Sunday, June 19, 2005

Batman Begins: An Open Letter

Dear DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures Executives,

Congratulations on the critical and box office success of your new film, Batman Begins. Consider certain past mistakes, which I need not name here, forgiven, and the good name of the Batman franchise redeemed.

However, as someone with more than a little experience with redemption myself, I remind you that forgiving is not forgetting. There is still room to stumble, as your competitors have discovered with some of their own recent efforts. With that in mind, allow me to go offer my opinion on where Batman Begins went right, where it went wrong, and how these lessons can be applied to future endeavors, such as next year's "Superman Returns."

Let me begin with the casting. Here, I have few if no complaints. The principles were all perfectly cast. Christian Bale, no stranger to disturbed characters, makes Bruce Wayne and Batman different, but equally likeable men. I was especially pleased with how well he delineated between the "fake" Bruce, the "real" Bruce, and Batman; he is to the live action Batman what Kevin Conroy is to the animated Dark Knight. Cillian Murphy is a delightfully perverse Jonathan Crane; my only complaint in this regard is that he didn't get enough screen time. Morgan Freeman is the perfect Lucius Fox. He has perhaps been unfairly typecast as the mentor-to-younger-white-guy, but this performance reminds us why: he's damn good at it. Gary Oldman was a surprising pick for a young James Gordon, but he works with it, and I look forward to his continued work with this franchise. Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson scquit themselves very well as Batman's philosophical foils. Michael Caine joins Gough and Zimbalist, Jr. as men who have nailed the role of Alfred Pennyworth. Lastly, Katie Holmes does a good job with the material she's given; I don't anticipate her return, but I'm glad she was in this movie. Lesson learned here: Keep your casting director.

On to the script. My compliments to Mssrs. Chris Nolan and David Goyer for distilling the essence of the Dark Knight into a story they can wholly call their own. The themes of fear and hope, justice and vengeance, are delicately interwoven, creating a patch of grey for the stark white and black characters to stand out against. Perhaps my favorite development is the fleshing out of Bruce's parents through the flashbacks in the first act. The characters have been ciphers in the past, but this new characterization both adds dramatic force to their deaths and a strong moral center for Bruce to revolve around as the film progresses. I also have to compliment the writers on the plot twist; it makes everything, to borrow a phrase from Joe Rice, "perfecter than before." There is not a wasted moment in this script; everything pays off somewhere. And the tone, thankfully, is neither relentlessly dark nor campy. The humor, when it comes, is the right kind, the kind shared between friends who are beginning a long and dangerous journey. I especially enjoyed the scenes in the Wayne Industries R&D lab. And when the film is creepy, it's the right kind of creepy, and always leavened by the presence of our hero. This is how one makes a successful superhero film: find the core of the character and build the movie around that. Stick with this formula, and you should have no future problems.

This is not to say the script is perfect. The Evil Plot has a rather gaping hole involving the McGuffin, which is overlookable on the first pass but will no doubt grate on subsequent viewings. Also, Jim Gordon is in the movie almost from the beginning, but is never actually called by name almost until the end. The car chase, I think, goes on a bit too long. Scarecrow's defeat doesn't match his threat level, I think. Finally, Katie Homes' character is almost superfluous. But for the compulsive need for a love interest, she could just have easily been replaced by a pre-acid Harvey Dent. I am grateful that the last scene clearly states that the two won't be getting together, but I urge to drop the romantic subplot for further sequels. Batman is unique among superheroes in that he works better without a damsel in distress. Gotham is his raison d'etere, his Guinivere; let that be enough. Incidentally, I'd rather Wonder Woman not have a love interest either.

Christopher Nolan strikes just the right tone with his direction. The new set design is a vast improvement; Gotham looks like a real city, but still retains a distinct character instead of being a faux New York. I loved the device of the monorail, both as set piece and as symbol. I hope we see more of it (although not as much as in this film; let something else represent all Bruce holds dear in the next film). The Batcave is more like a real cave than it is even in the comics. And I do like the new Batmobile, despite initial misgivings. It's just cool.

On the negative side, the fight scenes were uneven and sometimes incomprehensible. Having Batman move like a ninja is all well and good, but the audience still wants to see him kick some butt. Let the camera hold still a skosh longer next time, so we can see the punches thrown. Obviously, I don't want to see this sort of thing at all in films involving the more super of DC's superheroes.

Batman Begins is not a perfect film, but it is a very good one, and worthy to share the name and legacy started 66 years ago by Kane and Finger. I'm pleased, and I expect similar successes in the future. The DC superheroes are an integral part of modern myth, and they deserve respect and care in all their handlings, inside the comics medium and out. Liam Neeson's character talks about legend in the film's introduction. I can think of no better word for what these films mean to the modern culture, and hopefully to the generations to come. To steal a line from another superhero, you have great power to shape and reflect what America holds dear, and with it comes great responsibility. Keep this in mind, and success will follow every time.

Keep up the good work.

Always happy to help,


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