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Would you like to see my mask?

Batman Begins
(2005)

(SPOILERS) I can’t say I was especially wowed by Batman Begins. It seemed to me the very definition of “solid”, “okay” and “respectable”, in much the same way Bryan Singer’s X-Men avoided shitting the bed. That view hasn’t really changed. All the requisite sturdy elements are there, including a (mostly) sterling cast, but very rarely do any of them pop, so determined is Chris Nolan to steer a “realist” course, and with it – and his insistence on handling second unit duties – the first evidence of his vision exceeding his technical grasp. From here on out, with the odd exception, he will be making movies on a grand canopy yet lacking the accompanying stylistic distinction to make them truly sing. What is now most notable in Batman Begins, however, in a manner that seemed simply rote at the time, is its thematic content, since Christopher is, after all, all about the predictive programming.

It has been suggested Nolan freighted his own unrealised vision for a Bond reboot to Batman (if so, its effect was to inspire the Broccolis to reboot Bond, so swings and roundabouts). Hence the emphasis on gadgetry and Bruce’s own Q Division; it’s certainly clear from Inception how much Nolan loves On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But what really comes through in Batman Begins is an air of functionality. 

As a director, Nolan spends a great deal of money on style-lessness. Just look at that ugly Batmobile, the Batsuit based on Kevlar body armour and cape hang gliders. Nolan wants real, physical effects and superheroes operating in a real-world environment, the latter something that can only diminish credulity, ultimately; the most absurd action scene of Batman Begins sees the bat tumbler rumbling over rooftops as if it were feasible, when its closer to Benny the Cab in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Nolan operates a rule of no fantasy allowed (Ra’s al Ghul) but ends up drawing attention to the inherent silliness of the concept as a result. Ironically, co-writer David Goyer had to persuade him to include the most “stylish” element: Scarecrow wearing a mask, which, when augmented by hallucinatory FX, is effectively unsettling.

Purportedly, Nolan showed his cast and crew Blade Runner prior to setting out on his moviemaking mission, as an indication that this was how they were going to make Batman. What? Moody, atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful, poetic, thematically resonant, masterfully lit, shot and art directed? Or both having title cards beginning with B? There’s something very literal about the depiction of Batman in Nolan’s movie that tends to reduce rather than elevate the material, emphasising its shortcomings rather than bolstering a comic book title and showing how it can be taken seriously. The occasional quips in there, of the Connery Bond inflection (“Spelunking?”; “Does it come in black?”; “I’m not learning polo, Alfred”; “Tell them that joke you know”), seem grudging rather than wholehearted, but Bale makes a decent fist of a very serious guy – is there any other Bale? – pretending to be a light-hearted billionaire (if anything, the problem therein is that this Bruce Wayne is far too good an actor to be a successful billionaire). However, then Nolan goes and has Bats strike a pose like Derek Zoolander or really jump off roofs, and the whole thing starts to crumble.

There are signature lines and moments – helped along by the Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard soaring score – that have understandably become resonant (“It’s what you do that defines you”; “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”), but as much as this movie scores over the flashy Joel Schumacher concoctions, it lacks the character juice of the Tim Burton ones – be they vibrant or brooding – even as it self-consciously beckons importance.

The relationship between Bruce and Rachel (a hilariously miscast Katie Holmes) is a vacant lot. I’m a fan of Michael Caine, even when he’s in his run of ’70s and ’80s misfires (many of them much more watchable that they’re made out to be), and I allowed that to colour my initial appraisal of his work in this trilogy. But his Alfred is a relentless bore, an endless source of groaning homilies that should lead to Master Wayne turfing him out of Wayne Manor tout suite. Everyone is so damn straight, there’s no sparkle here. Gary Oldman’s at his most buttoned down and uninvolving (some have praised the performance, and it’s not the playing that’s the problem; it’s a terminally grey character). Liam Neeson is Liam Neeson as a villain, which is to say he’s pretty forgettable in that solid way of his. Tom Wilkinson is hilariously Italian American. Morgan Freeman does his self-amused thing (always enjoyable, but you know, sleepwalking).

We get an entirely unnecessary retelling of the Bruce’s origins, which yes, feeds into the thematic side of the picture, but makes the whole deal no less ponderous (and really, the great man Thomas Wayne, complete with ancestry active in the Underground Railroad is a slightly nauseous means of celebrating good American aristocracy, covering all bases – although, let’s get to the thematic content in a bit).

There are some strong points. As I’ve suggested, I’m not a massive Bale fan, but he does a serviceable and dedicated job with the dual persona; his “real” Bruce isn’t terribly interesting, probably because it’s closer to the actual self-serious Bale the actor. Rutger Hauer plays things just right as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO, because he’s the kind of performer who can elevate the stiffest material. And Cillian Murphy is a godsend as Dr Crane/the Scarecrow. It’s not the attention-grabbing performance Heather Ledger would conjure in the sequel, but it’s every bit as valid a villainous turn, and it’s one of the few parts of Batman Begins where someone is visibly having fun with the actual trappings of the underlying comic book-ness, rather than attempting to “improve” it and “elevate” it into something it’s not.

Because Batman Begins is pursuing the origins formula and many of the beats of this kind of material, the main theme can rather pass one by. Not because it isn’t obvious – it’s only repeated every other sentence – but because it doesn’t at first glance seem very remarkable. But Nolan’s working title was The Intimidation Game, and it’s set out from the first that everything relating to Batman Begins concerns the instilling of fear, and its effects on society. Nolan said the movie was about "a person who would confront his innermost fear and then attempt to become it" As such, Henri Ducard informs Bruce “To manipulate the fear in others, you must first master your own” (leading to the lengthy flashback and the bats... “All creatures are afraid… especially the scary ones” imparts wise dad). Bruce “means to fight injustice, to turn fear against those who prey on fear” which is why his means of dispatching villains, initially at least, is more akin to the Predator or a Xenomorph.

There is thus a succession of lines on this theme, how “you always fear what you don’t understand”, “What you really fear is inside yourself”, “To conquer fear you must become fear”. This is the means of manipulation and control, the means for controlling a society. Bruce wants Batman – so he says – to be an avatar, an iconic influence on the populace in order to bring Gotham back into shape: “People need dramatic examples to scare them out of apathy” (an argument of the last remaining QAnon adherents).

In terms of the movie’s structure, the politicians and classes of Gotham – its Elite – are nothing in terms of true control. That is held by the Elite behind the scenes, the League of Shadows, who dictate when it’s time to expunge, depopulate and bring ruin to the city (their claim to a history of dubious victories – “We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground” – is questionable not least for its attempt to run with modern science’s rubber stamp of disease, Pasteurian style, but we shall leave that hanging for now). There’s a notion here of borrowed time – if Gotham mirrors the world at large – and that the reset would have occurred much sooner, were it not for Thomas Wayne’s Christ-like martyrdom (which “galvanised the city into saving itself”) That’s grist to a rather daft Thomas Wayne cult, of course, but it also feeds Nolan’s notion of the mythic figure as one the gullible public – and the public are a pretty wretched bunch in his movies – can believe in.

In the league’s prescription, when society is at the “pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore balance”. Which one might characterise as cyclic resets on a grander scale. And what precedes such a reset? Why, the promulgation of mass fear. “And men fear what they cannot see” (you know, like a deadly virus). Bruce is told “You have to become a terrible thought” and “You have to become an idea”; it’s the terrible thought, the idea – not the reality – that is doing such a bang-up job in changing the face of global society right at this moment. Almost as if the League of Shadows is at large.

Ducat plans to use a microwave emitter to vaporise the city’s water supply, so releasing, rather convolutedly, a toxin developed by Crane among the populace (to be absorbed by the lungs); the resulting hysteria will tear the city apart. Instead of that, imagine, say, EM-induced oxygen deprivation afflicting the lungs of a focus group, and the mass panic resulting – fed and nurtured by the media, of course –leading to shredding of the very functionality of society).

Batman Begins is also, of course, taking place in an environment where the mask explicitly symbolises fear; Bruce wears a bat cowl because he was terrified of them. Dr Crane wears a sack on his head that induces (somehow identically so for all witnessing it) imagery of a face writhing with maggots.

There is that reading, then. That the League of Shadows may be seen as an analogy for the endgame (and in the current situation, that would appear to be legitimately so). Alternatively, they are simply the Hegelian dialectic at work. So substitute any fearsome threat (say Nazis, or Communists) for the League and you have an extreme movement intent on undermining the suddenly-worth-preserving system, the status quo. Which Bruce, like an obedient Hegelian, is all set on preserving (he doesn’t have any better ideas). For such a reading to work, the League must be destined to fail (like the Nazis, or Communists… well, some of the Communists).

There has been – most of it inspired by trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises – and continues to be much discussion over Nolan’s political leanings. Both Nolans, come to that (Jonathan, after all, made Person of Interest with Gibbo pal Jim Cavaziel, and then there’s transhumanist-warning-or-programming-or-both Westworld). Bruce uses capitalism to good ends, after all. But to focus on that element is precisely the error. Nolan is undoubtedly a small “c” conservative – you only have to look at the way he dresses – but much more significantly, he is one of the Hollywood behemoth’s most bankable names, which means he must be intrinsically part of and a tool of the system that brandishes any extreme view as a means to ultimately underpin the importance of the State. Batman seeks to preserve the status quo while apparently representing the anarchist, the one without obeisance to the prescribed order; he serves as the controlled opposition who props up the system, nominally. The League of Shadows seeks to raze it to the ground, nominally. Both inevitably lead to the reinforcement of the State’s sovereignty.

That’s another way to see Batman Begins, anyway. And it’s a way the series’ subsequent entries tend to reinforce. Does that make it any better a movie? Not really, no. It’s still got the same problems, of a cool, clinical filmmaker lending himself to material that really requires someone with flair and abundant attitude holding the reins. It’s why even The Dark Knight is only fitfully deserving of the all-time-classic status bestowed upon it (invariably when Ledger is on screen). I’m not denying Nolan’s many talents, but his many talents very evidently fail to extend across the board. As such, Batman Begins might be his least laudable picture, even as it continues his obsession with the manipulation of perception and reality, in the most overt way thus far. The title somewhat sucks too.


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