Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Dark Knight returns

While the rest of the country yesterday celebrated the birth of a nation, KJ and I witnessed the birth of a superhero. We dropped into our local multiplex and checked out Batman Begins.

I was surprised to discover that the film was not only better than I expected, but that it was indeed one of the best films in any genre I've seen recently. (This from a guy who just this afternoon sat through the torture and tedium that is Troy.) It far exceeds any of the previous attempts to bring the Darknight Detective to the silver screen, beginning with Tim Burton's depressing and garish 1989 picture that launched the franchise.

Christopher Nolan, whose previous films Memento and Insomnia I absolutely loved (Memento was quite possibly the last truly great film of the 20th century), seemed a peculiar choice to direct a superhero movie, but he flat-out nailed Batman Begins. The first few minutes of the film felt needlessly chaotic to me, but Nolan's narrative soon develops a compelling momentum that doesn't feel at all rushed. The story penned by Nolan and coscripter David S. Goyer (who wrote one of my favorite films of the 1990s, Dark City) is packed to the gills with plotlines and characters (maybe a few too many of both), but for the most part corrals the plethora of disparate elements into a cohesive and entertaining whole.

I'm not really a Batman fan — he and Superman are probably my two least favorite major comics characters — and I don't usually care much for Christian Bale, but here the role and the actor are a match made in... well... the Batcave, I guess. Bale excels in the one element his immediate predecessors Val Kilmer and George Clooney forgot — he makes Batman believably human when he's not strapped into the Batsuit. (Kilmer was a stiff and smug Bruce Wayne; Clooney was simply overwhelmed.) Only Tim Burton's first Batman, Michael Keaton, managed a similar balance, and even Keaton's portrayal hinged a little too much on Wayne's weirdness. Bale convinces us of the torturous path Bruce Wayne has taken to become Batman, and of the inner demons that drove him to it, but enables us to believe that he hasn't totally abandoned his sanity in the process. He even smiles on occasion. (Did Val Kilmer's Wayne ever smile?)

You won't find a stronger supporting cast in any film made this year. In Batman's faithful manservant Alfred, Michael Caine finally finds a role that he doesn't want to sleepwalk through on his way to the bank. Each of the numerous villains — Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy — finds a way to make his character distinct from each of the others (though this really felt like a party of one bad guy too many) and capture his own key moments of screen time. Morgan Freeman, who can be in every movie Hollywood makes as far as I'm concerned, gets too little screen time playing Q to Bale's Bat-clad Bond, but shines in every frame in which he appears. I kept waiting for Gary Oldman (as detective Jim Gordon) and Rutger Hauer (as the would-be usurper of Wayne Enterprises) to overact, but neither of them did. Only Katie Holmes seemed out of place as Bruce's painfully underwritten childhood sweetheart turned reluctant ally — she's a cute girl, and a decent actress in less demanding fare, but amid this crowd of cinematic heavyweights she was definitely the odd woman out.

Not surprisingly, there were aspects of the film that just plain didn't make sense — the pivotal murder of Bruce's parents was handled rather clumsily for so important a plot point — but any quibbles are minor. Batman Begins is without question the best superhero film since Spider-Man 2, and deserves to make people forget all of the Bat-films that came before.

And, on a personal note, I loved Nolan's sly recreation of my favorite moment from the first Batman flick, wherein a cornered hoodlum with trembling lips asks the masked creature of the night, "Wh-h-h-what are you?" only to be told through clenched teeth: "I'm Batman."

Your Uncle Swan gives Batman Begins four big fat shakes of the tail feather. Go enjoy it on the big screen. You'll thank me later.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

I agree with you: BB was far better than expected. For the first time, I actually found the Dark Knight scary.

However, the death scene of his parents just didn't jive. That kid should have been balling his eyes out. THEN show the rage. What was shown...ugh.

7:51 AM  

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