Tuesday 17 July 2012

From the archive: "Batman Begins"

Batman Begins gets off to a bad start. We're in Bhutan, where the young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), on the superhero equivalent of a Gap year, has found himself in prison, haunted by the death of his billionaire parents outside the world's only opera house to back onto a crack-ridden ghetto. Step out of the shadows Liam Neeson, Hollywood's vague mentor of choice these days (Gangs of New York, Kingdom of Heaven, Star Wars), who introduces himself as "Merely Ducard", without ever quite conveying whether he's called Merely Ducard, or merely Ducard. Ducard trains Bruce up to become Batman - blah blah blah - and it gets (only just slightly) better. Batman returns to Gotham City, and takes up the good fight against the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a deranged lawyer who rejects world domination for the far weedier crime of poisoning the municipal water supply, and hasn't even got a proper costume to show for himself: he has to make do with some sackcloth and fairy dust.

In Memento and Insomnia, director Christopher Nolan delivered one of the best one-two combinations any Brit has ever landed on Hollywood, but Batman Begins serves to prove once more how the demands of a juggernaut franchise will eventually overwhelm even the most combative and capable of filmmakers. The script Nolan and Blade scribe David S. Goyer have arrived at proposes a kind of Batman for pedants, one in which every detail in an already familiar universe has to be explained away at often tedious length. This Batman's batman - Michael Caine's butler Alfred - is chiefly here to bring in exposition on silver trays. There's something ploddingly apologetic and insistent about the film, as though Warner Bros. felt they had to say sorry to anyone who had the misfortune to sit through Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin. (The Scarecrow brings the sackcloth; everyone else the ashes.) It's an apology I found hard to accept; far better, I think in this instance, the unrepentant spectacle of Sin City, which understood that depth can sometimes equate to clutter and recognised the value of a clean, straight line.

The key to the playing of Batman, as Nolan and Goyer clearly know, lies in the playing of Bruce Wayne - in how a performer interprets the man, not the myth. Michael Keaton's still-definitive Wayne owed as much to brooding, eccentric-romantic loners like Jay Gatsby as any comic-book figure. Here, following up outstanding work in American Psycho, Bale transfers all too smoothly from Bateman to Batman, dropping little other than that vowel. The actor's best moments look like extensions of that previous role rather than - as the title suggests - a new beginning: trying to explain to his DA sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) that his superficial playboy lifestyle "is not me", and being told in return that his face is the real mask behind which there might lurk something far darker. Bale's Bruce Wayne is very much a company guy, a Batman for the Malcolm Glazer generation whose most convincing act of heroism is a last-minute buy-out.

The clutter mostly builds up around and behind this Batman, affording him precious little room to flap his wings and take off. Nolan can't, seriously, position the film as realism and then cast someone like Tom Wilkinson - even in Ron Atkinson styling - as a Mob boss. The same goes for Morgan Freeman as an equivalent Q figure. And for all its rationale, the film prompts countless nagging questions. How come Gotham City can maintain funding (and full houses) for opera, when its streets are so full of suffering? (Other forms of suffering, a philistine writes.) How come not only Batman's eyes, but the eyes of the Scarecrow's horse, keep glowing red? And why - in a mostly humourless production, designed in its own totalitarian way to purge all vestiges of Schumacher's camp from the mind - do Holmes's legal encounters play like a very lame and indirect pastiche of Law & Order, with a boss who, from his hair to his liberal ideals, appears to be modelled on Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy? Some things are apparently beyond even Nolan and Goyer's torturous explanations.

This is, then, a film of irreconciliable extremes, less a fresh start for the Batman phenomenon than a mild, babbly psychotic break; it'll be good for a doctoral paper, yet it's something of a chore to have to sit through. Nolan, whatever else he may be, is not a director of action; if he is, he's a director of simple actions, the kind necessitated by a limited budget, working wonders with the bare essentials of two men and some logs in Insomnia. On this vast scale, Nolan gets lost, and his characters follow: that bad start is only compounded by a punch-up in a Bhutan prison yard where everybody unhelpfully has their features obscured by mud. Thereafter, the film simply gets bogged down in the trivial. We learn that Bruce Wayne gets his graphite Batmasks at a discounted rate, a detail that ties in with his recasting as a frugal, calculating hero, but one which comes across as utterly banal in any other context, its revelation played for not nearly as many laughs as it should have been. Batman Begins struggles to get off the ground because it's blind to the absurdity that comes from being this literal. Going looking for meaning in the story of a man who, one day, decided to dress as a bat is a bit like asking Spider-Man to do the washing up before he goes out for the night.

(June 2006)

Batman Begins is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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