Batman Begins (PG-13)
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It begins with childhood friends Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes playing outside Wayne Manor. Then young Bruce falls down a hole and gets scared by some bats. Flash forward to an adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in some prison camp in Bhutan, for some reason (which will be explained later). For awhile, the movie flashes between different time periods. We see young Bruce with his parents after his accident. We see Thomas Wayne show Bruce a pearl necklace he's going to give Bruce's mom (and any true Batman fan will know what's coming the instant they see those pearls). We see young Bruce attending the opera with his parents (I'm more of a "hey, they saw Zorro that night, didn't they?" kinda guy, but the opera worked pretty well, here). And then we see Joe Chill mug and kill Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of Bruce.
Which, of course, tells you right away, in case you didn't know going in... this is not a prequel to the other Batman movie franchise, it's the start of a whole new Batman movie franchise. And one which is far truer to the comics than the other movies ever were. Good news for comics fans, like me. Now, I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be with Batman prior to the '90s, and then mostly my knowledge comes from Batman: The Animated Series. Aside from that and the other movie franchise (and a random smattering of comics from the '90s), I just know a little bit of the old Adam West Batman series, and a few reprints of old comics. But at least I know enough to know that Joe Chill, not Jack Napier (the man who would be Joker, according to some sources, including the first movie of the old franchise), killed Bruce's parents.
Well... we also see scenes set about 7 years prior to the main body of the film, where Bruce is now a young man dropping out of Princeton, and Chill is up for parole, and Bruce wants to kill him. He doesn't get a chance, because a local mob boss named Falcone has Chill assassinated before Chill can testify against him. This disappoints Bruce, and the matter leads to discord with his old friend Rachel (Katie Holmes). She's now working in the D.A.'s office. (I thought this element of the plot worked nicely, along with the death of his parents, to produce Batman's famous refusal to ever use guns- even if that isn't consistent with all of the earlier comics....) Everything we see, from childhood to young adulthood... the death of his parents, his conversations with Rachel, with loyal family butler and friend Alfred Pennyworth, even with Falcone... leads Bruce to realize he doesn't truly understand much of anything about the criminal element, or the abject poverty that can drive people to such extremes. So he goes far away, gets himself arrested, to train himself as a fighter, and learn to be poor and criminal. All so he can ultimately fight crime.
He is recruited out of the Bhutanese prison by Henri Ducard, a member of the League of Shadows, a group which, under the leadership of Ra's al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), has been directly responsible for the collapse of pretty much every great civilization throughout history, whenever they judge it to have grown too decadent and corrupt. Bruce trains to become a member of the League himself, but is ultimately unwilling to accept their obdurately judgementalist ways. So, he fights them, escapes, heads back to Gotham... where, since no one's seen or heard from him for seven years, he's been proclaimed dead.
He gets back to work, however, at Wayne Enterprises, which is now being run by some guy named Mr. Earle (Rutger Hauer). Bruce is assigned to work in the tech department with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)- and basically the department is just there to keep the two of them out of Earle's way. (Lucius Fox, in the comics, isn't a scientist, but this role works in the film, and in any event it's great to have the character- who we all know will eventually come to effectively run Wayne Enterprises for Bruce- featured so prominently.) This is a good arrangement for Bruce, who can use this connection to gain some equipment to start his career as Batman. (Most of this equipment, and its origins, I liked, though the Batmobile wasn't exactly to my taste... It looked nothing like any other incarnation of the Batmobile, but it made a great deal of sense and kicked ass, so I'll overlook any aesthetic quibbles I might have; it's all part of the realism that makes me enjoy this film so much, anyway.)
Batman's first mission is to take down Falcone (who has most of the law in Gotham in his pocket, police as well as the court system, except for Rachel and her boss; they're both in danger from him, because they can't be bought off). Falcone also has ties to the director of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who has been using drugs smuggled by Falcone to conduct fear experiments on patients, as alter ego the Scarecrow. He also works for Ra's al Ghul, who wants to use Scarecrow as a pawn in his efforts to destroy Gotham, which he has judged ready to be destroyed, like so many other great cities before it. (In fact, this is his second attempt to destroy Gotham, a plot twist of special significance to Bruce.)
Anyway, I don't have many nits to pick with this movie, and I don't really care about any of them, and I may be wrong about some- that is to say, stuff with which I'm familiar, like the animated series, may not be completely true to the comics, either. (And even the comics haven't been entirely consistent throughout the decades since Batman's creation; the earliest comics I've read are not remotely as dark or serious as I feel Batman should be.) But there are a few things I wanted to mention. I'm vaguely aware that one of the people who trained Bruce was named Henri Ducard, but I don't really know anything specific about that; however, I doubt he had any connection to Ra's al Ghul, as he did in this film. I could be wrong, of course. Also, I expect the name "Ra's" to be pronounced "Raysh," not "Rahz." (Bruce even corrected Terry once when he made the same mistake in the TV series Batman Beyond). Also, I expect Alfred to have a more refined accent than he does in this movie, but otherwise, Michael Caine did an excellent job with the role. What else? Jonathan Crane, of course, should be a professor with a grudge against the university which fired him, not director of Arkham Asylum; still, I thought the introduction of Scarecrow wasn't handled too badly, even if it wasn't perfect. He was still a decent villain. I just hope this franchise refrains from the other one's tendency to put too many villains into each film. This one had three: Scarecrow, Ra's, and Falcone. I'll allow it, as I think the interconnectedness of the plot worked pretty well... I just don't want the writers to make a habit of it in the future. Oh, also, I would've liked to see Leslie Thompkins somewhere in the backstory. Also, I don't think I ever heard the words "superstitious and cowardly lot," but maybe I just missed it or forgot....
Now, back to things I liked about the movie. Gary Oldman did quite well as Lieutenant (née Sergeant) James Gordon, one of the few good cops left in Gotham. The story definitely treated the character way better than the old franchise did, and it's good to see Batman establish a solid relationship early on with the future commissioner. (At one point, we see Gordon close the door on his family to talk to Batman outside, and later I wanted to kick myself for not thinking to get a closer look at the family- I want to see if he has a red-haired daughter who might someday make a better Batgirl than Alfred's blond niece from the other franchise.) Also, Batman fans have always loved Batman in large part because he's not a metahuman, like so many other superheroes. He's just a man with a determination, with a great deal of training, and a lot of nifty gadgets. That is, he is someone who could be real. And that's my favorite thing about this movie, that it makes the character seem more real, more believable, more human, than any incarnation I've ever seen. Another thing I liked is something Rachel said to Bruce at the end of the movie, which I've often said myself (and I'm not alone): basically, that Bruce Wayne is dead, and all that's left is Batman. Actually, I usually compare Batman to Superman: while Superman is a role Clark Kent plays, and Clark is who he really is, Bruce Wayne is basically a role Batman plays, and Batman is who he really is. In fact, it's a bit ironic, that in a way Bruce, as Batman, has become less human... but is still in a way the most human superhero out there. Anyway... there is some talk in the film of Batman's... theatricality. And that can't- and shouldn't- be helped. Still, I found it a bit ironic, since this incarnation seemed far less theatrical than any other I've seen. Bits of the movie even seemed rather slow, almost boring, to me... but in a good way- the same way I found bits of the brilliant Lord of the Rings movies to be slow and almost boring. (I've never been a big fan of reality, so there is a danger in making something realistic, but this movie did a great job of creating a believable reality that I enjoyed precisely because of its realism; I can't stress enough how much that paradox surprises and impresses me.) Even the action bits didn't seem quite as whiz-bang as you normally see in such movies, and I didn't mind that a bit. Not to say the action is boring or anything, because it's not. It's just... like I say, everything in this movie seems realistic, just not so over-the-top theatrical as one expects from an action movie- especially a comic book movie. The film seems to be the perfect mix of action, heroism and villainy, and in-depth character study. The sense I came away with was that this was the kind of movie Ang Lee wanted "The Hulk" to be... and failed miserably, whereas this movie totally worked. It makes me wonder what Christopher Nolan could have done with the Hulk.... But mostly I'm just left eagerly anticipating what he'll do with the next Batman movie....