Saturday, June 25, 2005

Batman Begins

It's been some busy times lately, my sister graduated on Wednesday and I've been doing a bunch of work over at LMC to get ready for the camp. However, before this busy stuff happened, I was still guilty of one major film/comics related sin and that was not seeing Batman Begins until nearly a week after its release. The film was getting amazing reviews and everyone I talked to who saw it seemed to love it, so I was expecting something pretty good. However, I was still wary because I'm such a huge fan of the Tim Burton Batman films, particularly Returns, which is #8 on my top 100 films list. I think I might be the film's biggest fan in the whole world, it's just a transcendent piece of cinema, and I wrote a bit about it here, as well as in a 23 page paper on the film for my action cinema class.

Anyway, in that piece, I also wrote about my thoughts on the upcoming Batman Begins, saying:

And I feel like this film makes the upcoming Batman Begins seem so irrelevant. There's no way Nolan can top this film, and in making a Spider-Man style blockbuster out of Batman, he'll just embrace the commodification of Hollywood that is preventing really personal films from being made. Batman Returns is so unique because it's one of the most personal blockbusters I've ever seen. You can sense Burton's involvement in every level of this project, and maybe that's why the film wasn't successful. To make a film that some people will really love, you're going to alienate others. But, I'd rather have a film that a few people absoultely love than one that everyone likes.

Now that I've seen the film, I think I was a bit off in my assessment of it. It's a film that has actually ended up being pretty much loved en masse. The reviews are not of the grudgingly positive variety, they're raves and people out in the world seem to absolutely love the film. I would not qualify the film as a Spider-Man style accessible blockbuster, it's darker and less pop than that film. However, what it is not is a personal film, or a good film.

Watching Batman Begins, I admittedly went in with a bit of resistance, due to my love of Burton's films, but I was open enough to the film to love it if the quality was there. Then I watched the film, waiting for it to get good, to see what made people love it so much, and it just wasn't there. The whole movie went by and I was unmoved and unimpressed by a fairly generic post-Se7en neo-noir, that features a guy who dresses up in a bat suit instead of a newbie young detective.

This film really falls prey to the problems that mar so many contemporary action movies. The most important is in the pacing. I hate the idea that Hollywood executives like to lock a story into a three act structure with set emotional beats and character arcs, but this misguided rigidity is drawn from the basic storytelling principles that have worked for centuries. In order to keep the audience's emotional involvement, you have to put your hero through trials and have them changed 'by the fire.' The events of a movie should make an impact on the characters. In this film, Bruce Wayne has a pretty solid character arc for the first hour or so, he goes through changes and eventually decides to become Batman. This is a big step, but there, his journey basically ends. Once he is Batman, his problems basically stop, and other than a few minor injuries, everything goes extremely well for him at the end. There's no struggle, no sense that he earns the victory, and while this may have been intentional, it means that the entire second half of the movie is devoid of emotional stakes.

Even though it's not technically based off a comic, the definitive superhero narrative of recent years is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The key here is that she has all these powers, so fighting people isn't that tough, but when you bring emotions into the battle, it becomes much more complex. So, beating the Master in year one, very easy, beating Angelus in year two, agonizing, and the leap in quality is enormous. You need to have your hero in danger, and emotional consequences are actually better than physical danger, because the movie is called Batman Begins, we know he won't die. Admittedly, it's a bit unfair to compare a TV series, with so many more hours to build up the characters, to a film, but the basic storytelling principles are the same.

The entire movie is paced at roughly the same speed and emotional level. We get none of the ups and downs, there's no moment where we think Batman might lose. Cheesy and cliche though it may be, you really need your hero to have some problems and between his money and physical prowess, Batman can do whatever he wants. We never doubt him and that makes for bad storytelling. This movie really needed the moment where Batman is beaten, almost dead, then a swell of music starts and we see him pulling himself up, somehow mustering the strength to finish the job. Those scenes are in movies because they work on an emotional level, it may be cliche, but it's better than nothing. It reminds me of Terminator 3 in the way that a lot of events happen in the movie, but at the end you don't get the feeling that you actually watched anything of substance, it all just sort of passed in front of you in one block of footage.

The last battle between Batman and Ra's Al Ghul is completely devoid of tension, because Batman has no real conflict with the villain. Yes, they had the mentor relationship in the beginning, but he has no reason not to kill Ra's. So, without any emotional tension, we'd need Batman to be in some physical danger, and we don't get that either, or more accurately, we can't tell if he is because of the way the fight is edited. You have no clue what's going on because cuts are used to convey action rather than the actors actually fighting. The best action scenes rely on us knowing exactly what's going and being able to easily follow things. Look at the lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace, wide shots make it easy to follow the action. Here, it's all quick cuts and then somehow Batman has won, we don't know how. But, that's not just this movie, it's a problem with many action movies today.

The other major issue I had with the film was the score. Most movies, you notice a good score and if it's a bad score, you don't even think about it. However, with the memory of Elfman's two phenomenal Batman scores, the absence of anything musically interesting here is glaring. This is another problem with action movies today, what happened to the theme song? Recently, the idea of having one piece of music that recurs throughout a film has gone out of style and it has hurt movies so much. Look at Revenge of the Sith, the score is so thematically developed, you could watch just the music and visuals and understand the emotional beats of the film. Williams has so many developed themes, he just has to choose the right moment for each one and he's got a brilliant score. Or for a more simple example, look at any James Bond film, the best moment is always at the height of an action sequence when the Bond theme starts playing, everything seems so much cooler. The theme is such an easy shortcut to make events seem important and this film's music is so generic, I was actually playing Elfman's Batman theme in my head, just to try to improve things a bit.

Why would a filmmaker not use a big theme song? Perhaps it makes things too easy, too emotionally manipulative, but when something works, it's never too easy. Music in film is like smell in real life, it's tied into emotional memory, and just playing the music can bring up a feeling. To not use the music in aid of the film is like deciding to speak without any adjectives, you might be able to communicate, but people aren't really going to care about what you say. It's so easy to make a theme song, why not just use it? If Terminator 3 had only used the Terminator theme it would have went up in quality by at least 25 percent.

Also, the film had a really generic post Se7en look. It's dark, seedy, rather ugly, and while that may have been appropriate for the story, from an aesthetic point of view, it's uninspiring. I did really like the look of Golden Age Gotham, with that elevated train, but both Burton films show that you can do dark and seedy and still have a little zest in the look of your movie.

So, I've been pretty harsh on the film, and I think a large part of that is due to my love of the Tim Burton films. Brian Singer is making a Superman movie that's pure homage to the 1979 Superman movie and he gets respected and applauded for that, when the Burton Batman films are so much better than the decent Reeve Superman film, and they get no notice from this work. Instead Nolan creates a pretty generic, impersonal film that has for some reason been embraced widely by nearly everyone. Batman Returns was the perfect take on the character and his sort, it came out thirteen years ago, there was no need for this movie to be made, and watching the film, I don't think it did anything that Burton's Batman films didn't.

I'm not claiming to be unbiased, but watching this film, I was waiting for it come alive and it never did. I really feel like I saw a completely different film than other people did, I just don't get how people could like it so much when this is a rather boring story and totally uninteresting filmmaking. Nolan may be getting the reputation as a golden boy now, but his films all fall into this sort of dirty, dark, yet uninteresting neo-noir genre. Memento had a solid gimmick, but watching it again, it's a standard story wrapped in a cool structure. Insomnia was uninspiring and Batman falls into that same sort of not bad, but not good limbo. I think people's expectations have been so lowered by the awful crop of films released this summer (and the lingering memory of Batman and Robin) that anything that doesn't talk down the audience gets kudos. It's what makes Clint Eastwood's competent, but uninspiring films, best picture winners and Batman Begins the hit of the summer.

People crack on Revenge of the Sith for having bad dialogue, but the pure emotion of the lava duel or the intercut birth/death sequence does more both emotionally and technically than Batman does in its entire run. I guess what I'm saying is that not having anything explicitly bad doesn't make a film good, and having flaws doesn't mean that a film can't still be a masterpiece. Batman Begins is competent, but that's not enough, particularly when the shadow of one of the greatest blockbusters ever made, Batman Returns, lingers. Just compare the emotional impact of the final half hour of Returns to the dull action sequence that closes Begins and tell me which does more with film, and which gets closer to the dual nature of the Batman himself.


Keith G said...

You know what "Begins" does better than either of the Burton films? Actually explores the Batman character and doesn't just entertain the audience with villains. As much as I'm a fan of Burton's Batman movies, Batman himself is given short shrift in both. You make a good point about the final battle in Begins - especially the style in which it is shot and also about the emotional stakes - but I think this is an acceptable trade-off when the character is so richy explored elsewhere in the movie.

The villains are almost irrelevant in "Begins" and for that I was glad. They make their impressions, of course, but they don't overwhelm like Jack Nicholson's Joker or Danny Devito's Penguin.

You're right about the score, I guess. I did miss Elfman's theme and there was no theme to really latch onto in this film.

But overall I think your love of Burton's films have clouded your judgement on this one.

Patrick said...

I think the most notable thing about Begins is the fact that it makes dressing up as a bat to fight crime into something that seems completely logical. However, where it fails is that it doesn't do anything with Batman once he becomes Batman.

The best thing about the Spiderman films was the way they showed the good part and the downside of being a superhero. You're reallly torn about what Peter is doing, and the film draws its emotional resonance from that conflict. I'm not saying that Begins needs to be an angst fest, but I felt like the character development just stopped once he actually became Batman.

I think what Returns does really well is explore the idea of Batman, even though he is definitely on the periphery of the film. The three villains Batman fights in the film each represent a part of Bruce's personality, there's the abandoned child, the wealthy industrialist and the street level vigilante. So, even when he's not on, the issues surrounding the character are still being explored. I guess the Burton films are about Batman as an idea, while Begins is actually about the man in the suit.

But, I will admit to not being objective in assessing Begins. Returns was just too close to me, I wasn't able to open up to Begins.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your perspective on Begins and on Returns as well. Thanks.

I am one of the mass that is sold on Begins. From your blog entry it seems that perhaps you were so focused on technical film-making aspects, and comparing the style to Burton's that parts of the very original essence of this film were missed by you.

Simultaneously, Begins is the truest comic-book portrayal of the intrinsic inner core of the Batman character, and a great departure from a comic-book style movies. This made it very surprisingly refreshing and original to me. I was grateful that there was no scene with Batman beaten to the edge of death, before mysteriously finding the strength or wisdom to prevail. Every comic-book based movie has that scene. Whenever we see a superhero movie, we all know that the superhero is not going to die, so why have that scene? At best, those scenes can be only mildly exhilerating to a movie-experienced adult, at worst, it can bore the audience, or if the movie is dependent on that scene, can ruin the movie.

I also thought Ras ah Guhl was a superb choice for the main villain of the movie. He is portrayed as a normal, mortal man suffering from an obsession (similar to wayne) that compels his behavior. (The true comic character of Ras is immortal, which this film hints at but does not directly specify.) Wayne and Ras ah Guhl, psychologically, are seperated by only a few degrees. Both share the same goal: Justice. How they aim to achieve that goal is very different. Ras' method for justice is established, and and already in motion, while Wayne's method is undetermined and continues to develop throughout the movie, as is his character. For me, that difference is what brought the tension to the final battle on the train, Batman held true to his ethical code under the temptation of emotional satisfaction (this is what really makes him a superhero, otherwise he is not different from Ras ah Guhl).

Amazingly, Nolan also managed successfully and stylishly remove cartoon-iness from the scarecrow character. He replaced the campiness of the scarecrow character with deep evil and fright. The character was supernatually eerie, I was squirming in my seat, feeling like no other batman villain has made me feel before.

What I appreciated mostly about this movie, (and maybe what turned you off) is that Nolan took all the characters and brought them down to earth, made them real, understandable, and most of all, believable. The main characters are not simply eccentric, style-focused, diabolical bad guys, but deeply disturbed individuals with scarred and difficult emotional pasts.....just like Batman.