Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman Begins (2005)

In every version of Batman, a wealthy man with almost mystical resolve and unrealistic abilities dresses up like a small winged mammal to wage a personal war on crime. All of the contradictions in fact and in tone are there in that sentence, and everyone who creates a Batman story may choose whether they want to make the tale light or dark. Both ways have worked.

Christopher Nolan has adopted a dark tone to pronounce the simplest morals that the lighter versions of Batman uphold: Overcome your fears; get up when you fall; refusing to kill is what makes the hero better than his enemies. And Bruce Wayne's erstwhile love decides from mere minutes around him that he's not the boy she once loved. As an adult, why is she still that same girl? The shallow depths of Bruce's and Rachel's missed romance portrays the contradiction at the heart of Batman Begins: Platitudes scripted for children are the take-home messages of a movie children shouldn't see.

As the title indicates, this is a fictional how-to manual for a fictional sort of man, the superhero without super powers. With some guidance from the League of Shadows, Bruce learns the methods he needs to become a legend. He doesn't wear a batsuit out of a flamboyant compulsion: His theatricality, never so evident as when he blasphemes "Swear to me!" is a calculated means to an end. This is a sane Batman, selfless and self-possessed. He is sometimes off-balance physically, but never -- in his adult life -- mentally. We see the pain it causes him to sacrifice the pleasurable life his vast means and kind heart would have allowed.

The story arc allows Batman to deliver an epic salvation that Gotham may never appreciate, that it had been scheduled for destruction on a par with Constantinople or the Great Fire of London. Co-opting actual historical catastrophes as misdeeds of the fictional R'as al-Ghul is a subtle way to add a touch of reality to the myth.

The cast of characters is largely populated with those from the comics, altering a few key relationships, but drawing directly from some of the best-regarded stories. Lucius Fox and Alfred converse with Bruce in the film's few comic moments, trading light jests that leaven the tone and remind us that Bruce still knows what a joke is. The audience knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Enthusiasts realize that super heroes have a third personality, who the hero is when he or she isn't acting, around confidantes. Christian Bale excels in his portrayals of all three of these personas, with wit as the real Bruce, pompous delight as spoiled playboy Bruce, and the intensity of a carnivore as Batman.

The Nolan series of Batman films, which culminates seven years with its third and final installment this week, forges a new continuity with numerous Easter eggs that draw upon the Batman comics tradition. And it has done something more. Just as Liam Neeson's Ducard presses Bruce Wayne to become something more than a man, a legend, the Nolan series has had the opportunity to build Batman up into something more than a three-film action character. Perhaps there is something more to Batman, a true American legend. Just as in this film an imperfect man made himself a symbol, the Nolan series has contributed to the existing quality has of Batman as something more than an action hero who dresses up like a bat to fight crime. Batman Begins is the story of a fully-actualized man, and how he got that way. So for whatever flaws, simplicity, and eccentricity it bears, it feeds the pop legend of self-improvement and self-actualization so that in our culture, a person accomplishing any victory at all may be understood if they comment with pride, "I'm Batman."

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