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Deconstructing the Weakest Bat-film: Batman Begins

Posted by msunyata on Thursday, July 19, 2012

Batman Begins has garnered a significant amount of praise over the past seven years, and a good deal of it has been deserved:  it established a very strong – and quite dark – realistic context, features more development for the character of Bruce Wayne than all four previous films combined, and even, in the first act’s constant intercutting of flashbacks, brandishes some of Hollywood’s finest pacing.  Such credentials are not insubstantial.

And, yet, these credentials are precisely what accounts for most of the movie’s narrative flaws – of which, like many a David Goyer production, there are a goodly number.  For a film that attempts to be so serious in its approach and so subtle in its craft, there is a consistent and quite blatant stream of clichés that are as heavyhanded as they are clumsy.  It makes for an incongruous viewing experience, to say the least, and renders the picture the most unbalanced of all the Bat-films (hey, at least Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are wholly committed to being horrid).

It all starts with the sad fact that Bruce, the only real character in the picture, is surrounded by an endless sea of cardboard cutouts.  Nearly every single line spouted by Rachel is hackneyed beyond belief; her part reads more like a didactic plot device than organic dialogue composed by an actually living and breathing individual (and Katie Holmes play it that way, too).  Dr. Thomas Wayne takes it to a whole other level:  a larger-than-life, broadly drawn caricature that bears little resemblance to reality – which, of course, is something of a problem for a production that purports to use realism as its credo.  He is nothing more than walking and talking bromide, from his ponderous expository speech to Bruce regarding the city’s (oddly out-of-place) monorail system to his eerily imperturbable death speech.  There is absolutely no naturalism here.

(Yes, Alfred and Lucius are well-written and even better performed, but they’re essentially two-note characters – something which holds less true for Gordon and more so for Falcone [who, as nothing more than the gangster archetype, functions just fine].  And the Scarecrow is terrifically integrated into the plot and, more especially, the thematic structure of the film but has little in the way of actual characterization.)

Liam Neeson and Christian Bale in Batman Begins.Ra’s al Ghul is another source of difficulty for the narrative, and not just because the idea of a 2,000-year-old conspiracy group that clandestinely pops up to simply raze cities to the ground is the very definition of comic book cheese (the Marvel films may be able to pull off intergalactic warlords and, just possibly, gun-toting space raccoons, but they have a very different tone and feel than does Nolan’s “realistic” movieverse).  The grand revelation that it was, essentially, Ra’s who was responsible for killing Bruce’s parents is a play right out of the Sith Lord book – but Star Wars isn’t noted for its gritty, down-to-earth tone.  The twist is an unnecessary – and, once again, entirely cliche – addition, one that almost requires Liam Neeson to twirl his mustache while cackling maniacally (to think that Anne Hathaway recently said this wasn’t necessary for Nolan’s villains to do).

There’s an assortment of odds and ends that fills out the silliness quotient in a movie that isn’t supposed to be silly in the slightest.  A mob infected with fear toxin would be literally tearing one another apart, just as Ra’s grandiosely claims, but, instead, Nolan delivers a group of slowly-shambling zombies that all somehow agree Rachel is the sole target (of aggression as opposed to fear, apparently).  The homeless man who was given Bruce’s jacket earlier in the picture just so happens to be next to a massive (gun) battle on the docks, oblivious to all the racket, just so Batman can clunkily repeat a line of dialogue for a forced laugh.  (Goyer’s inexplicable fascination with artifically working nearly every single line of dialogue back into the movie is a whole separate level of cliche and is one of the main driving forces behind Begins’s weaknesses.)  And speaking of obnoxious gags, Gordon’s “I’ve gotta get me one of those!” line after first spotting the Batmobile is so woefully inappropriate, both for the character and for the moment in the film (he has, after all, just discovered that the entirety of Gotham has been poisoned, including himself and his family), it produces a grimace instead of a chuckle.

Is Batman Begins a good film?  All in all, no – instead of playing like, say, one of Stanley Kubrick’s pictures, it functions more like Bob Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a zany combination of super-serious live action and over-the-top cartoon elements existing side-by-side.  But the reboot is certainly more than decent, and it does more than a good job of establishing the character of Bruce Wayne, the concept of Batman, and the narrative integrity of what would become an entire trilogy.  And despite the fact that it is, by far, the least of all of Chris Nolan’s movies (which, perhaps, isn’t a fair comparison, given the likes of Inception, Memento, The Prestige, and, of course, The Dark Knight), it is a thoroughly enjoyable picture that, at its best, is lightyears beyond its brethren in the Bat-pantheon, specifically, and superhero movies, generally.

Let’s just hope that The Dark Knight Rises takes more from its sequel than from Begins itself.

 

[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Comic Related, and Westeros.org.  He’s also written It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which goes in-depth in HBO’s Game of Thrones with the lies of Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.]

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 9 years 43 weeks ago

You think the Schumacher Batman movies are stronger than Batman Begins? That's what the title suggests. Then again, the article tells me Batman Begins is "lightyears beyond its brethren in the Bat-pantheon, specifically, and superhero movies, generally." HOW CAN I TRUST ANYTHING YOU SAY, MSUN? (Kidding, of course.)

Once again, you drop Kubrick in a review for no real reason. (I guess maybe Kubrick movies are your measuring stick for good movies. If so, you need to tell us why Kubrick movies are your measuring stick for good movies. Otherwise, you're just making a pointless Kubrick reference. You're also making a real stretch with the Who Framed Roger Rabbit (there's no question mark; I've read that Zemeckis left it off because of an old superstition about movies ending with question marks doing poorly at the box office) comparison. It's clear from Who Framed Roger Rabbit's live-action stuff that it's a comedy send-up of the era depicted.

I wish you'd stop saying "goodly." I think I've told you to do this before. If you're only saying "goodly" because you're trying to annoy me, I'll allow it. I deserve to be annoyed. If you're not saying it specifically to annoy me, then you need to stop.

"Deconstructing" suggests to me that you are going to go in depth, and not that you're just going to gripe about a handful of things and then tell me the movie is thoroughly enjoyable on the whole. If you're going to advertise deconstruction, you should deconstruct.

I'd advise against calling movies "flawed." That's asshole shorthand for "I didn't like stuff about it." Just tell us what you didn't like about it. It's full of clichés? Of course it is. Nolan loves 'em--or appears to, at any rate. They can be annoying as fuck, and I am often annoyed by them in Nolan movies. I'm more annoyed by his smug, frequent, and aggressively obvious dialog callbacks. You mention these above, but you give the impression they're all Goyer's fault. They're all throughout The Dark Knight, too, and Goyer only helped plot that one. The trailer for The Dark Knight Rises ("Yes, it comes in black") leads me to believe we will be encountering them yet again.

Regarding the callbacks:

Batman Begins has its "You shouldn't lower your defenses," "Didn't you get the memo," "It's not who you are inside, it's what you do," and "become more than just a man," but The Dark Knight has its share of stupid dialog callbacks. It has the "businessman of your caliber" callback, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," "When that day comes, Sir, I won't want to," "He's the hero this city needs/deserves," the "good with calculations" bit, "make your own luck," and the "playing things close to the chest" callback.

Annoying to me or not, Nolan appears to be fully aware that his movies reek of these clichés and callbacks. If he's conscious of them and includes them, do they remain flaws? Are clichés flaws to begin with? I think of a flaw as being something that got through the cracks, and not something that was intended to be there. There's no good way beyond an open admission to prove that a lot of the stuff we don't like about a movie got through the cracks, so calling a movie flawed is tricky. I wouldn't call a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy flawed, even if every second of it annoyed the shit out of me.

That said, I grant that "flawed" has its own meaning for you--just as it has its own meaning for me--and that your decision to use it shouldn't have to be influenced by my reluctance to use it. You specifically point to "narrative flaws." I don't think you give any examples of narrative flaws. If you did, I might have missed them. I don't think of clichés as being narrative flaws. I also don't think of twists or attempts to tie the narrative back into itself as being narrative flaws. They're hokey and contrived, but they're not flaws.

A logic lapse, unearned or unbelievable character reaction (a twist comes close to this, perhaps), or plot hole might come closer to a narrative flaw. (Even so, I'm not sure having narrative flaws would make the movie "flawed." Maybe it would. Convince me.) Does the movie have those? (Some folks like to concentrate on the fear toxin. Had no one in all that time boiled any water? Wouldn't vaporizing all the city's water also vaporize human bodies? Also, why would a fancy theater only have exits that go into a seedy-looking alley? Also, why would the League of Shadows fill a building made almost entirely out of wood with explosives and not have safety measures or things built in to help contain potential fires?) If so, you should concentrate on them. Doing so would bring you closer to deconstruction. There would still be a lot to do. Deconstruction is often a lengthy and wordy process. 

There's plenty I dislike about Batman Begins, but I also dislike a whole bunch of stuff about The Dark Knight, Memento, Nolan's Insomnia remake, and Inception. I've whined about bits and pieces of these movies on these boards and Excelsior's boards. (Excelsior's boards are gone, as is Excelsior, so all that's left is the whining I've done on these boards.) It seems silly to treat Batman Begins like it's a black mark on a perfect career. Not that you have, necessarily.

I guess The Prestige is my favorite of the bunch. It can also be pretty annoying. On the whole, I like it. I can say this about some of his other movies, too. I can say it about Batman Begins--as can you, apparently. I kinda wish you had come down on it a little harder to justify the article's title.

What should The Dark Knight Rises be taking from The Dark Knight that it shouldn't be taking from Batman Begins? There's plenty I dislike about The Dark Knight. A lot of my problems with it are the same problems I have with Batman Begins. You should tell me what, specifically, you feel The Dark Knight does right to help me figure out why you think The Dark Knight Rises should follow its lead.

Or not. I'm not really the prescriptivist I'm pretending to be. Mostly, I'm just giving you a hard time. Do your own thing, msun. (Now that I've told you to do your own thing, you will be doing what I've told you to do if you do your own thing.)

Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 9 years 43 weeks ago

He should have at least mentioned that of Nolan's 2 Bat-flicks, Begins had the worse (worst?) title. In that regard, Rises is following in the steps of Begins and not TDK.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline