BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

Sunday, June 19, 2005
Mark S. Reinhart

Copyright © 2005 by Mark S. Reinhart

While researching and writing my book THE BATMAN FILMOGRAPHY: Live-action Features, 1943 - 1997, I watched each live-action Batman motion picture made between 1943 and 1997 repeatedly. And I really do mean “repeatedly.” I spent hour after hour poring over every little detail of the character’s live-action cinematic adventures. I studied his low-budget serials, his campy 1960’s movie romp, and his series of Warner Brothers “summer blockbuster” action films to the point where all of these movies were indelibly burned into my memory.

Most all of them contained at least a few moments that I really liked, moments that to me gave a glimpse of the comic character that I had been a fan of since childhood. But sitting through an entire Batman film just to enjoy a moment or two was by no means a satisfying fan experience – when was a filmmaker finally going to make a live-action Batman movie that contained more than just “moments?” Like most longtime Batman fans, I longed for a Batman live-action film that would stay true to the time-honored traditions of the character from fade in to fade out, one that would capture the spirit of Batman’s best comic book adventures.

I am thrilled to report that Warner’s restart of their Batman franchise, Batman Begins, is the Batman film I have been waiting for for so long. First and foremost, the movie is truly about what a Batman film should be – namely, Batman himself. The 1960’s screen Batman and the previous Warner Bat films Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman and Robin (1997) were all more interested in the gaudily costumed villains they featured than they were in their title character. Batman Begins places Bruce Wayne’s quest for justice and his decision to transform himself into Batman squarely at the center of the film’s plot.

And not only is Batman Begins the first modern Batman live-action film to truly be about Batman, it also is the first to cast an actor in the role that truly measures up to the Batman of the comic books. In my opinion, Christian Bale makes the perfect Bruce Wayne/Batman. He is the right height, the right build, and most importantly, he brings an psychological intensity to the role that no previous actor has even come close to matching. Simply put, Bale IS Batman to me in Batman Begins, not just an emotionally and physically underwhelming actor who is unsuccessfully trying to let the cape and cowl do most of the acting for him. If it sounds like I am being a little rough on Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney, I apologize – but the fact remains that Bale makes their turns as Batman look very hollow indeed.

Bale’s almost all black, armored Batman costume is equally as impressive as his acting. It is perhaps more similar to the Batman costumes used in Warner’s previous Bat films than one might have expected in a franchise restart, but it looks great on film. The costume’s cape is noticeably darker than its cowl and bodysuit – this color variation adds some visual interest to the costume as a whole. My favorite costume scenes in Begins were those that were lighted in bluish tones, making the costume appear blue/black in color like Batman’s traditional comic book costume.

What incredible material writer/director Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer have given Bale to work with, both in and out of the Batman costume! Batman Begins is by turns savage, sensitive, tragic, and funny, and it never loses sight of the fact that Batman’s real strength as a character lies in his close ties to reality. As I wrote in The Batman Filmography, one of the things that has made Batman such an enduring character is that he is a regular human being that could theoretically exist in real life. Batman Begins understands this concept more than any other Batman film ever produced – everything about it, its dialogue, its action sequences, its costuming, its set design, captures a feeling of reality that no other Batman live-action film has ever captured.

Batman Begins’s supporting cast is absurdly good. Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane all give performances that are every bit as strong as Bale’s. Caine’s and Oldman’s are particularly rewarding – Alfred and Gordon are such an integral part of the Batman mythos that seeing them brought to life in such stellar fashion is almost as exciting as watching Bale’s Batman.

And of course, every Batman film needs a “non-human” supporting cast – Batman Begins features all-new interpretations of the Batmobile, the Batcave, the Bat Signal and Gotham City. The Batmobile is definitely the standout of this bunch – it has been brilliantly re-imagined as an military-style urban tank, capable of both high speeds and all-terrain travel. This new Batmobile might not sell as many toys as its sports car-style predecessors, but it works perfectly within the framework of realism the film has constructed. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that the movie’s Bat Signal did not cast an impossibly detailed image when it was lighted – again, this speaks to Begin’s desire to be as close to the real world as possible. Finally, the movie’s Gotham City is a brilliantly realized variation of major Eastern U.S. cities such as New York, New York and Chicago, Illinois. Yet again, reality is the major inspiration for this aspect of the film -- in fact, much of Begins’s Gotham was created not by filming on cramped soundstages or by pasting together computer imagery, but by shooting on location in Chicago.

The only major problem that I think Batman Begins has is one that is not its fault at all – namely, its perceived connection to Warner’s previous Bat films. After all, in just the past sixteen years there have been four very high-profile Bat releases, the last of which (1997’s Batman and Robin) did not fare well with either the public or the critics. Obviously, us Batman fans know that Begins is a complete (not to mention brilliant) restart of the franchise, but the general public still seems to have a bit of a “been there, done that” attitude toward the idea of a new Bat film, especially after the bad taste that Batman and Robin left.

And it must be said that Batman Begins covers a lot of the same ground tread in previous Warner Bat releases, especially the 1989 Batman. In fact, it would almost be fair for someone to say that Begins could be considered a remake of the ‘89 Batman. Just consider the following plot summary, and decide for yourself which movie I am talking about --

“The film follows the first exploits if Batman, as he saves Gotham City from a deranged criminal who is determined to unleash a chemical menace on the city. Along the way, he employs an impressive arsenal of crimefighting equipment, including his futuristic car the Batmobile. In the end, Batman starts to gain the trust of the Gotham City Police, in particular the city’s most honest cop, James Gordon.”

Obviously, I’ve set you up – the plot summary works equally well for both movies! Now, I don’t personally view Begins as a remake of the ’89 Batman, I think the term “franchise restart” is a much more accurate description of the film. I am only pointing out this fact out because the similarities between the two films might lead the general public to be less intrigued by Begins than all of us Batman fans had hoped they would be.

My hope is that the general public will lose whatever “been there, done that” feelings they might harbor toward Batman Begins in the next few weeks, as the film receives more and more favorable critical reviews and positive word-of-mouth. After all, Begins is not just a great Batman film, it is simply a great FILM – and people do like to go to the movies to see great films. (I promise to do MY part to make this film a financial success – I assure you I will see it at least ten or fifteen times in first run!)

In the end, no matter how Begins ends up faring at the box office, there is no doubt that the film will inspire decades of debate amongst Batman fans as to whether or not it is the “definitive” live-action Batman film. I guess I’ll go ahead and weigh in on this debate while it is still young. I suppose my answer would have to be “no,” simply because it is not my “definitive” Batman live-action film. My film would likely be a very literal cinematic translation of one of the character’s greatest print works (“The Joker” from Batman #1, The Killing Joke, Batman: War on Crime are the first things to come into my mind) and would feature Batman in a more traditional “comic style” costume.

That said, however, Begins comes far closer to the mark of “definitive” for me than any previous Batman live-action film. On a scale of 1 to 100, I personally would give it a grade of 95. (That is certainly a lot better than my former favorite Batman live-action film, the 1989 Batman, which I would give a grade of 60) So my opinion of Begins boils down to this – unless I miraculously get the chance to make the Batman movie that resides in my own imagination, the film is very likely as close to “definitive” for me as any Batman live-action film can get. Mr. Nolan, thanks for making this Batman fan’s long-held dream of seeing a great live-action Batman film, one that is great from fade in to fade out, finally come true.

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