Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Revisiting BATMAN BEGINS And Ends

Shared in various internet forums, my article on "Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em" drew a variety of responses. One item of marginal significance to the overall piece that nevertheless persistently elicited a strong reaction was my identification of BATMAN BEGINS as one of the stinkers in the current comic movie boom. This wasn't any surprise, of course. The cult of the Christopher Nolan bat-flicks has always been strong, and I've been the subject of its criticism ever since I first suggested that the original film is significantly less than the greatest thing since sliced bread and that its director doesn't walk on water. Every time I've ever raised the issue I've gotten pushback, and looking over it now, my original article on BATMAN BEGINS is rather sketchy, more like a series of impressions of the film assembled immediately after having watched it the first time. I've seen it again since then. The subsequent viewing only hardened my initial impression of it--I think I was originally too kind to it. I've also seen most of the third Nolan bat-flick, which is even worse than BEGINS.[1] The reaction to the comic movie article seems an opportune moment to revisit and expand upon my original evaluation.

Adam West's uber-campy '60s television Batman casts a very long shadow over both the character and comic-based productions in general. Its popularity catapulted it from an amusingly stupid diversion to a thing that, in far too many quarters, defined a screen adaptation of a comic book as some cheap, way-over-the-top, insultingly stupid piece of shit that was not to be treated seriously as drama or, indeed, regarded as anything more than dumb, shallow, entirely disposable fun for those who find such things fun--a coffin-shaped box for the genre. Even the appearance, years later, of quality items like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and the INCREDIBLE HULK tv series couldn't exorcise this particular demon, which stood as an obstacle to quality comic adaptations--to comic adaptations, period--for decades, and, in fact, continues to haunt them to this day.

The Batman was particularly haunted by it. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989), which was based on the original Golden Age comics, was very good, still the definitive live-action treatment of the character, but the franchise it touched off immediately collapsed into full-blown, full groan Adam West-ism with BATMAN RETURNS and never looked back. Every entry went further in this direction than the last, every entry was far worse than the last. I've always believed a lot of the accolades poured over BATMAN BEGINS were a consequence of its moving away from this. It didn't quite move as far from it as its fans pretend though.

Conceptually speaking, Marvel's major characters have always been much stronger than those of DC Comics. The Batman is the exception. As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a mugger in a bad section of town and from that moment forward dedicates his life to an endless crusade against crime. He is the avatar of vengeance--crime had created what would become its greatest scourge. His years to adulthood are spent singlemindedly honing his mind and body to the task. To strike fear into his enemies, he becomes a bat, and the bat, rather than Bruce Wayne, is his true identity. With the fortune inherited from his parents, he launches his private war. From here, his tale takes a new turn. Over the years, he encounters an entire rogue's gallery of villains who are like twisted reflections of himself, also obsessively devoted to making over the world in their own image. The question is raised as to how much their appearances are a consequence of his own. It's simple and brilliant; a powerful modern myth and a goldmine for any storyteller.[2]

And, of course, BATMAN BEGINS pretty much abandons all of it. The film is as entirely uninterested in and unengaged with the source material as was the later (and also dreadful) MAN OF STEEL. BEGINS was released after the first two SPIDER-MAN films had become successful, and it tried to ape those pictures by making Bruce himself somewhat responsible for his parents' death and having him blame himself, rather than the criminal element. Instead of dedicating his life to a crusade, Bruce seems to entirely waste his youth. He's directionless, overly emotional, and goofs off enough to be kicked out of half a dozen colleges. In the comics, the murderer of his parents was unknown until years into his crusade as the Batman, which was a significant part of the myth--the murderer's anonymity meant that crime, rather than just a man, had killed them. In BEGINS, the killer--a hood named Joe Chill--is apprehended immediately after the murder and sent to prison. He's killed in a mob hit when Bruce is 23, at a time before Bruce has even started down the path that will lead him to becoming the Batman. The film's central character is entirely severed from his origin myth by that point--it's a completely different story about a completely different character, not the Batman. For five years, Bruce takes to wandering around the world, lost and without purpose, studying crime and "fear" for reasons he, himself, says he doesn't even understand. In my original piece, I wrote that the babbling about "fear" never comes across as overly pretentious; upon rewatch, I feel as if I understated the pretension factor, but my real objection to it, then as now, was that it's used to fill the vacuum created by abandoning the character's backstory. If one can come up with something better, one can sort of justify this kind of thing. The creators of BEGINS couldn't come up with anything better--they just abandoned the story of the Batman and threw out a cloud of pretentious squid's ink to try to cover that fact. The result is a "Batman" with no core, lost in a production as unfocused as the character.

In the film, Bruce is eventually recruited into the League of Shadows, a secret society of ninja with a hazy anti-city ideology headed by the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul. He spends two years in extremely rigorous training with the League without, apparently, ever even bothering to ask what the League is all about. His time with it abruptly ends when the man he takes to be Ra's Al Ghul looks him in the face and says the order's goal is to "destroy" Gotham and other cities. The reason offered is that cities are "corrupt," which is, of course, no real motive at all. The real reason is because those in the League are the designated villains in the film and designated villains need something villainous to do, whether it makes any sense or not. Delivered deadpan, this big "reveal"--if it can be called that--is the sort of thing one immediately expects to be followed by one of the dramatic "shock" music cues from the old Adam West Batman. Upon first watch, I laughed and shook my head in utter disbelief that the film had gone in this direction. It didn't improve upon rewatch.

As with a lot of old films of camp value, BEGINS wasn't in on the joke--it presented that moment as something we're supposed to take entirely seriously. In explaining the film before its release, Nolan was ever so serious about how ever so serious his movie was to be. From Variety (8 Feb., 2004):

"Batman will be more realistic and less cartoonish. There are no campy villains... Humanity and realism, says Nolan, is the crux of the new pic. 'The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,' he says... 'Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.'"

After the film's release, this sentiment was dutifully picked up and parroted by many reviewers (which can't help but make one wonder if they ever even saw the picture). Holding to this as a goal is another way in which Nolan's project was fundamentally misguided, and had the director rigorously pursued that path, one could legitimately say it was yet another way in which the film is fundamentally at odds with the source material. The Batman is a blatantly romantic fantasy awash in heaping helpings of glorious expressionism. What Nolan actually did, though, was, as I noted in my original review, try to paste together two diametrically opposed strains of story, great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and the sort of shallow, overcooked, and silly kid's stuff one got from DC comics--and Adam West Batman--decades ago. The two destroy one another; every element of the latter in the film is ludicrous, yet it's treated with the same humorless gravity as the rest of the story.

"Year One" had presented a dark and utterly corrupt Gotham. Throughout, there was the theme that this was a town that badly needed a Batman. In its first act, BEGINS taps into that again and again. The film is missing a Bruce that needs to be a Batman though. After leaving the League, Bruce doesn't really have any reason for becoming the Batman. Rather than following an urgent psychological need to wage a war on crime after a childhood trauma led to a lifetime spent preparing for it, BEGINS' Bruce takes up the fight idealistically, simply deciding Gotham needs him. That this radical change renders extraneous and irrelevant everything leading up to that point never seemed to occur to the filmmakers. Following "Year One" and "The Long Halloween" (another tale of the early Batman), the film sets up Carmine "The Roman" Falcone as Gotham's biggest crime boss, a guy with a massive criminal empire, with his fingers in every crooked pie and protected on all sides by corrupt officialdom. Invincible to everyone but a costumed vigilante who doesn't play by the rules. Unfortunately, having spent a lot of time setting up Falcone in this way, the film immediately disposes of him. The Batman roughs up some thugs (in an exceptionally poorly directed action sequence),[3] ties up Falcone, hands over to officialdom some evidence that wouldn't be admissible in any court in the U.S., and that's the end of the Roman. It takes only a few minutes of screentime. So much for Gotham's profound corruption and its need for a Batman.

This, of course, entirely discredits what little motive there was behind the big villain plot, to which the film then returns. Gotham was said to be irretrievably corrupt, yet the Batman decimates its central crime figure with near-effortless ease (Falcone is only ever seen again in one brief scene). As that central villain plot plays out, it proves to be an incredibly elaborate, impossible, completely ridiculous motive-free scheme--a meaner, more dour version of the sorts of things the giggling no-goodniks of the Adam West Batman used to do twice a week.

Ra's Al Ghul's plan to "destroy" Gotham is to fill the city's water supply with a chemical that, whenever vaporized, drives people insane and makes them kill one another. He isn't introducing it by poisoning the reservoirs; he's having it poured from drums into a pipe leading into the city. No, that's no joke. Not an intentional one, that is. His henchmen have been pouring it in for weeks. To note the obvious, water in such a system doesn't sit in a pipe; it's constantly rushing into the city in the way we're shown because it's being used. New York, the comic model for Gotham, uses a billion gallons of water a day. Even if some idiot could introduce enough of a chemical into the system in this way to matter--and he couldn't--everyone who has a hot shower or who boils water should have been going insane for weeks. To activate the chemical, which has magically stayed in the lines all that time, the villains have stolen a microwave device that, when placed on a hijacked train, will, we're told, vaporize the city's entire water supply. No one apparently informed BEGINS' creators what makes up most of the human body. No one apparently informed Ra's Al Ghul that the easiest way to destroy a city would be to simply set off a big bomb or a few big bombs.

BEGINS, like so many other comic adaptations, suffers from epic-itis. The Batman has been through as many versions and permutations as any character in comics, but while in various forms, he's certainly tackled his share of population-threatening menaces, his finest moments tend to come as a street-level crimefighter. It's hardwired into the character by virtue of his origin. In that respect--as in so many other respects--the BEGINS project was fundamentally at odds with the nature of the character. The Batman isn't just some ninja. He's a scientist, a criminologist, a master detective, among the many core facets of the character entirely excluded from BEGINS. To the others in his world, he's a very mysterious figure, which is impossible to portray on film if, as happens with BEGINS, we're constantly following his every move, in on his every trick. And for all the talk of "fear" in BEGINS, we're never allowed any sense that the criminal underworld ever develops any real fear of him--the point of his becoming a bat in the first place.[4]

As a Batman film, BEGINS is an utter failure. As a standalone film, it's insultingly idiotic. Like the event that makes up its climax, it's a train-wreck. Like MAN OF STEEL, it's a film whose creators had no real interest in the character or his world and who didn't show the material any respect. Like train-wrecks, MAN OF STEEL and most adaptations-in-name-only, it sucks.



[1] I still haven't seen THE DARK KNIGHT, the most hyped film of the run. The first film left me with no desire to see it, and the third did absolutely nothing to spur my interest either.

[2] It must be said that DC Comics, the Batman's owners, have often been terrible stewards of this myth. In the Batman's earliest days, he was entirely unconcerned with preserving the lives of the scum with which he tangled. As his primary readers were children, DC editorially imposed a mandate that the character wouldn't kill anyone anymore (the same as happened with Superman). Initially, this was carried out by simply not putting the character in a position where such a thing was necessary. Later writers, unfortunately, grafted the no-killing parameter on to the personality of the character itself, which simply can't be done in any logical manner. Worse, they made the Batman very self-righteous about this, then made a regular practice of rubbing readers' noses in it in such a way as to make a joke of the character. Several years ago, there was a story in "Action Comics" (#719, "Hazard's Choice") about the Joker poisoning Lois Lane. She's dying. Superman and Batman go to see the Joker and ask how they can save her and he tells them that they can inject him with a chemical that will mix with one already in his blood and provide an antidote. The rub? Injecting him will kill him. Back in the good ol' days of the early Golden Age, the only question that would arise next is whether the two of them would have injected the Joker before they killed him. The meek, pathetic characters DC has made of them, though, won't even consider it--they simply slink away, returning to Metropolis to watch Lois (Superman's wife at the time) slowly die while mouthing self-righteous platitudes. The writer then chose a cop-out ending wherein the Joker's joke was that the poison wouldn't kill Lois after all, but even that helps make the point. Characters who think that decision amounts to a "moral" one are pathetic and useless, and bereft of any real sense of morality.

A Batman who, when placed in such situations, becomes a principled advocate of the health-and-safety-at-all-costs of mass-murdering animals like the Joker and self-righteously denounces anyone who doesn't share his enthusiasm for their continued-existence-at-all-costs--and this happens all the time in the books--is violating one of the most basic rules of the archetype. Given the circumstances of his creation, it's literally impossible to imagine the Batman making the argument that the lives of Thomas and Martha Wayne (his parents) are no more valuable than that of the thug who shot them down in cold blood. If he really believed that, he wouldn't be the Batman. Yet that's exactly the argument his writers routinely have him make.

[3] All of the action sequences in the film are poorly shot.

[4] Underscoring the terribly unfocused nature of the production, the film spends a great deal of time on the theme of "fear," includes the Scarecrow, a villain primarily associated with fear, then does basically nothing with him. He's given almost no screentime and no opportunity to do much of anything.