“I Won’t Kill You, But I Don’t Have to Save You.”

Batman & Robin seemingly killed the franchise with just two words: Bat Nipples. But in 2005, Christopher Nolan managed to ressurect the dead.

While I have a couple of problems with it (I have a couple of problems with everything), it is easily a better film than its four predecessors—or five, if you’re including Adam West’s Batman. Almost anything’s better than that.

Except Batman & Robin, of course.

DISCLAIMER:

As with all the other Batman reviews, this will contain SPOILERS.

SUMMARY:

Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. This process includes learning to fight like a ninja while under the influence of psychotropics, putting together his Batsuit with various improbably designed prototypes, and getting figuratively and literally bitchslapped by his childhood friend and love interest, Rachel Dawes.

NOTES:

1. Let’s talk acting for a good long while. We might as well begin with the dark knight himself, Christian Bale.

Because this is an origin story, Batman Begins focuses much more attention on Bruce Wayne than any of the other films have in the past. And there’s no doubt that Christian Bale makes for a better Bruce Wayne than Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney combined. He’s a strong lead, and compelling—Bale is extremely successful at balancing the charm and silliness of Bruce’s put-on playboy image with his actual grim determination to protect the innocent and save Gotham.

What he is less successful at, of course, is Batman’s voice.

About half the time, it’s actually not so bad, I think. I mean, it’s raspy as hell, but when he’s just talking to someone or whispering, I’m actually okay with The Voice. But when he goes for intimidating—my God. It’s so, so bad. The first time I saw this in theater, I cracked up so hard at “SWEAR TO ME!” And you know what? I still do, every time I watch this movie. That has become this movie’s most unintentionally hilarious line. (Though there are a few others, which I will point out later in this review.)

Despite Batman’s ridiculously gravelly voice, I can still say that Christian Bale is my favorite live-action Batman (and Bruce Wayne) of all. My actual favorite Batman of all time, though, is Kevin Conroy.

“Clark, what the hell are good villains?” LOVE.

2. While we’re on the subject of villains, though . . .

Ohmygod, I love Cillian Murphy in this movie. There are no words for how much I adore him as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. He is, at turns, condescending, slimy, creepy, and crazy, and I love, love, love it. Other than his awesome line deliveries and great facial expressions—Murphy lifts an eyebrow and just exudes disdain—the man actually manages to land a couple of puns. For the most part, Christopher Nolan took all the camp and silliness right out of this series, but the few jokes he left in—like “you need to lighten up” right before setting Batman on fire—actually work. Good for you, Mr. Murphy.

Also . . .

Liam Neeson plays Henri Ducard, but really he’s playing Ra’s al Ghul. As a child, I had no love for Ra’s al Ghul—like Phoenix/Dark Phoenix in X-Men (the 1992 cartoon series), Ra’s seemed to pop up every other episode solely to annoy me—and I was not at all excited when I originally heard he was going to be a villain in this movie. (Side note: I don’t know that Ra’s actually did show up that much in the animated series. I suspect my penchant for exaggeration started at a very young age.) So in Batman Begins, when Ra’s (Ken Watanabe) is unceremoniously killed off, I was fairly surprised . . . although secretly grateful.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have seen Neeson coming, but perhaps I was distracted by Cillian Murphy’s big, blue eyes. No matter. I actually like the twist, if only because it’s nice to see a dark spin on the kindly mentor role that Neeson often gets suckered into. (Or used to get suckered into, for a while. Right now he seems to be primarily starring or co-starring in all the action movies I don’t want to see.) Neeson is suitably villainous as Ra’s, and he has some awesome line deliveries. I just wish he would stop appearing in things where he inexplicably stands next to American bald eagles while encased in super glowy armor.

No, really. I HAVE been nominated for an Academy Award.

And if that wasn’t enough villains . . .

Tom Wilkinson plays Carmine Falcone, and he’s definitely lower down on the food chain here, as far as evil villains go. Falcone is Gotham’s ultimate mob boss, and while Wilkinson’s accent is just a bit on the cartoonish side, I’m willing to let it go because the actor seems to be having a good time and his performance is actually fairly enjoyable. I am not at all willing to let go of the fact that Falcone is a complete moron at one point in the movie—what the hell are you doing at this last big shipment, anyway that’s what you have lackeys for, and when your underlings tell you to get the fuck out of dodge, why are you not getting the fuck out of dodge—but that can’t be blamed on Tom Wilkinson, of course.

3. Then we have allies . . .

Michael Caine makes for a different Alfred than Michael Gough . . . bit less posh, I suppose, and more likely to directly challenge Bruce on something he disagrees with than to serve up some gentle, grandfatherly advice . . . but I like him all the same. Alfred’s loyal and funny and, at the very least, he isn’t constantly badgering Bruce to tell Rachel about his secret identity, so there’s something to smile about.

Also . . .

Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, who heads up the Applied Sciences Division of Wayne Enterprises. It sounds like a more impressive job than it actually is—apparently, his work consists of sitting in an old basement with a bunch of ridiculously awesome weapon prototypes that aren’t being used. (Actually, that sounds like an awesome job.) Fox is no big stretch for Freeman, but he’s still good here, and all of his scenes with Bale are enjoyable to watch.

Best moment? Lucius gives this little nervous chuckle as he speeds around with Bruce in what is soon to become the Batmobile. It’s just a tiny little moment, but it’s awesome nonetheless.

And let us not forget . . .

Okay, I’ll admit it. The first time I watched this, I wasn’t sure how much I liked Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, probably because I was nursing a grudge against him that I have since gotten over. (The first time I watched it, I was very unhappy with his Sirius Black in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. I have since done a 180 on this, but I still maintain that his shrieky line, “I did my waiting! Twelve years of it! IN AZKABAN!” is not Oldman’s finest moment.  {Clearly, that honor goes to Red Riding Hood and his purple robes of destiny.})

Gordon, mercifully, is not an incompetent buffoon the way he’s been portrayed in the last four movies. He is a bit on the it-doesn’t-matter-nothing-matters-I-should-just-throw-myself-in-front-of-a-train-and-get-it-over-with side, but I suppose he’s got cause to be a bit depressed about life. Other than one unfortunate line delivery (unintentionally hilarious line delivery # 2: “Covering Gotham in this poison”) and one bad joke that he can do nothing about, Oldman is very good here. Seriously, words can not express how much more I appreciate his performance now that I’ve just watched Batman through Batman & Robin.

4. And then we have The Love Interest . . .

There are so many problems with Rachel Dawes.

I’ve watched this movie a fair number of times now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that not all of these problems can be blamed on Katie Holmes. Maybe not even most of them, although to this day, I still have problems taking her seriously as an assistant D.A. It’s not entirely her youth, but that’s a big part of it. She just doesn’t seem mature enough to me. I swear to God, at one point in the film, she practically does a ‘talk to the hand’ motion. (Most Unintentionally Hilarious Line Number Three: “I’m an assistant district attorney. Let me pass!”)

Still, there are serious issues I have with her character and her whole relationship with Bruce Wayne. I feel like I get what the movie is trying to do—she’s the opposite of Ra’s al Ghul, the angel instead of the devil on Bruce’s shoulder. Both believe in justice (I think they might even both say that justice is balance, or something like that) but they go about fighting for justice in very different ways. That’s all fine. It’s Bruce’s and Rachel’s actual relationship that I find to be problematic.

See, the night Bruce almost kills Joe Chill, something is supposed to be broken between the two of them. I guess she’s supposed to lose her faith in him, or something, feel betrayed that he isn’t the good person she takes him to be? The thing is, I’m really not sure why she feels so personally betrayed. Disappointed, sure, maybe a little pissed off—I do like that Rachel slaps him—but this bitterness that she shows for the rest of the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially since it appears to be one-sided. (I get why, thematically, saying your dad would have been ashamed of you is important, but in actuality, that’s a pretty shitty thing to say, and Rachel doesn’t even acknowledge that until the end of the movie. And it’s almost off-hand when she finally does!)

Their relationship throughout the film is supposed to be irrevocably altered because of this one moment, but I just don’t think the scene’s strong enough for that. We need to really understand where both of them are coming from, and it’s hard to relate to Rachel’s complete lack of empathy for her best friend whose parents have been murdered. Every subsequent time Rachel snipes at him, it just doesn’t play well. Even if she’s making a good point, it’s hard to listen because she’s so underhanded and bitchy for most the film. That’s another big problem with Rachel—and with a lot of female characters in Hollywood—the director and writers are shooting for “strong” but end up at “bitchy” instead. They aren’t synonyms.

Oh, and the ending of the movie, with the whole ‘the guy I loved didn’t come back’ bit . . . I don’t think it plays right, either. Maybe because Rachel was so clearly pissed at the guy who didn’t come back? You know, the billionaire boy-whore Bruce isn’t her Bruce, but when he’s jumping off buildings and saving lives, that isn’t her Bruce either? I’d be like, woman, you are absolutely impossible to please. Seriously, the ideas are all there, but the execution seems sloppy to me. While I approve of actually having a woman in Batman’s life who isn’t a helpless bimbo, Rachel Dawes doesn’t even seem like a real person to me, just a mouthpiece for idealism—and a bitchy one, at that.

5. Look, I know there’s this whole idea in parenting that every moment’s a teaching moment, but when your kid has fallen down a well—perhaps it is, in fact, not time to explain that we fall so we can get back up again and, rather, time to take your child to a hospital. (Yes, yes, Thomas Wayne is a doctor, and he can just set his kid’s bone at his ridiculous mansion. Can the CT’s and x-rays looking for internal bleeding and skull fractures be done at his ridiculous mansion too? What do you mean, you’ll just go later? Your kid fell down a WELL. Go NOW.)

Dad, my arm is broken, and I was just attacked by about a hundred bats. Maybe the gentle lecture on fear can wait till morning. You know, AFTER MY RABIES SHOT.

6. Keeping with tradition, Bruce’s mom is completely irrelevant. His dad is there to teach inspirational life lessons. The mother is mostly there to wear pearls.

7. Almost everyone in this cast is putting on an American accent except Morgan Freeman and Katie Holmes. Surprisingly, everyone does pretty well with it—I was particularly impressed with Cillian Murphy the first time I watched this—although Linus Roache (Bruce’s dad) and Guy Lewis (young Bruce) are a bit less successful. They’re not absolutely horrible, just . . . kind of off.

8. Origin stories are a dime a dozen now, but Batman Begins was the first one to really start this trend of telling the genesis of a superhero. I mean, Batman was a relatively new superhero in Tim Burton’s Batman, but he wasn’t brand new. We didn’t see where he got the idea to become the caped crusader or how he found all those wonderful toys. Some people complained about it when the movie came out, but I actually like how much time we get to spend with Bruce training for this life—he’s a billionaire’s son, you know? He shouldn’t start the movie just being a crazy ninja.

And it’s completely awesome they address a lot of those questions you always wondered about, like what is he making this costume out of, or how does he have so many spares, or why don’t the citizens of Gotham suspect that the one guy who can afford to be Batman is actually Batman, etc.

Also, as an aside, I like the fact that Bruce chooses bats as a symbol because they actually frighten him. It makes a little more sense, I think, than the ‘figure in the dark was my destiny’ nonsense that Val Kilmer is forced to sell.

8. More casting I forgot about earlier. Little Joffrey Lannister is in this movie!

Dude, this kid grows up evil.

9. My biggest problem with this movie other than Rachel Dawes: The League of Shadows and their shadowy past.

Now, I don’t mind that the League of Shadows exists. I’m not usually a huge fan of stories with secret organizations and global conspiracies that have lasted thousands of years, but I’m actually okay with it here. I can take the fact that these dudes were behind sacking Rome, burning London, all that cheery stuff. What I can’t take is that these guys were apparently behind the economic depression that hit Gotham twenty years ago and are thus indirectly responsible for the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne (and, for that matter, how the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne galvanized the city and temporarily ruined the League of Shadows’s shadowy plans).

Because ugh. I actually remember rolling my eyes at this twist when I saw Batman Begins in the theater for the first time. It is dumb and overcomplicated and just too ridiculously diabolical. You don’t need this; it was perfectly fine when Ra’s was just arguing that the city was irreversibly corrupt and Batman was arguing that the good people in Gotham made it a worthwhile fight. The League of Shadows’s economic attack just feels like a cheap way to make this into a revenge-but-not-really-revenge story, and I hate it. I mean, I like this movie a lot—I think it’s my favorite of all the Batman films—but I absolutely despise this twist with every fiber of my being.

10. Finally, Nolan really likes to repeat his dialogue. (For instance, ‘why do we fall sir’ and ‘it’s what we do that defines us’ and ‘didn’t you get the memo’ and ‘theatricality and deception are powerful allies’ and ‘you never learned to mind your surroundings’ and on and on and ON.) I don’t think this happens in The Dark Knight quite as much as it does here, but it sure does happen in Inception. (Can we say waiting for a train?)

Anyway, here are some quotes:

Policeman: “It’s a black . . . tank.”

Ra’s al Ghul: “If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

Bruce: “I want to borrow it. For, uh, spelunking.”
Lucius: “Spelunking?”
Bruce: “Yeah, you know, cave diving.”
Lucius: “You expecting to run into much gunfire in these caves?”

Alfred: “When you told me your grand plan for saving Gotham, the only thing that stopped me from calling the men in white was when you said it wasn’t about thrill-seeking.”
Bruce: “It’s not.”
Alfred: “What would you call that?”
Bruce: “Damn good television.”

Ra’s: “You took my advice about theatricality a bit . . . literally.”

Lucius: “I analyzed your blood, isolating the receptor compounds and the protein-based catalyst.”
Bruce: “Am I meant to understand any of that?”
Lucius: “Not at all. I just wanted you to know how hard it was.”

Falcone: “Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.”

Bruce: “What’s that?”
Lucius: “The Tumbler? Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that.”

Alfred: “What is the point of all those push-ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?”

Bruce: “Bats frighten me. It’s time my enemies shared my dread.”

Alfred: “I assume that as you’re taking on the underworld, this symbol is a persona to protect those you care about from reprisals.”
Bruce: “You thinking about Rachel?”
Alfred: “Actually, sir, I was thinking about myself.”

Crane: “Dr. Crane isn’t in right now. But if you’d like to make an appointment . . .”

CONCLUSIONS:

Other than the problematic Rachel and the stupid economics-as-a-weapon twist, this is a very, very strong Batman film with good dialogue, good ideas, and good performances. Great origin story. Probably my favorite live-action Batman film.

MVP:

Christian Bale (I think he earns it, but I came this close to giving it to Cillian Murphy.)

TENTATIVE GRADE:

A-

MORAL:

We fall so we can pick ourselves back up and save the good from tyranny! Also, it’s what you do that defines you. But that’s not always going to win you your childhood sweetheart. Sorry.

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5 Responses to “I Won’t Kill You, But I Don’t Have to Save You.”

  1. Man, I am right there with you on both the Kevin Conroy thing and the awful Bale voice. One of the few things I really liked in Green Lantern was when he tries to do the same thing, and Carol Ferris stops and says “Oh my God… Hal?”

  2. Jim King says:

    it is easily a better film than its four predecessors—or five, if you’re including Adam West’s Batman. Almost anything’s better than that.

    Well, no, it isn’t. The Keaton Batman is best as it’s realizes how stupid and ridiculous comic books and the very idea of a superhero is. The Bale Batman is way too serious to the point that it’s almost a parody. As for the West Batman, anyone who dislikes it doesn’t understand it. A lot of people actually think they were trying to make it good and it just ended up really bad – instead they purposely made it that way because it’s really the only way to deal with something as impossible and as stupid as a superhero. The Batman comics of the day already started to turn toward more serious stories, so it’s not even like it was simply a reflection of what was being done at the time. When you get right down to it, Batman could never happen if you had someone who was capable of being him and who wanted to do it. In reality, you’d clean up Gotham the way they cleaned up Chicago in the 30s. So, the only way to do a superhero is to have fun with it which is why I prefer the West Batman over all, next to that Keaton, and the era of Batman comics (and comics in general) when they weren’t comically over-serious (i.e. when the majority of readers were kids rather than mostly middle aged dudes).

    • I enjoy West’s Batman . . . I don’t understand anyone who actually thinks they were trying to be serious about it, although I fully understand why people wanted them to be serious about it . . . but I completely disagree that a superhero movie has to be silly or stupid. There are some very intelligent, good superhero films out there. Nolan’s films are among them. But if you really think that superheroes are just a dumb idea that can’t be taken seriously, then I don’t know that there’s anything I could ever say to convince you otherwise.

      • Jim King says:

        There have been good superhero movies, sure, but the idea of a superhero in the real world is ridiculous and the best of them – like Iron Man and Avengers – have a little fun with it. They don’t have to be like the Adam West Batman, but they don’t have to be as preposterously grim and self important like the Nolan Batman movies either. ‘Nuff said.

      • Steve Cooper says:

        I’m reminded of something I remember them saying about that Zorro movie Banderas was in. The first script they got was relentlessly grim, no humor at all (maybe Nolan would have liked it). Having a bit, even a bit of mildly slapstick humor, worked very well. It worked well in the Burton Batman movies too. Nolan’s have none. I agree that they’re too serious – that’s dangerous because you risk unintentional self parody. I agree that it’s not necessary to go to the extreme of the 60s West Batman but given the inherent ridiculousness of people putting on costumes to fight crime when they could do so much more effectively other ways (as has been pointed out by many people, Bruce Wayne’s wealth could be used to bring pressure on government which would crack down on the corruption, as they famously did in Chicago in the 30s) – but we want to see a superhero in a costume kicking ass. So, add a bit of humor. And don’t do the Batman voice. I can’t believe they thought that was a good idea!

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