Monday, June 20, 2005

Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan’s ingenious second feature, Memento, unfolded in reverse. After watching Batman Begins, I wonder if his career is headed in the same direction.

In 1998, the 28-year-old director came charging out of the chute with Following, a memorably moody thriller with a twist. Two years later, Memento improved on that formula, giving the hero a memory impairment that makes him forget his own past and telling his story backwards to keep the viewers as off-balance as he is. Two years after that, Nolan added stars (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank) to the mix and cooked up Insomnia, another ingenious, atmospheric thriller.

You’d think a director with that much style, self-assurance, and sheer pizzazz would be a good pick to direct a Batman movie – and you’d be wrong. Sadly, Nolan’s Batman movie is just another bloated and gassy Hollywood product.

Sluggish, nearly humorless, and weighed down by phony profundities and a bombastic soundtrack, Batman Begins is close to two-and-a-half hours long, and you feel every minute of it. This is the kind of movie where people speak like fortune cookies, saying things like “To conquer fear, you must become fear” and “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

Batman really began a long time ago – in 1939, to be exact. Imdb lists more than 30 Batman serials, movies, and video games, and that’s not counting the campy ’60s TV show. Nolan, who co-wrote the script, built this movie around what serves as back story in the others: Bruce Wayne’s transformation from traumatized multimillionaire to caped crusader.

To make us care about Wayne’s struggle, Nolan strives to make his story feel real, revealing the hurting human beneath the bat ears. But that’s a losing game when you’re dealing with a guy in a rubber mask and tights and a nemesis bent on driving an entire city mad by poisoning and then vaporizing the water supply.

In classic pop-psychology fashion, every single thing that matters to Bruce Wayne (the baleful Christian Bale) – even his unconsummated love for the impossibly pure Rachel (Katie Holmes), who was his boyhood best friend and is now a Gotham City assistant DA – is traced back to his childhood. The thing that drives him batty is the guilt and anger he’s harbored since he saw his parents killed in a botched robbery. And fathers are very important to the dour bat-to-be, whose mother is a wan and wordless presence in his childhood flashbacks.

Bruce is mentored by a steady progression of father figures, starting with his actual father, a saintly physician/inventor/philanthropist zillionaire, and continuing with Alfred (the refreshingly tart Michael Caine), the family butler who raises him after his parents’ death; Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson in Star Wars sage mode), the mysterious warrior who takes him in and trains him to be a member of the cult-like League of Shadows; and inspector Gordon (nicely underplayed by a nerdily bespectacled Gary Oldman), the only honest cop on the crooked Gotham City force.

The first half or so of the movie follows Wayne as he grows up, learns to fight, studies the criminal mind, and hits on the idea of fighting crime as not a man but “a symbol.” We watch him string lights in the Bat Cave, piece together his outfit and utility belt, unearth the Batmobile, and create a ditzy playboy alter ego to serve as a smokescreen, with the help of Alfred and Lucius Fox (a twinkly-eyed Morgan Freeman doing his wise-and-noble schtick), a scientist and inventor who works for the Wayne family business.

You can practically feel Nolan laboring away in some dark corner of the Bat Cave, straining to domesticate Batman’s outré accoutrements. But comics aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re wish-fulfillment fables, their heroes just human enough so readers can identify with them. The thrill of the Batman myth is imagining a truculent trillionaire who can bungee down out of nowhere to nab a bad guy, dodge barrages of bullets, or soar through the sky held up by nothing more than his cape. Trying to imagine the psychic damage that might have caused him to spend his evenings that way might be of interest for a minute or two, but an hour of that drains the fun from the fantasy.

There’s a faint hint of satire in the way Bale plays the playboy Bruce Wayne, who seems to be a cross between Paris Hilton and George W. Bush. The pace picks up a bit when he straps on the Batsuit, but even the action scenes fall flat. The chase scenes have been done too many times before, and the fights are generally filmed as if you were in the middle of the melee, too close to be sure what was happening and too punch drunk to see straight.

Maybe they called it Batman Begins because it feels like it won’t ever end.

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