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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.)
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.]