In 10 Words or Less
Nolan and Bale return Batman to respectability
Loves: Batman, Christian Bale, good comic book movies
Likes: Christopher Nolan
Dislikes: Those who deny the storytelling genius of comic books
Hates: Batman and Robin, Joel Schumacher
The first of the Batman films to truly explore what makes a man with everything risk it all to fight crime, Batman Begins is the only Batman film to try and base the superhero in reality. Because of that, it works better than all the rest, even Batman, which to this point had been the standard-bearer for the character. In many ways, it's a companion piece to Spider-Man, which is the lighter version of the "real" superhero film. (X-Men, though an excellent comic-book film, doesn't match these two in terms of pure filmmaking.)
This movie tells the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman and how Batman became a hero. Along the way, he trains Jedi-style with the mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), finds himself an ally in a friend of his father's, Lucius (Morgan Freeman), battles for control of his family's company, and deals with a childhood friend (Katie Holmes) who doesn't agree with his life choices. But despite these sidebars, in the end, it's a story about the maturation of a man. Starting with the character's origin and moving forward into how he became the hero he is known as, the movie tells stories about Batman that haven't been given such time before, and as a result, the film tells a fuller tale of Batman, making him more than an icon or a cartoon. In this film, Batman is a man first.
The key to such films is not focusing on the costume, and instead on the man who wears it. It doesn't hurt when the man who wears it is an actor of Christian Bale's abilities. While I felt Val Kilmer was an excellent Bruce Wayne, and Keaton a fine Batman, Bale combines the two halves of the role, and instills them with a darkness that was here-to-fore missing. Seeing the one and only American Psycho don the cowl reveals about as perfect a casting choice as could have been made, as Bale is able to slide from charismatic playboy to snarling beast with incredible ease. Much of what ends up on-screen obviously emerged from Bale's own chameleon-like capabilities as an actor.
Hiring Bale wasn't the only great move on the part of the casting director, as Michael Caine plays Bruce's butler Alfred in an performance that has likely set the bar for Master Bruce's confidant, and Gary Oldman portrays a picture-perfect Sergeant Jim Gordon, in his pre-Commissioner days. But Caine and Oldman may have been topped by relative newcomer Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and his wonderful job as Dr. Jonathan Crane in an admittedly limited role. If Jack Nicholson's Joker was the perfect foil for Michael Keaton's caped crusader, Murphy's Crane is an amazing fit for Bale's more realistic struggle against crime. The performance is so controlled and measured in its heinousness that it will be hard to top by the next villain, whose identity will be obvious when you finish watching this movie.
It's somewhat shocking that "Following," "Memento," and "Insomnia" were the resume of the man who created such a grand-scale film. Christopher Nolan took over the movie by couching the concept in such reality that everything from the script to the stunts to the production tries to be as true as possible. What he created might be the most expensive independent superhero movie ever, as Nolan's film ethic helped create something different than the rest. That paid off, as the movie was an absolute success, especially in comparison with less authentic films like Fantastic Four.
If there's anything that doesn't work, it's Rachel Dawes, Holmes' character, and it's not because of the Tom Cruise thing. Bale's Batman is a vibrant, violent and sexual animal, and as such, his personality doesn't jive with Dawes' quiet innocent idealist. It's likely that Wayne would want a challenge in a woman, and Dawes doesn't seem like the kind of challenge he'd enjoy. There's really no need for a love interest in this story, thanks to Batman's one-minded focus on justice, which makes it feel like Dawes is shoehorned in to either attract women to the film or give Batman someone to rescue. But considering the film makes it through over two hours of action with such a small amount of criticism, the film is doing just fine.
By the time the movie is over, it's hard to believe that 140 minutes have passed, thanks to pacing that keeps the film moving at all times, yet never seems excessive or "noisy." In all honesty, I would have liked to see more, which in my view, makes it a success. After all, as they say, always leave them wanting more, something the last few Batman films never did.
Warner Brothers is putting out Batman Begins in three flavors, a standard one-disc release available in widescreen or full-frame, and a deluxe two-disc edition. This review was written for the two-disc set. In the deluxe set, the two discs are packaged in a standard-width keepcase, with a tray for the second disc. The keepcase is housed in a matte-finish slipcase that also includes a 72-page booklet. The booklet is just tucked into the slipcase, nowhere as elegantly as the booklet for Criterion's My Own Private Idaho.
The first disc features a very simple animated menu system, which relies mostly on footage from the film for backgrounds and transitions. The second disc is another matter all together (see "The Extras.") The staid design of the film's logo is carried throughout the menus, which open with an anamorphic main screen that features options to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and view special features. The scene selection menus have animated previews and titles for each chapter, while the language options include English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, and English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end, with a wealth of detail. The image isn't razor-sharp, but due to the overall dark, dismal feel of the film, it feels just right. Color is great, despite the darkness, and there's not a spot of dirt or damage. If there is anything at all wrong with the way this movie looks, I couldn't see it.
Right from the opening DC Comics logo, it's obvious that the audio for this film is going to be an exercise in the potential of surround sound (at least at a sub-DTS level.) The separation of sound among the surround speakers is excellent, with the dialogue pumped through the center speaker at a great level of clarity. The enhancement of the score via the surrounds gives the music the proper weight needed to properly deliver the film, while the final set-piece bathes the room in sound that is stunningly powerful, to say the least.
The difference between the two main editions of this DVD is likely the second DVD, which means, if you pick up the standard DVD, you aren't getting much in terms of extras. "Tankman Begins" is a parody of the film, done for the MTV Movie Awards, which stars Jimmy Fallon. If you didn't see this when it first aired (or the 800 replays), Fallon is inserted into the film and rides alongside Batman in the new Batmobile. It's OK, but it doesn't have a lot of laughs. The only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer, which was the perfect re-introduction for the character.
Placing this disc in your DVD-ROM drive allows you to check out online links and play a demo of the Batman Begins mobile game. After playing it, I have no interest in ever putting this disc in my computer again.
The deluxe edition, on the other hand, includes a nice 72-page booklet with a spot-UV coated cover. The booklet includes three Batman comic-book stories: the first Batman comic ever, his origin story and the first chapter from "The Long Halloween." These stories are some of the main pieces that influenced Batman Begins. The book is definitely worth checking out, but the format, a tall, thin softcover, about 85-percent of the size of the DVD case, is a bit difficult to read.
The second disc, where the real meat is, starts with a classy shot of Wayne Manor, with options to choose English or French. From there, you enter an interactive comic book. Placed throughout this 14-page comic, which is enhanced with sound and animation, are numerous links to bonus content as part of the art. Inside many of these links are more links, which can allow you to bounce around the content randomly. This might get a bit frustrating at times, but if you want to go directly to the content, on the final page of the comic is a link to a menu of the bonus material, each with a matching transition.
At 14 minutes, "Batman - The Journey Begins" is a well-developed overview of how the movie came together, utilizing interviews with most of the major players and a large amount of on-set video and images. It's followed by "Shaping Body and Mind," (12:48) which explores the physicality of the character, the training and rehearsing needed for the actors and a unique new fighting style that was used to give the battles a different look. One of the most interesting aspects is the footage of the ice-fighting practice between Bale and Neeson, which puts hockey fights to shame.
"Gotham City Rises" puts the spotlight on the sets, including the towers of Gotham, Wayne Manor and the Batcave. In just under 13 minutes, the extensive amount of construction involved in this film and he people behind it, are given their proper respect. Construction of a different type gets the spotlight in "The Cape and Cowl," which covers the costuming in the film, mainly that of Batman. Bale helps provide some perspective on the cool-looking gear, explaining the pain of the Batman suit during the 8-minute piece. More of the building of the movie occurs in "Batman - The Tumbler" (13:39), which looks at the creation of a new Batmobile for a new Batman. The car, which was created fully for the film from scratch, is an incredible example of what Hollywood magic is capable of. From the design, to manufacturing to the actual driving, the car is nothing like anything seen in films before, and this featurette shows why.
A featurette about the origin of Batman's fighting skills, "Path to Discovery" runs 14 minutes. The participants discuss the thought process behind the development of Batman, and how that section of the film was shot. Plenty of on-set footage of the filming is shown, alongside interviews with cast and crew, illustrating the challenges that they faced. The stories behind the shooting are actually pretty interesting, and go beyond the pale in terms of revelations about the shoot.
Clocking in at 13 minutes, "Saving Gotham City" focuses on the climactic battle in the film, and how it was done with as little visual effects as possible. Along the way, several of the crew members share their thoughts on how much of the film was actually filmed, instead of created in a computer. It's really quite interesting to see how it was done from behind the scenes, including the detailed 1/6th-scale miniatures that were used.
"Genesis of the Bat" (14:52) looks at how the film was formulated, starting with the translation from the comic-book page to the screenplay. The creative crew and some DC Comics folks discuss the inspirations behind the way the story progressed in its latest incarnation. The featurette compares the comics to the film visually, and shows how much went into making the film work. Unfortunately, it takes a turn and becomes something of a commercial for the new Batman comic book from Frank Miller and Lee.
In all, there's almost 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes. It doesn't stack up to a feature-length commentary in terms of quantity, but with the number of participants and topics covered, there's plenty of be learned about the production from this DVD. Sadly, despite having the comic pages in anamorphic widescreen, the featurettes are full-frame. Also, these should not be viewed until after watching the film, as there are many spoilers.
In addition to the featurettes, there are 12 Confidential Files, which are text screens that explain parts of the film. These are broken down into three categories: Hardware, Enemies and Allies/Mentors. With the text are short bits of footage, but for the most part, its just flipping through pages. There's nothing here that expands tremendously on what is seen in the film.
More interesting is the Art Gallery, which is traditionally one of my favorites when it's done the way it is here. Selecting one of three groups, U.S., international and explorations, allows you to browse through the posters used and designed for the film. There's a tremendous amount of concepts shown here, including a great international poster that should have been used in the U.S. The designers certainly went all-out in trying to find just the right look for the ad campaign.
The Bottom Line
Batman Begins is the latest piece in the renaissance of comic-book movies, and it may in fact be the best of the bunch, thanks to a script that treats Batman as a character instead of a toy concept, surprisingly excellent direction from the man behind intimate films like Memento, and a cast that is simply brilliant, starting with Bale as the Dark Knight. After the cinematic disaster that was Batman and Robin, you could say that there was nowhere to go but up, but this film is such an incredible quantum leap in terms of quality that it has to be consider a masterpiece among genre films. The deluxe DVD set does a nice job of bringing audiences behind the camera, but it doesn't feel quite as comprehensive as recent special edition DVDs. Perhaps it's the near total lack on bonus materials on the first DVD. Either way, this is a must-see film, and if you're choosing between the two main flavors, kick in the few extra bucks and get the bonus materials. They are well-worth the small bump in price.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.