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Batman Ends
My thoughts on the much-hyped
Batman Begins
jriddle
Comics Comments
29 June, 2005

Where to begin?

Unbelievably ill-conceived. That's it. A film that, rather than picking a story and sticking to it, tries to be everything to all people, and ends up being nothing as a consequence.

This one had a lot of potential, and it was hard to watch it fall apart as it went along. Some grumble-inducing moments notwithstanding, it's actually quite good in the early going. It's engaging, well-constructed, and, despite a lot of high-fallutin' monologues about the psychology of fear, never comes across as overly pretentious. The first indication of trouble, however, occurs in this early part of the movie. Bruce Wayne, our future Batman, has been in training with the League of Shadows, a ninja-style group led by Ras al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Upon his "graduation," Ras explains his master plan. His "explanation" is an utterly incoherent rant about "destroying Gotham," Bruce's home city, for no apparent reason other than that it is "corrupt." As Watanabe rambled, I started giggling. That the film, in standard Hollywood tell-you-what-you're-supposed-to-think-about-what-you're-seeing fashion, presents this as a very somber, serious moment only added to the joke. Bruce, having listened to this, then turns to Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man who'd recruited him into the League, and asks, totally deadpan, if he really believes in all of this, and my giggles turned into outright laughter, shared by others in the theater. It's an embarrassingly idiotic moment that immediately took me out of the mood that had been established.

Though this early misstep unfortunately foreshadows things to come, the film, in real time, bounces back fairly quickly from it. Back in Gotham, we have uber-boss Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, a powerful gangster whom the filmmakers establish as the virtual monarch of Gotham, a guy who runs everything in a corrupt sewer of a city. A scene wherein he threatens to shoot Bruce in a restaurant full of city officials, convincingly explaining that he could do so and get away with it, is certainly a keeper, and promises much more to come. Why the filmmakers bothered spending so much time and energy setting him up is anyone's guess, though, because nothing much ever does. They could have built a movie (or an entire series of movies) around Bruce's efforts to clean up the town, as they'd established it. More importantly, the first part of the film gives every indication that this is exactly what we're in for. Instead, the mighty Falcone is decimated by the Batman in mere minutes, in ludicrously implausible fashion, none of his power helping him a bit.

The quick disposal of Falcone, after so much set-up, is very poor storytelling, and, for the viewer, quite jarring. It's a broken promise. Director Christopher Nolan has spent the entire film suggesting, to the audience, that the process of bringing down the gangster is going to be a real fasten-your-seatbelts epic, and the focus of the film, then, in only minutes, it's suddenly over, and the film is off on an entirely new tangent. If this new tangent was better, of course, it would be somewhat excusable.

It isn't better.

It isn't even good.

Nolan and David Goyer, the film's screenwriters, tried to take "Begins" in two diametrically opposed--and irreconcilible--directions. The end-product is a cut-and-pasted mess, drawing both from great and solidly grounded Batman material, like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" (which should have been this movie), and very bad, very dated, and embarrassing comic book stuff from yesteryear featuring motiveless, pretentious, overblown, super-villains with some incredibly idiotic (and laughably inefficient) plot to "destroy" something.[1] When it kicks into this second phase--the new post-Falcone tangent--every minute of the movie seems to be worse than the one before.

The movie essentially disintegrates from the moment Bruce dons the Batman mask. Sitting in the theater, you can almost physically feel the film's IQ drop. Christian Bale, who had done an admirable (if largely unexceptional) Bruce Wayne, never comes close to getting a handle on his characters' alter ego. Indeed, his Batman voice and persona suggest the actor had picked up his direction on how to play the part at the Keanu Reeves School of Acting. When Bruce becomes Batman, all he has to do to rid Gotham of the mighty Falcone is rough up a dozen of his men[2] who are, at that time, in the middle of completing an illegal drug shipment, then attack Falcone and leave him chained and beaten senseless at the scene of the crime. This, along with some evidence gathered by the Batman that would be inadmissible in any court in the civilized world, will, we're told, send Falcone away forever. Uh huh. Then Nolan and Goyer get into the meat of Phase Two (rancid pork, in this case): Ras al Ghul returns, still looking to "destroy Gotham" for no real reason. His means of doing so is the most ludicrous item in a film filled with ludicrous items, and the final hour of the movie is dedicated to a lot of empty standard-issue Hollywood sound and fury, as the plot plays itself out. Unforgivably, the film's last scene is a straight steal of the great ending of Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," which only serves to rub salt in the wound the film has created by spoiling the scene for some future filmmaker who may one day want to make a real Batman movie.

I have no tolerance for this sort of thing anymore. If I hadn't been with a friend, I would probably have left long before it was over In the final analysis, "Batman Begins" is inferior, in pretty much every way, to the original Burton flick, and is even less of a Batman movie. For my part, I hope it's going to be ending, rather than beginning, a Batman franchise. I'm rather fond of the character, and have had quite enough of Hollywood dragging him through the mud.

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[1] A depressing possibility is that the filmmakers may have thought they were actually playing to the comic-reading audience with this kind of rot, when, in fact, this sort of mindless plot went out of fashion in the medium over 30 years ago. More generally, even with the recent spate of good comic book movies, the level of sophistication in the source books almost always exceeds, by a significant margin, what is commited to film.

[2] This, like all of the scenes of violence in the film, is remarkably badly done on every level--direction, camera-work, editing, even sound. It's assembled in such a way that it's impossible to tell what's happening until its over.


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