The Dark Knight Returns
The last time cinema goers saw Batman, it was in the Joel Schumaecher-directed Batman and Robin, a film infamous for cooky sound effects, Ah-nuld's horrid Mr. Freeze, an overabundance of plotlines, garish designs and sets laced with neon, a pudgy and totally unnecessary and obnoxious Batgirl and... rubber nipples. Well, thankfully despite all that, arguably the most cinema-prolific and popular comic book hero gets a new lease on life in Batman Begins. Written by David Goyer and megged by Christopher Nolan, this is a totally different take on the caped crusader that does away the baggage of the previous movies. In many ways, Batman Begins is a pseudo adaptation of the popular Batman: Year One comic book, which showed a fledgeling Batman getting used to his new digs and starting his legend in Gotham City. The movie also takes a great risk by doing something most, if not all, of the previous films did- focus entirely on Batman and NOT on the bat-villains.
Batman Begins is the story of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), son of billionaire developer, humanitarian and model father Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache). Unlike previous Batman flicks, we are shown in detail stuff that shaped Bruce's psyche- what kind of man his father was, and a more in-depth role of the young Wayne in the tragic death of his parents. This goes quite a bit into explaining more of why the young heir turns into a caped, black-suited crimefighter. It walks a fine line though... impatient, jaded watchers may find it all boring. Fortunately, I got into the flick and it was fine. There is, however, quite some time before Batman even dons the black suit. Fortunately, the amount and substance of the stuff we see is not terminally depressing and pointless baggage such as was in the crappy Hulk film. In all, it makes Bruce Wayne a fuller, more understandable character, and that's not bad.
While the focus on Batman himself is plain to be seen, the supporting cast is in fine form. Of note are Michael Caine, as the new Alfred. While the previous Alfred of the past Batman films, Michael Gough, certainly looked the part more, Caine does well by not trying to imitate his predecessor. Caine injects more humor and a bit of old English spunk into the faithful butler and Wayne's second father, and it's refreshing to see, along with some welcome points of humor. Another surprising new entry is Gary Oldman as the new Comissioner James Gordon (though he's still a lieutenant at the time of Batman Begins). This is probably one of Oldman's most 'normal' roles, and one of his rare non-villain ones. Once again he proves himself a cinematic chameleon, portraying the slightly bookish but unmistakeably stalwart cop perfectly.
Of the villains, Cillian Murphy makes a good showing as Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA The Scarecrow. He may look a bit young, but those weird eyes and his creepy deliveries make for a very disturbing Master of Fear. The character's design itself, while understated compared to previous bat villains, is memorable and effective. And then there's Liam Neeson's Ducard- I certainly hope that he comes back in some form in the future, but we'll see.
Katie Holmes was fine- a bit young for a district attorney, but she has a strength and some good parts which at least keep her from being just wallpaper or eye candy. Luckily I never watched Dawson's Creek so I don't see her TV character nudging into her movie performance. Finally, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, a sort of 'Q' for Batman, makes the most of the short scenes he appears in with some of the film's funniest lines.
But then of course, the whole film hinges on Christian Bale. How does he do? In my opinion, he's the best Bruce Wayne so far in my opinion- edging slightly over Keaton, far and away better than Kilmer or Clooney. As for Batman, he fills in the suit well, though that raspy delivery just has to be toned down. As a start though, he makes it with flying colors.
Batman Begins look, feel and action are exceptional- I love the new Batmobile, the tank-like "Tumbler" which replaces the sleek design of previous Bat-Cars. The new, modernized look of Gotham City is different- I'm still deciding if I like it over the older, more Gothic look of the previous films. The action and fight scenes, which some reviews found too shaky and unclear- work just fine for me. Batman isn't about graceful martial arts... he's about fear and brutal takedowns. The new emphasis on the dark, scary Batman and how he appears to the superstitious criminal element is perfect, especially in moments such as when Batman takes out the Falcone mob in a darkened warehouse. In these moments, Batman is never seen in full. He attacks in a blur and vanishes. He's scary and it's awesome.
I recognize though that the movie isn't perfect. There are tons of explanations of why Batman is Batman- lots of How's and Why's that fans of the comic may or may not take well. The final, overall scheme and doomsday plot was a bit too complicated for me, and there's a fair bit of expository dialogue that could have been handled better. There are some corny lines of dialogue mixed in with the cool quips. And of course, there's the bit that this film does takes it's time to get Wayne into the costume.
Still, it's a wonderful and refreshing new direction for this popular character. Taken all in all, I pretty much love Batman Begins, and am looking forward to the inevitable sequel (the direction of which is given not so subtly at the end). With the groundwork of a great regular cast and a new world of new possibilties, the future looks bright (heh) for the dark knight.
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