Back to the Batcave

Batman BeginsAlready, I’ve seen “Batman Begins” twice, which gives you some indication of how I feel about the movie. I wanted to write a long review of it, but time simply won’t permit it — and there’s no dearth of glowing reviews available elsewhere — so I thought instead I might comment on the context in which this new interpretation has debuted.

Watch the very end of Tim Burton’s 1989 version of “Batman” and you’ll see just one of many, many examples of why I found very little of redeeming value in the last major hurrah for this franchise. The scene provides that movie’s resolution: Jack Nicholson’s miscast and misplayed Joker has been vanquished (after a ridiculous showdown in which he shot down the titular hero’s plane with a handgun!). Gotham City’s mayor, district attorney and police chief are addressing a crowd on the steps of an overwrought City Hall set, publicly reassuring the citizenry that the danger has passed.

Letter from a Crazy Man

Below: Never let it be said that Batman doesn’t stay in touch. A typically lame scene from Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman.”

In spite of the overestimated creativity of production designer Anton Furst, this scene’s set — like almost all of them throughout the picture — feels small and television-like, as if the camera could swing abruptly to the left and catch the crew just beyond the edges of the extras playing Gothamites. It just feels fake, like a stage play put on by a cash-rich but not entirely competent high school drama class. To make matters worse, the district attorney, gamely played by Billy Dee Williams, starts reading a letter from Batman. A letter from Batman! As if alighting rooftops by night dressed like a huge bat would ever put you in the frame of mind where you’d want to sit down with a quill pen and dash off a few paragraphs like Mr. Belvedere at the end of another zany episode.

Batman (1989)

There’s almost nothing in this scene, or many of the scenes that preceded it, that would have been out of place in an episode of the Adam West “Batman.” (To be fair, I retain a tremendous fondness for that show, and I still maintain that it was the most exuberantly uninhibited expression of comic book whimsy Hollywood has ever produced.) Aside from the half-inspired casting of Michael Keaton as the hero, Burton gets almost none of the Batman mythology right, and while he was at it, he didn’t even bother to make a particularly engaging movie, either. As super-hero adaptations go, Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman: The Movie” was equally imperfect but blessed with about a hundred times the heart of Burton’s “Batman” — and as a result, that movie rewards repeated viewings. Burton’s does not.

Laying Blame

Burton’s movie laid the groundwork, too, for an abysmal franchise that, when it finally crash landed, could be conveniently blamed on the hackery of his successor. Joel Schumacher has taken a terrible beating for the admittedly terrible work he did on “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin,” but I just want to try and set the record straight here: those two entries were not appreciably worse than the two that Burton turned in beforehand, in my opinion. All four movies, in spite of momentary flashes of interest, are off-putting and unenjoyable, frenzied attempts at creating marvelous spectacles that turned out to be tedious exercises in movie star-fueled boredom.

Clearly, the character had never been done properly, something the new movie’s leading man, Christian Bale, has attested to many times. Burton’s Batman was fierce but he was rarely menacing; moreover, he was never subtle or capable of being thrilling. He occupied a fantasia of inconsequence, where nothing felt particularly frightening or meaningful. None of that is true in Nolan’s new movie which, for the first time, offers not only a faithful reading of the Batman mythology, but fulfills the character’s dramatic potential, too. His Batman is full of fear and anger and he exudes the uncanny sense of being, if not real, then somehow possible. I’ve never watched a comic book movie like it before, and I found it completely satisfying. Finally.

  1. I have to agree. It was an unexpected pleasure to catch this in the weekend.

    My motivations for seeing it were purely Nolan’s and Bale’s reputation for Memento and American Psycho, respectively. And yet, I still had very little expectations for it given the noted predecessors.

    I’d be very keen to hear a lengthy review from you if you get the chance.

  2. I LOVED the camp theatricality of Burton’s first one, though I wasn’t so keen on the second. The Prince soundtrack! (I still listen to it). Not having read more than two Batman comics in my life, I’m obviously not attuned to whether the film was faithful, in spirit, to the original – but I suspect Burton’s more than a little interested in the idea of INfidelity anyway (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone?). The Joel Schumacher Batmans were absolutely diabolical, however. And your point about Batman’s letter to the DA is pretty spot-on, as much it pains me to say it.

  3. I have to go see the movie, still, but when did bats become marsupials? [Ack, fact checking! Corrected, thanks. -K] All snarks aside, remember that Burton is renowned for retelling with his own vision, and while his entries were not faithful to the comic books, they were interesting because seeing how someone who doesn’t see the world in the way most others do is always interesting.

    I enjoyed the retelling because frankly, the comics bored me. I don’t want to get into the whole Marvel v. D.C. discussion, because that’s about as much fun as Mac v. Windows, only it’s even more subjective. I just personally didn’t find any interest in the Batman comics, and had never, before Burton’s movie, given a fig about him. I agree with your summation of his film, tho, as it does seem to push towards camp and, unsurprisingly, Schumacher then drove fast down that candy-colored path. However, it seemed, at the time, a fun escape for the caped crusader of the television series to get some bits of seriousness. In other words, if Burton hadn’t made his movies, if Schumacher hadn’t then destroyed them with overly campy shots of random rubber clad body parts, would this new movie have ever been made?

    The answer is no, because the original TV series defined for Hollywood what Batman was about, and so much of that zaniness had to be destroyed in film before the story you so ardently wanted could be made. And that has happened.

    Now, if we can just avoid another mistake like The Punisher ever being committed to film, the world will truly be a better place.

  4. Kevin: You’re right that this new version wouldn’t have been possible without evidence of the franchise’s earning power in the first place, and the franchise’s own self-destructive tendencies in the second place. You need something to tear down in order to build something demonstrably better, I suppose. As for Burton’s vision, I acknowledge that a singular sense of the fantastic is the primary building block upon which the man’s career has been based. But I don’t have to like that vision, particularly, which I don’t.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree. Tim Burton has an awful habit of “reimagining” his source material during adaptations, and in my opinion, the results usually miss the target. I expect the upcoming Willy Wonka will be a perfect example of this.

    Best thing about the new film – the lack of Prince in the soundtrack.

  6. Hmmm. I actually liked the Burton Batman(s? Batmen?) but… I, too, find that too small sets take me out of the movie. I can’t watch the Tomb Raider movies for that reason. I find, more and more, that I am watching movies for their sets. I could probably wax on for hours about the Reservoir Dogs set. Oh well. Nice article.

  7. I did, in fact, intend to add an actual comment rather than just pimp my own article, but I suffered some kind of brain failure and suddenly couldn’t articulate anything.

    Khoi: your point about the set feeling small and fake, and how this typifies the film in general, manages to crystallise a reaction to Batman I knew I’d felt, but couldn’t quite get into words. It was just an impression, a vague feeling that this wasn’t really real—which, of course, it wasn’t. Perhaps when we expect unreality we find it harder to agree with gut reactions that tell us how fake something is.

  8. You know, Begins isn’t my favorite comic book movie (I reserve that distinction to Spider-Man 2), but it is definitely the most bad ass. I love that he is actually a martial artist in the movie (Keaton just looks so terrible in this regard), and I love how you get a sense of just how messed up Batman is in the head, how as Bruce Wayne, he’s dead. And while it isn’t Year One, the little nods to it sprinkled throughout was delightful. Before the 1989 Burton film came out, a friend let me borrow Year One and I was so disappointed that the film patronized its audience so much (and I was only 12 at the time).

    I can’t wait to see it again.

  9. It was simply one of the best translations from comics to screen that we have seen. Probably THE best. Mr Lucas had pushed me into the mode, over the last 7 years, that anytime I would see an awesome trailer, that I would expect the movie to suck ( See Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith). Needless to say, while I had all the faith in Christopher Nolan, part of me thought I would not be able to escape this new death rattle Lucas had brought upon me. I believed that when you had all this money and resources at your disposal, and I get to see idiot Jar Jar and no story, that its an utter failure. Christopher Nolan has removed the curse of Jar Jar from my life. Now hopefully Mr. Nolan will re-up for another few movies and we can continue my 12 step program down the cinematic road of hope.

  10. I think it’s significant that the new movie wasn’t touted as a Chris Nolan production or Christian Bale vehicle – it was simply Batman Begins. It seemed to indicate a commitment to a tight product, a commitment that didn’t exist in the earlier movies.

  11. First of all I must say that I loved Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Hey I was young, it’s a fond memory. However I must say it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen when he pulls that insanely long-barreled hangun from his pants. Call it camp call it whatever you want, but I love it!

    I also enjoyed Revenge of the Sith, possibly because I only saw one of them Jar Jar creatures and they didn’t say anything. Luckily I knew Episode One was going to suck so I avoided it. There is one solace you have, Charles: No Jar Jar like creature existed in the original movies so all of their kind must’ve been obliterated in some war 🙂 I would like to see them remake the originals to make them all sync better (especially while James Earl Jones is still alive and break dancing), but I have this fear that somehow they’ll screw it up—call me crazy.

    Anyway, I really need to see this movie now. It’s going to be interesting to see a Batman that is actually devious and badass.

    P.S. You just have to love the TV series with Adam West, if only for the way they use him in the Simpsons 🙂 But seriously, what other show would use comic book letter POWs, and BANGs? And just think, it was the 60s, they must’ve had a hard tim getting those cutting-edge graphics on screen!

  12. It’s a wonderfully-produced movie, and not just in the visual abstractions. The direction and acting make for a very solid experience.

    I’d heard of Christian Bale; and, of course, I’ve seen Memento. However, I picked up another Bale flick last night and I have to say he’s very impressive. I didn’t see American Psycho; but if his presence (something including but also beyond his performance is anything like it was in The Machinist, it’s next on my list.

    In The Machinist, Bale plays a character who’s notably a bit more lithe currently than in the past. It is actually very difficult to rectify impressions of Bale as Batman with those of his Trevor Reznik; but there is no CGI trickery involved. Bale would appear to have cast out concerns for his health in preparing for the role of Reznik, as he is so thin you can’t help but see all his ribs, his spine, his hip bones, everthing. The emaciated Reznik is the visual antithesis of the beafy Bruce Wayne/Batman.

    The acting was also nicely done, too. It might’ve been the direction, or something else; or maybe the obvious dedication was more striking than any acting could have been. It’s a fairly good movie besides Bale’s dogged perfectionism; and a little better for it.

  13. Gotta say, I went to see this film, really based on the enthusiasm of the posts here, and was seriously disappointed. I found the pace uneven and the blend of self-seriousness and jokey very poorly executed. The fight choreography was sloppy and listless (compared to a good fight movie, like Kill Bill). I think as a simple blockbuster experience this flick doesn’t hold a candle to Spiderman 2. Art Direction = better than Burton, which is saying far too little.

  14. Too bad, but I can understand why someone might not have liked the movie. I agree about Nolan’s skills conveying action sequences — they’re hard to decipher. I think he’s trying to communicate confusion, but it’s not as artful as it should be. As for the tone, yeah, it’s a bit overly somber but it fits with the tone of the character, certainly with my own view of the character which admittedly may be kind of histrionic itself. Still, I think it’s a pretty terrific movie. For my tastes, I wasn’t a huge fan of either “Spider-Man” or its sequel, though I definitely found its sequel to be less grating. To each his own, I guess. Anyway, sorry to have steered you wrong, Tom.

  15. It’s okay Khoi, and I’m a fan of your opinion still. I just always expect a lot from a film, especially one that is sorta trying to be serious and not just fluff from frame one (which is where I let Spiderman 2 off easy, it was trying to be lighter and more fun, and I think hit it’s target well). With Batman, and a Frank MIller-esque Batman, I expect much more. I want a Batman that’s as serious and mind-fucking as Apocalypse Now. I want what I hope V for Vendetta turns out to be. I want dark, really dark, not just dark vs. Tim Burton. I haven’t given up hope that a comic book movie can be a profound, deep, and really well executed film. Classic melodramas can be really good, they were back in the day, and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Road Warrior where little more than comic books writ large. Does this Batman really hold a candle to them? Why not? Certainly budget is no excuse. Big movies that miss make me mad — I wish I had that kind of resource to blow on a gutterball.

  16. I totally agree with your post, a nice one at that. My thoughts: Christian Bale was born to play Batman (see American Psycho or Equilibrium for evidence), Nolan did a great job, why did they have to cast Qui-Gon (isn’t Ra’s Al Ghul…not white?), and Cillian Murphy better get more screen time in the sequel.

    This time around, they took the whole thing seriously and it really paid off. And all it took was X-Men, X-Men 2, Spider-Man, and Spider-Man 2’s billions of dollars to show DC, “hey, maybe we too can make money off our insanely famous franchises?” Yes, you can. Way to go, please make more.

  17. First and foremost Begins is tremendously awesome and I hope they make a sequel immediately.

    Second, I liked the Burton Batman’s (all the more-so once Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise), but all your points are valid, particularly on the letter at the end. Not only was a letter written, but it was on Bat-letterhead, implying many more letters might be written (after all you don’t get letterhead for just one letter). Where are all these letters going? The editor of the local paper? can you imagine Batman weighing in on local issues? This letter writing could lead to the most surreal newspaper experience ever:

    “To the Editor,

    as a cave-owner I find the city council’s proposal to create a new underground parking structure both threatening to my livelihood, as well as unneccessary. Subterranean property values will plummet, and the bat population will certainly be affected. I hope my fellow citizens will join with me in opposing this would-be blight.


    Anyway, great article, keep up the good work.

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