Batman Begins

by Carolyn Petit

Michael Jackson is nuts. To paraphrase Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s terrific new film Batman Begins, a guy who has plastic surgery to completely change his appearance and surrounds himself with young children clearly has issues. But where do these issues come from? A coworker of mine and I were talking on Monday when the buzz of an impending verdict announcement was in the coffee-scented air. “I watched this program the other day,” he said, “where they examined Michael Jackson’s psychology and why he’s as fucked up as he is. They said that he destroyed his nose because when he was young people always used to tell him that he had his father’s nose, but his father beat him all the time, so he hated his father, and he hated seeing any part of his father in himself when he looked in the mirror.

“You wanna get nuts? COME ON! LET’S GET NUTS!”
-Bruce Wayne, Batman (1989)

“It’s like with pit bulls,” he said. “They’re naturally sweet, well-adjusted dogs. It’s the way that they’re trained that fucks ’em up. They breed ’em, then they beat ’em.”

Personally, I always find the issue of just how much our experiences in childhood shape who we are as adults a little disturbing. Do we really have any free will, or do we just act out the byproducts of the genetic code we’ve inherited as it’s filtered through a lens of childhood traumas and incoming stimuli? I mean, some things about us simply are the way they are and we can’t change them. Some people are smarter than others. Some people are sadder than others. Why is that? I keep trying to will myself into being as funny as David Sedaris, and for some reason it’s just not working. Clearly my mom drank too much coffee when she was pregnant with me.

Given his childhood experiences, could Michael Jackson choose not to have this compulsion to completely alter his appearance? And given his childhood experiences, could Bruce Wayne choose not to be obsessed with dishing out his own brand of justice to the criminals of Gotham City?

Bruce Wayne is nuts, too, and better than any Bat-film before, Batman Begins shows us how the psychological landscape that leads him to don a cowl and cape and head out into the night was formed. Tim Burton’s Batman dramatized the death of Wayne’s parents, but this film gives it a lot more time and importance. This is, as the title suggests, an origin story, and the entire first third or so of the film is devoted to Wayne’s quest to figure out what the hell to do with all the guilt and anger that tragic event has left him with. Not content with just delivering a big summer movie, Christopher Nolan is interested in exploring what makes Batman tick, and with his superb cast he approaches the material with as deep a sense of realism as possible.

Christian Bale is a bit too bland to be the most fascinating actor to step into the role, but I suppose his impressive physique makes him a more believable Dark Knight than Michael Keaton. Still, it’s in the supporting cast that the film truly shines. Nolan employs a veritable who’s who of noteworthy actors, including Rutger Hauer, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine. Liam Neeson is at his sharpest here as Ducard, a mysterious man who trains Wayne physically and mentally, and Cillian Murphy brings a wonderfully chilly intellectualism to his portrayal of Dr. Jonathan Crane.

This devotion to a sense of realism carries itself over to the movie’s production values. For the first time, Gotham resembles a real city. Unlike the perpetually enshrouded dark funhouse metropolis of Burton’s films (but like the Manhattan of Sam Raimi’s terrific Spider-Man work), the mirrored skyscrapers of this Gotham’s skyline sometimes sparkle in the midday sun. Shot in part on location in Chicago, the multiple levels of that city are used to great effect here, both visually and symbolically. And the muscular new Batmobile, though capable of some outrageous things, is a vehicle you can almost believe in.

Nolan’s films have always been deeply concerned with damaged psyches. He made a name for himself with the short-term memory thriller Memento, and followed that up with Insomnia, which starred Al Pacino as a detective with some serious issues of his own. So it’s no surprise that he explores the psychological aspects of Batman with such confidence and skill. Where he doesn’t succeed quite so well is in filming action. Like so many contemporary directors, he tends to shoot fights way too tightly and rely entirely too much on quick cuts in some misguided attempt to really put you in the middle of it all. Rather than framing the brawls in a way that captures the movement of Batman and his opponents, too often all we see is a fist, a chest, an instant of motion before the next shot replaces it. During one fight on an elevated train, I was reminded how much clearer and more engrossing a fight on a train was in last year’s big superhero movie.

At one point Katie Holmes, as the film’s nearly disposable love interest/damsel in distress, suggests that her childhood friend Bruce Wayne is gone, that whatever’s replaced him is not an alter ego but the real deal. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. In any case, whatever else Michael Jackson’s done or hasn’t done, the MJ who ruled the pop world when I grew up is long gone. But maybe he never really existed either. Maybe that was an alter ego, and this is the real deal.

  • Batman Begins
  • by Carolyn Petit
  • Published on July 1st, 2005
Batman Begins
Christian Bale, Michael Cain, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman..

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