Superheroes: Batman Begins part 1






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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT?  Bruce Wayne, orphaned at eight, wants to overcome his fears and honor his father.  This turns out to be rather more complicated than he suspects.

Batman Begins presents a radically new vision (for the movies, anyway — this stuff had been around the comics and the animated series for many years beforehand) of the Batman story, grounds it in a startling new sense of reality, presents not just a caped crusader and a wacky new villain but a whole wealth of good guys and bad guys, all following their stars in increasingly complex and interconnected ways, all of it bound together with the one fantastic conceit of a young billionaire who dresses up like a bat.  It strongly reminds me of the Casino Royale re-boot, which brought the James Bond character to a new level of immediacy while retaining enough of the series’ fantastic hallmarks to still qualify as escapism.  There is still enough silliness in Batman Begins to make it a recognizable "superhero movie" (grand, outsized villains with colorful personalities and an ambitious scheme to destroy an entire city, spectacular action sequences that teeter at the brink of believability, production design that borders upon science-fiction) but it’s presented with a sober, straightfaced earnestness that’s nothing less than shocking after the garish camp of Batman & RobinThe Dark Knight would successfully develop all of Begins‘s good ideas into an even more complex, startling vision of modern urban justice.

ACT I (0:00 – 41:00) uses a complicated flashback structure to tell the story of Bruce Wayne’s early life, from the moment his fears took hold (falling into a well, getting attacked by bats) to the moment his fears inadvertently got his parents killed (I’m not sure what his parents were thinking: "Hey, let’s take Bruce to the opera, you know, the one with all the bats"), to his first attempt at justice as he schemes to murder his parents’ killer (much to girlfriend Rachel’s anger), to his dawning awareness of the interconnectedness of actions (especially the actions of the wealthy and powerful), to his decision to engage in the fight for justice on a more macro scale (involving, as it often does, a trip to China), to his falling under the spell of a powerful would-be father-figure, who trains him to become a different man (with the help of a drug derived from a special blue flower found only in the area), to his sudden realization that he and his new father-figure have radically different ideas about the meaning of Justice and his subsequent destroying of the guy’s mountaintop dojo, to his return to Gotham City to begin his new life as a masked crusader.  I sometimes wonder if the act would be better served with a straightforward chronology, or if it’s better the way it is.  As it is, in introduces the movie’s head villain very early on, but then again it seemingly disposes of that villain before the end of the act — we won’t know who the head villain is until the beginning of Act IV. 

ACT II (41:00 – 1:05:00) follows Bruce’s journey from "young man with an idea" to caped crusader (with the help of faithful father-figure Alfred), and introduces what we think is the bad-guy plot: Mob boss Falcone working with spooky young Dr. Jonathan Crane to bring some kind of scary new drug into Gotham City.  It brings Jim Gordon into the picture as an ally of Bruce’s (Bruce picks Gordon partly because of his clean record and partly because Gordon was the cop who hung out with the young Bruce the night his parents were killed), introduces Rachel as a Batman-by-day figure not unlike the Harvey Dent of The Dark Knight and gives her her own mini-villain in Victor Zsaz, convicted Falcone thug and certified crazy person.  It also brings in Lucius Fox as Batman’s Q, and gives him his own mini villain in Earle, the mean capitalist usurper who has taken over Bruce’s father’s business, which used to stand for something, and turned it into just another amoral corporation.  Batman appears and halts the last shipment of the mysterious new drug, puts Falcone in jail and gives Rachel the evidence she needs to proceed with an effective prosecution (as Falcone is, literally, more powerful than the Gotham Police Department).  Instead of having Jim Gordon staggering around looking shocked as in the earlier movies, Begins shows that the quest for justice is something not limited to Batman, but is shared by civil servants at every level — Jim has stayed true to his ideals in the face of departmental-level corruption and Rachel fights for justice in the DA’s office even as her boss gives up in the face of overwhelming odds.  On the Bruce side of life, we see that not all attacks on Bruce’s father come from a guy with a gun — some come in the form of businessmen in pursuit of profits, who can render a good man powerless through a stock sale or a demotion.

ACT III (1:05:00 – 1:38:00) forces Bruce to reconcile his new identity as masked crusader with his daytime job of billionaire playboy — Batman becomes his true identity and Bruce becomes his mask.  This helps him in his work as a crime-fighter but ruins his chances with Rachel, who thinks the worst thing possible of him — that, by acting like a callow, rich asshole, Bruce is dishonoring his father — he’s become a bad guy.  A more straightforward "superhero" plot is introduced, which will involve Batman tracking down the mysterious drug that Falcone has been bringing into town for Crane (which leads to a confrontation with Crane, which leaves Batman deranged and out of action), and the theft of a big-deal whatsit that will figure prominently in Act IV.  (The theft of the big-deal whatsit causes Fox to inadvertently embarrass Earle, which causes Earle to fire him.)  As Batman the detective puts together the nature of the new drug (he was exposed to the same drug during his adventure in China) Rachel discovers the extent of Crane’s nefarious plot to dump the mysterious new drug (which we learn is Crane’s "fear toxin") into the Gotham water supply.  This discovery puts Rachel’s life in danger and forces Batman to rescue her, which leads to a hell-bent race back to the Batcave (which is where Bruce keeps the antidote to the drug, provided by Fox).  The race to the Batcave becomes a police pursuit, which puts Batman at odds with the GCPD (after he demolishes several buildings and puts the lives of dozens of police officers at risk).

ACT IV (1:38:00 – 2:20:00) takes place continuous with the end of Act III and brings all the plot strands from the previous three acts together in a spectacular action-movie climax.  The shocking thing is that it actually brings all the plot-points into the climax, as we learn that the head bad-guy is the same guy who Bruce tangled with in Act I, that this bad guy (Ra’s Al Ghul) is the same guy who, many years earlier, had, yes, caused the economic depression that caused the poverty and desperation that created the guy who killed Bruce’s father.  And so Begins‘s vision of justice-and-injustice snaps into focus: it’s not one man against a city, it’s a tradition, down through the ages, of good people struggling in the name of better lives for everyone against bad men who think only of themselves.  (Bruce’s father, we’ve gathered by this time, was more than just a businessman, he was a doctor, a philanthropist and a civic-minded community leader — he built the elevated train that dominates Act IV in order to save the city after the depression that Ra’s Al Ghul created, but too late to prevent his mugger, a desperate man, from shooting him in that alleyway, but his death spurred Gotham’s wealthy to new heights of idealism, which forced Ra’s to come back with his big-deal whatsit, which was developed by amoral captialist Earle, to destroy the city for good.  Whew — now that’s plotting!)  Further, the flower that figured prominently in Act I is the source of the toxin that drives the bad-guy plot.  Once Ra’s Al Ghul has destroyed Bruce’s house and headed into town, the movie delivers its extended action-movie set piece, a complicated bit of business that involves an insane asylum being emptied out into the streets of Gotham’s poorest district, big clouds of fear toxin causing nightmare visions in citizens and crazies alike, and a hurtling chase into the heart of Gotham, with the big-deal whatsit, on the elevated train that Bruce’s father designed and built to heal the city so long ago.  Ironically, to save the city Bruce (and Gordon) must destroy Bruce’s father’s train (no symbolism there, certainly).  Within the climax, Rachel faces down her mini-villain Zsaz, and in the denoument Fox gets the best of Earle.  In the end, Bruce promises to re-build his father’s house (but hasn’t as of the beginning of The Dark Knight — also, he stops short of re-building the elevated train, and even the Wayne corporate headquarters is nowhere to be seen in the later movie.  Apparently, having settled his father issues, Bruce is ready to become his own man).

I have more to say about this bold leap forward in the cinematic Batman beyond its polished, well-crafted structure, but it will have to wait until tomorrow.

Comments

29 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman Begins part 1”
  1. I had many problems with this movie (which is why I was so shocked to have loved the latest one…)
    But I think you touch on two of the biggest problems above…

    Act I is cumbersome and full of “Art”. The fancy storytelling gets in the way of a clear forward motion
    (one of the biggest problems I have with most Superhero movies-
    they just don’t know how to get into the story fast enough.)

    & Act IV is way too pat – really? Do we want everything to have been foreshadowed so heavy handedly?

    I didn’t buy it. But I paid for it…

    • Todd says:

      Begins does feel cumbersome in its first hour, which is odd since the plotting is exceedingly fleet and and incredibly dense. I think it’s because, when Batman defeats R’as, it feels like the movie is ending before it’s even begun, and then it feels like it starts over again, even though it doesn’t. It feels like two different movies, even though, by the end, we realize it’s all part of one big picture.

  2. laminator_x says:

    I didn’t catch this until now, but Rachel’s mini-villain is named after the Question, “Charles Victor Szasz.” Curious.

  3. curt_holman says:

    Ra’s Al Ghul

    I remember finding it rather odd that Ra’s Al Ghul turned out to be Liam Neeson, not Ken Watanabe. Since Ken’s barely in the first part of the movie, I was expecting him to turn up in a later act — nope! It’s Liam, who was always Ra’s! It felt almost like Neeson’s schedule had opened up while they were filming the middle of the movie, so they changed it. I know that’s NOT want happened, but I didn’t see the value of that particularly audience fake-out. Ken got a raw deal.

    Interesting that both Nolan films have scenes in “the Orient.”

    As much as I like the first 90 or minutes of Batman Begins, the big villain scheme really lost me. It’s like, the bad guys (League of Shadows?) want to sew discord in Gotham City. Should they just use their ninja training to run around killing people and blowing stuff up, like The Joker did so well in the second movie? Nope, they want to use fear-inducing gas. Sounds good — but they can’t just USE the fear gas, they have to introduce it into the Gotham City water supply, then use that high tech gizmo to EVAPORATE the water supply, releasing it in gaseous form. (I may have ranted about this before.)

    It reminded me of “The Simpsons” episode (I think the one that spoofed “The Prisoner”) when Homer says “Of course! It’s so simple! … No, wait, it’s needlessly complicated.”

    Even though I appreciate the Dr. Crane interpretation of the Scarecrow as being more or less realistic, I’d love to see a creepy, Tim Burton-style big-screen version of the character.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Ra’s Al Ghul

      What confuses me about the Liam/Ken fakeout is that I’m not sure what Ra’s’s point is, and who Ken is. Is Ken just some guy who hangs around the dojo pretending to be Ra’s just to fake out newcomers? Does everyone else know that Ken is a fake, or is it just Liam? Did Liam set up the fake Ra’s thing just to confuse Bruce, or is it a standing policy of the League to always have a fake leader who’s just a figurehead? It’s bad enough that Ra’s has to be a fake Ra’s, but to have an actor as good as Watanabe in the movie and then have him not do anything seems a little sad.

      • rootboy says:

        Re: Ra’s Al Ghul

        The idea that Ducard merely assumed the title of Ra’s al Ghul after Watanabe died – that there have been a whole stream of men with that name – makes a whole lot more sense, and makes the character’s “immortality” fit with the more naturalistic world they’re going for. I always interpreted it that way – what’s the evidence that this isn’t the case?

        • Re: Ra’s Al Ghul

          Well, there’s the other shaven-headed Asian dude that the woman at Bruce’s birthday party introduces to Bruce as “Ra’s al Ghul”.

          Bruce then deduces that, really, “Henri Ducard” is Ra’s al Ghul, and both Ken Watanabe’s character and the new shaven-headed Asian guy are decoys.

          I think the point of casting Ken Watanabe is the misdirect; comic book readers might well expect him to come back through the usual comic book means, setting up the fakeout – “And is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?” Watanabe is high-profile enough to believably have been cast as the guy who can come back to life, after all.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: Ra’s Al Ghul

            The appearance of Watanabe may also serve as a nod to Ubu (don’t know how to link to a wiki article, just search it if you have the time), who serves as Ra’s Al Ghul’s bodyguard, and is the latest in the line of an entire clan of “Ubu’s,” all of whom serve the same purpose. Like Watanabe’s “Ra’s,” Ubu is bald, and not that much of a talker.

            In the comics, though, Ra’s and Ubu and the rest of the “League of Shadows” are actually called the “League of Assassins,” and are mainly Arabian, not Japanese/Chinese/Tibetan. I suppose it’s sort of a case of Hollywood’s Ninja obsession, or something. (Funnily enough, ever since Batman Begins came out, Ra’s forces in the comic started to look more and more like ninjas, when before they usually looked like special forces grunts or bad guys from an Indiana Jones movie.)

            It’s all good for me, I suppose. I’m a ninja freak myself.

            -Kenneth, who doesn’t keep a LiveJournal account, but visits here regularly.

  4. crypticpress says:

    I like Begins, but a few things always bothered me about this movie:
    1) When the corporate peon walks in on Roy Batty and says “Hey boss, you know that super secret weapon thing we have? It’s been… stolen!” The film seems to turn into a different movie at that point, very abruptly, as if they didn’t know what to do at that point in the movie and said “let’s have a secret weapon get stolen!”

    2) The super-weapon: it evaporates all water nearby, but a person can stand next to it without harm?

    3) The bad guy’s plan in the movie was to, basically, poison everyone in the city. This was pretty much the Joker’s plan in the fist Burton film. It really got to me that Ra’s master plan wasn’t a little more original.

    4) Batman’s not saving Liam Neeson not being the same as killing him is BS.

    • brandawg says:

      Along with those points, it also bugs me that Batman would put all of the cops’ lives at risk during the car chase, as those are not accidents people walk away from.

      • crypticpress says:

        I thought the same thing during the chase in Dark Knight, when he’s blowing up parked cars and crashing through buildings. He doesn’t have much concern for collateral damage.

    • Yeah, the microwave emitter magically not having any effect on people has always stood out as glaringly stupid, and surprising, for how tightly and thoughtfully the Nolans have put their stories together.

  5. megachef says:

    “ACT III (1:05:00 – 1:38:00) forces Bruce to reconcile his new identity as masked crusader with his daytime job of billionaire playboy — Batman becomes his true identity and Bruce becomes his mask.”

    This is the one area in which I will disagree with you. Batman isn’t the true identity, any more than Public Bruce Wayne is–both of those are masks used by the Real Bruce Wayne, the side of Bruce only shown to Alfred (and later Rachel). Batman is a deliberate attempt by RBW to create fear in criminals and to be something more than human. The mask, costume, voice, and persona are tools that enable him to fight crime more effectively. But it’s clearly a role he plays; Bruce certainly doesn’t use that voice when he’s just lounging with Alfred.

    There are certainly interpretations of Batman where Bruce is the mask and Batman is the true identity, but this film actually made it a point to show three faces of one man, which is one of the things I appreciated about it. Just my opinion, of course.

    • Todd says:

      I think the movie leaves Bruce at the crossroads — he still doesn’t know who he is, exactly, at the end of the movie. Rachel thinks he’s Batman, he seems to think he can control it and will one day conquer it, but for the purposes of his relationship with Rachel, he’s still Batman.

  6. noskilz says:

    Were the gas attack and Crane’s drug trade ever fingered as contributing factors to Gotham’s sudden violent loon population boom? At the end, we have a pretty good idea the Joker will be turning up in the next film(maybe gas rather than goo), and in the next film flamboyantly violent disposable flunkies seem to be readily at hand, day or night. I assumed a connection, but that doesn’t mean there is one(maybe the asylum round-up just went really, really badly.) If this came up earlier: whoops – I did skim through the other entries without catching it – the notion just seemed like a possibility in a pair of movies where interconnecting details seem to abound.

    • Well, there’s the scene where the inmates of the asylum all stare from their cells as the Batman goes stalking through the hall. I always took that as “the moment when criminals who are slightly unhinged already fixated on the Bat”.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I really like this movie and have seen it twenty or thirty times just to watch its ticking parts … in particular, the first act, as you noted … I know some folks feel it’s cumbersome, but I believe it’s actually stacked up exactly as it needs to be … I think told in order, it wouldn’t work nearly as well … there are a lot of intros to be done, and an origin (Batman) to lay root to, much history and tone to set, and I think it does it extremely well.

    the other thing I admire about the film as a whole is the revolving doors of antagonists … we have Falcone, who is very and obviously bad, the thug who killed Wayne’s parents … we have the scarecrow …

    the guys on the moutaintop aren’t even considered antagonists, really, rather it’s a warrior test … that they turn out to be the main antagonist was one of the brilliant turns of the script, I thought.

    I’m looking forward to this very much, and linking … btw, I had down that ACT IV was really two acts (ACT IV ends when Alfred yanks Wayne out of the burning mansion, and Batman heads into GC to save the city. For me, it felt like two … but it could be I’m simply seeing five acts everywhere these days …

    Great script, I think.

    Joshua James

  8. Anonymous says:

    Fight Scenes

    On a semi-related note, what’s your take on the appearance of the fight scenes, Todd and co.? I’ve always appreciated how they tried to make everything realistic looking, but I dunno. A lot of the fight scenes in Begins and TDK end up looking somewhat… clumsy. Or slow. I’ve seen videos of the real-world martial art they based Batman’s fighting style on (KFM, or the Keysi Fighting Method, a modern spanish martial art, if I’m not all mistaken, and I probably am, at least to some extent…), and the real thing looks not only somewhat bizarre, but also very brutal, very fast, and very effective. Then again, I guess it’d be hell to try to move very quickly in a suit like that, so…

    Anyone else find it funny how the movie has originally Arabian characters who are now Chinese/Japanese, live, apparently, in Tibet, and teach an American billionaire (portrayed by an English actor) a Spanish fighting style?

    The globalization of our popular fiction, ladies and gents.

    -Kenneth, he who has no livejournal account

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Fight Scenes

      It is standard practice to slow down fight scenes in movies so the audience (and the camera) can catch all the action. Watch some Thai films if you want more realism.

    • rxgreene says:

      Re: Fight Scenes

      I was under the impression that his stuff was based off of Krav Magda – which is an Israeli art.

  9. They probably thought “It’s not DER FLIEDERMAUS . . . What could go wrong?”