In the Name of the Father

Batman Begins explains how a traumatized orphan became America's superhero.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 12, 2005

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Batman Begins
A-
Includes: A disc of lavish but vacuous making-of extras and interviews.
You'll Like It If You Like: Comic book movies, coming-of-age dramas, dark action flicks.

 

Cartoons are our mythology, our opera. Not just a cartoon, Batman's also an old TV show (our other mythology), so maybe that's why it's inspired so many different visions-and why people still care about it.

Tim Burton's Batman movies were dark Victorian novels. Joel Schumacher's were kitschy Wagnerian operas. Directed and co-written by Memento's Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins is a Shakespearean play-a somber story of loss, fear, trauma and vengeance, filtered through a shell-shocked, shut-down hero who, like Hamlet or Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry plays, wants a father figure but can't trust himself to know who's the right one.

Nolan and co-writer David Goyer ruthlessly strip away the shellac that Schumacher layered on the franchise. Like George Lucas in the recent Star Wars movies or Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather: Part II, they go back to the beginning to reimagine how, why and when their hero came to be who he is. It turns out it's all about his screwed-up relationship with his father-and the need to emulate yet outdo him. (Sound like any presidents we know?)

Nolan and Goyer sat in a garage and worked out their story from the little information they had about Batman's origins. (Unlike his cousin Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne comes with surprisingly little back-story.) They focused on the unspeakable trauma in Bruce Wayne's past-the murder of his parents-and, like Shakespeare in Hamlet, spun their story around the lifelong echoes of that one event.

Soaked in sorrow, the film's extraordinary first 45 minutes fluently intercut the Bat back-story (from Bruce's childhood through his parents' deaths through his wanderings after that) and his life now: being trained for vengeance by an Irish-seeming ninja master with a French name who speaks in Yoda-like fortune-cookie epigrams-a potentially JarJar-esque disaster that Liam Neeson's massive presence and dry authority manage to avoid.

Neeson's Henri Ducard functions like Bruce's psychoanalyst, and early scenes play like a new kind of Freudian violence therapy. "Your parents' death was not your fault," intones Ducard, between kicks and chops. "It was your father's. Anger does not change the fact that your father failed to act."

Bruce was scared by bats as a kid, so he becomes Batman to conquer that fear by instilling it in others: "To manipulate the fears in others, you must first master your own." This all has to do with not wanting to turn into his father, a saintly doctor who didn't strike back against the mugger who killed him.

As in comic books, opera or Greek mythology, the hokey story and stiff language are just scaffolding for a more primal story-here, the young man finding himself. "What was I looking for?" Bruce asks in the movie's first minutes, and Ducard answers: "Only you can know that."

But like Candide, Holden Caulfield and generations of other young who-am-I's before him, he doesn't know who he is or what he wants, so the split between the spoiled playboy Bruce Wayne and the heroic Batman reflects his deeper internal divisions. Upping the ante even further, Bruce's girlfriend suggests he actually has three selves-Batman, the Bruce Wayne he used to be, and the Bruce Wayne he's become.

Christian Bale's muffled, monotone performance doesn't suggest deep reserves of emotional turmoil-it just evokes someone who's shut himself down and isn't flipping the ON switch anytime soon. He's rigorously controlled, but less complex than Michael Keaton's neurotically intense hero in Tim Burton's first Batman.

Batman Begins isn't a performer's movie on the whole, with Katie Holmes as a chirpy DA who seems more like a junior high school class treasurer, Michael Caine cashing a paycheck as Alfred the butler, stately Brit Tom Wilkinson insanely miscast as mob boss Carmine Falcone, Cillian Murphy channeling Johnny Depp at his feyest as Dr. Jonathan Crane, and Gary Oldman playing William H. Macy playing Commissioner Gordon.

It's appropriate that the movie's obsessed with divided selves, since it plays like two films mashed together: a run-of-the-mill action flick, with interchangeable people doing generically violent things; and a darker story that dominates the more powerful and original first sections.

Grabbing bits of philosophy from psychoanalysis to existentialism ("It's not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me," Bruce tells his girlfriend), Batman Begins can be read as a metaphor for everything from the closet and racial identity to the Bush family, 9/11 and Iraq ("Justice and revenge ... are never the same, Bruce. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better.")

Like other myths, the Batman myth is overblown, in love with itself and infinitely elastic. But this one looks like it's not going away, and Nolan, like Burton before him, turns out to be the right monomaniac for the job.


Arrested Development: Season Two

This classic Fox comedy is perfect for DVD because it's a novel at heart, unfolding its characters in weekly 22-minute installments, with such a unique sensibility that it transcends the sitcom. It's a whole frame of mind, a worldview, a universe inside itself. You feel like the characters keep going even when you're not watching them-and the DVD lets you pop in on them whenever you feel like it, like they're your own private goldfish.

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