton behind the cowl.

Keaton's interpretation of the Dark Knight is undeniably groundbreaking. He never flinches as Batman, bringing a focus and crazed edginess to a man inspired to fight crime dressed as a bat.

Many fans and critics swear by Keaton's performance. They firmly believe all other actors need to use Keaton as the measurement for doing the Caped Crusader properly.

Others, such as yours truly [Me too - Jett], look back on Keaton as an example of "it was great for the time, but it could have been so much better." We can't help think of the actor as the man who was once Mr. Mom. There's usually no middle ground.

Bale, on the other hand, is simply a cape and cowl above Keaton and the rest - and not just for novelty's sake. Seeing Bruce Wayne train to become the greatest street fighter ever gives the audience a big treat when they finally see him in the Batsuit about one hour into the film.

We know Bale's Bruce Wayne is physically matched to be Batman when we see his ripped muscles after Wayne gets out of bed after his first night as Batman.

Bale's interview with MTV before "Begins" was released June 15 reveals how much Bale takes both characters seriously.

"I want the Batman persona not just to be Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit," Bale said. He added that he wanted Batman "to become a creature...that can channel his rage and his grief and his anger, so that as Bruce Wayne, he is able to function in life without being absolutely psychotic."

It's no surprise fans weren't wild about Keaton being an undersized Batman. His Bruce Wayne is especially problematic, which influences his role as Batman.

Keaton as Bruce Wayne is where he falls short, literally and figuratively. In "Returns," Keaton's acting symbolizes his indecisiveness in how to handle the role in both movies.

Is Wayne a clueless goofball (his scenes with Pfieffer as Selina Kyle)? Is he the devoted detective who doesn't trust the Penguin's dream to be reunited with his birth parents? Maybe the business man who isn't afraid to stand up against the corporate tough guy played by Christopher Walken? Or is the millionaire a facade for the vigilante ready to respond to the Batsignal at the beginning of the film?

There's no doubt Keaton has the upper hand in bringing a brooding element to Bruce Wayne. Bale has the advantage in being a physical, athletic Batman - and is the whole package. Bale's Bruce Wayne is caring, debonair, charming, aloof, involved and charismatic - virtually every characterization of the multimillionaire playboy in the comic books.

In short, Bale's portrayal of both the Dark Knight and his alter ego resonates with the last six decades of comic books.

Bale's Batman is more accurate than previous onscreen variations by, ironically, combining elements of Keaton ("Batman," "Batman Returns"), Kilmer ("Batman Forever") and Clooney ("Batman & Robin"). Bale as Batman is a pumped-up version of Keaton's somber, focused Caped Crusader; as physical as Kilmer's while being as compassionate - when necessary - as Clooney's.

Bruce Wayne, in "Batman Begins," is pained by his parents' deaths, to the point that he dedicates his very being and financial resources to becoming the greatest super hero the world has ever known. Batman, a frightening creature of the night, is obsessed with his personal war on crime - a crusade created so that no one other Gotham City resident will experience what Wayne did as a child.

That's what Batman is. That's what we see in "Batman Begins." That characterization is simply not there on a consistent basis in Burton's and Schumacher's films.

My conclusion As if you couldn't tell earlier, "Batman Begins" is, without a doubt, one spectacular film. It's got everything to make all types of fans (the casual, die-hard, well-versed, picky, etc.) happy. Maybe I'm overstating it, but we comic book fans got what we've always wanted: a Batman film done right.

Chris Nolan has learned from the successes and shortcomings of previous directors in the super hero genre. "Begins" manages to entertain both the comic book geeks and the John and Jane Does. He does all this without jeopardizing creative integrity.

Most importantly, Nolan and Goyer treat Batman and all the related characters with respect and integrity.

If they decide this is all, so be it. "Batman Begins" is a one-hit wonder that will become a cinematic classic.

I hope that's not the case. With two insightful, creative minds like Nolan and Goyer at the helm, the possibilities for fantastic storytelling are limitless.

Cary Ashby writes a twice-monthly comic book column for the "Norwalk Reflector." He is also the newspaper’s crime and education reporter. Cary has an extensive collection of Batman comics and has been an avid fan for nearly 30 years. He can be reached via e-mail at ashby@goreflector.com.

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