When Christopher Nolan took the keys to the kingdom of Batman back in 2003, following his competent but not yet quantified career as movie-maker extraordinaire, many had doubts that the art house auteur had what it took to handle the charge entrusted to him. Fans and comic book devotees were initially suspicious and not without reason – who was this Brit-pop-art-film director and what makes him think he’s in charge of Gotham City? Everyday moviegoers seemed more open to the idea though most remained cautiously optimistic until opening day – Could Nolan resuscitate the fallen American icon or would it be another nail in the coffin of the once and mighty illustrious Dark Knight? It’s easy to say now what no one knew then, that Nolan was destined for greatness, that his film franchise would exceed all expectations and secure a place in the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere – not to mention record books and history books in the making. In order to look back with clarity and practicality in mind, to make a conscientious effort to examine the film alone without all the trappings of what came later, much less what’s taking place all around us at this very moment in theaters and boardrooms, hospitals and courtrooms, it’s necessary to slow down to a crawl and approach the film on your belly, lower still, careful as not to make a sound as the lights fade on your open mind.
What else but “see-it”? You can’t -not- watch this film any more than you can stop here. But first you have to prepare yourself, shake free whatever you’ve decided about the films and franchise, the filmmaker and actors, the mythos. Look back at Batman Begins from the perspective of a moviegoer about to sit down for the first time, popcorn at the ready, tasty beverages and snacks to be had. Settle in, give yourself the luxury of first time happenstance. It’s best to set aside the gluttony of so much success and adoration, skirt the weight of overwhelming praise along with the depths of criticism – some of which is rather harsh – and look closer still at the mechanics of the film and the filmmaker, at the gut strands that might begin to get at the complexities of it all. In revisiting Batman Begins I thought of the film as a singular experience first, followed by the franchise second, and then with the extensive editorials I’ve already written about Nolan and his other films. The thing about Batman Begins that seems to stupefy so many is how much our expectations burden the artfulness of the film, how preconceived notions make for impenetrable shrouds that block out any level-headed escapism or lackadaisical meandering to be enjoyed. Batman Begins suggests new beginnings can be found in familiar places and enjoyed as much for what we know is there when we arrive as take us by surprise, reminding us newness is not something you own but something you trust in films to be there and then send you off somewhere else.
Batman Begins was by all rights a bold move for the relatively unknown Nolan, the sort of career killer that most would avoid and few could have carried off with such confidence and stubbornness. He could have just as easily ham-fisted the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, the film is as flawed as anything he’s done after Memento but he’s also raised the playing field to grand, to weighty interpretations and imaginings, endeavors not for the weak or weary or purists at all. The thing about filmmakers that is sometimes overlooked or purposefully left out of conversations about the business of show business is the sheer weight of bringing a film together from concept to script to production, editing, packaging and presenting for the entire world to see. Of course there are a hundred-hundred other steps involved, myriad of tasks and responsibilities that have nothing to do with art and craft, with directing and manufacturing. When Nolan went to Warner Bros. that first time he must have had it all together in his mind and in the convincing he would need to sell them on his plans, facing both pressure from above and all the sides, executives and their short-sighted considerations and then there’s the audience of possibilities – steer too far from trusting fans and feel their wrath, go no further than what has already been done and suffer for lack of imagination or worse – reinvent the wheel and no one is there to try it out, give it a chance, at the ready to condemn the effort as blind ambition or reckless auteur syndrome gone awry. For all that Batman Begins is and isn’t, for what we know now that we didn’t know then and how little it really matters in the universe of schemes and things – remember, Hollywood is a business and success is rewarded with careers while failures spell certain doom, dashed dreams, fallen matinée idols and director’s who know not what they do – and for as much as we don’t want to accept the numbers and aggregators as reason to believe, to refuse the facts that everything matters and nothing can change how you really feel about a film in face of so many others who feel otherwise, consider Batman Begins as a success because it exploded in theaters in 2005 and the shock waves are still being felt around the world. If Nolan is anything he is Master and Commander of the Cinema of now, a modern movie maker building on a rich history of motion pictures and escapism with bigger films at every turn that thrill and disappoint, that enliven imaginations and simple pleasures, that are grand explorations but above all he entertains. The true success of a film can be measured by its impact in the world, by our reactions of praise and condemnation and how it gets at us down deep inside, reminding us of the thrill of escaping our now for the now of films even if only for a little while.
Batman Begins is a reboot of the original DC Comics character that has seen many forms and interpretations over the years, from its comic book origins to morning cartoons and campy afternoon serials, feature films and Halloween costumes with merchandising campaigns in mind. Film reboots set aside the story universe as it has been depicted in previous forms, starting over for the most part and usually returning to the earliest formulations of character, place and concepts. Reboots are like revisits in a way, like changing the lore of vampires for angst-driven teen vampire franchises (Twilight) or twisting an old television series with equal amounts campy homage, revisionist’s dream and quirky impressionism (Burton’s Dark Shadows) for instance. It is also known as an origin story and in this case Nolan chronicles Bruce Wayne’s rise to prominence from the naïve, sheltered son of aristocrats through his shattered awakening in tragedy that sets him on an existential quest for meaning and purpose. When we get through all that stuff and ultimately find the mythic caped crusader and champion of Gotham City, we’re a little winded with all the theatrics and over blowing, but we’re glad once we’re there. It’s a lot to cover in a single film and while he pulls it off more or less, the film does plod at time however purposeful and well intentional. Nolan is prone to theatrics and run-on scenarios, going big in place of confidently small but he’s smart to modernize and conceptualize, to divorce all notions of what came before with enough full screen devastation as to impress all but the ardent pacifist. So we learn why and how Bruce Wayne becomes the Dark Knight, his struggle with identity and family, his obsession with civic duty and dedication to the cause of rightfulness and justice over greed, corruption and anarchy. Where Nolan is most effective is his goal to humanize and personalize myths and legends while allowing us to connect with the characters as if Gotham is the sixth borough in New York, the darker and more dangerous one.
Nolan’s true talent is his use of classic story concepts and narrative structure to bridge the typical distance in genre adaptations and landscape superhero stories giving the characters well-defined beginnings and endings, making use of themes and events that might just as easily be drawn from news broadcasts and headlines of today. Nolan’s Batman is big because he has to be in order to compete in an era of Tobey McGuire approachable Peter-Parker-Spiderman and Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man monolith that are larger than life-like never before. Christian Bale’s rocky road to Batman Begins says more about our need for conflicted celebrity heroes than anything particularly new or inventive in his story. Sometimes films just fall in place when we need them the most, long shot odds and what dreams may come buried in the avalanche of Bruce Wayne’s untimely death by Joel Schulmaker in 1997 with Batman & Robin, a film of such poor concept and execution as to single-handedly kill the franchise for the foreseeable future, fans of the famous capped crusader were a little more than skeptical and looking for justice with a modern interpretation that would pay rightful homage not only to the character but the whole mythos of Gotham City. In late 2005 Batman Begins entered theatres and a franchise took hold of moviegoers around the world with such force and impact as to catapult Nolan to the coveted halls of Hollywood Valhalla with immeasurable success and adoration. But along with praise lives scrutiny, fans and detractors at odds, those who loved and those less impressed locked in a heated shouting match of opposition.
What Nolan accomplished in Batman Begins is easy to see now in the midst of his third film, the final chapter on his Batman trilogy. It has been a springboard for Nolan and others, shooting him into the stuff of myths and legends himself as he simultaneously constructs a career of super hero making with his coveted Superman picture in production. For all the facts and figures, agreements and dastardly deeds, for the accomplishments and tragedies forever linked with these films, Nolan’s revisionist dream for the universe of Batman is an impressive film all by itself, a solid beginning for the franchise that follows and like all blockbusters it has earned as much praise in the aggregators as notable criticism. Clearly Batman Begins is a packaged product with the obligatory franchise building elements, it’s too long and convoluted, relies entirely on theatrics and motifs too much to be dismissed and all too often action supplants story and theatrics gets in the way of any real emotional depth in the characters. Nolan has to resort to caricature because after all we are dealing with a comic book universe. Like all films, Batman Begins excels and fails, it is perfect and flawed but above all it signifies a real new voice in Hollywood that people have embraced and by all accounts will continue to do so.
In the grand scheme of things, there are so many factors that must be weighed when writing about films – epics like this are even more difficult. Criticize too much and you’re discredited as a hack, praise too much and you’re discredited as a hack, sit on the fence and say too little and you’re discredited as a – the thing about movie reviews is that mostly people are looking for someone to agree with them. Batman Begins is a hearty adventure filled with elaborate explosions and nifty interpretations of an aging super hero comic book character fueled as much as burdened with the usual PG13 atrocities, overdone like many big budget landscape films, and scattered by big budget enabling and meaningful cinematic fun. Batman Begins is many things – the beginning of a franchise, a resurrection flick rebirthing a fallen franchise nearly ruined, and above all it is fun if you remind yourself to suspend disbelief like you’re supposed more often than you do.