Batman Begins (2005)
I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by this movie when I first saw it - probably because I saw it on an IMAX dome screen. Which, I believe, is a particular kind of IMAX screen that I can attest is far from the best way to watch a movie, particularly action movies. (Yes, I know Christopher Nolan is a pioneer in shooting his movies in the IMAX format. That only started from The Dark Knight onwards, and again, not for dome screens.) Despite that, I knew I was watching something good. Batman Begins made its initial impression by being a complete tonal 180 from Joel Schumacher's, and even Tim Burton's, treatments of the classic DC superhero - a film that takes the Batman mythology entirely seriously, and creates a world in which a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime on the streets is entirely believable, and a story of such can take itself entirely seriously. This film is Exhibit A in my theory that the most important thing for a comicbook superhero film to get right is tone.
It is also first and foremost an origin story - which, incidentally, the 1989 Batman was not. Burton's first movie started with Bruce Wayne having already become Batman, and the formative murder of his parents childhood told through flashbacks. Batman Begins also employs a flashback-heavy, non-linear structure (at least in its first half) - but the present-day sequences starts with Bruce in a Chinese prison, slumming it in a rather vague and aimless attempt to "understand the criminal underworld." That is until he is introduced to Ducard, Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, their philosophy, not to mention their kickass ninja training - which is only one of many things that set him on his destiny. Where the film succeeds more than anything else is as an exploration of Bruce Wayne's psychology, and how his motivations and inspirations for becoming Batman are far more complex than merely a childhood tragedy. And Nolan's and David S. Goyer's screenplay is just as satisfyingly intelligent, emotionally and thematically.
It is certainly more successful as a character study than as an action movie. Oh don't get me wrong, there are plenty of action scenes. It's a full hour in before Batman makes his fully-costumed entrance, but before then the pace is propelled by some deliberately terse editing (the thing that noticed most on this rewatch). The new Batmobile, a.k.a. the Tumbler, is way cool; hang the naysayers, I can no longer imagine Batman operating any vehicle that has fins or wings or is anything other than ruthlessly utilitarian. But Nolan has always been criticised for being terrible at filming fight scenes, and this one has a lot more hand-to-hand fights than The Dark Knight - and yes, they're all messy and dull. Also, there's something about Jim Gordon driving the Tumbler that doesn't sit right with me; I think it undercuts Batman's mystique. And finally, the big evil villainous plan that Batman must foil at the end strains the credibility - and credulity - that Nolan had been so carefully building up throughout the film.
But although it's a movie that didn't grab me the first time, it is one which greatly rewards rewatching. It treats a comicbook superhero with more respect, intelligence and depth than ever before, not to mention the finest cast ever in a comicbook superhero movie. Christian Bale and Michael Caine get all the credit, but the other thing I just noticed most is Cillian Murphy's deliciously creepy, just-ever-so-slightly-unhinged Dr. Jonathan Crane a.k.a. the Scarecrow. Yes, the sole exception to the otherwise fantastic acting is Katie Holmes, although more because she was out of her depth than actively bad; she does get one great scene when she learns Bruce intended to murder Joe Chill. And the A-list cast is just part of the overall top-notch filmmaking on display here. (Wally Pfister's cinematography, man.) I still wish it was a more viscerally exciting film - and I would've probably liked it more if it weren't for that damn IMAX dome screen - but as a reboot of the cinematic Batman, this is probably as good as anyone could expect.
The Dark Knight (2008)
I'm slightly ashamed to admit that when I first watched the 1989 Batman, I found it genuinely scary. Slightly ashamed because, as time and Nolan has proven, that movie was actually quite campy and not at all a "dark and serious" portrayal of Batman that people thought it was. I chalk it up to it being my first introduction to Burton's macabre style; also, 13-year-old TMBF was probably just a wimpy little kid. I was reminded of that experience watching The Dark Knight as a grown man and functioning adult. This movie was practically as terrifying as a horror movie. I left the cinema shaken and disturbed, knowing that I had watched a great film but not at all keen on watching it again anytime soon. I did rewatch it for this Retro Review of course, and of course on rewatch it could no longer deliver that same sheer gut-wrenching terror. But as an amazingly, nail-bitingly tense and powerful film, it can still bring to mind how harrowing that first time was.
And a great deal of it was due to the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. For all the praise that it's gotten, there isn't a thing overrated about it; everything from his hideously slipshod makeup, to his vocal delivery of his lines, to his habit of licking his lips, to even the way he walks, goes a long way toward creating an absolutely terrifying villain that very nearly turns a comicbook action movie into a horror film. But it was the screenplay, written by Nolan along with his brother Jonathan this time (Goyer gets a story credit), that started the journey. The brilliantly twisty opening bank heist scene - and later on, the pencil trick, oh God the pencil trick - establish what an implacable force of nihilistic chaos he is. Always several steps ahead of Gordon and even Batman, who are near-helpless most of the time to counter him; even when he's been captured, beating and torturing him does no good, and killing him would only mean he wins. He's damn near undefeatable.
Of course, the Nolans find a way to defeat him in the end, and let me go on record saying that the finale with the two ferries was brilliant. The entire film was brilliant, both as a relentless action thriller (making up for the pacing problems with Batman Begins, and how) and a dense, weighty, tightly-written story that juggles multiple themes and character arcs and even flirting with timely social and political issues. I won't delve into them here; there are other places on the net you can go for that. (Again, I recommend ComicsAlliance's excellent five-part review.) But to make a poignant character study and an incisive political satire within the bounds of a comicbook superhero movie is ballsy beyond belief - and that its political themes mesh so well with Batman is ingenious beyond belief. The fact that both sides of the U.S.'s left-wing/right-wing divide went on to claim the film as a champion for their particular viewpoints only goes to show how well it works as a mirror to the fears of post-911 American (and world) society.
But above all, it is an amazingly effective film that had me riveted from practically the first minute. The Tumbler/Batpod chase, a new contender for best car chase scene of all time. The shocking and, to me, completely unexpected death of Rachel Dawes. The bravura performance of Aaron Eckhart, unfairly overlooked in the wake of the (rightful) acclaim given to Ledger. Its depiction of an entire city gripped in terror by the machinations of a single madman. I can still vividly recall how I felt watching it, and in particular how I felt after watching it - shaken, disturbed, emotionally and physically exhausted ('cos of how tensed-up my body had been for 2-½ hours), and speechlessly awed. It is an improvement in almost every way over Batman Begins (Maggie Gyllenhaal should've played Rachel from the beginning), which was already a fresh and fascinating new take on Batman. This one takes it to a level never before seen in a comicbook superhero movie, and may never be seen again.
Yes, I know it's taken me ages to write this, just as it's taken me almost as long to write my The Dark Knight Rises review; it's hard for me to wrap this up without including my thoughts on the trilogy's concluding chapter in here. But what's clear is that with two movies alone, Nolan has elevated the genre to the level of not just great Batman movies, but great movies period that are also Batman movies. The label of "great movies that happen to have Batman in them" are also bandied about, but it implies that Batman is a secondary element - or that Nolan is not a true Batman fan and merely used the character as an