Every so often, it’s time to re-boot Batman.
Bob Kane created Batman in 1939. What made him different was that in an era of superheroes, he had no super-powers. All he had was a bat costume and a burning mission for revenge. Oh, and immeasurable wealth (which is a sort of superpower itself), and lots of very cool toys.
But Batman kept going through all of his iterations, including the campy 1960’s television series, brilliantly re-imagined by Frank Miller (who went on to do Sin City) as the Dark Knight, various animated series, and the Tim Burton Batman that deteriorated into the awful Joel Schumacher Batman and Robin. But what always mattered most was the villains. The Joker, whether played by Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero; Catwoman, whether played by Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfieffer, or (most memorably) Julie Newmar; the Riddler, as interpreted by Frank Gorshin or Jim Carrey — these are some of the most unforgettable bad guys any hero ever got to tangle with.
The new version has acquired all of the trendy enhancements of Batman’s post-modern re-imagining.
- 1. Looming, steamy, urban landscapes, with stylish mixes of eras and genres.
- 2. A far eastern master with an exotic mystical martial arts boot camp,
- 3. Battles in a variety of settings, including the ever-popular urban mass transit train speeding out of control through the city (see Spider-Man 2).
So here we are with what has to be at least Batman version 8.0, directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento). It takes us back to the beginning, that moment when the young scion of the wealthy Wayne family saw his parents killed by a mugger and decided to devote his life to protecting his home city of Gotham from criminals.
Part of what makes Batman a compelling character is that he is damaged. The trauma of seeing his parents murdered has been handled differently by different artists and directors through the years. For some it led to a corrosive sense of guilt and loss. For others it led to uncontained fury. For some it was as much the source of his inspiration to fight crime as a passion for justice.
“Batman Begins” is beautifully designed, with a grittier, more traditionally noir-ish design than the last four films. This Gotham is not inspired by New York, but by Chicago, with glimpses of the Marina Towers and Wacker Drive, with bits and pieces from other places, including a block from a Hong Kong slum. Instead of looking like the love child of a Ferrarri and an Exocet missile, the Batmobile now looks like a tank designed by Frank Gehry — on Bizarro World. The bat costume has, thank goodness, been rescued from its last appearance, which looked like a Chippendales costume, and returns to its dark grandeur, especially when the cape is spread. We see how Bruce Wayne creates his identity and mission as Batman. He says that “as a symbol, I can be incorruptable; I can be everlasting.” There are moments when his Batman really makes us believe it.
The film’s elegaic pace sometimes feels grand and sweeping, but it also feels slow and indirect. The momentum of the storyline is uneven and the flashbacks intended to add context and texture are just disruptive. There are too many villains running around with the result that none of them are developed enough to be interesting or vivid or even especially scary. The comic book did a much better job of exploring the potential for some of these eccentric madmen. Some of the fight scenes are well staged, but the big finish is both too serious to be fun and too diffuse and uncontained to be genuinely gripping.
Christian Bale has the single most important qualification to play Batman — great lips. More important, he has the chops to play Bruce Wayne, and he gives a thoughtful, sensitive performance that shows us that it is Bruce Wayne who is the secret identity — Batman is who he really is. Morgan Freeman as a scientist and Michael Caine as the indispensible family retainer Alfred are as warm and solid as aged wood beams — and as much of a support. But some of the best acting is done by the swarms of CGI bats swirling around the confrontations. They contribute more to the film than Tom Wilkenson, Cillian Murphy, and Gary Oldman (all with American accents) and Rutger Hauer, who don’t have enough to do to be more than distractions. It’s all too toned down. Batman needs bad guys who are real, over-the-top nut jobs. Leave the more cool and cruel bad guy types to James Bond.
Parents should know that the movie has a dark and disturbing tone and a lot of peril and violence, including a child who sees his parents shot to death and is haunted by it. There is brief strong language. Characters drink and one appears tipsy.
Families who see this movie should talk about what Bruce has to say about fear and compassion, and about the survivor guilt he felt over his parents’ death. They may also want to talk about how the portrayals of Batman have changed over the years and what that tells us about how our culture and priorities have changed.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy reading the original comic book, the Dark Knight, and watching Tim Burton’s Batman with Michael Keaton, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever with Jim Carrey as the Riddler. They will also enjoy the underrated Empire of the Sun, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring then 12-year-old Christian Bale. For more information about the use of Chicago as the inspiration for Gotham City, see this site.