Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” hit some false notes, but both films manage to capture enough of the (good) comic books’ look and feel that they’re still entertaining. I was glad to see Warner Bros. go back to the well and start over with this franchise, rather than try to crazy glue a good film to a series that went into the toilet about a decade ago. Both DC and Marvel Comics have realized that they can’t keep creating patchwork continuities and have essentially rebooted their comic book universes, so why can’t Hollywood do the same?
For whatever it’s worth, I still like Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne but find Christian Bale a better Batman. Keaton looked kind of goofy in the costume; Bale’s features are more streamlined and seem to fit the cowl better. Keaton was better at the brooding Bruce Wayne, although Bale is good at portraying the playboy Bruce Wayne, a ruse that Burton’s film didn’t bother with. So, take a bit from one actor and a little from another and I guess you could Frankenstein a good Batman/Bruce Wayne. Funny how none of the actors to play the dual roles so far have quite nailed it completely, while Christopher Reeve was spot-on as Superman/Clark Kent.
You might want to consider this version the “realistic” Batman, although, of course, no superhero movie is ever grounded in reality. But Nolan’s version of Batman’s origins, which were barely touched on during the previous films (except for Bruce Wayne’s parents’ deaths, of course), delves into the territory that Frank Miller explored in his seminal “Year One” comic book mini-series. We see Bruce Wayne trekking through rugged terrain on the other side of the world, allying himself with criminals simply so he can learn what makes them tick.
The film opens with Bruce going toe-to-toe with a bunch of bad a***s in a prison. Tossed into solitary confinement, he meets Henri Ducard, a Qui Gon-esque character aptly handled by Liam Neeson. Through Ducard he learns those cool fighting skills all the girls love, although he’s forced to fight against his trainers when they ask him to execute a criminal and he refuses.
Making his way back to Gotham, Bruce sets up shop once more at Wayne Manor and hooks up again with Rachel, a girl he knew as a child. The character, played by Katie Holmes, was created for the movie and is largely forgettable. It seemed like Nolan wanted to give Bruce a love interest when he should have focused on building Batman’s foundation, such as his relationship with Gordon, the city’s reaction to his appearance and so forth.
Another new element arrives when Bruce makes a very un-Batman-like decision regarding Joe Chill, his parents’ murderer who earns early release from prison as part of a plea bargain involving another case. We can all empathize with the struggle Bruce faces here; little does he know it’s his first test as Batman.
The caped crusader’s arrival doesn’t happen until about an hour into the film, which is fine by me because I wanted Nolan to show us what would really drive a guy to don a bat suit and run around fighting crime. As I said, this is the “realistic” Batman, as true to reality as a superhero can be.
Bruce gets some help in his endeavors from Lucius Fox, a Wayne Foundation employee relegated to a dead-end job because he asked too many questions about the company’s activities. Lucius is the guy who hooks Bruce up with all those cool toys, as the Joker said in the 1989 film. While some fanboys blanched at the sight of the Batman tumbler, which replaces the traditional Batman car, I think it’s an okay updating of something that was getting long in the tooth anyway. I don’t have a problem with making little changes when adapting a comic book, such as Spider-Man’s organic webshooters. The tone of the material is what’s important, not nitpicking over every little detail.
Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer (no mention is made in the bonus materials of what happened to all the work Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller put into this project a few years ago) made an intriguing choice in going with the Scarecrow as the main villain, a second-tier Batman bad guy. I think it was important, though, for them to set the tone for this new series before introducing their version of the Joker, although the end of the film makes it clear that he’ll show up in the next movie.
Ra’s Al Ghul is another bad guy who casual Batman fans may not know much about. He’s kind of like Magneto to Batman’s Professor X, a guy who says he’s fighting for the same things as the protagonist, but he’s looking at the situation through a slightly skewed filter. I find such characters more interesting than your stereotypical “I’m gonna destroy the world because I feel like it” type of villains.
Nolan and Goyer really nailed Batman’s relationship with Jim Gordon, who isn’t commissioner yet in this movie. Gary Oldman simply melts into the role; I barely recognized him. Like Batman’s other relationships in the film, this one isn’t as cut-and-dried as you might expect; it has its own beats that, like other elements in the film, hearken back to “Year One.” I just wish Gordon’s character had been developed a bit more.
So that’s the movie. If you like Batman, you’ll like it; trust me. How about the DVD? Warner Bros. did a fine job with the two-disc Deluxe Edition, even going so far as to include a book that reprints three Batman comic book stories influential to the filmmakers, including the tale found in Detective Comics #27. It’s a great gesture to the fans in an era where some studios are cutting the chapter list inserts from the insides of their DVD cases.
Unfortunately, there’s no commentary accompanying the film. Disc one also includes the theatrical trailer as well as an MTV Movie Awards spoof called “Tankman Begins.” The latter is so-so until the laugh-out-loud twist ending. Jimmy Fallon may regret leaving “Saturday Night Live.”
Moving on to disc two, the menus there are arranged as the panels of a comic book story that you can page through. I’ve read some reviews that complain about navigating through them to find certain bonus features, but you can simply page through the story to the end and find everything listed on one screen, if you want. Take some time to explore the comic book panels, though, where you’ll find a few Easter eggs, including one that takes you straight to the bonus features list without paging through the story to get to it.
Rather than create one or two long documentaries for disc two, Warner Bros. decided to chop the content into eight featurettes, starting with “Batman—The Journey Begins,” which, as you might imagine, explains how the film came together. “Shaping Mind and Body” gets into the intense training and rehearsal required for the fight scenes, complete with an explanation of why a specific fighting style was chosen. We also see how Christian Bale got into shape to play Batman, something that was actually a potential problem because he had lost so much weight for “The Machinist.”
“Gotham City Rises” shows us how the sets were put together while “The Cape and Cowl” digs into the costume design, especially Batman’s suit, of course. The new Batmobile gets a turn in the spotlight in “Batman—The Tumbler,” which explains how the car was built from scratch. It really could pull off some of the amazing stuff it does in the movie, which is a testament to the hardworking folks behind the scenes. Luckily, they get their due, as do many of the below-the-line people in the other featurettes.
“Path to Discovery” focuses on Bruce Wayne’s lost years, which form the first act of the film. We learn why certain locales were chosen for the shoot, which was, unsurprisingly, arduous at times. “Saving Gotham City” showcases the movie’s climactic battle on the elevated subway train, explaining how live action shots were combined with CGI and miniatures to create the scene.
Finally, “Genesis of the Bat” takes a brief look at Batman’s history and notes how Nolan and Goyer used some of the best Batman stories ever as their inspiration for the film. If you want a definitive account of Batman’s history, I would recommend the one found on the two-disc Special Edition of the 1989 “Batman” film. It’s much longer and really digs deep to cover all the bases.
“Genesis of the Bat” ties in nicely with the book Warner Bros. included in this set. Not only does it reprint Batman’s first appearance Detective Comics #27 but it also features “The Man Who Falls,” an account of Batman’s origin as relayed by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Dick Giordano back in the 1980s. In addition, we get the first chapter of “The Long Halloween,” a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale maxi-series that featured the Scarecrow and other villains. As I said earlier, this volume is a really nice gesture to the fans. Warner Bros. didn’t have to include it, but they did anyway, so kudos to them.
Also included on disc two are a dozen Confidential Files, which consist of text screens that cover the hardware, good guys and bad guys in the film, and an art gallery that contains a billion concept designs for the theatrical poster. Neither is really worth visiting more than once.
I’m sure the obligatory Batman sequel is in the works, along with long-term plans for a franchise. Don’t screw it up again, Warner Bros. And please put this much effort into the DVD release of that film. Thanks.