Saw an afternoon showing of Batman Begins on Sunday. Short synopsis: as a fan of Batman ever since I was a kid, all I can say is that this is the film they should have made all along.
Well of course, that’s not all I can say. Long, uber-geeky synopsis? I thought the pacing was just a tad slack, and the last act rather formulaic. (The heavy attempts to poison Gotham’s water supply. Wasn’t that the last act of the first Batman, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson?) Batman slugs it out with said heavy on Gotham’s “L”, just as Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus fought on Manhattan’s “L” last year. (But Manhattan doesn’t have…I know, I know. Don’t blame me, blame Sam Raimi.)
But of course it’s going to be formulaic. Heck, Batman itself is pretty formulaic: we know Batman’s core backstory pretty darn well by now: millionaire parents murdered, gunned down in front of a theater with young Bruce Wayne watching. Bruce decides to use the symbol of a bat to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. (Besides, Rabbitman or Grasshopperman would have been too silly.) Faithful family butler Alfred willing to assist. Discovers cave under mansion, decides to build crime laboratory there. Arms himself with more gadgets than James Bond. Gotham’s underworld is never the same.
Like a bag of Tinkertoy parts, the trick of course, is assembling those elements in unique ways. Christopher Nolan begins his take on Batman by cross-cutting between Bruce as a child, and Bruce as an adult in the Himalayas, where’s he’s undergoing training vaguely reminiscent of David Carradine’s mystical flashbacks in Kung Fu, but with extra added black-clad Ninjas for additional danger and mayhem, and an ultimately well-cast Liam Neeson as his mysterous mentor.
In the comics, Bruce’s father was always a successful doctor, but here, he’s a zillionaire philanthropist who’s inherited his wealth, and both using it to help Gotham during “The Depression”, and also working as a doctor on the side, as another way to do good. Based on Bruce’s Age and when his father was gunned down, The Depression would have been around the Carter years. Or maybe the Ford years, prompting that famous New York Post headline, “FORD TO GOTHAM: DROP DEAD”.
To help the citizens of Gotham, Bruce’s dad has built a spectacular overhead monorail, which makes Seattle’s or Disney World’s look like an HO-scale toy. In the flashbacks, it’s pristine, shiny and brand new, but these days, it looks like the 1974-era New York Subway, with cars covered inside and out with graffiti.
Fortunately, Bruce returns from the Himalayas, finds Morgan Freeman working in the basement of Wayne Enterprises, hires him to play the same role that “Q” plays in the James Bond movies, and is off to clean up the streets of Gotham–which look remarkably like the streets of Chicago, since that’s where much of the film’s urban landscape was shot. (I’m pretty sure I recognized One Illinois Center at 111 Whacker Drive, one of Mies van der Rohe’s last office buildings. Gotham’s homeless are apparently living under it.)
Rather than Pat Hingle or Neil Hamilton’s distinguished and graying veteran police Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s aided by young police detective James Gordon, played in remarkably subdued fashion by a mustachioed Gary Oldman, who really does look like a younger version of the comic books’ Commissioner Gordon.
He’s also aided by Michael Caine’s as Alfred, doesn’t look much like the comic books’ balding 40- or 50-something Alfred, but who does look exactly the same age in the flashbacks with the young Bruce Wayne and his parents as he does in the present, but we’re not supposed to notice that. But then, lots of people age very differently in the comics and the movies than they do in real life: Batman has been 35 for nearly 70 years, and James Bond has been 40 for almost 45 years, right?
Besides the film’s occasionally languid pacing, if there’s a weak link to Batman Begins, it’s Katie Holmes as a crusading assistant district attorney: when you make Angie Harmon’s Law & Order character more believable as a D.A., you know you’re in trouble. Holmes was the one actor in Batman Begins who I never bought.
Beyond that, this is a well cast, well conceived updating of the Batman legend, and at a bare minimum, it’s a great popcorn movie. My wife, whose idea of Batman is Adam West and Michael Keaton, loved it. And needless to say, so did I. And to bring this post full circle, when I was a kid, whether it was Adam West’s campy Batman, or the darker, tougher Batman of the early 1970s, Batman was my superhero.
It took a long time, but Hollywood finally got him right.
Hopefully they won’t blow it again too badly when the sequels begin.