As we wind down Batman Movie Month, it’s time to discuss the three Christopher Nolan films, which most people would agree are the best live-action Batman movies of all time, if not some of the best superhero movies of all time. I’ll go on record right now and say that Batman Begins is the greatest Batman movie ever made.
This was pretty much the movie I had always wanted to see, even as a child. The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies were just too campy and Hollywood. As a comic book reader, I wanted something that more accurately reflected the character as he appears in the comics rather than some silly popcorn flick. Much like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, one of the reasons it’s so great is the fact that it stays true to the comics. The problem with taking that route is you run the risk of alienating the audience with obscure, esoteric material that only makes sense if you’ve read the comics. You also run the risk of going the Batman ’66 route and making a live-action cartoon. But with Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan, along with writer David S. Goyer managed to have it all: a thrilling superhero movie that’s true to the comics, but presupposes nothing about the audience. And best of all, they took the most earnest approach to a comic book movie that’s ever been tried. That’s another reason it’s so great.
Now, when I say “earnest” it shouldn’t be interpreted as “realistic.” While there’s definitely a sense of realism here, it’s relative to the previous Batman movies as well as other superhero flicks. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff that would never work in reality, but Nolan and Goyer do an excellent job of making it seem realistic and believable in the context of this film.
I was something of a film geek in my teens and early 20s. I always liked the gritty dramas about street life, crime, gangs, prison, etc. because they were truly works of art rather than big budget blockbusters made my studio execs and they seemed so earnest. I always thought it would be awesome to see Batman fight the kind of scumbags in these types of films. And while Batman Begins isn’t exactly a dissertation on socioeconomics and the like, at least it involves Batman taking on the fairly realistic villain of organized crime and political corruption. Up until this point, all previous Batman movies had a super villain as the antagonist (and this one does as well – but more on that shortly), in this incarnation Bruce Wayne addresses the reality of trying to undo decades of ingrained corruption that has led to rampant poverty and high crime. Sure, Jack Napier was a mob boss before he became The Joker in Burton’s Batman, but he was still a generic, cookie-cutter gangster in a fancy suit on a sound stage. Contrast that with Carmine Falcone who is a fairly realistic (or at least earnest) gangster in the Scorsese or Coppola mold (all that’s missing is brazen profanity, but this is a family-friendly flick after all). Obviously, this movie is not exactly Batman vs. Robert DeNiro, but I appreciate that it makes the harsh reality of crime the basis.
I liked how it spent the entire first act concentrating on Bruce Wayne’s backstory and his training on becoming Batman. As far as I know, there’s no comic book story concentrating exclusively on this aspect of his life. Not even Year One dealt much with Bruce’s actual training, but rather alluded to it in flashbacks (as many comics have done over the years). Batman Begins is aptly-titled because it takes the time to show Bruce transition from traumatized child to a man on a mission (I will admit that some of the flashback sequences are a bit confusing, especially when a college-aged Bruce decides to murder Joe Chill – was this before or after he decided to become Batman?).
It was also quite believable that Bruce would be recruited by Ra’s ah Ghul and the “League of Shadows.” Liam Neeson is absolutely perfect as the Ducard character (though he’s secretly Ra’s ah Ghul all along). He’s much more the Jedi Knight in this role than he was in the actual Star Wars movie. He’s not quite as stoic, cold and heartless as the comic book character, but in this context it works very well. In fact, I’ll bet the editors as DC Comics kicked themselves for never having ret-conned Ra’s ah Ghul as the trainer of Batman.
The first time I saw Batman Begins I was caught by surprise when Ra’s ah Ghul shows up at Bruce Wayne’s party and proceeds to burn down his mansion and sack Gotham. Re-watching it again last night I noticed there was plenty of foreshadowing. Including this character as the real villain is a pretty predictable move I suppose. After all, if you’ve got a superhero you need a super villain. The difference between Ra’s ah Ghul and say, The Joker is that The Joker can’t lie in wait until he’s needed to further the story whereas Ra’s can appear only as needed.
The League of Shadow’s sinister conspiracy to destroy Gotham walks a fine line between brilliant and corny. I must admit the first time I saw this movie I did not see it coming. Re-watching it again, it does seem a bit far-fetched and the kind of plot device that’s used in a big budget Hollywood movie in order to create for an action-packed third reel. But action, adventure, thrills and spills aren’t good or bad in and of themselves – it’s how they’re used that matters. And they’re used quite well here I must say (again, that’s not to say the film is perfect and realistic, just that it’s a lot of fun and holds up every time).
By the way, a lot of people complain about Christian Bale’s performance in the Nolan movies, but in this film he’s great. He’s definitely the most well-cast Batman to date as he plays the character like a true human being whereas previous actors played him as a living, breathing cartoon character (then again, that’s how they were written). He definitely has an imposing presence in the Batman costume (which is the most realistic and best-looking it’s ever been) and he really doesn’t do the coarse voice except when he’s yelling at a villain. For my money, he’s the best Batman on film.