Karen Finally Begins Her Review of Batman Begins!

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers, as usual.

God, is this one ever overdue! So yeah, presumably, like everyone else in America, I went to see Batman Begins with Matt and Sam, with little to no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised. Actually, more than pleasantly surprised. About halfway through the proceedings, I thought to myself, damn, this movie is really good!

The Batman movie franchise of the '90s, as everyone knows, started off super strong and then quickly went downhill. What was "Tim Burton dark and quirky" turned into "Joel Schumacher garish and bloated." The Batman films died after Batman and Robin, but good superheroes never stay down for long. Especially after Spiderman rakes in nearly half a billion dollars at the box office.

Batman fans were given reason to hope when good directors were connected with an upcoming "origin" film: Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) was purportedly attempting to get a Batman: Year One off the ground. For whatever reason, that didn't pan out, and Christopher Nolan (Memento) was given the green light to make his own version, which, obviously, is what we have today. Hollywood wheeling and dealing and scheming aside, it was clear that Warner Brothers was serious about resurrecting the franchise with a darker, higher quality film.

Batman Begins, in my opinion, starts off a bit slow. I took my much-need bathroom break during the inevitable "Batman learns his mad fighting skillz in exotic Asian locale" sequence. Superheroes can't ever learn karate at the "Champs Martial Arts Academy" in the local strip mall next to the Subway, can they? No, no, they always have to climb some damn mountain in some foreign country with inscrutable instructors to prove their manhood or commitment whatever. BORING. Liam Neeson's pretentiousness level rises to unprecedented levels, but since I could sense that this Brotherhood of Shadows nonsense was all somehow going to be necessary to the plot, I was willing to cut the film some slack at this point. Plus, points to the screenwriter for delineating the difference between "passion" and "extremism."

Once Bruce settles back into Gotham for good, then things start to get really interesting. Batman takes on local crime and develops his costume, equipment, and bat cave. (Conveniently, his family business just happens to have a "super cool unused army weapons" R&D department--manned by Morgan Freeman--and the family estate just happens to have a huge underground lair with more bats than the Carlsbad Caverns.) But I did appreciate the realism of these sequences...Batman creating his mask from parts ordered from China and spray-painting everything black, as opposed to all of this nifty gadgetry just "being there," requiring a suspension of disbelief.

As Batman takes on the local crime bosses, he discovers that the corruption goes higher and higher until (surprise, surprise!) he finds that he has to deal with some unfinished business in Asia. Cillian Murphy should be singled out as a highly effective minor villain, an evil psychiatrist on the take (was this subplot written by the Scientologists?) whose chief weapon is a hallucinatory gas and a really freaky burlap mask. The sequences featuring the "Scarecrow" and his trippy gas are genuinely unnerving. Murphy also chews the scenery with a twisted, campy eroticism.

Christian Bale is looking damn fine in this film, much healthier than his character in, say, The Machinist. He does a great job in a Bruce Wayne tux--he's all sly charm and forced gaiety, while his eyes reveal what a tortured head case he really is. I'm not so sure how I feel about Bale in costume. Maybe it's his super-gruff Batman voice that turns me off, although I can see the need for disguise. To briefly compare his performance to Tobey Maguire's in Spiderman, I think the difference is that, even with his face completely covered, one could more easily read Spiderman's emotions. When Batman is on the streets, he's all action and intense seriousness, which is fine, to a degree, but Bale had me more interested in Bruce Wayne than the Caped Crusader.

Even the smaller parts are played by accomplished actors. Michael Caine is fantastic as Alfred, infusing the unflappable British waiter's character with a Cockney accent, a wry grin, and a fierce paternal love. He lends real weight to a character who is often treated as an afterthought. Morgan Freeman seems to have a lot of fun playing this franchise's version of "Q." Also welcome is a heartfelt performance by Gary Oldman, portraying "Lieutenant" Gordon--it's nice to see Oldman as a good guy for a change!

Katie Holmes is the Single Worst Superhero Girlfriend in the History of Superhero Movies. And I'm not just saying that because of the recent Tom Cruise silliness. Her Rachel is self-righteous and scolding, always armed with a guilt trip. Plus, she gets rescued multiple times by a dark, mysterious hero whom she later finds out to be her childhood sweetheart who happens to look like Christian Bale, and she doesn't sleep with him? As Mandy is fond of saying, fuck that shit, motherfucker. That's about as believable as spending a night on a tropical island with Johnny Depp and a shitload of rum and emerging a virgin.

But despite the presence of Ms. Holmes to always ruin the fun, this is a damn good superhero film. It's dark, it's serious, it's not for the kiddies, and the nihilistic terrorist plot against Gotham taps into our national fears. The action sequences are breath-taking, Batman's toys are super-cool, and the villains are actually scary (as opposed to mere comic relief). So if you haven't seen it yet, and I suppose by this point, nearly everyone has, I highly recommend it. I'm looking forward to the sequel, which will presumably re-introduce us to the Joker.