Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to see Batman Begins, Warner Bros. attempt to relaunch the Batman film franchise after the garish excesses of the Burton and Schumacher flicks of the ’80s/’90s. While it was by no means the best superhero movie I’ve seen (Spider-Man 2), it was by far the best live-action Batman outing. (Yes, even better than Adam West!)
I am grateful that someone at Warner Bros. finally realized that it was possible to make a superhero movie without stunt casting or a music video director at the helm. For years, I’ve read announcements of proposed Batman/Superman projects with dread, as it was clear that Warner’s execs had no clue how to treat their prize properties. For once, Batman was grounded in reality and, most importantly, given respect.
The film spent a lot of time–perhaps a bit too much, as Batman doesn’t appear for the first hour–setting up the psychological and logical underpinnings of the character, and explaining how Bruce Wayne’s dual personalities complement each other. The script recognizes that Batman is a character grounded in fear, and makes that the central theme, going so far as to include the Scarecrow as its secondary villain.
At last, Batman is the terrifying creature of the night who preys on “superstitious and cowardly” criminals. Some of the confrontations between Batman and various henchthugs play out in classic horror-movie tradition, with unwitting victims creeping around in the dark and being picked off one by one.
The acting was generally good. Christian Bale was unremarkable, but solid, as Bruce Wayne, and certainly looked the part. As the future Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman underplayed a role for once in his life. Michael Caine was terrific, as always. Katie Holmes was…miscast, though that’s in part because she still looks like a high school student.
Happily, the production design was reined-in from the days of neon skylines and rubber nipples. Gotham was portrayed as a believable city, with the only nod to comic-bookishness being the triple-decked elevated trains, and at least those served a couple of plot functions. The new Batsuit was excellent, and while I was initially hesitant about the tank-like Batmobile, once it was put through its paces I was hooked.
If the movie has a flaw, I think that it may have been a bit too realistic and serious. Aside from the Batmobile chase, there are few moments of fun. Also missing are the Grand Guignol aspects of Batman’s rogues’ gallery. While I think Tim Burton’s freakshow approach was ludicrously overdone, a lurid touch wouldn’t have been unwelcome. The Scarecrow had his moments, though his creepiest scenes were those without his trademark mask. Ra’s Al Ghul looked decidedly less devilish than he does in the comics, and without his daughter Talia and his Lazarus Pit-fueled immortality, he’s really just a dude in a suit.
I can understand why Batman Begins made “only” $73 million in its first five-day weekend. It’s got a slow build for a modern, wanna-be blockbuster, and lacks the humor and toy-like elements of the previous films. It’s not all that kid-friendly, though my 10-year-old nephew apparently loved it. That said, it was a refreshing change-of-pace from the usual summer fare, and a promise of better movie days to come for DC Comics’ superheroes.