From Gotham to Gautham: Batman Begins (2005)
With the horrible reviews and fan reaction to Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. considered going ahead with a fifth film in the franchise, already titled Batman Triumphant, which would star the cast of the failed movie and would be directed by Joel Schumacher. Word at the time was a different director might be hired, and names of actors to play Scarecrow and whatever other villain who was being named in the rumor mill, came up every week. But Warner Bros. thought a fresh start would be best. Comic book movies just didn’t seem to be popular at that moment, and they weren’t sure how to continue. Remember, by now, the infamous Superman Lives fiasco that had caught Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, and Kevin Smith in its web had happened and everything seemed up in the air. Funny enough, it was really Marvel that laid down a blueprint for how to proceed.
In 2000, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment released X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose previous credits included the independent films The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, Singer seemed like the last choice to direct a huge superhero, special effects movie. With his screenwriters, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter, Singer made a movie that was an instant fan favorite, and which also garnered positive reviews. Honestly, it hadn’t been since Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 that a comic book-inspired movie generated so much favorable comment. In 2002, Sony and Marvel Entertainment released Spider-Man, written by David Koepp and directed by Sam Raimi, best known for the Evil Dead movies. Again, Raimi seemed like the last person who should direct a superhero movie, yet Spider-Man worked on every level.
The idea of taking an independent film director, having him/her work with screenwriters they were familiar with (or whom they chose), and then letting them loose on a major superhero movie seemed like a good idea. They were used to making smaller, more character-driven movies, and the superheroes who populated these movies were popular more for their character than because of any particular story they were in. Warner Bros. approached Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream and Pi, to work on a new Batman film. Inspired by Batman: Year One, Aronofsky approached Frank Miller and the two began collaborating on a new Batman movie.
Their ideas weren’t what Warner Bros. was looking for. After a few more false starts, the idea to put Batman and Superman into one movie came to them. Tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, the movie was announced and writers and directors were spoken to. Warner Bros. was so sure they would make the movie, casting began, a logo was released, and a billboard can be seen in Times Square in the 2004 Warner Bros. release of I Am Legend. The film hit a snag when Warner Bros. approached up-n-coming indie writer/director Christopher Nolan to direct.
After receiving a load of critical acclaim with his film Memento (2000), Nolan directed Oscar winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in the thriller Insomnia (2002). The movie was critically acclaimed and did well. Warner Bros. approached him with the idea of directing Batman vs. Superman, which Nolan thought about. Finally, he declined to direct the major team-up for the chance to do a movie more in line with Miller’s Year One. After meeting with Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan signed on for the new Batman movie.
Unlike previous Batman movies, I wasn’t following much of the story behind Batman Begins. By its release in 2005, I knew that Nolan would direct, that Christian Bale had been cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and that it was going back to the beginning. I was busy. I was going through a divorce, finishing college (five years after when I should’ve), following Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, dating (or trying to), being a father, and just basically trying to survive. Word-of-mouth brought me to a nighttime screening with a friend more than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time I’d seen Batman on the big screen, things hadn’t gone so well. I was anxious to see where Batman Begins would bring me.
Christian Bale is amazing as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bale comes off, to me, as completely bugfuck. He’ll totally change his look and weight for whatever role he’s cast in, he’ll change his accent, and he’ll be so much in character that he’ll scream at lighting people who accidentally cross his line of vision. He is handsome and suave enough (and strangely pampered-looking) to pull off Bruce Wayne, and intense and scary enough, as well as hard-working enough, to play Batman. When I read the Batman comic books between 1990 and 1996-ish (Batman, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, Shadow of the Bat, and the many, many one-shots and graphic novels), this is what I envisioned. Someone who would play an arrogant ass, like in the scene when Bruce Wayne shows up to a very upscale restaurant with two dates in his Lamborghini, but who is focused and driven when he’s alone. He could easily trade barbs with Alfred, but he could be relentless, and perpetually pissed-off as Batman. There’s a scene when Batman is interrogating Lt. Gordon’s crooked partner, Flass (played by Mark Boone Junior), that completely encapsulates the Batman I read and loved so much. He makes the character more believable than any of the other actors who played Bruce Wayne/Batman ever has.
Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon is superb. In the previous adaptations, Gordon was always an old man who looked more akin to desk work than anything else, which is pretty much what Gordon always was, until Frank Miller had his way with him in Batman: Year One. The Gordon I read in the comics was older, sure, with white hair and a mustache, a trenchcoat, and–usually–a smoking habit, but he was also Batman’s friend. The two trusted each other without ever really knowing the other, yet they completely knew each other. Somehow, in just two scenes, Goyer and Nolan, as well as Bale and Oldman, make us believe their relationship is of mutual respect, if not exactly trust…yet…with what only amounts to a few minutes of screen time. A big part of this is through Oldman’s portrayal. His eyes do more speaking than his mouth, and it sells the character completely. He’s uneasy with the corruption all around him but understands that it goes down, even though he won’t take part. With Batman’s arrival, he sees a chance to fix things and feels hope for the first time. And it’s all in Oldman’s performance.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard/ Ra’s al Ghul, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow really bring it. Liam Neeson just about owns the first half of the movie, and his return at the finale, including the big reveal that he is Ra’s al Ghul, is perfect. But everyone in this movie plays it understated and realistic. The theatrics are left to Batman, and even then, there’s a certain amount of realism that makes one believe in the fiction.
The Tumbler, or Bat Tumbler, or the new Batmobile was something that I didn’t like when I saw the first pictures to come out in 2005. By the time Batman is driving across Gotham’s rooftops, I was in love. It’s a fascinating vehicle that you wish were real (yet, would be terrified if it was). It fits the tone of this Batman and this Gotham and is just fun to watch.
The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on Goyer’s story, is fascinating. People often credit (or blame) Batman Begins with bringing dark, gritty realism to superhero movies. This may be true, but I think it’s more likely Goyer and Nolan looked back at the genre and realized that the best of them followed the mold set up by Richard Donner in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Donner had a cut-out of Superman with a word bubble that read, “Verisimilitude,” and would hold the sign up whenever he felt everyone needed reminding that in order for people to believe in Superman, they needed to make his world as realistic as possible. The charm of Tim Burton’s Batman films (and even of Joel Schumacher’s films) was in their unreality. They were theatrical and bold, with little use for the real world. Nolan’s and Goyer’s decision to set this Gotham City, this Batman, in the real world would help revitalize him. Telling his origin story on screen for the first time on film would make it something to come to that would be unlike its predecessors. The best part about the story is that it’s actually about storytelling. Bruce Wayne creates the character of Batman step-by-step, using his past, his needs, his fears, and the technology at hand to make a symbol that would leave a mark on the city and, hopefully, its criminals and citizens. The criminals would be afraid of this symbol as the citizens, hopefully, embraced it. This is what every writer of fiction hopes to do, whether it’s prose of screenplays. By using Donner’s formula for Superman and having the audience slowly learn who the man who wears the cape is, they ensure that this Bruce Wayne and this Batman will distinguish themselves from those who came before. While the use of Donner’s basic formula means the title character doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, the incidents and happenings in Batman Begins are much different, making the movie feel fresh. And while the ending, with Ra’s al Ghul’s scheme, is a little silly, I’m so sold by this Batman and this Gotham that I’d follow him anywhere.
Christopher Nolan’s direction is superb. Again, breaking from the more theatrical styles of Burton and Schumacher, he creates a world that is vast. From the mountains that Bruce Wayne navigates on his trek to meet up with Henri Ducard and the League of Shadows, to the shots of Gotham City. He also gets performances from the actors that are realistic in this otherwise insane world. His shots of Batman on buildings, watching the city, are the splash pages and panels that I grew up reading, captured in their true splendor for the first time.
The ending. Gordon’s first use of the Bat-signal, and the surprise of The Joker’s calling card, nearly made me squeal when I first saw it, and it still does.
Batman’s costume isn’t my favorite. Look, it’s better than those SuperBatman costumes worn by Val Kilmer and George Clooney at the end of their respective movies, and really isn’t all that different from any of the other costumes, but it looks best when shot in the dark. Too close a look and it falls apart. Unlike previous suits, which were made of foam latex rubber, this costume is made of neoprene and just has an odd look about it in the light. Luckily, this Batman isn’t in the light much.
Alfred stops a scene by explaining to Bruce Wayne what the Underground Railroad was. They’re below Wayne Manor, checking out the caves for the possible Batcave, and Alfred shows some hidden underground passages and hideaways. He explains that Bruce’s great-grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad, and then explains what that is. Now granted, Batman Begins doesn’t explain much about Bruce’s schooling except that he’s gotten kicked out of many schools, but surely the man who is, arguably, going to become one of the world’s greatest detectives knows what the Underground Railroad is. My real fear is that Bruce does know. That’s not a typo. I fear Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, knows what the Underground Railroad is because if he doesn’t know, then the dialogue makes sense. If he does know, then the writer, director, and/or studio thinks the audience is stupid. And that‘s a goddamn shame.
Some of the story fits a little too neatly together. But these are parts of the overall silliness that invades the latter half of this story. They’re small stuff that could ruin a lesser movie but is forgivable because of the overall quality of the film.
The title. I’ve never liked the movie’s title, and I wonder what Christopher Nolan, et al, would call it now, considering the success of the successors.
Batman Begins has a lot going for it. When I first saw it, I watched it with a huge grin from beginning to end. It’s the Batman movie I’d always wanted as a fan of the comic books. It took the character and his co-stars seriously, added to the mythos, and brought Batman back to the top of the superhero heap. And with its promise of a probable sequel, I was super excited.
And so was Warner Bros. Garnering good reviews and great box office, Batman Begins restarted the Batman film franchise. It really wasn’t a matter of if but of when there’d be a follow-up.