There is a scene towards the end of Batman Begins
where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) must feign boorish drunkenness in order to rescue his party guests from danger. He stands up to deliver a speech, which rapidly turns into a bratty (if accurate) rant against parasites and arrivistes, sending everyone spinning out of the room, ripe with indignation. Once the guests are safe, Wayne turns to face his real enemies, who have used the party as cover to access his mansion. You're waiting for a payoff where he attacks these humourless blowhards with the exact same cocktail of ridicule and jockish arrogance, but the opposite occurs; Bale turns down the volume and reacts instead with coiled agression, all blanked out gaze and steely monotone. There is a subtle disconnect here; you're waiting for the Joker, and instead you get Batman.
As it turns out, this scene holds the key to Batman Begins. It's a sober movie pretending to be drunk. For one and a half hours it sells itself as a summer spectacle, endlessly digressive, jumping around in time and space and picking up cameos, set pieces and serious amounts of kit along the way. It charms the audience into accepting its magpie instincts and leisurely pace- and suddenly, in the last half-hour, it reveals itself as a lean, merciless thriller. You leave the theatre shocked and impressed by qualities you're not supposed to register in blockbuster cinema: economy, symmetry, sparesness. Whether its clinicism would seem quite as admirable if it hadn't come in the door all shaggy haired and crazy-eyed is a point well worth considering.
The opening is an orthodox enough piece of psychodrama. A young Wayne falls into an abandoned well, and is enveloped by a swarm of bats. As it turns out, this is a pretty neat analogy for what will happen to the viewer over the next half hour or so. We cut to the adult Wayne, astray in the wastes of China, who is recognised and taken up by Liam Neeson’s authoritarian ninja. Neeson trains him in a workcamp among the glaciers, alternately dispensing beatings and Nietzschean epithets that bristle with abstract nouns; it's The Magic Mountain
with extra broadswords. Fear, and the conquering of same, feature prominently in Neeson's spiritual programme, but so do justice, rage, vengeance, corruption, purity. After a while, it is impossible for the audience to screen or process this information; we sit dully in Neeson's mesh of abstractions like bees in a smoked hive.
The Chinese scenes are intercut with flashbacks telling us how Wayne came from pampered child of billionaire philanthropists to this hollow-cheeked wraith lost in the borderlands. As if one primal scene wasn't enough, now we get a chain of them, each opening out into the next. So, the young Wayne is brought to the opera (Wagner, don't you know) as a treat following his rescue from the bats. But his fear reasserts itself, and as his parents are spiriting him out through a side door they encounter a petty mugger and are killed. Much later, Wayne lies in wait for his father's killer at the courtroom, only to be beaten to the draw by a bigger, meaner criminal. So he poses as a deadbeat and sets off for China, thinking he can undermine all criminals by learning how to understand the criminal mindset. Yes, you think, as each new plot point reveals itself, very neatly phrased; now would Batman ever stop beginning please?
Luckily, just when the movie seems overloaded with abstraction and exposition, Michael Caine's Alfred arrives in a jet to haul Wayne back to Gotham City and the present. In his past decade of movies Caine has alternated between two archetypes- stalwart gentleman and cheeky Cockney; in playing Alfred he gleefully mixes up the two. Never have Caine's cocky silences been better used; until he opens his mouth you don't know what you're getting- the butler or the rogue. As the "interior" Wayne, Christian Bale also has two modes: "haunted" and "vacant"; as the Batman identity coalesces, he begins to add "robotic" to that mix. Ironically, it is in playing his cover-act, Bruce Wayne as obnoxious, vulgar, tabloid billionaire, that Bale comes alive; here alone he seems vivid and dangerous. Bale seems to take pleasure in Wayne's ostentatious bad behaviour, and the audience is happy to cheer him along. The following section sees the most of the public Wayne and it is the happiest part of the movie. The plotting may appear predictable, but the casting and the performances are always trying to push you off course. Rutger Hauer takes on the Tom Wilkinson role- a tightassed but vaguely corruptible steward of the Wayne family fortune. Tom Wilkinson appears also, and in a sporting gesture, has a pop at Rutger Hauer's part; the ruthless, larger than life gangster kingpin. Wilkinson is a little gamey, but Hauer, underacting for once in a sensible business suit, is all rapt stillness- he doesn't do much, but you can't take your eyes off him.
As Wayne vows to avenge his father and hijacks his own fears for traction, his first adversary is also making solid progress- Dr Crane, as played by Cillian Murphy, is a superlatively nasty young psychologist conducting dodgy research into the nature of fear at Arkham Asylum. Murphy has one great moment, and you’ve all seen it in the trailer: where he smiles and taunts the Batman while the camera swoops batlike beneath his chin. You sense at this moment how his impish malevolence could take hold of this movie, perhaps matching and bringing out Bale's own petulance. It would certainly set up a satisfying climax, where the mask slips and Bale's native arrogance is allowed bleed into the Batman template. But the opportunity is lost; Murphy soon puts on a hessian sack and transforms into the Scarecrow; he spends the last act of the movie on a horse, galumphing expressionalistically around Gotham's seedier districts.
The good guys aren't given as much leeway, although Gary Oldman, another formidable ham, is impressively tamped down as Lieutenant Gordon, the only decent cop on Gotham's force (he actually looks like a straightforward transfer from the original DC cartoon). As a crusading district attorney, Katie Holmes doesn't make much of an impression in a role that is stranded in the barren land between victim and sidekick; you feel her part was written to fill in the psychological territory between the other players. "You're not the man I fell in love with," she tells Bruce at one stage, but there's no sense of how or when this happened, and the script doesn't bother telling us what kind of man he was (it seems odd, given the car-crash of his back-story, that Wayne was ever not
haunted by his parent's death). Holmes' only way to engage the audience lies in her prior understanding of Wayne; when she refuses to even play this card, her part dies at the source.
Not that the director seems to mind. In fact, as the movie goes on, you notice how little time Nolan has for the stage-business of superhero movies. Action sequences are practically unreadable; all fights are cut in rapid saccades, which I think are supposed to evoke the inital attack of the bats, but may also mask a distaste for the overt violence of the summer hit. Even when Nolan endorses the formula, he follows it through in a perverse, bassackwards way. There is a lengthy sequence where Wayne painstakingly assembles an arsenal of Batmaniana, but despite a huge potential for in-jokes and mischief, Nolan decides to play it disturbingly straight. He even adopts a respectful documentary tone, as if he is chronicling the details of a corporate raider's well thought out campaign. (It doesn't help that a billionaire like Wayne needn't do anything genuinely exciting in order to set up his new identity. Wayne orders most of his costume out of a catalogue; the rest of his gear he appropriates from a secret lab, with the approval of twinkly scientist Morgan Freeman, gradually, day by day, as if he were checking books out of a college library).
The film's greatest stylistic risk is with the superhero format. The money quote from Sam Raimi's Spiderman
- "With great power comes great responsibility"- also blows the lid on the superhero movie. It's there to tell adolescents how to control and tame (but not renounce) the powers of maturity, and warns them of the pleasures and sacrifices this involves. With Batman Begins, Nolan inverts the equation. Batman Begins is about great responsibility on the hunt for some decent power it can throw around. Batman's quest is cumulative, just one thing after another- a car, a cape, a mask; once he has conquered his fear, he finds it easy to convert it into further capital. The villains he opposes are straightforward and confident in doing evil (full of great irresponsibility), and they are not so much lined up against Batman as they are ranged alongside him, all engaged in parallel searches for kit and leverage. Sometimes it feels like you are observing different players of the same board game, taking turns to roll the dice and make their selfish moves.
This all seems relatively mean-spirited; and I would just like to step out of character here and state that I hugely enjoyed the movie, and came out of it buzzing with excitement and ideas. But, looking back, the pleasure was all formal. Like Memento, Batman Begins is a puzzle movie. Unlike Memento, it doesn't have any application to our own lives. And whenever Nolan tries to aim bigger- tries to load the script with references to the war on terror- his observations seem incohate and scattergun. The constant namechecking of fear as the source of Batman's miseries and strengths tells us that Nolan has watched the BBC series The Power of Nightmares
, but it doesn't tell us anything else. As the flawed father substitute, Hauer occasionally seems to be assaying a Cheney impersonation. The skinny, drawn Wayne who arrives China has something of the look of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. On the other hand, Bale's caricature of Bruce Wayne, billionaire, owes a lot to George Walker Bush- the drunk scene in particular seems to feed off footage of the 70s oil fortune heir. Later, in a more sympathetic moment, Bale seems to quote Bush again, this time to evoke the dilemma of the War President- a downhearted, confused man, clambering through the rubble in freshly pressed chinos. But there is no real consistency to the parallels, these are merely glancing blows. The only real message the film transmits is the old Pied Piper adage: don't try to harness extremism to accomplish pragmatic goals. If your goals are themselves extreme, then, as this Batman demonstrates, with his costumes and gadgets and impressive psychological toolkit, you can harness whatever the hell you want, just as long as you budget properly.
A very smart coda sets the franchise up for sequels- it turns out that the revamped, safer Gotham will also be an ideal arena for grotesque supercriminals. Yet you feel that if you lived in the city, you would welcome the influx of cartoon villains- they might jazz up the place a little. This highlights what I think is the movie's fundamental flaw. Gotham is lovingly realised- part eighties New York, part contemporary Moscow, part Sixties Hong Kong, with a sublimely hokey World Fair monorail- but its people remain severely underdeveloped. Everyone is either a hoodlum or a hero; there is no sense of regular folk trying to go about their lives. You miss the democratic razzmatazz of the Superman movies; you miss the sense of a town worth fighting for. Nolan must have noticed this lack early in editing, as his action sequences now come capped with a range of clumsy reaction shots. Usually these consist of the most vapid stage-business (a parking lot attendant sees the Batmobile roar past and looks disbelievingly at his coffee cup), but they are shot in a jerky offhand manner, with deliberately awful timing, as if trying to wriggle away from their own cheesiness. Unfortunately the distancing works; despite his protestations, it seems that Bale's Batman ultimately has nothing at stake beyond his own needs. Batman Begins is a neat movie; it has made all the connections, except for the one that really matters. This film, and its hero, show at least as much contempt for the common people of Gotham as does Neeson’s quasi-fascist mandarin.