Monday, May 28, 2012

Batman Begins

Batman Begins (4/5)

In a pivotal moment in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is ordered by his mentor Ducard to execute a man from a small village who has been accused of killing his neighbor because he coveted his land.  Wayne demurs, telling Ducard that the villager deserves to be tried for his crimes before punishment is meted out.  If we merely execute the man, Wayne argues, without a procedure in place to check our baser tendencies for retribution, then the result is not justice but rather retribution.  The question of where we draw the line between justice and vengeance becomes the core theme of Christopher Nolan’s first foray into the Batman mythos, and it is a question that seems particularly suited to the character of Batman.  It is also a question that had been all but ignored in the years following the September 11th attacks.  In many ways Batman Begins is the quintessential post-9/11 film that manages to smuggle moral quandaries into a big budgeted blockbuster when the larger discourse surrounding terrorism seemed content to ignore basic questions of justice. 

Tellingly, the villains of Batman Begins are an international terrorist organization by the name of the League of Shadows and headed by a mysterious character Ra’s al Ghul.  It is later revealed that the League of Shadows has been around for centuries and exists to level empires that have become too big for their britches.  But before the League of Shadows reveals themselves as the villains, they first serve as a training organization for Bruce Wayne, a billionaire driven by the death of his parents to travel across the globe in an attempt to understand the world of criminals from the inside out. 

Perhaps one of the most brilliant moves that Nolan makes in the film is to spend nearly half of the movie on the training and origins of Batman.  When Nolan’s Batman film was release, it had been nearly eight years since the disastrous Batman & Robin, a film so poorly received that it single handedly killed of the multi-million dollar franchise.  Where Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin attempted to resurrect the camp and humor of the old Adam West Batman series (although Schumacher’s film didn’t have one-tenth of the whit of the 1960s TV show), Batman Begins endeavors to shroud the superhero’s origins in as much realism as possible. 

The film cuts back and forth between Wayne’s training with Ducard and his lost years dealing with the death of his parents.  In recounting Batman’s origins, Nolan decides to include one of the most controversial figures in all of Batman’s seventy year history: Joe Chill.  Plenty of Batman nerds (myself included) have argued about whether or not the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne should even have an identity.  Those of us who prefer the anonymous mugger version of the story claim that because the murderer is never caught, any criminal, whether it’s an everyday bank robber or one of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, can serve as a stand in for the man who killed Batman’s parents.  I’ve often found myself on the anti-Joe Chill side of this argument, but Nolan’s treatment of the character has forced me to rethink my position.  Instead of a low life scumbag who murdered two people for a handful of cash and some jewelry, Joe Chill is portrayed as a desperate figure who turned to crime in the midst of an economic recession.  And his killing of the Waynes looks more like a man who acted out of fear than sadism. 

By transforming the motivations for Chill’s crime, Nolan expands the question of crime from the actions of individual actors to notions of systemic economic and ideological circumstances.  In fact, when the League of Shadows reappears in the film’s climax, it is explained that the organization first attempted to level Gotham by leveling its economy, causing the recession that lead to criminals like Joe Chill.  This is an astute account of how terrorism works.  Many forget that one of the chief goals of the September 11th attacks was not merely the indiscriminate killing of innocent people; it was also an attempt to embroil the foreign wars in order to bleed us dry with deficit spending.  By emphasizing the economics of crime and terrorism, Batman Begins asks us to question the root cause of violence. 

The first half of Batman Begins is so well crafted, so methodical in its pacing, that it’s almost a shame that Bruce Wayne has to suit up in the second half.  Batman’s origins are so compelling that Nolan could have done the entire film without a single appearance of the cape and cowl.  (In fact, I’ve always felt that a TV series that followed Bruce around the world as he trains to become Batman would be a big hit).  The second half of the film is decidedly overstuffed, and it suffers from a glut of villains, a problem most superhero franchises don’t run into until the sequels.  Batman faces off against the League of Shadows, Gotham’s crime boss Falconi, and the deranged Scarecrow.  Any fan of the comics has to object to the inclusion of the Scarecrow in this film.  While his psychological obsession with fear and terror fit neatly within the themes of the movie, the Scarecrow is such a strong villain that it’s truly a shame he doesn’t receive the sole spotlight.  This may be a complaint reserved for comic book geeks, but as a member of this group, I must object.

Nolan also struggles when filming action sequences.  He uses so many quick cuts that it is nearly impossible to see what is going on.  At times this is intentional, such as when we are supposed to see Batman’s hit and run techniques from the point of view of the criminals themselves.  But there are scenes later on that use the same choppy camera work for no particular reason.  At one point Batman has to fight four different ninjas, which sounds like the coolest thing ever.  But unfortunately Nolan slices and dices the fight choreography, making the entire thing nearly incomprehensible. 

But perhaps the film’s single most glaring misstep is Katie Holmes’s tone deaf performance as Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes.  Whenever Holmes attempts to be charming she tends to smile with half of her face, which can be downright frightening.  But in her defense, she is given some of the film’s worst lines of dialogue.  Even Katharine Hepburn couldn’t deliver the phrase “Some of us have work to do” without sounding like a stuck up prick.  Superhero films have not always been kind to their female characters, and Batman Begins perpetrates this boy’s club tradition.

Batman Begins is a much more uneven film in its second half than in its first half, but it still manages to meld big summer action with surprisingly nuanced questions of how we understand terrorism.  When Wayne refuses to executed the villager accused of murder, he asks us to question how far one can go with retribution before you become the very object you are fighting against.  How many indefinite detentions, indiscriminate aerial bombings, extrajudicial executions can a nation participate in until it is perpetuating the same kind of violence it has sworn to stop.  Batman Begins proves that when those in the media stops asking tough questions, popular culture can sometimes smuggle them into the public debate under the guise of entertainment. 

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