ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), Part One
Each week, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take a look back at one of the most successful and influential comic book movie franchises of all time, in ComicsAlliance’s in-depth retrospective on the Batman films.
Chris: Welcome to Cinematic Batmanology, everyone. This week, David and I are starting on our extra-sized examination of the more recent Batman films by director Christopher Nolan, and I’m not going to lie: Everything you’ve seen up to now has been an excuse for us to watch these movies.
David: Ladies and Gentlemen, we have finally made it past the wastes into the Promised Land. But we’ve still got one more to go, because while Batman Begins is leagues above everything we’ve seen so far, it’s still incredibly flawed in its own way.Chris: I think “incredibly flawed” is overselling it, but I think you and I had a similar experience that ended in a pretty different reaction. We both hadn’t watched the movie much since it came out, right?
David: Yeah, I saw it on Blu-Ray last night, and while it holds together incredibly well, Batman’s moral compass seems… skewed.
Chris: Meanwhile, when I watched again, I was blown away by it even more than when I first saw it, because of how much it ties in to what Nolan goes on to do in The Dark Knight.
David: That’s an excellent point, and one I thought of while watching it, too. This really isn’t just Batman Begins, it’s Batman’s Origin Story Begins. Because at the end of this flick, he still isn’t Batman, or at least not the iteration of the character we know best.
Chris: Exactly. It’s right there in the title: Batman Begins.
David: At the end of the movie, he’s still beginning.
Chris: Yes, but — Isn’t it weird that this is the movie we’re going to fight over?
Chris: So how about a little background? Despite our affection for it, Batman & Robin was a critical and commercial failure, if you call a profit of a hundred million dollars a “failure.” This tanked plans for what would’ve been the fifth film of the Burton/Schumacher era, Batman Triumphant. And considering that one would’ve involved the Joker coming back as an extended hallucination and Harley Quinn as the Joker’s long-lost daughter, that’s probably a good thing.
David: That’s definitely a good thing, considering my well-documented hatred for Harley Quinn.
Chris: You don’t think the addition of flashing neon baubles to her jester’s cap would win you over?
David: Are they flashing neon baubles that kill her within the first five minutes of the movie so I don’t have to deal with her awful Jersey accent? Or is it Boston? I don’t even know. Or care.
Chris: Address those letters to email@example.com, Harley fans! Anyway, this was followed in 1998 by a pitch for a movie with the extremely unfortunate title of Batman: DarKnight, which I find impossible to read as anything but “Dar Knight.”
David: Whoa, what? This I was not aware of.
Chris: It’s mostly notable for including Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow as an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist, which we’ll see later. But it also involved Man-Bat, and if you magnify your feelings for Harley Quinn by about a hundred, you have the way I feel about Man-Bat.
David: Dude, I hate Man-Bat. I liked that story the first time I read it, when it was called Incredible Hulk, and he wasn’t a whiny family man.
Chris: Next on the list aftter DarKnight was an adaptation of Batman: Year One that at one time had Darren Aronofsky attached to direct, with Christian Bale cast in the role of Batman.
David: Have you ever read Frank Miller’s script for it? “adaptation of Batman: Year One” is a pretty generous description.
Chris: I try not to read Frank Miller scripts after that one for All Star Batman #1.
David: It may or may not involve Bruce Wayne forgetting he was rich after his parents were shot, and being brought up by a large African-American auto mechanic named “Big Al.” He started beating people up on the streets to get out his anger and was called the “Bat-Man” because the impression left by his TW signet ring (with the W over the T) looked like a bat.
David: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Batmanology history: I just floored Chris Sims.
Chris: That actually sounds like it would make even less sense than The Spirit, which would require people to completely rethink theoretical levels of sh***y movie.
David: But yeah, dude, let’s be frank: with Darren Aronofsky, it probably would have been great. But not as great as what we got.
Chris: Which brings us, at last, to 2005 and Batman Begins.
David: While this wasn’t the box office smash its successor would be, Batman Begins was still a huge hit and shot in the arm to what many considered a dead franchise. The thing about this movie is that none of the joy is really in the story itself — did you have the Ra’s al Ghul reveal spoiled for you beforehand? I know I did.
Chris: Man, that’s the thing: I was working in a comic book store when this movie came out, and DC made a ton of merchandise of Ken Watanabe as Ra’s al-Ghul, solicited something like six months in advance. Seriously, busts, statues, action figures, all kinds of stuff. So either someone just didn’t tell the people in charge of making stuff at DC Direct, or they were committed to supporting that reveal so much that they spent a ton of money on statues that nobody would ever want after the movie came out.
David: With Batman Begins, the victory is in the execution, because seriously, let’s be honest here: the plot of this movie is kind of dumb. It’s completely internally consistent, one hundred percent tonally and thematically consistent, every single plot point and character moment is set up perfectly, but its over-the-top third act just doesn’t fit at all with the first two thirds of the movie. I had the Ra’s thing spoiled for me by people chatting online and the script leak, so I knew that was happening. Not to mention the fact that Liam Neeson looks 400% more like Ra’s al Ghul than Ken Watanabe does.
Chris: I remember sitting in the theater and thinking “Man, they really should’ve just gotten Liam Neeson to play Ra’s al-Ghul.”
David: Yeah, if I hadn’t read the script, that would ahve been an INCREDIBLY well-executed plot twist. Well, not read the script, but had people who read the script go “holy s*** did you hear that Neeson IS playing Ra’s?” and then I punched them in the face. In your senior year of university, avoiding spoilers on campus is impossible!
Chris: That’s why I dropped out to spend more time with Batman. Ready to get into the movie itself?
David: Let’s do this.
Chris: We open on a scene of Young Bruce Wayne and Young Rachel Dawes, with li’l Bruce being a total jerk about an arrowhead that Rachel finds on his palatial estate. He steals it, as though he doesn’t already have enough stuff, and is promptly punished by Karma by falling down a well.
David: Li’l Bruce is kind of a dick.
Chris: Bruce freaks out because the well connects to a cave with a bunch of bats in it — a Bat-cave, if you will — but then it’s revealed to be a nightmare as older Bruce (Christian Bale) wakes up. In China. In prison. Where he has gotten himself arrested, presumably so that he can do nothing but fight criminals all day long.
David: He just wants to better understand them! For reasons we’ll discover later.
Chris: It’s worth noting that this is the first time in a Batman film that we’ve seen Batman existing outside of Gotham City. Right from the start, Nolan characterizes his version of Bruce Wayne as a world traveler, which is pretty odd when you consider how much these movies are about Gotham itself, almost to the point of making the city a character in and of itself.
David: Let’s be honest here, the Gotham City of the Burton movies might as well have been Dark City. It’s a classic hero’s journey, you know? Bruce goes out to discover what’s outside home, and then comes home to kick some ass. Except that the nonlinear storytelling in the first act of this flick makes it seem like it really begins outside Gotham, when … well, it really doesn’t. We see Bruce at his lowest, and then we get to see him rise up. But This entire scene makes one thing clear: Bruce Wayne is a badass. I assume he’s been telling people who he is, since the dude who claims to be the devil calls him “rich man,” albeit with a slightly stereotypical L-R replacement.
Chris: I figured that he was assuming that he was rich because he’s handsome and has good teeth. But yeah, after informing him that he’s “practice” (which is where I knew in the theater that this was going to be a good one), Bruce procedes to beat the living hell out of seven crooks. In a mud pit.
David: He’s a surgeon, Chris. Like his father. And that’s the operating table.
Chris: After this, Bruce is hauled into Solitary, and we meet Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a character originally created by Batman ’89 screenwriter Sam Hamm in the story “Blind Justice.”
David: I hadn’t even realized that! It all comes back around.
Chris: It’s a pretty interesting connection, but I can see why they did it. The Ducard of the comics was one of the people who helped train Bruce Wayne, and the exotic name — Neeson only refers to himself as “merely Ducard,” no first name, and only once — helps to give him an air of mystery.
David: What’s interesting is, Neeson looks a lot like Ducard, too. Like, he was a believable casting for that character. I almost wonder if Chris Nolan was going through old Batman comics going “OK, who looks enough like Ra’s al Ghul?”
Chris: It’s a really good twist. Ducard chastises Bruce for giving into his hate and getting himself locked up so that he can beat on crooks, and as we find out later, that’s his critical misunderstanding of what Bruce is doing. It is, however, a pretty big part of it, and a nice side benefit. Regardless, he offers him a better way to put his talents to use: The League of Shadows, renamed from Ra’s al-Ghul’s League of Assassins (as seen in the comics) because there’s no way Bruce Wayne would agree to join anything with that name.
David: And thus, we lead to the first big point: EVERY CHANGE FROM THE COMICS IN THIS MOVIE MAKES SENSE. Except the bat not flying through the window. I will forever curse Nolan for stealing that moment from me.
Chris: But even then, it ties into the theme of fear — he’s not inspired by seeing something as an adult, but by a childhood terror. So even that make sense in the context of the movie.
David: Well, he still sees it in the manor and gains inspiration. It could have flown through a window and he could have gained the same inspiration.
Chris: Fair point.
David: And that also brings me to the theme of fear in general, which … look, there’s a reason David Goyer and Geoff Johns are contemporaries, and this movie is all about the Johnsian Literalism.
Chris: Anyway, Ducard tells Wayne to pick a blue flower on a specific mountain and bring it to a monastery at the top, and has him released from prison. And because this is Bruce Wayne we’re talking about, he does it, no problem.
David: We later find out, makes you trip balls like crazy. Why there isn’t a drug cartel farming that when Bruce gets there, I have no idea. I guess a drug that makes you see your worst fears is a pretty crappy recreational activity.
Chris: Specifically, the League of Shadows uses it to terrorize the superstitious, cowardly lot that is criminals, something that Bruce realizes he has to learn in order to become effective. So we start to see the threads of what we know as “Batman” coming together.
David: Yes! Ra’s and the League are all about using fear on the fearful, which is Bruce’s entire gimmick. The difference between Ra’s and Bruce is that Bruce doesn’t execute… except when he does. But we’ll get to that.
Chris: Ducard accepts Bruce into the League to train him, with Bruce assuming that the man he sees sitting on a throne (Ken Watanabe) is Ra’s al-Ghul. It’s a great bit of misdirection — like Bruce, we’re never told that this is Ra’s, we just assume that’s who it is.
David: And it’s led into by everything the real Ra’s says in the next sequence, where he tries to teach Bruce about theatricality and misdirection. The twist is all there in this first act.
Chris: Ducard and Ra’s ask Bruce what it is that he’s seeking, and he says that he wants not vengeance, but “a means to fight injustice.” This is a crucially important moment for the Batman that Nolan and Goyer are creating here, and their understanding of how he works. As we find out, Bruce Wayne doesn’t want revenge, because he’s already moved past that desire.
David: Batman doesn’t want to make Joe Chill pay, he wants to make future Joe Chills not kill people. To this movie’s credit, though, it shows Bruce’s desire for it. It doesn’t pretend that he’s some saint who just never wanted revenge, it shows the moment he transcended that relatively base human desire.
Chris: Also, I love that Ducard just starts kicking Bruce right after he climbs a mountain, because crime doesn’t wait to give you a breather.
David: Let’s just get this out of the way: Neeson and Bale act the HELL out of their roles.
Chris: They do! And so do Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy… pretty much everyone in this movie except Katie Holmes, and at least you can tell she’s trying. I mean, I have no doubt that she is acting to the best of her ability.
David: But perhaps most interesting about Ra’s in this movie is the fact that they completely, utterly dropped the entire ecoterrorist angle.
Chris: Well, it’s changed. The “eco” part is reduced, but he still wants to save humanity from itself by striking at its most decadent heights.
David: And that brings me to another problem with this movie: I really don’t see how Gotham is so irredeemably awful that even a madman would want to destroy it. I also don’t understand what he hopes to achieve by doing that. But we’ll hit that in act three.
Chris: Oh, I have no trouble believing that at all. And that makes a great segue, because we’re about to see the roots of it, starting with what I believe to be The Single Most Important Scene In These Three Movies, even though one of them isn’t out yet.
David: Why do we fall, Bruce? Which, let’s be honest, is a not-so-subtle nod to Denny O’Neil’s “The Man Who Falls.”
Chris: Exactly. We cut back to young Bruce Wayne as he’s rescued from the well by his father — literaly pulled up out of the darkness into the light — and he gives him that aphorism. “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” I mean, it’s no coincidence that after what happens in the sequel, we’re heading into a movie called “The Dark Knight Rises” next year.
David: Personal interlude. When I was a kid, I once fell down this set of concrete steps at a park, after my parents told me not to go on it. My parents still refer to me screwing up as “falling down the concrete steps,” because I learn a lesson. This scene from Batman Begins hit home on a very personal level for that reason. They keep telling me I was dumb to even try it, but my point is that I would have never learned for myself unless I screwed up myself. And Batman Begins is all about that. Everyone has to make their own mistakes. That’s what Batman is all about: making mistakes and not giving up. Batman does NOT GIVE UP. And that’s what the Batman of this movie is all about, too. And all the best superheroes, really. Surrender, defeat, they’re just not options. Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins is a man of singular will and purpose.
Chris: Also, it’s a good decision on Nolan and Goyer’s part to have the theme of their entire saga delivered by Thomas Wayne. Thomas in the comics is such a blank slate, but here we actually see him giving Bruce the words that he lives by.
David: When I was talking to Grant Morrison in San Diego, I asked him about his take on Thomas Wayne, and he said that as far as he was concerned, the best vision of him was in Batman Begins.
Chris: And to hammer that point home, Little Bruce gives the arrowhead back to Rachel, because he realizes it was wrong of him to take it. From this point, the movie splits into two competing timelines, one showing the present of Bruce Wayne being trained (and indoctrinated) into the League of Shadows, while the other shows his past, and why he’s able to resist Ducard’s indoctrination. And seriously, it is masterfully done. Like you said, the execution on this movie is perfect, even when the script is a little on-the-nose.
David: It’s funny that the execution is so good on a movie where the one thing the protagonist won’t do is execute.
Chris: The Waynes head from the Manor into the city, and get a glimpse of Thomas Wayne’s Gotham, which is this bright, clean metropolis. They’re even riding on this monorail that the Waynes built to unite the city, which is so clean that there are literally people in tuxedos ridng it that don’t look out of place.
David: God, I wish Toronto had public transit that nice. Gotham wins the public transit award of the, like, century. And by Gotham, I mean CGI Chicago.
Chris: Well, Thomas and Martha’s Gotham does. The next time we see it, it’s run down like the subways in The Warriors, which is a great visual cue of how far the city has fallen. And why do cities fall?
David: So they can get back up again! Except that it’s always darkest before the dawn, as we’ll find in the next film, but we’re not going to get to that for, like, a month.
Chris: Still, I love that there’s setup for the overarching themes of the trilogy this early. Thomas trying to literally unite the city with his monorail, fighting against the economic depression, then seeing it all fall apart and be reunited by Batman at the climax of The Dark Knight. It’s really well-done stuff, but I think I’m getting ahead of myself again.
David: And Nolan and Goyer manage to, with this manufactured recent economic depression, root Batman in his actual pulp roots in the depression of the ’30s.
Chris: Anwyay, Bruce and his family go to see an opera performance of Faust, and the way you feel about the bat not crashing through the window is the way I feel about the Waynes not going to the movies to see Zorro.
David: The thing is, this makes sense. Bruce getting scared of the presentation makes perfect sense, since the Nolan/Goyer Batman isn’t a swashbuckler. There’s no real joy in what he does. Which you could argue is a major problem with their interpretation of the character, but again, their execution is so excellent that I can’t argue.
Chris: I totally agree. He’s theatrical and scary in the way that the opera is theatrical and scary, and it fits him. I just love the idea of Bruce having this big happy moment at the movies before it’s all taken away.
David: Not just theatrical and scary, but the idea that he wussed out of what they were watching and had to leave, and as a result, he blames his parents’ death on himself.
Chris: The first time I watched this movie, I absolutely hated that.
David: I think it misses the character, BUT, I think it works very well within the movie’s framework.
Chris: I think you and I have had the conversation about why I hate stories where it’s Bruce’s idea to go to the movies or for Martha to wear the pearls or for them to duck down Park Row or whatever, right?
David: And let’s not even get the ridiculousness of the fact that they went to a high-class opera house playing Faust. And then they walk outside. And it’s all tattered posters and an immediate mugger. WHAT?! Like, WHAT THE HELL?
Chris: Well, that’s sort of required by the story, you know? You have to get these billionaires to a place where they can be mugged and shot down by a common crook.
David: At least the ’89 Batman had the entire “let’s go take a shortcut in this alley” moment. They just walk right out of this insanely haute couture theatre to Crime Alley. I’m sorry, it makes no damn sense.
Chris: Point being, I tend to hate stories that operate on the premise that it’s somehow Batman’s fault that his parents die, because it makes his story a story about atoning, rather than fighting injustice. But here, I love it, because the movie goes to great pains to address this very fact from multiple perspectives. But before we get to that, we get the piece we all know is coming: Joe Chill in the alley with a handgun.
David: Bang! Bang! Pearls!
Chris: I really like that Thomas Wayne never even considers fighting the guy. He just tries to reassure him and hands over his wallet, trying to keep him cool, because that’s the kind of character Nolan and Goyer have made him: He’s a total bleeding heart. Literally, as it turns out. And what’s more, he dies throwing himself in front of his wife to take a bullet for her. Thomas Wayne rules, man.
David: It’s a masterfully executed scene. I mean – on film, it’s the best version of the entire Wayne Murder sequence I can imagine.
Chris: Certainly the best that exists. And Thomas’s last words to Bruce are “Don’t be afraid,” so there’s that literalism coming through, but it’s pulled off so well.
David: And on top of that, later on, Joe Chill’s remorse seems completely honest.
Chris: Oh man, you have no idea how much I love that scene, but we’ll get there. For now, we get a brief introduction to Jim Gordon, borrowing the Silver Age idea that he was the cop who handled the Wayne Murder case before he became commissioner, except that here, Joe Chill is caught and arrested instead of remaining free.
David: Yeah, a rare break with the Miller interpretation where Gordon was newly transferred from Chicago.
Chris: Maybe they figured that since this Gotham is already Chicago, they were covered both ways. Back at the manor, Bruce breaks down because he believes it’s his fault that his parents died, and Alfred (Michael Caine) stops him before he can even finish the sentence, telling him that it wasn’t his fault, and that all the blame rests on Chill, the man who pulled the trigger.
David: Michael Caine might be a Tory a-hole in real life, but he’s a great bleeding-heart Alfred.
Chris: Back in the present, we start Bruce’s training with Ducard, but while the visual focus is on the swordplay and kung fu and ninja tricks, the real focus is on what Ducard and Bruce are saying to each other, and Ducard’s ultimately futile attempt to win Bruce over to the League of Shadows.
David: This movie also manages to give a rhyme and reason to Batman’s wrist fins as katana blockers.
Chris: Ducard tells Bruce that he has to become “more than just a man” by using deception and trickery, butt while he means that Bruce needs to pledge himself to a larger organization that will continue even if he falls, Bruce realizes that he has to do so HIMSELF. He needs to become a new symbol.
David: “Something incorruptible.”
Chris: There’s also a scene where Ducard shows Bruce a criminal the League has captured — a man who tried to rob someone and became a murderer. He’s essentially giving him a guy who’s the exact same as Joe Chill, feeding it to him to bring the rage and pain of his parents’ murder back to the surface. Whether or not that was the guy’s actual crime, or if he was just one of Ducard’s tricks, we have no idea. That’s another theme in the Nolan movie: Villains who operate through misdirection and manipulation rather than physicality.
David: And heroes! Bruce happily utilizes his enemies’ methods. That’s his strength.
Chris: I should save this for when we do the next movie, but remember when Dark Knight came out, and there were people saying that the Joker didn’t have a plan, with their evidence being that the Joker said he didn’t have a plan?
David: Hey, newsflash: VILLAINS LIE.
Chris: “Everything he says is a trick or a lie or a clue.” But that is another column. This all leads to a very key scene: Ducard tells Bruce that his parents’ murder wasn’t Bruce’s fault, but Thomas’s, because Thomas lacked the will to act.
David: Which is BS as much as Bruce’s self-blame. Alfred’s the one who’s right.
Chris: Ah, but is he?
David: Dum dum DUMMMMM!
Chris: Later on, when we see Chill, he talks about how he was forced into a life of crime by the Depression. And still later in the movie, we find out that the Depression was created artificially by…. Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Shadows.
David: Economic engineering!
Chris: That’s one of the biggest reveals in the entire movie, because it essentially makes Ra’s responsible for the Waynes’ death, but in a way that — again — makes sense within a complex web of events. There’s a piece of everyone’s idea on who to blame that’s correct: Bruce wanted to leave the theater, which put them in the alley. Thomas gave in instead of acting to protect his family. Chill pulled the trigger. Ra’s created the situation in which a man who otherwise wouldn’t was driven to crime in order to bring down the only thing standing in his way. So who’s responsible?
David: And on top of that, we don’t know enough about Ra’s. He refers to a wife that he loved, whose loss drove him to his current point. He’s a cipher in this movie, one I hope will be decoded next summer.
Chris: There’s an incredbily complex story going on here that doesn’t treat everything as falling on a simple axis of good and evil, and I love it.
David: Everyone here is a character, with complex motivations. Which perfectly fits Batman’s world. It’s all shades of gray. It’s like we see earlier: the first time Bruce Wayne was forced to steal to fight starvation, it forced him to reconsider his black and white view of moralty.
Chris: But Batman still manages to unambiguously build himself into a hero, and Ra’s allows himself to fall into the single-minded megalomania of the villain.
David: Which, for me, is where the movie falls apart. But we’ll see the beginning of that at the end of this act.
Chris: Ra’s asks Bruce why he didn’t avenge his parents, and we find out that he tried: When Chill was brought to trial, Bruce went to the courtroom with a gun, fully intending to kill him.
David: And he would have. He actually would have. Like, if not for the random lady under Falcone’s pay who shot him, he would have done it, and that would have been the end.
Chris: Exactly. Like you said, we see a Bruce Wayne who’s willing to throw his life away to get revenge, and the only reason he doesn’t is because someone else gets there first.
David: And that’s the main issue with my vision of the character, but- and this is what separates it from the Keaton/Burton joints – it’s consistent.
Chris: Exactly: We see his emotions as he moves through them, as he deals with the frustration and hate. The fact that he stands there to watch a man die, trying to take pleasure in it, and even says that he should thank Falcone says a lot about how far this Bruce Wayne is from becoming Batman. We see him developing, it’s not just an instant transformation the moment his parents die, which is what its often shown to be in the comics (and which, to be honest, I tend to prefer). It’s far more human here.
David: Yeah, exactly! He’s fully third dimensional. It’s “Batman Begins” for a reason – the character’s emotional journey begins, very slowly, to the point where it’s so decompressed that we see every single moral realization.
Chris: The moral development continues with Rachel, who represents this pure optimistic idealism, to contrast with Alfred’s pragmatism and Ra’s's pessimism. She explains that there’s a difference betwen justice and revenge, and then talks about how Carmine Falcone, the man responsible for killing the Waynes’ murderer, is “creating new Joe Chills every day.” At that moment, this ceases to be a story of revenge. Joe Chill is no longer the problem, Capital-C Crime is the problem. That’s what Batman needs to fight.
David: And all of this would feel way more serious if it came from anyone other than Katie Holmes. What a disastrous casting choice.
Chris: Yeah, she’s… unfortunate.
David: She’s sidetalking like she’s talking into an N-Gage.
Chris: I really wish Maggie Gyllenhall would’ve been Rachel from the beginning, because she could’ve killed with this material.
David: She’s an exceptional actress, while Holmes is so weak-willed she fell into goddamn Scientology.
Chris: But Holmes does have these flashes of being really good, like when she slaps Bruce when he reveals that he was going to shoot Joe Chill. The very idea of Bruce intending to kill someone makes her LIVID, very much the way that the idea of crime is anathema the Batman of the comics. She takes him to Falcone’s hangout, so that he can see for himself what revenge looks like and how far from justice it actually is. And at that moment, Batman looks at the gun in his hands and sees the gun that killed his parents, and throws it into the ocean. He rejects revenge.
David: But he finally realizes, after getting told off by his childhood best friend/crush object and failing to kill his parents’ murderer, that he wouldn’t have been any happier. And I’m not sure about how much this makes Batman a victim of chance.
Chris: How do you mean?
David: If Joe Chill hadn’t been killed by Random Lady, he would have been a murderer rather than… Batman.
Chris: He would’ve. Like with Chill, there’s a complex set of events at work that leads to Bruce becoming Batman.
David: Yeah, exactly. But in the comics, Bruce was ALWAYS that pure, and pure in the sense of being trained towards fighting evil by that final movie he saw as a child. Like, Mask of Zorro Bruce would never have sliced a dude.
Chris: Well, like I said, Nolan’s take is more human. And usually, that’s not my preferred take on Batman — I think we both like him better as a metaphorical construct rather than being “realistic.” But here, I think it really works well.
David: again: THE EXECUTION. Nolan is a really great movie director, and he kills the material.
Chris: Along those lines, though, I think it’s important that you bring up Batman’s relationship to Zorro, because this is a Batman who sees Faust, and is then offered his chance to essentially sell his soul to the devil. And he doesn’t.
David: The only Nolan flick I haven’t seen is Insomnia, and I should really fix that. But between Memento, The Prestige, Inception, he’s an auteur with a unique vision, like a competent M. Night Shyamalan.
Chris: Bruce goes to talk to Falcone, who gives him a big speech about the power of fear, which, if you hadn’t figured it out yet, is a theme of the movie.
Chris: Have you been sitting on that joke all night?
David: It honestly just came to me, I swear to God. In any case, yeah, the entire point of the movie so far is that Bruce is using to repurpose the fear he felt (regarding Joe Chill and the bats in his basement) to manipulating and screwing with jerks in his hometown. But before he feels that, there are guys like Carmine Falcone, who… well, they’re such pushovers, they don’t feel like real obstacles. Falcone seems impressive in act one, but within thirty minutes of movie time he’s out of the picture and replaced by some crazies whose milieu doesn’t really fit what’s going on.
Chris: Falcone also points out something that often gets lost in the comics, and that a lot of Batman’s detractors like to bring up: Despite the personal tragedy, he’s still got a pretty awesome life. Billions of dollars, a mansion, a personal butler, fame, fortune… Nolan addresses the idea that for Batman to be sympathetic, he can’t just go out beating up a poor guy who steals bread so he can eat. There has to be an understanding of what a life without privilege means, so that’s what he gives Bruce over the next few scenes. Although to be fair, to paraphrase the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker, if he called his butler, he could stop it all.
David: And I recognize that the economic depression that brought Falcone to power was engineered by Ra’s, making him the true villain. But Falcone is there largely to, as you say, deliver the chorus of “Common People” to Bruce to inspire him to give his coat away and do whatever common people do. I mean, I remember him being a somewhat menacing presence even in the Jeph Loeb joints, but here he’s just a name thrown onto a crimelord so we’re impressed when he gets his ass handed to him.
Chris: Really? I think Falcone does a good job of embodying… I guess you’d call it Old Crime. I’m sure that we’re going to cover Gordon’s speech about escalation at the end of the movie, but a world with Batman makes old school crooks like Falcone irrelevant. His entire deal is that he’s built to destroy the structure of those criminals, but just as Gotham City was so awful that it required a new kind of man to save it, Batman is such a great hero that he requires a new kind of villain. Falcone’s a lot like the old Silver Age Lew Moxon here, in that he inadvertently helps to create Batman, but can’t survive in a world with him.
David: I buy that, but the problem is that after Batman defeats Old Crime, he turns out to be a puppet for a supervillain plot to turn public transit into a microwave emitter that explodes fear toxins in the subway system. And, I’m sorry, that sounds ridiculous.
Chris: To be fair, so does “orphan dressed up as Dracula fights a clown so that people won’t blow up a boat with Tiny Lister on it.” But I concede the point.
David: That’s the thing: Batman Begins doesn’t require just one point of suspension of disbelief, but two. All of which we’ll get to at the end of this act when Batman escapes a terrible dojo situation in the worst possible way.
Chris: For right now, we see Batman traveling the world, living as a criminal, and it really helps to make him a more sympathetic character. It’s a side of Batman that we don’t see often, this understanding that not every crook deserves to be punched in the mouth and thrown in jail. Unsurprisingly, Morrison does a great job with it in his run.
David: That’s the thing, Batman isn’t just a product of Gotham, he’s the rest of the world come back to fix what’s wrong with his own culture. And it’s ridiculous that certain people are getting downgraded, since one of my favorite moments of the end of 52 was the idea of Bruce, Dick and Tim going off to recreate the Batman together.
Chris: It’s really a necessary scene for the character. Without understanding his morality — and without seeing that he understands others — Batman’s just a rich white man who decided that he was above the law and a better judge of who’s guilty and needs to be punished than the legal system. Earlier, he tells Rachel that the system is broken, and he’s right, but not for the reasons he says then. At that point, he’s upset because he didn’t think Joe Chill had been punished enough and needed to die, but now, he feels the opposite way. The Batman who trains with the League of Shadows wouldn’t kill Chill, as he proves by not killing the Chill proxy that Ra’s presents him with.
David: I have nothing to say in response but “you are right” and nodding. But what he does afterwards, oh man.
Chris: It’s also worth noting that after Bruce relates this part of his past, Ra’s responds with “the criminal is not complicated.” But as Nolan has already shown us, even something as simple as Joe Chill’s mugging gone wrong has a complex web of events and causality leading to it. Again: The villain lies to get what he wants. Which is underscored by the next scene, with Bruce’s ninja test, being all about appearance versus reality.
David: Which is fantastically directed. This latest view was actually the first one where I realized what Bruce was doing after he was cut, wounded other ones identically to cast off suspicion. It’s a very well-made action sequence that makes Bruce look like a total badass in a relatively complex way without insulting the viewer.
Chris: Which brings us to the end of Bruce’s training, and I understand you have something of an issue with this.
David: Batman is a f***ing ninja. He could have gotten out of the situation of being forced to decapitate Petty Criminal #46 by any method other than lighting the entire mountainside dojo on fire.
Chris: Well, to be fair, everyone else in the room is also a ninja.
David: He still could have at least tried. This scene is ridiculous. If we’re going to hold Bruce responsible for Axis Chemicals and “well, they’re all clown hoodlums and it has to get done,” this really isn’t that different. He knowingly blows up a whole ton of people because he won’t kill a dude who dies in the process anyway.
Chris: It’s probably the weakest part of the movie, which is a shame because it comes after such a great scene with Bale, Neeson and Watanabe. I love Watanabe’s delivery of his speech about how Gotham needs to be destroyed “like Constantinople and Rrrrrrrome.” But you’re right. This is a huge failure on Bruce’s part. For the sake of argument, though, do you think that was intentional? And does it matter if it was?
David: No, because consider the ending — “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Bruce basically lets Ra’s die as a correction for saving him at the end of this act. That’s an implication of “Bruce wouldn’t have let Ducard live if he knew he was Ra’s.”
Chris: If you look at Year One, there’s the scene where Bruce, before he’s Batman, tries to fight crime and ends up getting the crap kicked out of him. It’s a disastrous failure, which prompts him to become Batman. So is this Nolan and Goyer trying to recreate a failure like that in the context of their movie?
David: That’s an interesting take. Later on, Ra’s says that Bruce left him for dead, which, as we see here, clearly isn’t the case.
Chris: As we’ve already established, Ra’s is a liar. And I’m not saying I subscribe to that take — I actually agree with you completely. But up to now, there’s been a clear intent behind everything we’ve seen, that seems to go flying out the window so that we can get an action set piece and a Ra’s al-Ghul death fakeout.
David: Why does Bruce prevent himself from killing Random Criminal in a way that doesn’t burn down the dojo and kill tons of people? We know he has the skill.
Chris: No idea. Maybe he assumed that they’d be skilled enough to all get themselves out? Again, it could be an atttempt to echo the scene in Year One where Batman drops on the thugs stealing a TV and it all goes sour on them, because he can’t control how people react to his actions. There’s even a similarity in a shot of him holding someone over a long drop. The difference, of course, being that neither of those scenes made Batman directly responsible for a death.
David: While blowing the chemical plant in Batman ’89 was straight up “hey, let’s ice these dudes,” totally.
Chris: Exactly. I think there’s a difference of intent — Bruce obviously does everything he can to save Ducard, at least — but I’d still rather it wasn’t in this movie. It seems like a cheap way to get Ducard out of the way so that he doesn’t immediately come after Bruce when he goes back to Gotham.
David: And he lies about it when he does, or the random Tibetan dude Bruce leaves him with is the worst message relay ever.
Chris: And that brings the first act of Batman Begins to a close.
David: It’s pretty much the opposite of subtlety, but it’s leagues above what we’ve seen from a scriptwriting perspective, and Nolan and his acting crew kill basically every role that isn’t played by damn Katie Holmes.
Chris: Join us next time for the second part of our three-part review, in which Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City, and we finally get to see this Batman fellow everyone’s been talking about.