It’s been a while. I’ve been busy, but now it’s time to tackle something I’ve kept close to my chest. Christopher Nolan is probably my favourite modern director along with Tarantino and some other dudes. The first film I saw of his was Batman Begins and then I devoured everything he has to offer. With The Dark Knight Rises exploding across the internet at the minute I thought it’d be nice to take a few moments to consider Batman Begins; the first in the Nolanverse trilogy of Batman. I will get around to the rest of Nolan’s filmography, especially a certain Dark Knight, but until then lets complain about a guy who wears latex!
Batman Begins is often treated as over-rated by many of internet reviewers given when it was first released all of the critics went wild. The film itself started the ‘gritty grit’ superhero trend that probably will never end. Raimi’s Spider-Man films were still coming out and both Thor and Captain America were a long way away, so for a brief period in the late 2000s we were treated (thanks to Nolan) to a massive influx of ‘gritty grit’ middle-aged superheroes exploring complex themes. It felt weird watching Thor given it was trapped between 60s camp Batman with Adam West and Iron Man (at least in my opinion) and that felt good.
The ‘gritty grit’ is extending itself into the pointless Spider-Man reboot and so I decided to re-watch Begins to see if it was really all that dark. It was a common appraisal of Revenge of the Sith actually (which on closer inspection is just as bad as the other two) that because it was ‘dark’ it was ‘good’ although that’s kind of like saying Spider-Man 3 is a good film because it’s ‘dark’ (I like Spider-Man 3 by the way). Begins hits different notes than the Burton films or the Adam West films and while it is Dark I feel Batman Returns is probably the darkest the film adaptations have gone to. Begins is more… subtle.
For example, when Bruce’s parents are murdered and Bruce ages and eventually decides he wants to shoot Joe Chill in the face (and when some other guy does it for him) it’s left ambiguous whether Bruce would actually shoot the guy. I like this ambiguity because it shows Bruce Wayne as both full of hatred and revenge but also forgiveness. Burton’s films happily have Batman throwing people off ledges and the Penguin trying to develop sexual chemistry with Catwoman or something. I appreciate Begins more because it asks you to consider all of Bruce’s history and decide on his psyche.
Begins and The Dark Knight (which I’m trying not to talk about yet) are films that incorporate escalation heavily into their structure. The Dark Knight is more full on, and it’s a common criticism that the escalation never pays off, but Begins is perhaps more smart with the way it escalates. It literally begins Batman and allows him to grow within a short space of time, we see him tackle Cillian Murphy and try and find out what works best. He even fails in some of his first hero attempts and the symbol of the Batman isn’t fully formed until he gives Gordon the Bat-signal and tells Rachel who he is. That’s when the shit hits the fan.
The escalation is more self-contained, the beats are more spaced out and then grow tighter and tighter in frequency as we near the end. It feels like it plays with the audience more and there is a welcome absence of any predictability in what will happen. I for one could not have predicted that Batman would let Ra’s die at the end given his character in The Dark Knight carries only one rule. Speaking of changes, it is actually kind of refreshing to go back and hear Bale’s Bat-voice without the growl and this might actually be a more thematic touch by Nolan. He’s still evolving, albeit more tactfully, with the addition of the voice signifying that he’s still growing as a Batman.
Escalation, then, only takes its full iron grip on Begins right at the last half of the third act. It’s a wonderful moment when Ra’s storms the Wayne Mansion and burns it to the ground, perhaps symbolising the true rise of the Batman from the ashes of Bruce Wayne’s childhood, and this moment doesn’t lurch out of anywhere. It is a surprise, which is a given considering the lack of predictability about the film, and it feels weird to me. I want to be surprised and when the pacing ramps up to a higher degree it cheats you out of relishing in the slower pacing; the story beats have grown so close that they start to overlap.
When Ra’s is on the train with the microwave emitter thing and the Wayne Tower water control guys deliver the whole plot point in a few seconds of exposition, the whole illusion starts to crack for me. It feels shoved in as the camera goes about their scared faces and how they ramble on so robotically without any real emotion or humanity. Their faces show it but the way of delivering their lines don’t, it’s a weird juxtaposition and I pictured Ra’s just riding along in the train waiting for the audience to get up to speed. Then Gary Oldman gets in the Batmobile all of a sudden, then it all ends.
The ending itself of Batman been handed the Joker card is the biggest tease in the history of franchises, in my opinion at least, given The Dark Knight is set a year after Begins and it feels odd that the Joker’s few days of bringing down Batman took so long. He’d been existing for so long, did he just disappear or what? What happened to the crashed train, Ra’s survived his burning house once (albeit with Bruce’s intervention) surely he needed to be checked on? This lack of sealing up threads and closing the book for the sake of preserving the pace, then cooling it down for the Bruce/Rachel moment at the end, it feels alien to me.
Don’t get me wrong, that final act of Begins is when Nolan just relishes in Pfister’s cinematograghy, the explosion of character arcs, Hans Zimmer’s score and the fully grown Batman forming as he does what Spider-Man always fears: he tells Rachel that he’s got latex in his closet. The beats I mentioned above seem real off-the-wall to me and they’re all done for the sake of the pacing and not for the story, it’s not that the film shifts into Michael Bay mode but it kind of lets it all go to have Batman kick the shit out of everyone. Then again, can you blame him?
Another complaint: what the fuck happened to Scarecrow?