Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Batman Begins (2005, Dir.Christopher Nolan)

In 2005 fans of Batman living in a post Batman & Robin world really had no idea what was in store for them prior to watching Batman Begins - the first film in what would become the definitive trilogy of Batman films directed by a then relatively unknown Christopher Nolan who at the time was best known for his cult amnesiac thriller mind bender Memento.

Prior to Warner's decision to reboot the franchise in this new dark, gritty and realistic way the plan had been for a fifth movie in the Burton/Schumacher series, again directed by Joel Schumacher, with Clooney set to return as Batman. The film would once again feature a number of villains including Man-Bat, Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow who would cause Batman to hallucinate seeing the Joker in a much anticipated return for Jack Nicholson. After the monumental critical and audience backlash from Batman & Robin however the studio dropped the project and looked for a new direction to push the franchise. After toying with a Batman Beyond film (based on the TV series in which a future Batman has taken the mantle from an aging Bruce Wayne) and an ultra realistic take on Batman directed by an early in his career Darren Aronofsky (who wanted Clint Eastwood to don the batsuit) the studio finally settled on Christopher Nolan directing a loosely adapted version of the much lauded origin comic book Batman: Year One by Frank Miller.

You'd think that after the debacle of Batman & Robin any actors worth their salt wouldn't touch a Batman film with a barge pole, however a cracking cast soon assembled who obviously believed in the script and vision of the film which helped add a lot of credibility leading up to its release. Admittedly however, thinking back the hype for the film wasn't really all that big before the reviews started rolling in. The film looked slow and was a stark contrast to the colourful Batman the public was accustomed to seeing at the time. It grossed a moderate amount at the Box Office but nothing compared to its sequels.

Anyway, as the titles implies its an origin story starting the tale of Batman afresh, however where the previous series merely touched on Bruce Wayne's childhood and subsequent maturation into becoming the Batman this film's purpose is to establish the forces and events which led Bruce Wayne to become the saviour of Gotham, explaining everything from his martial arts training, to the reasoning behind the choice of his bat based persona. For the first time on the big screen Batman/Bruce Wayne (played perfectly by Christian Bale who puts his trademark intensity to great use in the trilogy) becomes the star of the show instead of his gallery of villains who take an influential but more reserved role in this film. Interestingly for the first time also Bruce/Batman's gallery of allies play a large role in the story, every bit as much as the villains. This makes sense though as they are there throughout the trilogy and grow along with Bruce Wayne, but perhaps their most important role is to add credence to the Bruce here being an ultra-determined but altogether "normal" man as opposed to being the psychopath loner that Burton was so interested in depicting the character as in his films.

Nolan's finest achievement in the saga though is his characterization of Gotham City. Throughout all three films he continually builds upon the layers of the city - from the criminal fraternity run by the mobsters and gang bosses operating in the slums, to the rich, oblivious and often easily corruptible people who reign supreme over the upper city, as well as the outside forces manipulating the populace. The way the characters influence and attempt to control not just the other characters but the city itself gives Gotham it's own identity and it's parallels with American history compliments well the air of realism the city exudes from it's pseudo-Chicago architecture shot in beautiful warm orange hues by Nolan's long time collaborating director of photography Wally Pfister. Not only does it give the film a distinct look, but it invokes a pulpy neo-noir style which fits in well with the heavy emphasis on Gotham's criminal syndicates and gangsters which seem more at home in a 40's detective film than the kind of outlandish villains you'd expect to see in a superhero film.

The Dark Knight is consistently credited as having set the bar for the superhero film genre, but Batman Begins laid down the foundations. I'm a firm believer in the idea that not every superhero story needs to have an origin film, but anybody would be hard pressed to argue against Begins as being not only a great film in it's own right, but a marvellous introduction to Christopher Nolan's vision, without which the succeeding two films would have far less weight.

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