Batman as a franchise was effectively dead in the years between 1998 and 2004. There were a number of attempts to bring the character back to the big screen and all either languished in development hell or never made it past the earliest of development stages.
That is, until Warner Brothers approached Christopher Nolan who, up until then, had directed psychological thrillers (Memento, Insomnia and Following). Nolan was the perfect choice. He took inspiration from classics such as Richard Donner’s Superman in terms of the epic cast and the focus on the hero’s journey to find himself, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in terms of imagery and gritty, realistic worldbuilding.
The mix works, if a bit unevenly. That’s not to say this isn’t a great movie. Once it finds its stride, it’s a lot of fun. This version of Batman is firmly rooted in the realm of the plausible. There are no bat-anythings (batarangs, bat computers, bat bombs). He drives a souped up military vehicle called the Tumbler and utilizes practical, military-grade equipment developed from military prototypes that Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department developed. His adversaries are all strictly human.
This works in that it allows us to approach Bruce as a hero and get at what’s going on inside his head. The first part of the film, which charts Bruce’s voyage from the night he first fell down the well and was attacked by bats to the moment when he decides to be trained by the League of Shadows, is dreary and humorless (reflecting Bruce’s mental state), but once he is able to find a new identity through Batman, the tone of the film lightens up and we get to see how completely liberating this whole bizarre experiment is for Bruce. From the moment when he captures Carmine Falcone to the big final confrontation with Ra’s Al Ghul, this film is a lot of fun, especially in one delightful moment when a timid Sgt. Gordon gets to drive the Tumbler and be the badass we all know him to be deep down.
My only real issue with this film is that Bruce is such a passive character for the first third of the film that, once he dons the cowl, it’s difficult to relate to him. It’s easy to relate to “Ducard,” Alfred, Rachel, and Gordon because they’re all so likable and noble, but Bruce is such an emo headcase who listens to all their speeches about how he could better himself with bland disinterest that, once he finds his strength, it’s a bit late for us to suddenly like him (though, by the end of the film, it does happen). I wish Bale had been given more room to really show us who Bruce is, but instead it’s like he’s playing three completely different characters who don’t all seem to really connect together.
But the rest of the cast does a fantastic job. Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, and Katie Holmes all shine brilliantly. I could write a whole post about each actor’s performance.
Lucius Fox (Freeman) is world-weary and brilliant with a cynical twinkle in his eye that never misses a thing. William Earle (Hauer) is slimy and patronizing and is downfall is incredibly satisfying. Alfred (Caine) is warm and gentle, but with a hidden sadness that only comes out when he loses control. Ducard (Neeson) is the Jedi Master in all but name, imparting wisdom and tough love…until he reveals that he wants to destroy Gotham to make the world a better place. Jim Gordon (Oldman) is weighed down by the corruption around him, goaded into submission with the criminal elements that are eating the city from within, but he’s also the quickest to turn to real justice once Batman gives him his power back. Carmine Falcone (Wilkinson) is so smart and so good at working the system that you find him almost likable (almost). Jonathan Crane (Murphy) is an unsettling combination of startling handsomeness (quite possibly the most beautiful eyes on the entire planet) and skin-crawling creepiness (even without his scarecrow mask). And Rachel Dawes (Holmes) is so earnest and warm and committed to doing what’s right that, in an alternate universe, I could easily see her becoming a masked vigilante on her own.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s music is iconic. David S. Goyer’s script is complex and satisfying. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is breathtaking (especially among the third world decay of the Narrows). And Christopher Nolan’s direction is smart, slick, and ushered in an entire aesthetic that many other franchises would use as a jumping off point in the flurry of critically successful reboots that peppered the mid-to-late 2000’s.
It’s a fun movie. And it fits into the noir-esque styling of great Batman stories like Year One, The Long Halloween, and Dark Victory very well. That’s what’s great about Batman. The character has evolved so much over the years that there’s a decade for everyone. I tend to prefer the 50’s-60’s and 90’s, personally, but the darker, more daring and introspective writing in the 80’s created most of the Dark Knight’s greatest stories.
I just wish the rest of Hollywood hadn’t treated this particular reboot like the Action Movie Gospel and spent the next decade applying Nolan’s aesthetic to every franchise it could get its hands on. It worked for James Bond, but it didn’t quite work with Superman.
We’ll see who the next genre-defining director will be.
Next week, we’ll be looking at The Dark Knight, a movie with such a Herculean reputation, I feel kind of bad for not thinking it’s the single greatest movie ever made.
But there’s good stuff to be found. Fret not!