Ever notice the difference in cinematic sensations when expectations are met, and when they're surpassed? One such case for me lies in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's a fantastic slice of comic book cinema compiled by one of the finest modern directors of our time, but that's an already firmly established fact. For the more interested collectors out there itching to know, this DVD reviewed in this article is the exact same two-disc set that has been on the market for quite some time, only accompanied with a slew of tchotchkies and memorabilia that any die-hard Batman fan will love. However, this review became stalled for cinematic reasons; there was an inherent desire present to compare the style and substance of this first film with Nolan's second entry, The Dark Knight. What was planned was an event where I sit back, interconnect both films in a purely whimsical way, and indulge in walking across some fun bridges between two works that plateau at expected quality levels.
As I discovered, along with the rest of the cinematic world, Nolan's second foray into the Batman universe is in a class all on its own, both in the crime drama sect and in the comic book genre that it's supposed to be stapled into. The Dark Knight is phenomenal in every way, so much that it actually exposes Batman Begins for many of its forgivable weaknesses. This is quite a feat, especially since the David S. Goyer penned origin story helped to revitalize a genre latched to formula. One thing stood out to me across Batman Begins more so this recent time through that never really sat with me before, nor was it an element that needed to stand out; even though it is an exceedingly solid and different deviation from the normalcy of the genre, it never completely feels like a typical Christopher Nolan film -- most notably once the actual Batman character sweeps into the picture.
Then, after watching the Chris / Jonah Nolan scripted masterwork The Dark Knight, I see why: Batman Begins exists as an amalgamation between the director and his character in preparation for his true opus. He introduces us to the world of Bruce Wayne, a silver-spoon millionaire with a mentally disturbing past filled with murder, crime, and writhing revenge surrounded by the frightening images of bats. Nolan guides us us into Wayne's despair as an intrinsically-retreating adult, so much that he "walks the earth" in ole' Jules Winnfield's words. Gotham's prized millionaire digs, like a starving dog for a bone, into the heart of the criminal mind in several areas across the globe. Then, in a moment of weakness, he stumbles across Ducard (Liam Neeson, Schindler's List), an agent for a brotherhood of justice-seekers led by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai).
As he returns to Gotham City as a weathered man with a mission clearly outlined, Wayne finds the city in just as bad of shape as he did when he left it seven years passed. Instead of criminals merely exploiting the boundaries of the system, doctor of psychology John Crane (Cilian Murphy, 28 Days Later) has found a way to leak them back onto the streets by nailing down insanity pleas in a way that they earn a trip to his personally run wing at the local loony bin, Arkham Asylum. Nolan introduces a level of corruption that has reached an all-time high, with police offers stuffing cash in their pockets without a hero in sight. To make matters worse, an even larger force looms over these payouts and criminal turnovers, one fueling the poisonous corruption within the city in a retroviral way. It's an entity not necessarily interested in power, but with a collapsible destruction of the city in mind. Wayne must find a way through the cash-grabbing police force and almost masochistic vileness to save the forgotten, powerless citizens of Gotham from this true pestilent villain.
Everything leading up to Bruce Wayne's return to Gotham City, as well as the initial development of the Batman persona, is crafted with intense precision and originality. To watch him learn these ninja techniques techniques that he brings to Batman, both in hand-to-hand combat and in assorted tool-based methods, interlocks with the character arch perfectly. It doesn't hurt that it sits against the backdrop of Oscar-nominated cinematography; with grand expanses filled with a complete spectrum of icy blues and grimy grays, it paints a glorious picture around Wayne's departure from his whiny, self-important image towards the brooding and selfless character that he becomes. We see how Bruce Wayne selects his symbolic persona, the bat, and witness how he caricaturizes his fake playboy persona in an effort to protect the entity that would become his true self. It's all brilliant character assembly, some of the best I've seen in a comic book style of storyline. Nolan doesn't give us a keyhole into the mythos of the character; he breaks the door down to let us see Batman for all "it" as an archetype is -- powerful, vigilant, and intelligent, but also disparate and painfully exhausted from the demands of his past.
Christian Bale's charismatic presence stands out much more in Batman Begins than it does in The Dark Knight, and rightfully so. An origin story to the highest accord, we witness Wayne "break", in a sense. Throughout Begins, he tries to find sure-footing along the balance between being himself and being the man in the suit. He tries to keep a grasp on himself as a person, but through discovery we learn it's not what Batman is ultimately built for. In The Dark Knight, Wayne becomes an advanced version of this persona, a Swiss Army type of a tool, for Batman. For that reason, both he and Batman slink into the shadows for most of the second film. Correlatively, in Begins, Wayne struggles to survive as an entity, whereas in The Dark Knight he has almost resigned himself to be nothing more than the martyr of the city on a desperate hunt to find the man who can "replace" him as Gotham's true savior. Bale, no stranger to dark high-octane films such as American Psycho and Equilibrium, handles both Wayne and Batman quite well.
However, the true acting strength in Begins comes out in Wayne's supportive characters Alfred Pennyworth, played by the effervescent Michael Caine (Sleuth, The Italian Job), and Lucius Fox, given life by Morgan Freeman (Shawshank Redemption, Se7en). They're integral parts into Wayne's infrastructure, as they're the only two men that Bruce can be "honest" with. Nolan handles their banter well, taking these opportunities to alleviate the tension in the story by giving them some rather choice one-liners. Alfred slyly attempts to bring humanization back into Wayne's life by joking around about taking out the family car but remembering to "fill the tank", while Fox dances with Wayne around his military desires rooted in the Archives part of the business with plenty of tongue-and-cheek prodding humor. Now, I certainly wish Wayne had a better romantic interest than the passably underwhelming Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes (The Gift), but that, along with many other mistakes, are rectified in the second Batman film.
What matures with time, however, is the relationship and strength built between Batman and Ltd. Jim Gordon, vitalized by the eccentric Gary Oldman (Leon the Professional, the Harry Potter series). Initially, with Gordon as a lowly cop without recognition, their chemistry includes a bit of awkwardness. As Begins paces along, their relationship builds upon a level of trust that feels somewhat natural between Bale and Oldman. Being new to their roles (Bale as a man in a costume and Oldman as, well, normal) works wonders for the two actors as they mature over the film and pour over into their powerful personas in The Dark Knight. Oldman gets his feet wet as Gordon in the first film, but doesn't come out with near the same weight as he does later on with the character. Much like Bruce Wayne, Gordon gracefully molds into his true place within Gotham over time.
Once Wayne does make that complete transformation into Batman and Batman Begins begins to lean more on action-based pacing, the film still remains engrossing and full of energy -- but comes off as a bit sloppy. If there's one thing that Nolan didn't experience much of across his Memento, Insomnia, and Prestige shoots (though the third occurred after Begins), it would be high-octane action. That's clearly evident in the choppy, yet still bizarrely entertaining, fight sequences. Nolan and his crew overedit these sequences to such a degree that you cannot discern exactly who is hitting what, which leans on the given fact that, naturally, Batman is plowing into his enemies. It gravitates on that assumption of the character's skills, which also call for a step in faith that might not be one that an action-thirsty audience would choose to take.
Like I said, this technique is also appealing in a way; the hand-to-hand combat is so fast-paced that it almost interrelates with Batman's presence as a vigilante in the shadows that flaps about such as a bat might, yet it also takes away from the visceral enjoyment to witness each battle blow for blow. Car chase scenes and other close-quartered action sequences still pack a meaty punch, such as an operatic battle on a train and a rescue from a burning building. Nolan establishes a solid action tone for Batman Begins, and then runs it completely through the roof in The Dark Knight which focuses a lot on the fluent use of sweeping steadycam-style shots that fluidly, and slowly, moves around the action for our absorption. He uses these same shadowy techniques that he assembled in Batman Begins, and then intricately refines them into more gracefully paced and, at times, more intuitive combat.
Nolan's Batman universe stays hinged on some rather deep themes, but Begins' ideas concentrate more on piecing together the anti-hero for the universe instead of significantly tackling core ideas like The Dark Knight. He focuses on telling the story of how a man can deconstruct his persona, filled with wealth and prestige, and become devout to purging a city of its criminal cancer. Furthermore, he meekly introduces the idea of a villain that cannot be swayed by monetary gain or powerful significance, one that explodes into resonance in his second Batman film. Batman Begins is still a thriving, thoughtful success that can be enjoyed for many years to come, but the roots of existence seem firmly planted into it as an amalgamation.
Yet it's not just as an exercise in familiarization for Christopher Nolan, but for his audience as people who have been ravaged by very different, less-thoughtful Batman personas. He whittles out a new dark hero for Batman Begins, one that shows weakness and humanization -- elements that might seem unfamiliar to moviegoers. Then, he takes this fallible and, at times, disliked character and throws him into a world of true chaos and detriment within The Dark Knight. Both of Nolan's films present a brooding, difficult universe that's hard for fans of radiant heroes to absorb, one filled with moral ambiguity and mental instability. In that, this environment is also a true gift that one of Hollywood's finest modern directors has given to both Batman aficionados and non-comic book lovers alike.
Previously, Warner Bros. released a two-disc "Deluxe Edition" that included a miniature comic book with the purchase of the DVD. Then, they renamed this same two-discer as a "Special Edition"without the comic book and put it on the market. With this "Limited Edition Giftset", the coverart on the discs reads "Deluxe Edition", carrying dates from 2005 on the back coverart and such. Long story short, this is the exact same double-disc DVD released in September of 2005, supplemental material and all.
In this rather flimsy cardboard box, we've got a nice selection of trinkets to sift through. The two most important ones are a free ticket to see The Dark Knight, valued at $7.50 or lower, as well as a Dark Knight bonus disc. After watching the bonus disc, I felt like there was a fair amount of spoiler-ish material included. Then, after watching the film, I really felt like you only got to see a -- cough, cough -- sneak peak at the solid material on the film. It's only two-and-a-half minutes long, so don't expect the world or anything.
Next, we've got the breakaway lithographs and the lenticular "cover"-art, clustered together in this review as poster goods. The lenticular portion, eerily similar to the Target limited edition, stands out as the key image for the packaging. As with each of the mini posters, none of them are really all that much to gawk at. They're normal card stock that separates by perforation along the sides, leaving little paper buds along each side. Each of these posters will look familiar - all of it comes from the "Explorations" concept art from the supplements disc.
Finally, there's the thumb drive with the Batman Begins style emblem on the front of it. It is, as advertised, only an 128 MB unit. Here's a nice surprise: when loading up the drive on my computer, I discovered a slew of sharp hi-resolution promotional art that includes several grand shots of Heath Ledger at The Joker stored on the flash. There's one fun image that sends you on a somewhat miniature viral marketing goosechase: one image that features a plate featuring the Gotham Historical Society connects you to its specific website, starting a web of interconnectivity that leads all the way through Gotham City's news channel website, Gotham's Ferry system, and a cluster of others. Lots of fun, of course.
Almost jokingly, the images take up nearly 50 MB of the disc. It is a very neat drive, though, measuring about the size of a single small brick of Hershey's chocolate broken off from the full bar. It's a novelty drive that's nice for a keychain and ample for moving text documents, images, and, occasionally, a PS3 firmware update. Maybe, if the file isn't too large.
Even after experiencing Batman Begins on both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, its standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is still quite impressive. Color depth and detail remain exceedingly rock solid across the film's fantastic cinematography, even though they suffer from some pixilation and edge enhancement issues. Black levels are rock solid, though the transfer is quite dark, which contrast some great shadow and detail work against facial shimmering and close-quartered textures. When the action gets moving quickly, the pixilation only gets mildly weak in this great transfer. Shimmering and other mild issues pop up infrequently, notably in sweeping shots of Gotham City, but overall everything really does look fantastic.
Batman Begins' Dolby 5.1 audio track still stands quite strong, as well. Verbal clarity gets lost in a few of the scenes. Especially in parts that suffered a bit at the theaters as well. Conversely, surround work, musical accompaniment, and everything else underneath the stars ring through with fluent solidity. Bass stretches well into the lower frequency channels, sporting a tight bass level that rarely rumbles out of control. It's a rich, expansive track that replicates the theater experience well. English and French tracks are available, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
As previously mentioned, these supplements are identical to those on the previous two-disc edition. Therefore, they are still all non-anamorphic works that are completely compelling and informative insights into Nolan and Goyer's idyllic Batman environment. All the extras are presented through a comic book style menu system, one that's much easier to sit back and enjoy by flipping through with the bat symbol at the upper left-hand corner all the way through -- thus allowing a menu option to view all of the supplements, which were otherwise hidden in the comic book pages, to be clicked on with ease.
On Feature Disc 1:
TankMan Begins - Jimmy Fallon's 2005 MTV Movie Awards spoof, which is almost unbearable to watch.
Theatrical Trailer - anamorphic trailer first released to get people fired up about what Batman was to become.
On Supplement Disc 2:
Batman: The Journey Begins (14:16) - introductory piece of behind-the-scenes shots culminating the entire extras package.
Shaping Mind and Body (12:49) - shows how Bale trained to become the ninja-like Batman.
Gotham City Rises (12:48) - Nolan and co. talk about how they assembled the look of the gothic Gotham.
Cape and Cowl (8:18) - discusses how the crew assembled Batman's outfit from the comics and ideals.
Batman - The Tumbler (13:40) - tackles how they reformulated the Batmobile into a Lamborghini + Humvee idea.
Path to Discovery (14:14) - great outlook into Wayne's disappearance and development in the monastery.
Saving Gotham City (13:01) - focuses on the epic nature of the grand explosive finale.
Genesis of the Bat (14:53) - concentrates on Goyer and Nolan's ideals in assembling Batman's newest persona.
Confidential Files (user control) - segments textual pages focusing on Batman's allies, hardware (toys), and Begins' enemies.
Art Gallery (user control) - contains U.S. and Int'l posters, as well as a ton of concept art unused for the marketing.
You should've seen the look on my face when it was announced that the director of Memento would be the conductor behind the latest Batman symphony. After watching Batman Begins the first time, my expectations were met in spades. It's a dark, grim dissection of one of the great anti-heroic characters in modern lore which also entertains with bombastic action and superb photography. Recommending Batman Begins is a lot like recommending red wine with your steak or recommending a trip overseas once in your life -- it's a no-brainer.
Now, whether this "Limited Edition Gift Set" is worth the price is completely up to your tastes, obviously. Everything inside is fairly well-made, though some might find the low memory of the drive an annoyance and the movie cash for The Dark Knight not enough to cover the cost to go to the theater. It would not have covered my costs, had I not head out during a matinee time for my second viewing. Still, the collectibles are fun, and the DVD is quite solid, so even at that price it comes with a hearty Recommendation.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site